Our patron saint was Inspector Javert of Les Miserables with his philosophy of “Honest work, just reward; that’s the way to please the Lord.” Our family crest was a Stop sign. We lived by the motto, “Good Christians Don’t.” Good Christians don’t … dance … drink … go to movies … shop on Sunday … play cards … dress casually for church … play sports on Sunday … have long hair … listen to rock ‘n roll music. As a student at Biola College in the 70’s (before it became a University), I had to sign “The Pledge” which outlawed the big 6 no-no’s—dancing, drinking, smoking, using profanity, going to the theater, and gambling.
In more recent years, my legalistic brethren have added to the list. Good Christians don’t … read Harry Potter books … use Scripture translations other than the King James Version … use contemporary music, especially with drums and guitar … put their children in public schools … celebrate Halloween …
Most important of all … Good Christians don’t associate with the world. Good Christians never attend office parties where there might be drinking. Good Christians only do business with other Christians—plumbers, accountants, gas stations, doctors … Good Christians run from church to Bible study to Christian schools to Christian concerts to … Good Christians avoid all contact with the world.
Because of my background, I desperately need to learn from Jesus’ example in Mark 2:13-17. Not only did Jesus associate with sinners, he actually went to dinner parties with them. Jesus was a friend of sinners, horror of horrors. On top of that, he had some pretty strong words for me and my legalistic brethren. Jesus was the enemy of the self-righteous.
The passage describes Jesus’ encounter with Levi, the tax collector. Levi operated a toll booth on the Via Maris, the way of the sea, a trade route that ran from Damascus to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Levi’s toll booth in Capernaum was near the halfway point.
The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were considered the scum of the earth. They were viewed as traitors because they purchased a tax franchise from the Romans. They practiced extortion and greed in collecting and enforcing the taxes. Worst of all, they were Jews who did business with Gentiles. As a result, they were excommunicated from the local synagogue and could not worship. In addition, they were deemed untrustworthy and not allowed to serve as a judge or a witness in a legal proceeding. Consequently, Levi would have been the poster child for “Least likely to become a Christian.”
Centuries ago, a number of workmen were seen dragging a great marble block into the city of Florence, Italy. It had come from the famous marble quarries of Carrara, and was intended to be made into a statue of a great Old Testament prophet. But it contained imperfections, and when the great sculptor Donatello saw it, he refused it at once. So there it lay in the cathedral yard, a useless block. One day another sculptor caught sight of the flawed block. But as he examined it, there rose in his mind something of immense beauty, and he resolved to sculpt it. For two years the artist worked feverishly on the work of art. Finally, on January 25, 1504, the greatest artists of the day assembled to see what he had made of the despised and rejected block. Among them were Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pietro Perugino, the teacher of Raphael. As the veil dropped to the floor, the statue was met with a chorus of praise. It was a masterpiece! The succeeding centuries have confirmed that judgment. Michelangelo’s David is one of the greatest works of art the world has ever known.
Christ saw in the flawed life of Levi (tax collector) a Matthew (writer and evangelist). He still sees men and women with his consummate artist’s eye today. He sees in us what no one else sees.
Christ called Levi to become a disciple, and he immediately followed. While Peter and John could return to their fishing enterprise, Levi could not return to his tax booth. For him, following Jesus involved great risk and a high price. There was no turning back.
Shortly afterwards, Levi threw a party where he invited his friends and business associates to come and meet Jesus. In that culture, sharing a meal was viewed as one of the most intimate forms of friendship. The scribes and the Pharisees could not fathom why Jesus was even there, let alone engaged in the meal and conversation. In their minds, eating a meal with the riff-raff of society was even worse than touching a leper (1:40-45).
Jesus responds to their questions by quoting a well-known proverb. For him to avoid sinners made as much sense as a doctor avoiding sick people.
I believe that Jesus calls us to live scandalous lives today. If we follow his example and strive to be truly Christlike, then we must love and accept sinners as they are. Acceptance does not equal approval, however. But it does mean we need to treat unbelievers with respect and dignity.
In dealing with the world, I was taught to isolate myself and avoid all contact. Some go to the other extreme by “going native” and adopting the world and its value. Rather than isolation or assimilation, the Christian life is to be one of mission.
We should put together a list of people we consider least likely to become a Christ follower. Then we should start praying for them by name. Perhaps we could host a neighborhood barbecue to get to know our neighbors and build a relationship with them. We could pose a question like, “Is there really a God?” or “Is the Bible reliable?” to get a discussion started. With the holidays approaching, we could invite some unchurched friends to a holiday gathering and share what Jesus means to us.
During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, there was a shortage of currency in the British Empire. Representatives carefully searched the nation in hopes of finding silver to meet the emergency. After one month, the committee returned with its report. “We have searched the Empire in vain seeking to find silver. To our dismay, we found none anywhere except in the cathedrals where the statues of the saints are made of choice silver.”
To this, Oliver Cromwell eloquently answered, “Let’s melt down the saints and put them into circulation.”
If we want to impact the world for Jesus Christ, we need to follow Jesus’ example and get back into circulation. We should take the risk of being misunderstood or criticized and scandalously dispense grace to those who need it most.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on November 16, 2014. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.