Read Mark 2:15-22
There are a couple of ambiguities in these few verses in Mark. One, is whose house is this meal taking place in? Two, when Mark writes “there were many of them, and they were following him” who is Mark referring to? The house in question might be the house of Levi whom Jesus has just called to follow Him. The house could also be the same house that “the four” tore the roof off of to lower down the paralytic; in other words, we could be at Jesus’ house again. The many either refers to the number of tax collectors and sinner present or it refers to the number of disciples that were following Jesus. Neither of these ambiguities has any significant bearing on the story but I think that it is appropriate to point out these things because the decision is often made for you in the Bible translation that you read. For myself, I like to think of it as Jesus’ house and I like to think that Mark is saying that there were a lot of tax collectors and sinners following Jesus. The latter is particularly important to me because I am a SINNER and I am trying to follow Jesus.
Of course all Christians are sinners; trouble is too many Christians forget that they are sinners.
Let’s be clear that in the New Testament when you see that word “sinners” scholars agree that it means people with a bad reputation in the community. In a lot of church settings people will say ooh I am a sinner, but often times they mean things like:
- “I’m so bad, I had chocolate cake for breakfast.”
- “Oh no, I cut some one off in traffic today and I broke the speed limit.”
- “Woe is me I said a naughty word today when my boss gave me extra work.”
But New Testament scholars are pretty convinced that the sinners Jesus was eating with were people who had jobs that folks didn’t agree with (like the tax collector) and people who were known to have done horrible things (like assault, theft, adultery, or murder)! You know the people that other people judge.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Jesus is eating with bad people.
Now, let me be clear, I am a card carrying SINNER. I’m not talking about the things that we consider to be little sins. I have done the stuff on the big-boy list, you know the stuff on THE LIST: the ten commandments. In fact, I have blown through way more of the list than I care to remember.
Funny thing is that most everyone I know has too. Go ahead, refresh your memory here.
Jesus is eating with bad people.
People like you and me.
The ambiguities end when we look at the next portion of the text. Mark is very clear about who is also present at this meal and how those people feel about the company that Jesus keeps. “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”
Sitting down to eat with someone is a big deal. Most of us do not eat with just anyone. We eat with the people we like. We break bread with the people we want to be around. When was the last time you hosted a dinner party and just invited the entire town? Do you ask everyone at work to join you for drinks after work? Do you have people in your home that you really don’t like? For most people the answer will be at best not very often. This is another reason I like to think of this as being at Jesus house because it prevents our easy escape from the implication of Jesus having those sorts of people over. You see if it is Levi’s house well then Jesus can’t help it that Levi’s friends are a group of ne’er-do-wells. What would you expect he is a tax collector after all? But, if it is Jesus house and Jesus is the host than these “undesireables” are his guests!
This is the first mention of Pharisees in the gospel of Mark. Pharisees were a popular religious group in first century Judea and Galilee. They believed that the common folk could experience the joy of living the disciplined life of faith. They expected themselves and others to follow the teachings of God, to keep the Law of Moses, and be blessed and righteous. Because of their understanding of the faith they find Jesus’ dinner habits distressing. Eating with these people who are in clear disregard of God’s righteousness because of their jobs and lifestyles puts Jesus at risk spiritually because he is in fellowship with them. God apparently judges folks guilty by association.
Christians like to think of the Pharisees as a group of hypocrites. Trouble is that they are not being hypocrites. The Pharisee reaction is totally in keeping with their understanding of how to please God. The Pharisees are not being hypocrites; they are being totally consistent!
When Christians and the Church act like the Pharisees we are the ones being hypocrites.
Here are just a few examples that spring to mind:
- most of the people who get invited to worship are folks who look like the people already there
- Youth who have hard time staying still, use vulgarities, or wear inappropriate clothes don’t stick around long because of the subtle ways that they are made to feel judged
- Families with ill-behaved children are made to feel unwelcome
- Little children are welcome at Vacation Bible School but their working-class parents are judged for not making it to worship on their one day off a week
- People are judged for only coming to worship at Christmas and Easter
Oh but you know what that’s the collective equivalent of the list of sins from above. How about this list:
- A woman at a small group admits that she is Christian and gay and someone else at the table gets up and walks out
- The church learns that a woman has committed adultery and a Church Elder sends a letter to her saying the elder hopes that she and her children will not be coming back to church
- A group of men at a Bible Study discuss the lifestyle of one of the Bible Study members when he is not present and all agree that he isn’t really a very good Christian man
- A family decides to leave a congregation and its members stop talking to them at the grocery store
- A church member is judged because their teen is in trouble with the law or struggling at school
And neither of these lists speak to how we Christians handle the persons in our midst that we know are sober alcoholics, struggling with addiction, sexual sins, xenophobes, gossipers, tax-cheats, following political idols, or unbelievers.
It is Christians and the Church, not the Pharisees, who are the hypocrites when it comes to how we treat tax collectors and sinners.
We are good at making excuses: We do not want to be seen as condoning the sin. We do not want our children and teenagers to have bad influences around. We worry about what people will say if they knew _______?
What we are not good at is hanging around sinners
At the end of the day we are all too likely to be guilty of judging our neighbor or fearing the judgment of our neighbors more than the judgment of God.
Jesus responds to the question that was asked of his followers: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This is a pretty famous Jesus quote and it would be a good idea for us to unpack it a little since this is his answer to the charge of being a friend of sinners. Grammar time: note that the English translation links the two sayings with a semi-colon. This is not two separate thoughts but two sentences that will function as clauses that will interpret the other. This is crucial because people like to separate them a little more than that and that leads to a misunderstanding. The correct reading would render the following logical conclusion: healthy= righteous; sick = sinners.
When you separate them out and make each sentence stand alone you get the following conclusion. Sick people are the ones that need a doctor; so, if you are well you have no need of a doctor. Read this way there are people who do not need Jesus just as there are those who do not need a doctor. If you think that that is true, go back up and click on the link to the Ten Commandments and read it for real this time! People like to read this saying in this manner because it allows them to dodge Jesus the same way the person with 101 degree fever blowing snot on everything that moves can deny that they need to make a doctor’s appointment and get drugs. Even better, they can make the entire comment from Jesus a statement against the self-righteous pharisees and by extension about how Jesus doesn’t like self-righteousness. Naturally, when read this way the self-righteousness can be whatever you want that makes you feel righteous for not being like those sorts of people.
But when you read the two statements together, there is no escaping the meaning of Jesus. Recall that part of what Mark is trying to teach us about Jesus is that he has come to deal with the sin problem. Sick people need a doctor and Jesus came to call the sinner. If we are all sinners then Jesus has come for us all. This is what makes Jesus inclusive. It is not that Jesus welcomes those on the outskirts and the margins of society, although this is true; Jesus is inclusive because he welcomes ALL. When we only emphasize Jesus reaching out to those the society cast off in our own sense of justice what we do is minimize the impact of the sin problem, minimize the scope of Jesus work, and we set ourselves up to be on a different insider vs outsider dichotomy that coincidentally allows us to judge those who are not as “Jesus-y”as we are. Jesus is inclusive because he is come to call the sinner. Jesus wants the tax-collector to know him. Jesus wants the sinner to know him. Yet, the beauty of Jesus is that he wants the pharisee to know him, too.
This is what the Church /Christians gets wrong time and time again. Jesus welcomes everyone. Jesus eats with everyone. Not so the Church. No so the Christian. Every generation of Christian in every context has sins that are beyond the pale, and people that are not welcome. Denominations split and form out of these outsiders vs insiders distinctions. The Church globally and the church locally fails to be a welcoming place for everyone. Individual Christians gossip and judge their neighbors, believers and unbelievers, but seldom seem consistent in judging themselves. Christians individually and collectively confuse loving someone through their sin struggle with condoning sinful behaviors. Grace, true grace, as exhibited by a God that will sit down and eat and drink with those who disappoint is in short supply. Grace, true grace, that is exhibited by a God that will enter fully into humanity in order to redeem all of humanity and is experienced in the forgiveness of sin is forgotten rather than shared.
In the movie Excalibur, which has nothing to do with Jesus or the Church, there is a moment when Arthur has united all the various clans and become the true and rightful King of England. Everyone is celebrating and Merlin, the magician, is asked to say something on this great occasion. In a deep, mellifluous voice, Merlin enjoins those present to remember well the feelings they have, their camaraderie, their shared sense of purpose, the things that bind them altogether because he adds menacingly “it is the doom of man that he forgets.” And so it is.
Jesus eats with bad people.
People like you and me.