Topic: Christian Discipleship & Love Scripture: Mark 2:13–2:17
How many of you have ever had a friend that your parents didn’t approve of? You probably know what I mean - the kid in your circle of friends that your parents always warned you about, or asked you why you choose to spend time with them. I had a friend like that when I was in middle school. We’ll call him Robbie. Robbie was the kid in the neighborhood that no mom wanted their children to hang around with. Weather-permitting, he usually walked around town without a shirt on and his pants were sagging a good bit and he stretched the limits of how certain four-letter words could be used. And he had a reputation that placed him as public enemy number one in the eyes of any father with a daughter. But as a middle schooler myself, I didn’t see those things the same way my parents did, and so I hung out with Robbie every chance I got. My parents didn’t like that I was associated with such Controversial Company.
This morning we’re going to continue our journey through the Gospel of Mark we’ll look at a time in Jesus’ life where He not only associated with but welcomed Controversial Company. Last week we looked at His baptism in chapter one and saw how that incredible moment set Jesus onto the miraculous and almost unbelievable road of His ministry. This week we jump ahead a bit to the middle of chapter two but a lot has happened in-between Jesus’ baptism and the text we’ll look at today. Last week I told you that Mark’s Gospel reminds me of a comic book. It has these powerful action sequences that seem to “bam!” and “pow!” their way from each one to the next. After his baptism, Jesus: called his first disciples, performed an exorcism and healed dozens of people from everything from demonic possession to leprosy and paralysis. That’s from chapter one to chapter two, and it leads us to our passage for this morning. We’re in Mark 2:13-17.
This part of Christ’s life begins with Jesus crossing paths with a tax collector named Levi. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Levi would be renamed Matthew, meaning gift of the Lord. But Jesus has been teaching the masses already, and he notices Levi in the tax collector’s booth. We have to understand the reputation of tax collectors during the time of Jesus to fully grasp how significant it is for Jesus to reach out to Levi. If we spent any time in Sunday school or have heard even the passing sermon from time to time, we know that tax collectors are the bad guys. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Jesus’ time, tax collectors were lumped in the same group as thieves, robbers, and the people who peddled prostitutes and slaves. Tax collectors often worked for the ruling government, and their job was to force the population to pay the required taxes. But their vile reputation came from the rampant and common practice of tax collectors to demand far more than the actual tax itself. Being a tax collector was a commission type of job in that they brought home the extra they got from those they collected the taxes from. There was no standard, no invoices, and no regulations. Tax collectors could, and commonly would impoverish already struggling families solely to pad their own pockets and opulence. Tax collectors were quite near to being the scum of the earth.
And yet, Jesus sees within one of these tax collectors the potential to become His friend, follower, and disciple. A rabbi was known and acclaimed not only for their teachings but also for their disciples. Think about it like major universities. They thrive and are recognized for the graduates they produce and the accomplishments of those graduates. Jesus begins his public ministry by surrounding himself with Controversial Company like Levi. But it doesn’t stop there.
Jesus then goes to Levi’s house for supper, and the dinner party is made up of what verse 15 calls sinners, tax collectors, and Christ’s disciples. Some of those titles were interchangeable for folks at that table. The religious leaders at the time, the Pharisee’s, saw Jesus eating with those people and they asked why in the world Jesus would eat with such people, those tax collectors, and sinners. These dinner guests were people with a reputation, not necessarily what we might think of as first-time offenders. In a staff meeting this week, a phrase was used that fits this group around Levi’s table perfectly: religiously delinquent. These people that Mark’s gospel calls sinners and tax collectors were religiously delinquent. Meaning it was their ritual to be delinquent. They were known for, described by, and firmly fixed in their identification of being the lowest of the low, the riff-raff, and the most controversial of company.
And Jesus hears the Pharisee’s questioning his dinner party choices and says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.” We have to be careful here not to assume that Jesus is pumping up the Pharisee’s as the righteous people who don’t need Him. Not at all. He is calling out these religious leaders for their utter and blatant lack of interest or compassion for the people Christ has brought to the table. You see, the sinners eating with Jesus might be religiously delinquent. But it is the Pharisee’s who have been delinquently religious. They had abusively and negligently forsaken the true work and identity of God’s called representatives. With his single statement of coming for the sick and sinful, Jesus simultaneously affirms God’s love for the forsaken of society and levels conviction at those willfully missing the mark.
And, if we’re willing to make the necessary effort of self-awareness, we will inevitably ask where we find ourselves within this account. I think a majority of us hope to be known for being like Jesus. We want to be the one who welcomes and values all, including and sometimes especially those who are ignored and scorned. A few of us might have the humility to admit that we are most like those eating with Jesus. That there are habits and practices within our life that do damage to ourselves and others. And I think it is safe to say that most of us would squirm and balk at the notion that we are anything like the Pharisee’s in this story.
The problem is that we often misunderstand the true issue present within the religious leaders. Their clear disdain for the Controversial Company Jesus associated with is troubling, but I don’t think it’s their worst quality nor is it the one I think we are most susceptible to personify in our own lives. No, the worst thing about the Pharisee’s is there self-assured belief they don’t need anything from anyone, including Jesus. William Barclay describes it perfectly. He says that the point of what Jesus said is “that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks themselves so good that they do not need anything done for them; and the one person for whom Jesus can do everything is the person who is a sinner and knows it and who longs in their heart for a cure. To have no sense of need is to have erected a barrier between us and Jesus; to have a sense of need is to possess the passport to his presence.”
And so, friends, I ask you this: do you truly believe in your heart that you need Jesus? Are you able to see your need for Him in your life? Or do you simply entertain the presence of Christ in your life? A friend once told me that holding Jesus in your heart is a lot different than wearing him around your neck. The Controversial Company Jesus ate with knew they needed Jesus. Levi was a wealthy tax collector, and yet he left it all behind him when Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” The sinners and other tax collectors jumped at the chance to be near to Jesus while the religious leaders kept their distance and rested back in their judgment of everyone but themselves.
Controversial as they may have been, Jesus knew that there was good, that there was potential in His dinner mates. Many of us can relate to that. We have perhaps seen examples of genuine goodness and reputable character in people others have written off as vagabonds or beyond hope. I want to talk about my childhood friend, Robbie, again for a moment. As I said, Robbie was every parent’s nightmare. Bad language, bad attitude, bad reputation. But that’s not really what I remember most about Robbie. What I remember is a very short conversation in the middle of April in 1999. It had been about a week or so since my mom had passed away and the whirlwind of her death and her funeral had settled, and I was left in that horrible place of certainty that she was actually gone. I couldn’t be in the house because too many things reminded me of her, so I went out and just sat on the curb in front of my house. And as I sat there, I started to cry. I guess I didn’t hear him walk up because, before I realized it, Robbie was seated next to me. I couldn’t look at him and did that thing where you try and act like you weren’t crying even though you totally were. He just asked, “Your mom?” I nodded. And then he said, “It just sucks.” I couldn’t help but start crying again. After all the people telling me it would be ok and that she was in a better place and that she’d be proud of me, I finally found someone who understood how I was feeling. And he was Controversial Company.
Friends, the image and breath of God are within every person. Every single person. And Christ went to the cross for the world capable of rescuing every person. We are sorely mistaken if we believe there exists a single person who does not deserve our attention and our advocacy. So be like Jesus. Invite some Controversial Company to your table and hear their stories. Be like Levi and the other sinners who ate with Jesus. Get as close to Jesus as you can at every opportunity. Forget what others might have said or might be saying about you and listen to the one Person who invites you to follow Him. And, by all means, do not be like the Pharisee’s in Mark 2. Do not allow yourself to think that you don’t need anyone, that you don’t need Jesus. The moment you start to believe that your life is just fine without Jesus or with Him kept at a reasonable distance is the moment you yourself become the most Controversial Company.