Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lunch with Levi; or, Party in the IRS: A Sermon on Mark 2:13-17

Hot on the heels of his stunning activity in Capernaum, forgiving and healing a paralyzed man and making the scribes' eyes bug out with frustrated fury, “Jesus went out again beside the sea” (Mark 2:13). Once again, Mark offers us Jesus on the move. So many stories in his Gospel happen during a nice long walk, but with the frenzied immediacy that speaks to a laser-like focus, a march with a purpose. In the towns, in the fields, at the shore, there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move. And Jesus is on the move – he was on the move then, he's been on the move for two thousand years and counting, he's on the move this very moment.

Yet for a church called to be the earthly presence of Jesus, joined to him as a body to a head, we don't go for many strolls by the sea. We don't breathe the fresh air, we don't speak the word of God over the rushing of the wind, we don't tread the dust of the open road beneath our feet. To look at the American church today, you'd easily think that the body of Christ had a bad run-in with Medusa – we're calcified, petrified, turned to stone, reduced to a statue – having a bodily shape, the form of godliness, but without the living power to animate it and give it its motion (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5). How unlike Jesus, to be a tame and motionless body, still as the grave Jesus was too lively to be held by! And how blessedly unsettling to finally see a church that is, like Jesus, once more on the move! If the church would thaw from its stony stability, melted into motion by a Spirit like fire from heaven, then we'd know the truth like new: there's no escaping a Jesus who's on the move.

Out on the move, out at the sea where he called four men to join him in snaring people in kingdom nets, it's no surprise to find the crowd tracking Jesus down. And it's no surprise to hear Jesus talking to the crowd, “and he taught them” (Mark 2:13). Even now that he has disciples, his words aren't for the select few. He isn't some mystical teacher who explains the kingdom only to the inner circle. His words are openly available to the masses, not locked away secretly in a temple or written down in a sealed book or whispered in hushed tones around a campfire or sold for a fee. His words are for the crowds. Did he pause for a while to give them a lecture? Or did the crowd walk behind him, around him, as he pressed forward on his way? I don't know, but the crowds couldn't hold Jesus up, not forever. He passed by the place where he'd been, all the way to the local toll booth, the tax checkpoint, where Mark introduces us to Levi (Mark 2:14), also known as Matthew (Matthew 9:9).

Levi was a tax collector. He had a booth all his own, sitting there with book and pen. Even today, you probably wouldn't think to invite the man who audits you to your birthday party. The IRS isn't popular, not least in the wake of the latest scandals. But the Roman tax system was far more corrupt, and what's worse, the tax agents often were collecting on behalf of a foreign power. With a name like Levi, you'd think that maybe this man might be a Levite, someone traditionally responsible for collecting the tithes for God's kingdom. But here he sits, collecting on behalf of a phony king like Herod, whose brutal rule was backed up by the fearsome force of pagan Rome. He grew up learning the word of God, he went to Sunday School, but he doesn't live it now.

From the standpoint of Jewish society, both the religious leaders and the average people, anyone like Levi who worked in tax collection was a traitor, a coward, a scoundrel, an informant, a snitch, and an oppressor. Under the tax system used in Galilee at the time, a tax-collector would buy the right to collect taxes for a certain region – and there were plenty of kinds of taxes to be collected. They'd often pay the whole area's taxes in advance to the governing authorities, and then spend the rest of the year recovering their losses – and, if they overcharged people enough, could earn a hefty profit. Some would use violence and intimidation to make sure they won. In some places, tax-collectors used torture and murder to find tax fugitives, or doled out beatings to people's family to get them to pay up. Less like the modern IRS, more like the Mafia.

Two decades before Jesus started his ministry, a man named Judas came from Gamala, a fort seven miles from Capernaum, and led the whole region in an armed uprising against the tax burden. After all, even not counting the added extortion by tax-collectors, the tax burden could be over 30% of everything you had. So it's no wonder that everyone hated tax-collectors. They got rich – at the expense of everyone and everything around them. The rabbis grouped tax-collectors with thieves and murderers. They said that the touch of a tax-collector, just like a leper, could make a whole house unclean. His family was disgraced; he couldn't give testimony in a Jewish court; he couldn't belong to the synagogue; all his wealth was treated like blood-money so that he couldn't even give charity – he was a social pariah, an outcast. Both major schools of Pharisaic thought said that there was nothing wrong with lying to a tax-collector.

That's the life that Levi had chosen. That's how he spent his days, hour by hour. He's probably the man from whom the local fishermen like Zebedee had to buy their fishing leases; he probably had his booth set up next to a main route near Capernaum; he probably stopped and searched the belongings of every traveler, confiscating his chosen amount with some hired muscle nearby. What led him down that road? He chose a life that led to being sneered at as a traitor, a puppet of monsters. You've met him in every action movie that pits a hero against an evil corporation – Levi is the nameless, faceless bureaucrat who gets mowed down by the protagonist's bullets without a moment's thought. He's just a cog in the machine, an ordinary man caught up in the banality of evil. He may not like Rome, he may not like Herod, but he has a job to do. He doesn't see people; he sees numbers. His motto might be, “Nothing personal; it's just business.” And so when people look at Levi, and countless Levis today, they see not a person but a demon or a statistic.

That's the way our world works too. We feel safe venting our outrage against everything nameless, faceless, anonymous. Our culture turns multinational corporations into vast inhuman machines – but every decision comes from some man or woman with a name, a face, a favorite food, a memory of falling in love and a feud with a neighbor, and above all fears and joys and pleasures and hurts and a desperate need for salvation. We do it with our government. “The government did this,” “the government did that,” but every senator, every judge, every governor and president is a person made in God's image and meant for a glory greater than any nation. We hear news around the world – a terrorist group kidnapped this many villagers, a drone strike killed this number of terrorists – but every villager and every militant is a particular human being with all those things, all those fears and joys and hobbies, a person with a story meant to showcase the mercy of God.

Jesus looks for the story. He could have walked past the booth the same way we go through lines at the DMV, the same way we pass a cash register or a panhandler, and seen just a tax-collector. Jesus didn't do that. He didn't see a tax-collector; he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus. He saw a man with a history, a man with baggage, a man with hardships and friendships, a man with hopes and joys and fears and sins like anyone else. Jesus didn't speak to an 'it'; he spoke to a 'him'. And what he said was, “Follow me.” Jesus came, the herald of God's kingdom, the emperor of God's empire, and handed down a decree: “You're coming with me.” So Levi left his booth, quit his job, broke free from the bureaucracy, left the red tape sitting in a heap all alone. Faced with the seemingly mindless daily grind, the repetition of patterns for weeks and months, years and decades, it's easy to despair in the face of monotony. If Levi ever wondered if there could be more to life, he knew then and there that Something-More-to-Life was looking him square in the eye and calling him (Mark 2:14). Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). Jesus calls him to be a disciple, a future teacher in training.

If the crowd hadn't already drifted off to the next pastime, seeing Jesus summon a tax-collector would've done the trick. But don't you find that just when we think Jesus is making us uncomfortable, he finds a way to ratchet it up a level? The next verse finds him at Levi's house, and so are his disciples, however many there are. But they aren't alone, and it isn't just a family dinner. Luke makes clear that it's a “great banquet” (Luke 5:29), and Mark agrees: they aren't just sitting at a table, they're reclining, they're feasting, they're having a party (Mark 2:15)! And Levi's brought his co-workers home, and then some. There's a large crowd of “tax collectors and sinners” – the sort of people the Psalms called the wicked and told you to stay away from for your own health. They're there in abundance, mingled with the Jesus crew, meeting each other not as stereotypes but as flesh-and-blood people. These people were the only kind of friends Levi had, a closed club of misfits, the unwanted, the perpetually avoided; but Jesus and his disciples want their company.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy. The local scribes, who belong to the Jewish sect called the Pharisees – the first time Mark names them – are mighty concerned (Mark 2:16). To a Pharisee, the fundamental purpose of a holy life is making distinctions: these people are living rightly, those people are living wrongly. These people are acceptable, those people aren't. And to eat with someone, sharing the same food, was to say that you accept and welcome them. To sit down at the same table was to say, “I approve of you, I welcome you, I call you a friend.” The Pharisees saw the power that had and insisted the purity of one's dinner company be carefully guarded. You want to have a dinner party, you seek out the local scholars, the respectable citizens. You don't go slumming it with ruffians and rednecks, much less crooks and creeps. But Jesus doesn't see crooks and creeps; he sees the sick and needy (Mark 2:17), sees people who need to be welcomed, people who need a holy friend.

When Jesus calls Levi, Levi leaves everything – sort of. Levi now lives in two worlds. And he does the only thing that makes sense after meeting Jesus: he gives Jesus his other world. He brings them into collision: the world of tax collectors, ne'er-do-wells, sinners, meets the world of God's kingdom. Levi knows that his friends need Jesus, and he arranges for them to meet Jesus – at a party. The wording in Mark suggests that it may have had a powerful impact: “Many followed him” (Mark 2:15). Does that mean that, out of this gathered crowd of tax-collectors and other sinners, a bunch of them became followers of Jesus, became disciples? If so, could any of the other apostles have joined up with Jesus here – and all because Levi had the guts to bring two worlds together?

Most American Christians today aren't equipped to do what Levi did. There are exceptions – I'm led to think of our friend Gary Carter and his motorcycle ministry, which is a beautiful imitation of Levi's witness – but most aren't like that. Within two years after becoming a Christian, the average new believer no longer has serious contact with any non-Christian friends. A couple years ago, the statistic came out that one in five non-Christians in North America doesn't personally know even one Christian. Take out the non-Christians who used to be involved in a church but drifted away, and it shoots up to three in five. Sixty percent of those who've never known Jesus, don't know any Christians. They don't know any of us because we choose not to know them, choose not to meet them, choose not to pitch our tents among them like Jesus pitched his tent on earth among “sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”

If we don't do something about that, we can never be like Levi. And yet we can't go looking for 'friends' just in order to lead them to Jesus. That's treating people like a project; that's treating them as means to an end; that's using them to put another notch in our evangelistic belts. If we do that, then we aren't seeing them like Jesus saw Levi: as people. Levi didn't see the other tax collectors as projects; he saw them as friends, loved ones, the whole world to him until Jesus cracked his world wide open. He was so keenly aware of his own need that he didn't hesitate to see their needs with open eyes. And yet, barely aware of the word of God, he didn't feel the pressure to evangelize on his own. All he had to do was make sure that his needy friends and the Jesus crew were in the same place at the same time – he arranged the meet, and Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John took it from there. Can we do that?

In the church today, we'll gladly give lipservice to sharing Jesus with people. But when we see someone doing what Jesus does here, our inner Pharisee can easily creep out. I mean, to mingle with sinners and not disavow them, not trumpet in a loud voice that we stand apart from them – isn't that compromising? Doesn't that defile us? Doesn't bad company ruin good character (1 Corinthians 15:33)? If we become friends with the drunks or the addicts or the vandals or the people marching in pride parades, won't that corrupt our spiritual life and ruin our witness? That's what the Pharisees want to know.

How does Jesus react to the Pharisees' logic? He tells them that if they knew Scripture better, if they really had it in their hearts and minds, they'd have a better glimpse of God's heart. As the Gospel based on Matthew's own memory makes clear, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; cf. Hosea 6:6). Hosea was challenging the corrupt religious and civil authorities who “dealt faithlessly with the LORD” (Hosea 5:7), and through him God promised judgment until people turned back to him, acknowledging their guilt and seeking his face (Hosea 5:15). To the Pharisees, this was the core of their message: before Israel can see the kingdom, before God will send his favor to them again and drive off their pagan overlords, the sinners in Israel – all those who infringe even slightly against the Law – have to make themselves pure.

But to Jesus, the message is different. God has a higher priority than purity, a higher priority than the sacrifices of the temple, a higher priority than precise legalism. God isn't merely looking for us to give him the best, the brightest, the cleanest we've got – everything the Pharisees were ready to offer. God doesn't want burnt offerings half so much as he wants people to know him, really know him, encounter him in the gritty places of life. God doesn't want sacrificial purity; he wants people to imitate his mercy (Hosea 6:6). And to be merciful isn't to hold sinners and tax-collectors at arm's length; it's to embrace them, to show them that the kingdom of God is about grace that changes lives.

And grace does change lives; it doesn't leave them the same. That's what the Pharisees miss. They think that, unless we build walls up front, unless we frontload our words and works with disclaimers, we'll “compromise” ourselves and the message we bring. They think that unless we keep our social distance, we'll lose our moral distance and slide down toward the lowest common denominator. That's the road they thought Jesus was on, and it's the road a lot of modern Christians fear. We easily think that, if we socialize with those loud and obnoxious sinners, the God-haters, God-deniers, and God-twisters, and we don't preach at them first thing, we've compromised the message, we've failed to take a stand.

Jesus insists that the grace of God doesn't mean compromise. He goes, he parties with tax-collectors and sinners, he makes friends with them – and he doesn't deny they're sinners, doesn't deny that they need mercy from God. It's the sick who need a doctor, and it's sinners who need him, he says (Mark 2:17). Luke makes it extra clear: “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). In the very midst of socializing with sinners, Jesus doesn't compromise. He accepts them as people, he views them with God's eyes and holds them with God's arms, and he shows them a better way. None of the Gospels tell us exactly what Jesus did or said at that dinner party, but he and his disciples taught and illustrated that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). To avoid compromise, we don't have to take a stand; we can recline at the table and sincerely listen to their stories and speak God's wisdom into everyday life. Can we see God's wisdom offering hope and truth for the practical concerns of our co-workers, our neighbors, the people in the rough part of town?

Many years ago, the Welsh Mountain was notorious for being full of the kind of characters who populated this dinner party. The newspapers spoke often of the “gang of desperadoes who infest the Welsh Mountains.” They said that many “residents of the mountain” had often “figured in the criminal courts, charged with high crimes.” Even The New York Times said that the Welsh Mountain was “the home of people ignorant of God and Christianity, with thievery and outlawry generally their principal vocations, and an utter disregard of law marking their daily life.” In the days the Buzzard gang ran wild, in the days of shacks and shanties, the Welsh Mountain was littered with “sinners,” the wicked, the dangerous crowd. It wasn't the kind of place you wanted to go. But someone did go there, a missionary named Melford Hagler, who spent fifty of the seventy years of his life taking up work among what even his obituary called “as devilish a crew as ever held the fort in any fastness.” Rev. Hagler, it said, was fearless and labored to help the shanty-dwellers build “respectable homes,” he taught them to read and write, he organized schools, he put Bibles in their homes, he preached the Ten Commandments and the need to follow Jesus. He knew what Levi knew, and he did as Jesus did. His great-grandson sits among us today.

We need to recover the fearlessness of Jesus. We need to regain the love of Levi. We need to regain the zeal of Melford Hagler. We need to bring a party to the IRS – to not just stay safe in our sanctified walls, but to bring the holiness of God where the people are – the more broken, the more in need. We need to admit that no one is beyond the reach of God's grace. No one can be expected to jump over our hurdles before Jesus will welcome them with open arms. We can't afford to be afraid. We can't afford to just lament what the world is coming to – “the world,” we say, looking at a nameless, faceless mob, looking at them the way everyone but Jesus looked at Levi. Jesus didn't come to call “good people.” Nor did Jesus come to make us nice and decent and safe. Jesus isn't looking for our conventional piety, our domesticated rituals; he's looking for a reflection of the mercy and hospitality of God. He's looking for us to make him unavoidable, even in the tough crowds. But we can't do that sitting in our pews. May God show us where the need is, where the sick need doctoring and the sinful need saving (Mark 2:17), and send us among them to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). May we be, like Jesus, on the move!

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