I wonder how often you’ve found yourself talking about a TV personality or public figure and you’ve said, ‘I really like so and so.’ And the other person has said, ‘Oh, I can’t stand them.’ Same person. But provoking two completely opposite reactions.
And that’s what happens when people take a proper look at Jesus. So for example, I’ve led some of our Christianity Explored groups, where you take a proper look at Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. And some people really warm to what they’re hearing. So one person said to me a few weeks in, ‘I never knew it was all about Jesus – I thought it was just about trying to be good, which I don’t seem to be any good at.’ But for others it’s completely the opposite. So I asked one person one week, ‘How are you finding it?’ And she said, ‘The more I hear, the less I like it.’ And that was the last week she came.
And in today’s bit of Mark's Gospel, we’re going to see that Jesus either attracts or offends people – either draws them, or puts them off.
And if you would call yourself a Christian, I hope you’ll see in a fresh way how attractive Jesus is and how good it is to know him. And if you’re still on the outside, looking in, I hope you’ll see beyond what’s put you off so far, to see that Jesus really is good news.
But that won’t happen unless God helps us see. So let’s pray before we go any further:
Father God, thank you for Mark’s record of what Jesus your Son said and did here on earth. Please open our spiritual eyes to see what we have, or can have, in knowing him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So if you have a Bible, would you turn to Mark chapter 2 and verses 13 to 17 – which face us with the question, ‘How do you react to Jesus?’ Because in this incident we’re going to look at, some people find Jesus attractive, others find him offensive. And it’s as if Mark is holding this up as a mirror and saying, ‘Where do you see yourself?’
And the first thing we see here is that:
1. Jesus is Attractive to People Who Know They’re Not OK with God
Look at verse 13:
"[Jesus] went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him."
So Levi was a taxman. Which means your reaction to him might already be less than sympathetic. But if you’d lived in Jesus’ day, your reaction would have been far stronger. Because tax collectors then were notoriously immoral.
Today, the tax payer is more likely to be immoral. So for example, one Inland Revenue office got an anonymous letter saying this: ‘I’ve been unable to sleep properly because of my conscience about tax evasion, so I enclose £2,000 in cash. If my conscience continues to trouble me, I’ll forward the rest of what I owe.’
But in Jesus’ day, it was the tax collectors who were notoriously immoral, extracting more than people owed, to line their own pockets – often becoming pretty rich. So they were seen as morally the lowest of the low. And they were banned from synagogues – the churches of the day – because they were seen as beyond God’s acceptance, no-hopers in that department.
And yet Jesus chooses one of them as his next disciple. As if to say loud and clear: no-one is beyond God’s acceptance.
You may have heard the story of a single mother in Brazil called Maria. Her teenage daughter wanted to move from their country life into the city, hoping to find work. But Maria was desperate to stop her, knowing the kind of work that many women ended up in. But one day she woke to find her daughter gone. So she went to a photo booth and got as many photos of herself as she could afford. And she then went to the city, to look for her daughter, and to leave photos of herself in all the cheap hotels and hostels she might wind up in. A month later, in dire straits, her daughter found herself in one of those places. And she spotted the picture of her mother on the noticeboard. And she took it down and found that, on the back, it simply said, ‘Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, come home.’
And that’s what Jesus is saying to us as we read how he called Levi. He’s saying: ‘Spiritually, morally, wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, come home.’ He’s saying: ‘No-one has done things too bad, no-one has ignored me for too long, to put them beyond my forgiveness and acceptance.’
So will you believe that of yourself?
Maybe you’re still on the outside, looking in, and this is your sticking point. Maybe you’d love to be on the inside of this, but you don’t think God would have you back – not after things you’ve done, or in the mess you’re in. But the calling of Levi says: yes he will – and he wants to.
But those of us who are trusting in Jesus aren’t immune from thinking that a major mess-up or a repeated failure has put us beyond his forgiveness and acceptance again. But the calling of Levi says: no it hasn’t. Because his attitude to us is always exactly what it was the moment he first accepted us – always willing to forgive everything, and always accepting of us just us we are. Which flows from his death on the cross, where he paid for everything we need forgiving.
So will you believe that of yourself? And will you also believe that of others – especially of the people you’re tempted to think are just too far away from Jesus ever to come back like Levi did. Because in Jesus’ book, there are no such people.
So, verse 14 again:
"And as [Jesus] passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him."
Now Levi may have met Jesus before and heard Jesus before – he’d certainly have heard all about him, as the talk of Capernaum. So his decision to follow Jesus may not have been quite so out of the blue as first appears. But it was still a huge step because he didn’t know all the implications, and where it would lead. For example, he didn’t know that Jesus would call him to be one of his twelve apostles and to lead in the early church, or that under his other name, Matthew, he’d write one of the four Gospels.
And at the time you first respond to Jesus, you don’t know, and can’t know, even a fraction of the implications. Just like people on their wedding day don’t know even a fraction of the implications of what they’re doing, of what they’re letting themselves in for.
And maybe that’s holding you back right now from responding to Jesus. Maybe you want to know what it’ll mean for your future, for a relationship, for changes Jesus will make. But you can’t know most of that now. And there comes a point where you have to say, ‘I don’t know everything this will mean. But I do know Jesus is my rightful Lord and God, and I do know he loved me enough to die for me, so he could forgive and accept me. So I’m going to put my life in his hands and trust him with it.’
Which is what Levi did. Because he knew he wasn’t OK with God, and never could be by himself. But then God in Jesus came to him saying, ‘I’ll make you OK, I’ll forgive and accept you just as you are, and then I’ll start making you what I meant you to be.’ And Levi found that so attractive, he couldn’t say ‘No’ any more.
So that’s the first thing. Jesus is attractive to people who know they’re not OK with God. But the other thing here is that:
2. Jesus is Offensive to Those Who Think They’re OK Without Him
Look on to verse 15:
"And as he [that’s Jesus] reclined at table in his house [that’s Levi’s house], many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him."
Now in our culture, the word ‘sin’ is usually narrowed down to mean just a few kinds of misbehaviour. Like the tabloid headline I saw: ‘Married Shane’s night of sin with lover.’ And in Jesus’ day, likewise, the word ‘sinner’ was narrowed down to mean just those people who were thought of as the worst – namely, tax collectors and the like. And they’re the ones at dinner with Jesus in verse 15 – because Jesus is attractive to people who know they’re not OK with God, but find to their joy that he can make them OK. Whereas Jesus is really offensive to the people we meet next. Verse 16:
"And the scribes of the Pharisees [who were the really conservative Bible believers of the day], when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?'"
And here’s why they found that so offensive. It’s because they saw God as the Great Examiner, who has set us the exam of his law – the ten commandments and so on. And they saw the human race divided into two categories: ‘the righteous’, like them – who kept God’s rules well enough to pass; and ‘the sinners’ like Levi – who’d failed. And they tried to avoid all contact with ‘the sinners’ because they thought that would contaminate them spiritually. So bumping into Levi accidentally in Sainsbury’s would be bad enough. But eating with him – which was the ultimate sign of closeness and friendship – was totally out of the question.
So as they saw it, what Jesus was doing was totally out of the question. Because, in their book, if he was from God then he should be playing the Examiner – congratulating the ‘passes’ and condemning the ‘fails’. Which he clearly wasn’t doing.
And that shows they needed their view of God and themselves completely overturned – which we may need, too. And Jesus does that in the punchline of this story. Verse 17:
"And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'"
I’m hopeless with needles and usually faint after injections. And last time that happened, I was just on my way out through the waiting room of my doctor’s surgery. So down I went. And I came round on the floor with this poor toddler’s terrified eyes staring into mine. And you can imagine that his Mum had spent the morning explaining that going to the doctor was nothing to be afraid of. And now he’d arrived, the first thing he found was a dead body. But while I was down there, I had time to read all the posters. One of which said:
ARE THEY REALLY SICK?
ONLY CALL OUT THE DOCTOR
IF ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
And that’s what Jesus was saying in verse 17. He was saying, ‘I’ve not come to be your Examiner, but your Doctor. And I wouldn’t have done the ‘call out’ from heaven to earth, and then to the cross to pay for your forgiveness, if you were OK as you are. But you’re not: you’re all spiritually, morally sick – even if your symptoms seem less bad than other peoples’ you could mention (like Levi).’
So Jesus is saying there’s actually only one category in the human race, that we all belong to. And that’s the category of ‘sinner’ – of failing to be all we should be, because we’ve not given God his rightful place in our lives. And that’s why we needed God in Jesus not to come as our Examiner, but to come as our Doctor, with forgiveness of sin and the healing of the mess of our lives at his fingertips.
And that is offensive to those who think they’re OK without him, who’d say, ‘But I’ve always tried to live a good life’, or, ‘But I’ve always kept my religion sincerely.’ But the answer to that is: ‘Do you really think God would have given his own Son to die to make us OK, if we could have made ourselves OK in the first place?’
If you’re still on the outside looking in, I think this can be one of the hardest things to see and accept. That was true of my Mum, who came to faith in the last year of her life. I remember her saying, ‘I now believe in God and in Jesus. But I just don’t see myself as a sinner.’ And I couldn’t make her see that. Only God can make you see that, as he gives you the honesty and clarity to see yourself in the light of Jesus and the gospel. And that did happen to Mum, so that one day she finally said to me, ‘I do now see that I need God’s mercy – and I pray for mercy every day.’
And if we’re already trusting in Jesus, the reminder here is that we never grow out of that need for mercy, for forgiveness. Like Mum said, we need it every day, because however much Jesus changes us this side of heaven, we’re still only sinners under reconstruction, failing him left, right and centre. So let’s not think that, once Jesus the Doctor has treated us to begin with, it’s now down to us to keep ourselves OK with him by passing the daily exam of Christian behaviour. Because that’s going back to thinking he’s the Examiner – which is a recipe for losing the joy of forgiveness, and everything that made Jesus attractive to us in the first place.
So that’s the mirror Mark holds up to us. Where we see that Jesus is attractive to people who know they’re not OK, but offensive to those who think they are.
Which leaves the question: where do you see yourself?
Father, thank you that in Jesus you give us forgiveness to cover all our sins past and future; acceptance through all the ups and downs of our obedience and failure;and your Spirit working in us to remake us in your image. Help us to find joy in all this and so, as far as we can, to make Jesus attractive to more people. In his name. Amen.