Mark 2: 13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I find this story funny. The humor is kind of subtle, though. You have to wait a while for the punchline. It comes elsewhere in the Gospels, whenever you find Jesus eating with the Pharisees, the very same people who asked him, “So, why do you eat with sinners?” And Jesus replies, “Its not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes.
So that’s how Jesus, the doctor of our salvation, makes house calls: hanging out and eating with those who need his help. And still today he says to each and all of us, in Rev. 3: 20, “I stand at the door and knock; If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
But whenever Jesus hung out with the Pharisees, they didn’t recognize that they too were sinners receiving a house call. They were thinking that he, Jesus, was the sinner, not they!Because he atewith them, those people, you know, sinners. Maybe its just me, butI find that funny.
But I confess: I can kind of identify with the Pharisees. They were afraid that, by hanging out with the likes of Levi and his rogues’ gallery of friends, Jesus would either become like them, or he was even condoning what they were all up to. Like embezzlement and extortion on behalf of a brutal and corrupt military empire. That’s how tax collectors like Levi made money. Caesar or Herod got his revenue by selling Levi the right to collect taxes, let’s say, for 20 million dollars. Then Levi would collect 25 million dollars worth of tax money from the people, and live off the 5 million dollar profit. And no one could do a thing about it.
I know the fear of the Pharisees, and I share it. So to be logical and consistent, I should even avoid my own company. But by hanging out and eating with such people, Jesus was neither condoning nor championing all their actions. Rather, he was offering them options. Better options. Even more, he was offering them love. Because love is the only power by which we can make the necessary changes for our survival. We do guilt well, we do shame and obligation and reasoning, logic and exhortation well. But without love, they don’t do us much good.
And Jesus was teaching his disciples something. Like us, they would have to make moral and spiritual choices, to discriminate among options of behavior and belief, at the same time that they would be reaching out to a broken, sinful world. For that we will need tools of moral and spiritual discernment. By eating with sinners, whether they are irreverent tax collectors who know that they are sinners, or very reverent Pharisees who don’t, Jesus took out of his disciples’ hands one of the most commonly used tools of moral and spiritual discernment. But its also one of the most dangerous, destructive and divisive tools. Like a gun or a sword, it’s more of a weapon than a tool.
This wrong-headed tool of moral discernment has two sides. One side says “Us” on it; the other side has “Them” written on it. Right next to the word “Us” you also find the words “Good people” and “Better than them”, while under the word “Them” you also find the words “Bad people” and “Worse than us.” Its the “Us versus Them” way of thinking, that is joined at the hip to “Good and Bad People” and “Better than and Worse than,” as in, “My kind, our people, our identity group” as opposed to “Them.”
There are good and bad choices. We still have to discern and decide which actions and beliefs are morally and spiritually superior to others. But Jesus shows us in today’s story that no one has the right to discern and decide that they, personally, or their group of similar people, are morally and spiritually superior to others, not for reasons of belief, nor behavior, nor for reasons of history, like victory or victimhood.
I know, it sounds so tribal, so medieval, so barbaric to divide the world so darkly and starkly into Us (Good) and Them (Bad). Didn’t they fight a World War over that and put it to rest nearly 70 years ago? Didn’t it die of its logical consequences at the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka? Well, not so long ago, we heard eerily familiar rhetoric coming out of a troublemaker and rabble-rouser, Slobodan Milosevic, whose “Us vs. Them” language started a firestorm of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
In politics and religion, I encounter both liberal and conservative ways of dividing the world into Us (good) and Them (bad). I hear echoes of this “Us vs. Them” language today whenever people of any party or persuasion use words like “treason,” “patriots” or “true Americans” just to talk about ideas. I even worry about it when post-modern thinkers tell us that truth is only whatever your identity group says it is. They’re still dividing the world into competing kingdoms of us versus them. So no, even the non-religious and the anti-religious have not evolved nor advanced beyond the worldview of the Pharisees, who sought security by dividing the world into watertight categories of us and them, good people verses bad people.
I think I saw this in action the other day at the corner of 8th Street and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. There was a street preacher who was verbally harranguing and harassing the crowds of perfect strangers walking by. He was especially castigating everyone for sex apart from marriage, whether he knew our marital status or not. Not only was he talking down to people with his tone of voice and his choice of words, he had a wooden box of sorts on which he was standing, about a foot high, to elevate himself physically above them, as well as morally and spiritually, I wondered?
(Uh….and I’m only up here on this pulpit for the acoustics—really!).
I still feel anxious and confused about what he was doing, because technically I would agree with everything he said. On the face of it, the gospel and the values he preached and the ones that I preach sound identical. But the symbols of his endeavor were at odds with his message. He was castigating and distancing himself from the very kinds of sinners whom Jesus ate with, while preaching the same Jesus who hung out and ate with sinners. He was preaching a Jesus who dealt with our bondage to sin by means of invitation and relationship, but by means of alienation and condemnation. I hope that when I speak from this pulpit its evident that I speak as a fellow struggler and sinner who is inviting us all into deeper friendship with Jesus, the friend of sinners, myself included. That invitation was lacking in the preacher’s manner, as well as his words. If anything, you wanted to run from this man’s Jesus, who sounded like he was this close to squashing us like cockroaches.
Now Jesus could also be tough, verbally and even physically, like when he ran the money changers out of the temple. The Lamb of God is also the Lion of Judah. But he was often hardest on “righteous” people, so-called, for their sins of power. Like dividing the world into Us and Them: that’s a sin of power. But to the unrighteous, so-called, with their sins of weakness typically, Jesus could be disarmingly gentle and invitational, in such a way as to make the most unholy aspire to holiness, and to even have hope that you could become holy and free.
So if I could find that street preacher again, and if I had the courage to do so, I might invite him to lunch and thank him for having the courage to preach the gospel. But I would also ask him not just to preach the gospel, but to embody the gospel in his approach to all sinners, beginning with both of our selves. I would make it clear that I do not doubt his sincerity, his integrity nor his devotion to God. There may even be a role for street preaching, like when Mennonite workers in France recently did street theater based on Jesus’ parables, and invited the audience in to participate. The audiences loved it so much they’d say, “This is great! Where did you get these stories from?”
I am concerned, rather, that my fellow preacher is trapped and stuck in a reactionary role, that of being “Better than Them,” that he distinguishes himself as one of “Us,” as opposed to “them,” by standing above people and haranguing them verbally for sins we all may share, at least in our heads. Its the old Us and Them routine.
But he wasn’t alone in acting out someone else’s Good/Bad, Better than/Worse than script. There are other ways people trap themselves into suffocating, airtight boxes, by letting their opposite numbers define them, by living and acting in reaction to others.
For as I walked up Nicollett Mall toward the angry street preacher, I passed someone who was dressed up like the street preacher’s worst nightmare, down to the drug and gangsta dress, the drug and gangsta symbols on his black leather jacket, the fancy bling, the suggestive and swaggering walk, and the contemptuous smirk on his face, in effect, all the symbols that say “Fear Me: I’m your worst nightmare”. He had turned the sins of weakness into weapons of power against mainstream “respectable” society. Another form of Us versus Them.
The contrast was so great between him and the street preacher that it looked for all the world like some sort of scripted street theater between them. Maybe they both work together, trying to scare us. If so, it was working!
Yet, my experience says that when you scratch beneath the “I Can Do Bad Better Than You” veneer, you find some good within the person that they are hiding, for fear of being victimized. The same with anyone’s “holier than them” routine. Get to know them and you may find some not-so-good stuff that they are hiding, for fear of being taken down from their pedestals.
So it is with all of us: a mix of good and bad. And fear. Of being exposed.
And while I was disturbed by the examples of both of these men, I had to ask myself, So, Mathew, are you following a script of moderate, namby-pamby mealy-mouthed respectability in reaction against these two extremes that you have just seen at the corner of 8th and Nicollet? Are you trying to justify yourself, in the eyes of God, people and yourself, by being none of the above? Are you reacting to them, and fixating on them, so you can avoid owning up to your own weaknesses? If so, how then are you any better or different than either of them?
How’s that as a way to drive oneself crazy?
Then two things occurred to me. One is that its pointless to try and prove oneself different from or better than others, whether they project a “better than you” image or “badder than you.” God’s goodness is measured in infinite numbers of light years. That makes the mere centimeters of difference among people not only miniscule but pointless. Ridiculous. Under the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of our fallen world, there is no “them,” there is only We, Us.
Secondly there came to mind the words of the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
Whoah. The Apostle Paul said that? The Apostle Paul? Not only did he count himself a sinner, but the worst of sinners? The former Pharisee who used to pray, “I thank you, God, that you did not make me a sinner….?” The apostle who did the most to bring Christ to the nations? At the cost of his freedom, even his life? A martyr? Now either he is too modest by far, or he’s sick, the world’s worst masochist with the world’s worst inferiority complex, recommending that we, too, beat ourselves over the head, or……
..…. he is on to something. After all, he would know no one else’s sin the way he knows his own. Nor do I. Nor we. Scary thought. But also liberating. Because if we take his words, and those of Jesus, to heart, then we are free from the burden of looking over our shoulder to see whose halo shines brighter than ours. Why, by counting ourselves the chief of sinners, we’ve even dropped out of the “holier than thou” contest all together. Gone from our shoulders is the burden of justifying ourselves in the eyes of God, others and ourselves. Jesus does that for us, and for nothing more than trust.
Also gone from our shoulders is the need to have enemies and outsiders, so that we can feel better about ourselves and people like us. Before us is a road of freedom and joy, like that of the stranded Russian sailor in the 1960’s movie, The Russians Are Coming! When he experienced the hospitality of some Americans and even fell in love with an American woman, he walked deliriously up and down the beach crying aloud, “I don’t want to fear anybody!” Having grown up with fearful propaganda all his young life, this was a new and liberating experience for him.
As the chiefs of sinners, we can now do our moral and spiritual discernment like patients at a hospital, who know that they’re sick, in need of a doctor, and who are figuring out which course of treatment best helps them recover. That I find more helpful and honest than how we are, and what we do, as opposed to them.
So if I had the nerve to stand up on the corner of 8th and Nicollet, I wouldn’t point my finger at the crowd and call them all sinners like that street preacher did. I would point at myself and say, As far as I have any right to know, “I am the chief of sinners. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” Therefore, there’s no more Us and Them. Just We.
And then I would add, Won’t you join me in that eternal life? Or at least for lunch?
Like Jesus and the tax collectors?