No Entry Requirements // Sara Wolbrecht // June 7, 2015 // Mark 2:13-17
People. So when it comes to groups of people, communities, clubs, organizations, political and religious affiliations, there are certain distinctions that set a group of people apart. What they believe, stand for, do, the skills they have. And sometimes, there are actually entry requirements to get into a particular group. Not necessarily like passing a test or doing enough push-ups or something. But sometimes there is a formal line, fence, boundary, keeping out those who do not have the right stuff. There is a concept that names this phenomenon.
It is called a Bounded Set. “Bounded” because there is a boundary that makes a distinction between who is out and who is in. Gated communities, totally a geographically bounded set. If someone moves into the neighbor, they move IN. Joining a gym – you pay the fees, you’re in. Applying for college – you pay, write, letters of rec, and then MAYBE you’ll be IN. There’s a group of Chihuahua lovers on the eastside that get together – you love Chihuahuas? You’re in. In a bounded set, everyone knows they are IN, accepted, welcomed, because they have adhered to the entry requirements and expectations for the group. They believe the right things, the have paid dues if there are some. While those outside the boundary are kept away until they can change their beliefs, behaviors, pay the dues, whatever it is to fit what the others believe. Once they change THEN they will be admitted in. …To get us started today, I want this concept, this awareness in our heads. The bounded set. It is clear who is in and who is out.
I bring this up because for many people in the world today, they boil the Christian story down to a bounded set – that it is all about who is in and who is out. They see the Christian message as one of exclusivity. You believe the right things or you don’t, you behave the right way or you don’t, agree to certain terms in order to be on the inside with Jesus. So much air time is spent today in the media, on blogs, on social media, in books, hashing out where this boundary line falls. Which is mind-boggling, because when you consider all of history, Jesus is one of the loudest voices and fiercest fighters to tear down any kind of boundary that would keep certain people out of the life of God.
Today, this piece of Mark’s gospel we’ll take a look at now, is no exception. Here, we get to see evidence to support this as Jesus crosses the cultural lines about who is out and who is in. Here, Jesus calls Levi, to come and follow him, to literally become a learner of Jesus. We pick up right where we left off last week, after the man who couldn’t walk was lowered through a hole in the roof by his friends to be healed and forgiven by Jesus – and we reflected on AWE together. How the Kingdom of God is a place where we will continue to be wowed. Jesus is still in the town of Capernaum.
Here we meet Levi, also known as Matthew. Matthew and Levi = the same person. As in the Matthew who wrote the first gospel. Here is how it goes down:
Mark 2:13-17 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 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. 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. 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?” 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.”
Mmm Hmm, here we have Jesus throwing it down once more. Let us take a closer look at what is going on here – because as always when we read scripture, as our beloved Transformers teach us, there is always: more than meets the eye. More going on given the cultural context, historically, there’s more for us to discover together. Always so many layers, that we peel away like an onion.
Continue to hold that bounded set image still in your head – we’ll come back to that. Let’s looks at the very fun cadre of great folks for us to examine, Levi, Pharisees, disciples, sinners and tax-collectors.
When I hear the name Levi, this is who I think of: Our son who is almost 14 months old. But alas, the sermon is not about our Levi. The Levi we’re talking about here is this guy:
So this Levi, is “collecting taxes” which does not mean its April 15th and he’s collecting that kind of tax, it’s actually a toll. He is sitting at a border crossing in Capernaum. Just as today you often have to pay a toll for the privilege of crossing a border (or to cross a bridge, as we know for those of us who take 520 to/from Seattle with regularity), you had to pay a toll to cross through Capernaum. This is a new toll being collected because Herod the Great recently died, and gave this land to his son Herod Antipas.
So plenty of people remember when you could make this journey through Capernaum for free. And I know that we can relate – I grumble every time we take 520 because it didn’t used to cost anything! Grr! Now you have to pay, and there isn’t even a new bridge to use yet! So we shake our fists at the Good to Go sign as we see the exact amount we’re being charged as we cross the 520 bridge. So guess who got shouted at, grumbled at and sworn at because of this new toll in Capernaum? Levi, son of Alphaeus.
Levi is working for Herod Antipas. And pretty much everyone resented the Herodian family (Herod the Great is remembered as being "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis") – Because Levi worked for Herod Antipas, Levi was seen as a traitor. Working for “the man”, collecting taxes for Herod who was in power and backed by Rome. Not exactly a plum job. Probably the only job he could get.
And then one day Jesus came by. He didn’t shout. He didn’t swear or grumble. He did something totally unexpected. He said, “Follow me.” And Levi, got up and went with Jesus. Wouldn’t you? It was perhaps the first time in ages that someone had treated him as a human being.
Notice with me: Levi. This is who Jesus invites to come along and learn from him. We already read a few weeks ago how Jesus invited in two sets of brothers to follow him, James and John, Simon and Andrew – all of whom came from families of fishermen, all of whom left their security behind to become a learner, a student of Jesus. Levi has just joined their ranks by saying yes.
So they head back to Levi’s house with a bunch of others – which means not only has Jesus invited this traitor to be one of his disciples but Jesus is now hosting a dinner party there in this guy’s house with a house full of what Mark calls tax collectors and sinners. So what does Mark mean when he uses the word “sinners” here in what he is writing? What do you envision? Who is there? Let’s unpack what that means. “Sinners” is an easy label to stick on = those who did not conform to the strict religious requirements of the law or the strict political expectations of opposition to Herod and Rome. In other words sinners are those who broke the rules, who didn’t live up to the expectations of others and the culture, who had particular flaws.
This was a group of people whose lives did not look “the way they should look.” This is who Jesus invites to party with him. And the Pharisees were there to point it out – that these are the people who don’t have it all together.
Those Pharisees. Let’s observe a bit about the Pharisees. I think all the pictures I have ever seen depicting the Pharisees they have furrowed brows or are shaking fingers or just generally looking cranky and wearing lots of robes.
So why is that? It’s good to know who they are because we read about the Pharisees a lot. The Pharisees are self-appointed legal experts. Jewish legal experts. They take the first five books of the Bible, which is called the Torah, the Law of Moses, and they obsess about it. They figure out their own version of what those laws actually mean, then they strictly follow and enforce those rules. And of course it comes out of a desire to be faithful to God and God’s word. But it comes across as a lot of finger-wagging.
So these guys (with their furrowed brows – maybe every time we hear about the Pharisees we should furrow our eyebrows) are the ones following God’s law. We’re used the Pharisees being the bad guys (they make a stink about everything Jesus does), but if we take a step back, isn’t it surprising that when God shows up in Jesus that the Pharisees completely miss what God is doing right in front of them? Like last week, the religious experts we encountered as Jesus forgave and healed the man who couldn’t walk – everyone is amazed while the religious experts are grummmmbling. Shouldn’t the Pharisees be the guys who Jesus connects with, hangs out with, AND REALLY the ones Jesus chooses to be a part of what he is doing? They’ve got it together, they know the laws to follow, they’re clean and robed. Why wouldn’t Jesus want them on his team? Even if they are grumpy, shouldn’t they be the ones who are invited? But Jesus says, actually no.
So, why? Why not the Pharisees? Here the key, Jesus says this oft-quoted line: I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners. So let’s talk about what he means by that. Jesus uses the word “righteous” and what he really means is that he has not come to call the self-righteous. Those who are self-righteous are self-made, they have worked out their success and got it all together on their own steam. They have followed all the rules, earned their success. Jesus is really saying: I’ve come to call not the self-made, but the ones who don’t have it all together.
The Pharisees were self-righteous, self-made; they followed the rules, and had no interest in following Jesus or believing the possibility that God could be doing something new and fresh and surprising. Now we remember the bounded set. The Pharisees operated within the concept of the bounded set, right? They believe there’s a boundary, rules that separate those who are in from those who are out. The Pharisees would turn up their noses and stay away from those who are “Out” at all costs.
So here then is the radical, compassionate, gracious word we hear in this text – Jesus is beginning to make it clear that he does not operate from this same bounded set mentality. Nope.
The thing about the bounded set when it comes to following Jesus, is that if you make it about following all the rules and right behavior, then you could make your way into the “In” circle without any actual need for God or Jesus or the power of the Holy Spirit, right? The IN crowd are those who figure it all out. With the bounded set, that means you can make it all happen on your own, just do what is required of you. And Jesus is saying: that ain’t the point.
Instead, and taking it even a step further, Jesus says: I’m not looking for those who have got it all together on their own. I come to those who know they need me. Who admittedly don’t have it all together AND know their need.
That’s why Jesus says this last sentence, again one that is often referenced: it is not the healthy who need a doctor. But the sick, the sick need a doctor. So – doctors. Do they just stop by, knock on the door to see how you’re doing? No. They are available to us when we need them, but we have to ask. We go when we’re sick, having reached that point of, Well, this rash ain’t going away on its own. The point is: in order to get the help we need from a doctor, we need to know our need to see the doctor. Jesus comes to those who know they need him.
Jesus makes this shocking, beautiful statement: he comes to those who actually don’t have it all together, who don’t impress others, who have failed, who are flawed, who have hurt others, who have been hurt, who have made mistakes, whose life may not fit the popular understanding of what their life is “supposed to look like.” The self-righteous, they don’t need a Savior because they’ve already saved themselves. They’ve got it all together – at least for now. Jesus comes to those who know they need a Savior. The doctor can help those who know they’re sick – that’s what Jesus means here.
Instead of the bounded set, the way for us to frame discipleship, and this life of God, is the Centered Set. A centered set has no boundaries to keep people out and in, but instead, what defines it, it is something compelling at the center. Hence, centered set. There are no walls between “us” and “them,” no rules or guidelines to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” Did you make the cut for the guest list? Does not matter. Everyone is loved, welcomed, and accepted, no matter what. Everyone automatically “belongs.”
And what do we have at the center in the Christian story? The cross. Jesus. And you’ll see in the picture that some people are closer in proximity to Jesus, and others are farther away. That captures that we are all at different points in the journey, but we’re all on the journey and we all belong as children of God. And do you see those arrows? The arrows indicate what can happen, that at different times people are moving closer to Jesus, and at other times they are not. Our lives don’t follow a steady trajectory, but there is this ebb and flow of seasons where our faith really grows and we grow.
And again, using Jesus’ own teaching here, those folks who are moving towards Jesus, do you think they are the ones who have it all together and are working hard to build their faith? No – I would argue that those who are moving towards Jesus are the very ones who know their need and have intentionally set their face toward Jesus and his Kingdom. The doctor is at work in their lives.
For Jesus, everybody is in. No entry fee required.
Did you hear that? This is an incredible word of grace. And incredible word of freedom. That following Jesus does not mean getting our act together but it means acknowledging that we can never really get our act together on our own, and reaching out in faith to God who is the one who can get our act together better than we ever could.
I want to make two final points on why this actually matters.
First, how this informs the way we see others. Levi, the political traitor, is welcomed in, one who was bullied and ridiculed daily as he collected tolls – he becomes one of his Jesus’ closest friends. And Jesus invites a house full of cultural outsiders to be the ones who join him at the table, at a party at Levi’s house. We’ve talked about how everything Jesus does points us toward what the Kingdom of God is like – and what God is like.
So this demonstrates something to us. To capture the essence of how this changes the way we look at the world, I have a music video. It’s called BROTHER, by Worship House Media. Listen to the words – very repetitive – and watch and see.
When I look into the face of my enemy, I see my brother, I see my sister, I see my father, I see my mother. In the faces of people who are different, even opposed to me, I see people, like me, and no matter how they appear on the outside, no matter what labels I place on them, they are just as not put together as I am. And they are just as beautiful and broken and beloved as I am. For they, too belong to God. For Jesus shows us there is no entry requirement for the Kingdom of God.
What if the Christian story was really known for what it really is – this amazing, radical message of inclusion and invitation? Of seeing the sacred in all others, in seeing ourselves in all others. Throughout the Bible there is this reoccurring description of what Heaven or the Kingdom of God is like – and it’s a dinner party, we hear it in this story of Levi, a dinner party where everybody is invited – especially those who don’t have it together. What if the world actually heard this message? Lived this message? Can you imagine it? Do you long for that like I do?
Jesus changes the way we see others, and he changes the way we see ourselves. When we look at a piece from the bible we always ask how it meets us uniquely and specifically in our own selves and lives. And this story of Levi and the ragamuffin dinner party invites us to listen to our own lives. To notice, to pay attention, and to see – without judgment – all the ways in which we feel like we’re Levi. Where we don’t measure up, where we have failed, where we don’t have the job, partner, kids, the right clothes/house/car/stuff that our culture tells us we need, the ways in which we have messed up relationships, the ways in which we have been hurt and abused, in our confusion, distraction, grief. Jesus says to us: Come here. You’re invited, too. See, there is space I’ve saved just for you at the party. And it is going to be awesome. So for us right here, right now in this moment, this sweaty, present moment, where in your life do you need to hear the words: you’re ok. You’re ok. You’re ok. It will be ok. Because Jesus is telling us, like he told the traitor Levi – you’re in, you’re not alone, God is on your side and there is more for you.
As the band comes back up we’re going to sit together in all of this and do what we do every week, and what we try to do during the week, too – we live two questions as central to our lives. We ask: God, what are you saying to me? What am I going to do about it?
What is God stirring in you? What memories or situations have popped up for you? What enemies need to become brothers or sisters for you? What word of ok-ness do you need to hear? We ask, we sing if you would like, and we take a deep breath as we pray…