The next in a series on the red-letters of the Bible by Daniel Harrell
For years, going to the doctor for my annual check-up was an eventless affair. I’ve always tried to exercise and eat right, and most of the bad genes in my family went to my brother and sister. There wasn’t a whole lot to my annual check-up aside from sticking out my tongue and peeing in a cup. But lately, as I edge closer to life’s forbidding half century mark, a whole host of tests suddenly become compulsory. I still feel good. I look good. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels are stable. And yet, because of my age, I must augment my annual check-up with visits to the dermatologist, the urologist, and, ugh, the proctologist. I will spare you the details of the latter two, but suffice to say on my visit to the dermatologist, the enthusiastic physician worried over a couple of moles on my skin. Now, I’d lived with those moles for years. I knew them well. But the dermatologist said they had to go. So he excised the nefarious nevi, leaving me with a train track of stitches and wearing germ-protective shrink wrap for a week. I felt like a piece of deli meat. The biopsy revealed no irregularities or cancer, a diagnosis I could have provided had anyone been interested in my opinion. And people wonder why health care costs are so high.
I know, I know: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “Better safe than sorry.” These are wise proverbs. I’d truly be singing a different tune had the outcome been otherwise. But still, I like Jesus’ proverb here in Mark 2. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Granted, Jesus’ proverb is not a commentary on 21st century preventative medicine, but rather an analogy for his mission on earth. Just as sick people need a doctor, so sinners need a savior. We observed this analogous link between sickness and sin last Sunday in the familiar account of Jesus healing the paralytic. It is unfortunate, I think, that we title the story “Jesus Healing the Paralytic.” A better title would be “Jesus Forgiving the Paralytic.” After all, that is the point of the story. Remember, Jesus’ first words to the paralyzed man lowered down by his friends from the roof were not “be healed” but instead “you are forgiven.” The religious leaders witnessing the scene were nonplussed. “Who forgives sins but God alone?” Jesus, fired up, fired back by asking, “Which is easier? To forgive sin or cure paralysis?” Answer: Both are equally hard for humans because only God can do either. Therefore, in order that you might believe Jesus has authority to forgive sins like God, he turned and healed the paralytic—just like God heals. The man got up off his mat and went home.
I imagine that had the religious leaders not been present to raise their objections, the story would have ended differently with the paralytic’s sins forgiven but his body still immobile. How can Jesus, possessing both the power to forgive and to heal, ever do one without the other? He does it all the time. The reason is that forgiveness of sin and rescue from its eternal consequences are much more important than a healthy body on earth. Jesus asked, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose your soul?” Healing serves as a harbinger of resurrection, an appetizer of final redemption, but it’s not resurrection itself. Healing is the grace of God when it happens. But it can also be the grace of God when it doesn’t. Like little else, sickness focuses our prayers and hunger for that day when all things will be made new and there will be no more disease and suffering and death. There will be no more forgiveness either. There won’t need to be. I take for granted that in heaven no one sins against God since accepting God’s love and mercy is what got you there. In the meantime, however, forgiveness remains crucial, so much so that the power to forgive is given to every Christian in ways that the power to heal is not. And because we’ve each been given it, we are expected to use it so that the heavenly banquet table Jesus prepares will have every seat filled.
Which brings us to tonight’s red letters. As has been the case from the outset of Mark, huge crowds mob Jesus. He teaches them, Mark writes, but apparently does so like a tour guide teaches, as he walks. At what was probably an important point in the lesson, he walks over to a toll collector named Levi. Toll collectors were Jews employed by Rome whose business it was to levy taxes on Rome’s occupied peoples. Bad enough that one of their own would be in cahoots with the evil empire, but toll collectors also tacked on surcharges to line their own pockets. This blatant extortion made toll collectors despised villains. Everybody hated them. They were considered traitors to their communities and treated as outcasts. True, they did have money, but was the money worth all the scorn? Apparently not for Levi. Jesus walks over to Levi and says, “come on” and Levi gets up and goes.
The narrative moves swiftly to Levi’s house, where with ecstatic delight, he throws a party for Jesus and all the losers and loners which comprised Levi’s outcast crowd. Mark says that many “tax-collectors and sinners” were there and plenty of disciples too. Levi doesn’t get named later in Mark as one of the 12, so presumably Jesus had many followers even if they didn’t all make the first string. Among these followers were upstanding members of the community as well, scribes of the Pharisees also at Levi’s house. Like God, Jesus does not discriminate. People discriminate, however. The righteous and unrighteous alike were all gathered at Levi’s house, but they weren’t eating at the same table. How could they? In that culture to share a meal meant you were friends. Eating together was a mark of mutual respect and honor. You didn’t eat with just anybody. One’s dinner companions had to be intentionally and carefully picked.
The same is true in our own culture. From agonizing over a guest list for a wedding reception or a dinner party, all the way down to deciding whether you’re giving someone the wrong idea by having coffee, to eat and drink together carries significance. For a righteous Jew who adhered to the teachings of Torah, to eat with a sinner sullied your reputation. Just as you weren’t to mix seeds or mix fabrics, you weren’t to mix morals either. To do so made you unclean. However mixing with the immoral wasn’t just a matter of purity and piety. It was also a matter of politics. In a day when politics and religion were anything but separate, the Pharisees believed that to follow Torah was the leverage whereby God’s kingdom and Messiah would come and trounce Rome. God had exiled his people in Babylon on account of their disobedience. Their current Roman occupation evinced a continued strain in their relationship with God. The only way to get their land back and make things right again was to act right again. And hanging out with heathens was not acting right. For the righteous, to eat with tax-collectors and sinners gave God the wrong idea and jeopardized their righteousness.
So why don’t the Pharisees just write Jesus off? I think part of the reason was that they were attracted to him. They heard his powerful preaching. They saw his miracles. He had the goods to be a Messiah. But how do you vote a man for Messiah who keeps making such political blunders? First he acts like he’s God. But then he eats with the very kind of people God despises! “Why does he do that?” That’s the question they asked. “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus answers with the proverb, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” And then he gives it his own spin. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Some Bibles try to make this sound like a slam on the Pharisees. The New Living Translation has Jesus saying, “I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” But Jesus didn’t say that people who think they are healthy don’t need a doctor, but actual healthy people. There’s no irony here. Jesus didn’t come to call actual righteous people because righteous people are all set. It’s the sinners who are in trouble.
Which one are you? Righteous or sinner? If you’re honest, you’ll say sinner, but pressed, most of you will probably think that your sins aren’t that bad. You lie now and then. You lust. You get greedy and gossip. But compared to hard-core sinners, you know, real criminals and law-breakers, you’re pretty righteous, right? You still need Jesus, sure, but not like they do. This is not meant to sound arrogant or exclusive. There are just some nasty people in this world. Evil people like Levi who don’t give a whit who they hurt and abuse. They do the bad things they do because they want to do them. On the one hand, such wicked people, once they’re caught and convicted, get what they deserve. But let’s say that one of these same wicked people wants to repent and get right. That’s hard to do. In our society, once you have a criminal record, you’re branded for the rest of your life. Carrying a criminal record makes it really tough to get a job or a loan or an apartment in many neighborhoods, things deemed necessary for reentering proper society. Try telling someone you’re an ex-con and watch the shift in their facial expression. Tell them you did time for armed robbery and see if you score an invitation to their house for dinner. See if instead you don’t end up out on the streets like so many of the ex-cons we meet Thursday nights on the Common. Like the ex-con who was shot by police right outside just a couple weeks back.
Reentering proper society was just as tough for Levi and his outcast friends, if not tougher. In Leviticus, remember, the distinction was made between intentional and unintentional sin—between crimes and misdemeanors, between the badness you do on purpose and the bad things that happen by accident. The entire sacrificial system, in all of its revolting guts and gruesomeness, only covered the accidents. As for sins committed on purpose, the felonies, Torah taught that there was no atonement. No sufficient sacrifice. No forgiveness. Deliberate sin is too revolting to God. The book of Numbers reads that deliberate sinners were to be “cast out …completely cut off and suffer the consequences of their guilt.” Levi and his likes were deliberate sinners. They became tax-collectors by choice. Nobody held a gun to their head (they didn’t have guns back then). There was no mechanism whereby they could be welcomed back into society, no animal to kill that would get them back in right stead with God. They were doomed. So why even bother trying anymore? No wonder recidivism rates are so high. In America, the only way to get your record clean is for a governor or the president to pardon you. In the Bible, God has to do it.
Which is just what Jesus does. He has the authority to forgive sins like God. By eating with Levi and his deliberate sinner friends, Jesus issues a pardon. He paves their re-entry. He forgives their sin and clears their record. He pardons their offenses and remembers their sins no more. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son as the only sacrifice sufficient to cover felons and their felonies. The enormous mass of cattle blood and guts splattered throughout the Old Testament merely hinted at the enormous sacrifice of himself that God would make to save sinners. The Pharisees don’t understand what a beautiful thing Jesus is doing here. They’re angry. They hold to mandatory sentencing. One strike you’re out. That’s the law. But Jesus does not negate Levitical law. He was all for righteousness. As long as it was a righteousness obtained by grace. The law was never meant to save anybody. The Israelites were already God’s people when God chiseled the commandments. Their righteousness came by grace. The law was given to show them how to live their righteous lives.
We see this more clearly in Luke’s gospel where another extortionist tax-collector by choice named Zacchaeus hears about Jesus passing by. He climbs up a sycamore tree for a better look because, the Bible says, he was short, though it’s unclear whether the shortness describes Zacchaeus or Jesus. As with Levi, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, goes to his house and has supper. Zacchaeus announces, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount!” Excellent. Yet what you have here is not some voluntary act of exuberant generosity out of gratitude for Jesus’ graciousness (as exuberant as Zacchaeus no doubt was); but rather an act of exuberant obedience motivated by mercy. Leviticus requires restitution in full plus a penalty, which Zacchaeus gladly pays. He’s finally allowed to make things right.
In his book Red Letter Christians (the inspiration for this sermon series), author Tony Campolo, tells the story of an 18-year-old offender who was caught having broken into several houses in his neighborhood to steal more than $15,000 worth of goods. At his trial, rather than sending the thief to jail, the judge handed down a very creative sentence. First, he had the young man perform community service every Saturday—cleaning up the neighborhood, painting homes and fixing up the playground. Second, he was required to pay restitution to the victims. He had to pay back what the stolen goods were worth, which was far more than he had been paid when he fenced the items. Third, he was required to sell everything he owned, including his car, and put the money from these sales into a restitution fund. Finally, he had to sit down and face the angry people he’d robbed and hear what they had to say. Amazingly, through repentance and restitution, the young man and his victims were reconciled and eventually became friends. He was welcomed back gladly into the neighborhood. As Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Salvation has come to this house.”
What we read here in Mark’s gospel is the gospel. Jesus eats with deliberate sinners for whom he will die. He sets the table for whose seats he will save for the banquet in God’s kingdom. He offers forgiveness to all who will take it, yourself included, along with the power to be a forgiver. Your obedience is motivated by mercy. Like Jesus, you forgive not just those who accidently harm, but those who do it on purpose too. To all whom society labels outcasts and sinners, Jesus says “let’s eat.” It’s why we go outside on Thursday nights with food, and why we want to get ministry started in prisons and why we pray that our church will someday look like Levi’s table. The healthy don’t need a doctor.