When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Grand Theft Auto is a video game that, according to reviewers, “contains multiple violent gameplay elements.” One reporter described it as “theft-heavy, violent, and vice-ridden video game series.” In September of 2013 when the then newest version was being released it was given a midnight launch in stores across the United Kingdom. A British man who got his hands on one of the first copies of the game, waited in line for this midnight release of the game at a store in London, then started home. On the way, he was attacked, mugged, and robbed of his new Grand Theft Auto game.
Satire is described as writing that exposes conduct, doctrines, or institutions either by direct criticism or more often through irony, parody, or caricature. I am not wishing to make light of the harm inflicted on this man. At the same time I can’t help but notice the satire and irony that is so readily apparent in human behaviour. A game that features stealing was purchased for entertainment purposes only to have had that game stolen. Something is profoundly amiss in our humanity.
1. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners,” said our Lord. In this saying we hear an expression of how Jesus understood his mission. On another occasion he takes a text from older testament prophet Isaiah to identify his understanding of mission—“to bring good news to the poor …to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In these pronouncements Jesus implies that something is amiss in human life. There is a disease, an impoverishment; humans are bound, blinded, oppressed. We need to be made well, lifted from our poverty, release from bondage, given sight, freed from the oppressor. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” The something amiss Jesus identifies as sin.
According to Mark, large crowds have been gathering around Jesus wherever he goes. He has been teaching them. He saw Levi son of Alpheus (Matthew) sitting at the tax booth. The tax man has never been a revered person in any society but in first century Israel they were despised. First, because of the temptation to defraud by keeping two sets of books and so were simply considered crooks even if they did not. Second, they were considered traitors because they collected taxes for the occupying Roman force. So despised they had a special category of sinner reserved just for them. “Tax collectors and sinners.” Think about what “child molester” evokes in our culture in terms of scraping the bottom of the barrel. So too for “tax collector” as it rolled off the tongue of the first century scribe. Note that Jesus calls just such a tax collector to “Follow me.”
Jesus clearly sees himself as conducting a rescue mission. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I like how Chris Tomlin said it in his song Jesus Messiah—“the rescue for sinners.” Jesus used a medical synonym to depict what he has in mind about his mission. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He has come to heal that which ails us as humans. He has the eyes of the healer. When he sees Levi at the customs desk collecting taxes he sees the thing that truly has Levi bound. Jesus knows how despised people like Levi had become in the eyes of society. It is not long until such depiction is internalized and a person believes the assessment: traitor, thief. Our Lord sees someone else—he can see Matthew following him and becoming in turn one who proclaims good news, as the gospel Matthew writes some years later will attest.
They were later at dinner in Levi’s house and “many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him.” Notice the people who willingly follow Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees noticed. Any reputable rabbi wouldn’t have been caught dead in such a compromising position. To eat with someone was tantamount to affirming such a person as their friend; it was a signal that you were in fellowship with these people.
2. When Jesus said that he came “to call not the righteous but sinners,” what was the nature of that call. There were many “tax collectors and sinners” sitting with Jesus, said Mark. And then in his characteristic style, in case you didn’t catch what he said he repeats—“for there were many who followed him. What was Jesus saying to them that prompted such a following? These would all be people hardened in heart by societal exclusion; they wouldn’t trust anyone easily. Yet here they are in droves following Jesus. So what was Jesus’ message to them?
For that we need to keep in mind what Mark has said earlier, giving in summary form the essence of Jesus’ proclamation. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Math 1:14-15) Mark, along with the rest of the gospel writers, depicts Jesus’ proclamation as a continuation of the message of John the Baptist who proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus is clearly not a first century Billy Joel who thinks “the sinners are much more fun.”
It is apparent that members of the religious establishment were not impressed. Neither is the ideological leadership of our culture impressed with our Lord’s proclamation, for that matter. To be sure these two groups of leaders reject Jesus’ discussion of sin and sinners for different reasons. Our culture would call it bigotry towards those different than yourself; the religious establishment of his day called him a wine-bibber and a glutton. Both rule Jesus’ sin talk out-of-bounds. All except those who were these “tax collectors and sinners,” so called.
I can understand that being labelled “sinner” could be heard as a pejorative term. Yet those who heard Jesus speak of sin and sinners did not hear that tone in his voice. Why? On the lips of the scribes and Pharisees it was clearly a term used to denigrate and disqualify. But not so with Jesus. Could it be because he comes as the cure to cure that the tone is different such that these people found a ready welcome in him? They are not turned off by Jesus but turned to him. This is why the church’s gospel proclamation is to point people to Jesus. Our labelling of people follows to easily our own likes and dislikes. What we are inclined to think of as “sinner” is the person who is “really bad” on our “good-bad” scale.
It is easy to look out on our world and note that things could be better. We do this all the time when noting problems that exist. Most people have a few regrets about choices they made, or at least some “what ifs”, what if I had done this and not that. It is readily acknowledged that we were made for better things. But what is the problem? Novelists, sociologist, economists, philosophers, political theorists, psychologists diagnose the human situation from particular vantage points proposing various theory. The gospel of our Lord invites us—yes confronts us—with the news that the root problem is not something we can diagnose for the disease blinds us to the disease. It is something called sin; it is at once in us and a power over us. Our Lord come to cure and free us. And when these “tax collectors and sinners” heard Jesus speak they knew they had found their champion. They found the one who was completely for them.
3. It is evident from Mark’s story that Jesus’ preaching and teaching had a powerful appeal among these people. I do want to make the point here that Jesus is the message he preaches. It isn’t just the words he says but it is the one who says the words. People found themselves drawn to him.
As winsome as Jesus was in his preaching it was not without its sharp edges, as we know. He does not steer away from difficult topics or soften what cannot be softened. Recall that he was very clear about the corruption of the human heart. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
Furthermore his preaching did contain its share of warnings. In our small group study material author Nate Locke points out one such warning in Mark’s gospel. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (Mark 9:43-48) The saying goes on in a similar way about getting rid of a foot and or an eye that causes stumbling. The context of the saying is where Jesus raises the subject about “placing a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me.” Believing in him is crucial and of ultimate importance—says our Lord.
If we want to understand the point Jesus is making here the clues are in the Apostles’ teaching; the Apostles’ are the ones who heard Jesus directly and would have heard this in the context of the rest of our Lord’s teaching. I note with you that the early church did not include the chopping off of hands or feet nor the gouging out of eyes as a part of their worship services. Clearly they understood Jesus to be speaking hyperbole here about the seriousness of the spiritual life. Jesus says there is great danger in ignoring God.
Jesus does raise the subject of hell in the course of his teaching. He speaks of its reality. The imagery his uses to describe hell is sufficient to understand that it is no place you would ever wish for someone. It is an aspect of his preaching but not the defining aspect. The story of the gospel is that while humans turned their back on God and each went their own way God did not turn his back on us. While we wanted nothing to do with a relationship with him—a relationship we were created to enjoy and thrive in—God could not bear the estrangement. He makes his love known first in calling Israel to walk in company with him and then finally in sending Jesus. God comes among us in Jesus to restore us to relationship with him. Jesus come to rescue us from our rebellion.
Even though God comes among us and does everything for us to rescue us—even death on the cross—God does not coerce us into his kingdom. Even though “with God is the fountain of life; and in your light we see light,” indifference to God remains. Our Lord’s warnings with respect to hell does appear to indicate that God’s loving embrace can be rejected to the point where God finally gives (reluctantly) what is desired—to be totally without him.
4. Today is Reformation Sunday; we remember Luther and the theological articulation of faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone. The roots of the United Church of Canada are in this reformation. By faith alone we mean that salvation or rescue is through faith—it isn’t something we earn because it was procured by another, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Faith in the gospels is a relationship, a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Faith is God’s doing in our lives—“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Sometimes the emphasis on God’s doing has given the impression that we humans are simply puppets. We wonder about the relationship between God’s will and our will. I found Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson helpful on this question. God’s will is so entirely of another sort than ours that he … can will [not only that we] choose this rather than that, but that our choice be in itself uncoerced by his. Think about Jesus’ mother Mary for a moment. She could have said “no” to the angel’s announcement. Her response is “uncoerced” by God. She has a real decision to make and yet this remains the will of God for her.
There is a prevenient mercy that undergirds our faith. A mercy that goes before facilitating faith. Our Lord who came to call sinners to himself still is at work in the world calling. This good news of Jesus Christ has been entrusted to the church for proclamation; when we gather the gospel is announced so that in its light our lives are shaped and directed. There is also a way that this light shines in the world as we endeavour to live it out—like indirect lighting.
Consider the example of an organization known as street pastors. Every night a group of Christians in London (England) don blue jackets and baseball caps and roam the streets. As they walk the streets in middle of the night, they help to diffuse arguments, listen to people's problems, minister to the homeless, help a drunk person get to the right bus or taxi, or hand out bottled water. The influence of these dedicated lay leaders has been remarkable. London's metropolitan police web site states: "Almost every London borough now has a street pastors team and the most immediate result in every case has been the drop in crime in areas where teams have been working."
Every street pastor begins his/her evening with prayer and meditation on Bible verses. They all acknowledge they have many people who pray for them. Communities respect their work but the comment they hear most often is "You're mad." The author of a Spectator article writes: "This spirituality makes itself felt not through any ostentatious zeal but rather, I sense, through a feeling that it is entirely natural to be out at 2 a.m. helping people get home."
The Spectator reporter spent an evening with a team and noticed two things: First, almost everything they do is utterly mundane and obvious. (A blanket of a homeless person, help an inebriated soul find their way, listen to people’s problems). The second thing I noticed was my mood steadily lifting: the street pastors' good cheer is infectious. http://www.streetpastors.org/
I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.