Mark 2, 13-22
SERMON TITLE: On kissing frogs
SCRIPTURE: Mark 2:13-22
13Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
15And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 17When 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."
18Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" 19Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
21"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."
A SERMON APPROACH:
It was a scandal! Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me."
—It wasn't as if Jesus needed more disciples. People were coming from everywhere to hear him.
—It wasn't as if Levi had asked forgiveness. Levi had not taken the long walk down the sawdust trail. Our Gospel lesson offers no suggestion that Levi had a dramatic change of heart. Levi did not take the initiative—Jesus did! Levi was sitting at his tax booth doing what he had always done when Jesus said, "Follow me."
—It was almost as if Jesus had gone out of his way to provoke the decent citizenry by inviting this money-grubbing, traitorous tax collector to become his disciple.
Jesus then compounded the affront by eating dinner with a whole group of tax collectors and sinners. Keeping company with such people gave everyone the wrong impression. It made it seem that Jesus approved of their behavior. It set a bad example for young people. Can't you imagine a young person, seeing Jesus with people like this, deciding that he or she would seek out the company of sinners as well. After all, Jesus was gaining quite a reputation as a religious man. If he was associating with sinners, it must be all right. Besides that, young people like a little adventure. They enjoy tweaking their parents' noses. What could dad or mom say—if Jesus was doing it!
And it was a slap in the face of the good citizenry. There were many people who tried to do the right thing. The scribes spent their lives studying God's law and teaching it. The Pharisees were scrupulous in their observance of God's law. Many other people, common as they might seem, formed the backbone of their synagogues and kept things on the right track in their communities. Why couldn't Jesus have chosen to spend the evening with these people—instead of tax collectors—and sinners.
The Pharisees were saddened to see a man with Jesus' talent squandering his promise on people like this—tax collectors and sinners. They asked Jesus' disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Why indeed! The Pharisees would not have made that mistake, and could not understand why Jesus did.
Jesus overheard their question, and he answered them. He said,
"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."
That sounds good, but we would like something more. Let us hear how Levi, overwhelmed by Jesus' kindness, turned his life around. Let us have some confirmation that Jesus had actually accomplished something here. Couldn't Mark have told us that Levi had been inspired to return his dishonest money! Couldn't he have told us about Levi turning his back on his tax booth and becoming a poor but honest disciple! But Mark does not confirm that Jesus had done a good thing here. He says only that Levi got up and followed Jesus. End of story! Some people fill in the blanks by going to the Gospel of Matthew and reading the story of Matthew's conversion. Matthew was a tax collector too! Surely Levi and Matthew were one and the same. But we don't know that for sure.
No! Mark tells the story very sparingly—very plainly. He never mentions Levi's name again. He does not include Levi in his listing of the Twelve. Perhaps his reason was that he was not telling us Levi's story. He was telling us Jesus' story! Levi was really a bit player. Mark's focus was on Jesus—the one who took the initiative to call Levi—the one who ate dinner with tax collectors and sinners—the one who gave a sharp answer when challenged by the Pharisees. Yes, this was Jesus' story—not Levi's story.
The point of the story was that Jesus had come to call sinners, and not the righteous. He had come as the Great Physician to bring healing to those who needed him. Everyone needed him, of course, but some people couldn't see that. The Pharisees didn't think that they needed the Great Physician. They weren't sick! They were doing just fine, thank you very much! They were not really doing just fine, of course. They were sick too, but they were not just about to admit that. They were not just about to walk into the doctor's office. They were like the five year old who says, "I can do it myself!" So Jesus couldn't help them! So Jesus came to those whom he could help—those who would receive him—those who knew that they needed the Great Physician!
The early church—the church of Mark's day—the church that was in existence when this Gospel was written—the early church would have found this story delightful. People criticized the early church. The early church took in all kinds of people, including people who were not welcome in any other polite company. Celsus was a critic of the early church. He sneered at "the ragtag and bobtail" that made up the church's membership. Who would want to be a member of such an unsavory church? But Origen, one of the great early Christians, answered Celsus. He said, "Yes, but Christ does not leave them ragtag and bobtail. He transforms them by his presence." And so he does. We do not know what happened to Levi, but we do know that he was touched by the Master. It is hard to imagine that he walked away from that incident unaffected.
The church today carries on Christ's ministry to the ragtag and bobtail. Christ blesses that kind of ministry too! If you were to look at the various denominations today, you would find that some are declining and some are growing. Those that are growing tend to be those which have a strong ministry to the ragtag and bobtail. They reach out to people whom nobody else wants to touch. They put their arms around the unwashed and love them. Then they wash them in the baptismal waters and invite them to the table. It is not usually that simple. There are lots of disappointments along the way. It is not a very pleasant ministry, but it is a blessed ministry. An Anglican cleric described such ministry this way. He said, "It is the business of the church to kiss frogs." And so it is! Very often, when kissed by the people of Christ, frogs turn into princes and princesses. It is a hard ministry—but a lovely one.
I read a nice story about Jimmy Carter. Carter was not such a great president, but he was a great man. He is a Christian, and he takes his faith very seriously. I have no doubt that he has been affected by this story of the call of Levi the tax collector. Carter knows that Christ came to help those who need a physician. He knows that Christ calls us to minister to those who need a physician.
When former Vice President Hubert Humphrey died, Carter was President. There was a large memorial service. Hundred of people gathered for the service. Former President Richard Nixon attended that service. It was not long after Nixon had been forced to resign in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal. The memory of that scandal was fresh in people's minds. At the memorial service, people mixed freely, greeting old friends. Nixon, however, stood alone—isolated—shunned.
It was then that something very wonderful happened! President Carter came into the room and saw Nixon standing by himself at the edge of the crowd. Carter walked over to Nixon, smiling his big smile. Then he surprised everyone by greeting Nixon with these words. He said, "Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome back home again!"
Jesus said, "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." Jesus kissed frogs, and they breathed the breath of life—and became new people. Let us go and kiss frogs in his name!
VERSES 13-15: THE CALL OF LEVI
Levi was a tax collector, which made him a "sinner" of the first order. Jesus saw Levi sitting at his tax booth, and said to him, "Follow me," and Levi got up and followed him. This is a very spare account; Mark does not provide much detail. It seems significant that Jesus took the initiative in this call. Levi had not asked to be included or forgiven. There is no mention of repentance. In the next chapter, Mark does not include Levi's name in the listing of the Twelve (3:13-19), and does not mention his name again. In Matthew, the tax collector's name is Matthew (9:9).
VERSES 16-17: DINNER AT LEVI'S HOUSE
This Gospel does not specify that the dinner took place in "his house" rather than in Levi's house as the NRSV translates it. Luke 5:29 specifies that it was Levi's house. Tax collectors were despised because they were agents of Rome, an oppressive power and because they often used dishonest accounting to line their own pockets. And who does not hate the IRS! Sinners were people who had been excommunicated from the synagogue for moral reasons.
Good citizens would have shunned Levi's company, so tax collectors and sinners would have been his only friends. It is only natural that Levi invited them to this dinner, because they are the only ones who would have come. For those who kept a kosher kitchen, dinner with "sinners" would have been unthinkable. Jesus' presence at the dinner implied his acceptance of the other guests, but not necessarily of their lifestyle. He could love the sinner without loving the sin.
Meals play an important role in this Gospel.
—When Jesus healed Simon's mother-in-law, she began to serve them (1:29-31).
—Jesus has dinner with tax collectors and sinners (2:15-16).
—There is controversy regarding fasting (2:18-22).
—The disciples inspire controversy by plucking grain on the sabbath (2:23-27).
—Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:30-44).
—The disciples inspire controversy by eating food with unclean hands (7:1-8).
—Jesus feeds the four thousand (8:1-10).
—Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples, instituting the Eucharist (14:12-26).
—After the resurrection, he appeared to the Eleven as they were eating (16:14).
Eating, at its best, is a social activity that nurtures human relationships even as it nourishes the physical body. Craddock comments, "And not incidentally, it was at 'lunch counters' that the battles for racial equality often began in our own recent history." (Craddock, 116)
The scribes of the Pharisees asked Jesus' disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (v. 16) It is interesting that they did not confront Jesus directly. Perhaps doing so would have required challenging Jesus in full view of the tax collectors and sinners, a degree of confrontation which the Pharisees were not yet ready to risk.
Overhearing the criticism, Jesus responded, "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." (v. 17) Jesus came to serve those who needed him. "It sounds at first hearing as if Jesus had no use for good people. But the point of it is that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks himself so good that he does not need anything done for him." (Barclay, 51)
Jesus' response would have been important to the early church, which sustained considerable criticism for its failure to exercise high membership standards. Celsus, an early critic of the church, sneered at its ragtag and bobtail membership. Who would want to be associated with such people? But Origen replied, "Yet, but christ does not leave them ragtag and bobtail. He transforms them by his presence." And so he does. We, the church, need to remember that it is important (1) to love the unlovely and (2) to encourage them to let Christ move them toward loveliness. We would be remiss if we refused to eat with sinners. We are also remiss if we do not encourage the sinners to go and sin no more. (The story of Origen and Celsus is from memory. The quotation is not exact.)
As we assess the pastoral application of this story, we need to remember that we live in a very different culture. "A sensitive interpreter may judge that the dominant problem today is not too much but too little spiritual discrimination and discipline." (Williamson, 70) A physician who avoids sick people would not be of much value, but neither would a physician who did not try to heal the sickness. Jesus came to call sinners, but he did not leave them unaffected. Once they came into his presence, they became different people. We, too, need to call sinners, but we also need to call them to become new people. We need to proclaim both the good news that Christ is able to redeem us and the bad news that we need redemption.
It is possible that we are more likely to be snobbish today towards other Christians (charismatics, non-charismatics, liberals, conservatives) than towards those outside the church. We often reserve our most potent venom for those who are almost, but not quite, like us.
VERSES 18-22: WHY DO YOUR DISCIPLES NOT FAST?
At first glance, it appears that John's disciples have joined the Pharisees in criticizing Jesus. However, a closer reading notes that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and "people" came asking, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" (v. 18) We don't know who the people were. The requirement was for fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:1-34; 23:26-32), but Pharisees fasted voluntarily at other times. John the Baptist was an ascetic, and his disciples were emulating him when they fasted.
Jesus responded with three analogies:
—Wedding guests do not fast during the wedding (vv. 19-20). Fasting is a solitary and somber activity, which is not appropriate for a festive and communal occasion. Wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is present, but once he has departed. Jesus, of course, is the bridegroom. It is very early in this Gospel, but already Jesus is alluding to the crucifixion.
Note that Jesus' answer does not do away with fasting. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples not to use fasting as a display for piety but, instead, to do their fasting in private before the Father, who will reward secret fasting. (Matt 6:16-18) The early church fasted on important occasions (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). Fasting is a spiritual discipline that few Christians observe today, and perhaps we should revive it.
—You cannot use a new patch on an old garment (v. 21). The new, unshrunken, patch will shrink and tear the old garment. Note that the concern here is for the preservation of the old garment. Jesus represents a new way, but it is deeply rooted in the old history of his people This passage is not a polemic for celebrating the new and discarding the old.
—You cannot put new wine into old wineskins (v. 22). The old skins will be stretched and inflexible because of their prior use. The new wine will ferment, produce gases, and require room for expansion. The old skins cannot expand further, and will break. The concern here is for the preservation of the new wine as well as the old skins.
Williamson explains that "Jesus' disciples do not fast because the message of the Kingdom of God is a fresh, new force which demands appropriate new forms." (Williamson, 70) Brueggemann says, "John the Baptist's disciples fast in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, but Jesus' disciples do not fast because they understand that the Messiah is at hand." (Brueggemann, et. al, 170)