Levi’s Ordination Reception Doesn’t Go As Planned

Written for Third Presbyterian Church Sunday February 21, 2021

Mark 2:13-17 NRSV Jesus Calls Levi

13 Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As 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.

15 And 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. 16 When 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?” 17 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.”

The NRSV’s heading for this scripture is “Jesus Calls Levi”.  An alternative title might read “Levi’s ordination reception doesn’t go as planned.”  Now we have no idea if there was a formal installation service for those who followed Jesus, likely there wasn’t.  But it is interesting that after making the decision to follow Jesus, there is a big dinner at Levi’s house, and EVERYONE is there.  I really think discipleship is less about giving up everything to follow Jesus but giving everything and every relationship over to God’s transforming love.  (More on this in Transforming Discipleship).  The guest list at this reception includes Levi and the people who lived in his house, presumably his family, and maybe his extended family, Jesus, the other disciples, and other followers of Jesus (that could have included women, children, widows, people who were sick, people who were hungry… could have been the whole town for all we know).  Also at the party are tax collectors and sinners and the scribes of the Pharisees.  It was a pretty diverse group of people and some of them weren’t sure this was at all proper.  

To be clear about the diversity, everyone at this dinner (including Jesus) is Jewish, so we need to be careful to treat this as an internal conflict among people of the same faith and not pit Jesus again Jewish leadership and interpret Jesus against Jewish leadership as a reason for Christians to treat Jewish people badly.  Unfortunately, there are Christians who use our shared faith to justify antisemitism.  Christians also use passages like this to dislike people who handle money or to even refuse to handle money themselves (thus forcing non-Christians (usually Jews) to do this task that the community needs and then shaming them for it).  The work of Amy-Jill Levine whose name I know some of you recognize because we’ve read a couple of her books in adult forum, has helped me to see even ways that I have misinterpreted scripture that could potentially be harmful.  She is a co-editor on the Jewish Annotated New Testament that I consult frequently and used for this sermon.  And she has authored a commentary on Luke that I have used in other sermons.  I find that her commentaries can be medicine, or a wellness check for me.  The sick really need a physician, but all of us need wellness checks.  

There are different ways of thinking about how to live a faithful life and who is welcome to be part of the faith community.  One view is that everyone is welcome, not matter what.  We don’t require certain dress or politeness observances.  We don’t require certain income or job status.  We don’t require certain cultural norms around gender and sexuality.  And we certainly don’t discriminate on the basis of race or place of origin.  In the hopes of being welcoming, sometimes this style puts people at odds with one another because everyone comes with different expectations.  Which is how we end up with “sinners” at the party.  

The other way of thinking about faithful living is wanting everything to be beautiful and glorifying to God.  To have order and structure to the event.  To have things well planned or even rehearsed or at least somewhat the same each time so that events go smoothly because we know exactly what to expect and what is expected of us.  The scribes of the Pharisees wanted to do all things in a way that was pleasing to God.  And in some ways, it’s like transforming every aspect of life to be a way of discipleship.  Maybe I’m a little easy on the scribes and Pharisees because they sort of represent church leadership.  And before you think I’m siding with priests and pastors, keep in mind the scribes of the pharisees are lay leaders.  According to the Jewish Annotated New Testament, “the goal of the Pharisees was to renew and extend the observance of Jewish practice in society.” (p. 64) Which is not completely dissimilar from community outreach that invites people to be in touch with their spiritual practices.

Now in reality, we know that there really isn’t two distinct ways to live a faithful life but a spectrum of variations.  Like the dinner at Levi’s house, there are people who gather because they share a common faith, even if they don’t all practice that faith exactly the same way.  And we are all trying to be in right relationship with God.  And we are all sinners, even the Pharisees, even you and me.  We all should see the physician.  Some of us will need medicine, some of us will need to adjust our diet, some of us will need breathing treatments, I could go on, but I think you get the point.  When Jesus responds to the question about eating with sinners, with “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.”  I take Jesus’ response as a wellness check for the righteous.  Maybe it’s a humility check or a reality check too.  Jesus has come to call on sinners, all of the sinners, and he offers love and belonging, health and wholeness, and the forgiveness of sin.

The Women’s Bible Commentary puts this story in the context of a set of five stories beginning in Mark 2:1 and ending with Mark 3:6. In each of these stories Jesus has a conflict with leaders in the community.  In the first story, Jesus heals a paralytic man and forgives his sins.  (MaryLouise preached on this text last week).  The conflict in this story is about the forgiveness of sin.  The scribes think that it is blasphemy that Jesus forgives the man’s sins because they believe only God can forgive sin.  Jesus, referring to himself, says that the son of humanity[1] does have the authority to forgive sin.  The second story is the scripture for today and when asked about eating with sinners Jesus confirms that he has come to do just that because sinners are the ones who need him.  In the third story, the conflict is because the leaders notice that Jesus and the disciples are not fasting.  Kyle will be preaching on this next week, but for now I will tell you that spiritual practices, including fasting are supposed to aid you in focusing on the presence of God.  But sometimes we get caught up in the “doing” of the practice and miss out of the presence of God.  Fasting is not a spiritual weight loss plan or a punishment for eating too many Christmas cookies.  In the fourth story, Jesus and the disciples pluck grain and eat it.  The conflict arises because that is considered working on the Sabbath.  In the fifth story, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and again the conflict is about working on the sabbath.  It seems to me that these stories have to do with life giving or life sustaining work that must be done when it is needed, even if it is on the Sabbath.  It is at the end of the last story that “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:6).  Don’t get too hung up on who the scribes and Pharisees and the Herodians are because it is more likely that these are characters in the story and not necessarily meant to depict literally people then or now.  Again, remember that Jesus and the disciples are as Jewish as the Jewish leaders and this is a conflict within the same faith community.  “These stories continue to demonstrate the presence of God’s realm, generously offering forgiveness of sin (not connected to Jesus’ death in Mark) and health and wholeness, even to the despised and outcast.

This is the part of the sermon where I’m supposed to tell you how to be a disciple today and how to live in a faith community, a group of people sharing a common faith but not practicing it exactly the same way.  But the truth is, I can’t do that.  Sure, I can pray with you and for you and remind you to breathe, I can host book studies or preach, I can schedule service opportunities, but all of those things are really just guiding practices to help you on your spiritual journey.  Spiritual journeys or discipleship are unique and personal experiences.  God is calling you.  

And God is calling us.  I believe that our individual callings have led us all to this community we call Third Church because we were meant to do kin-dom work together as a group of people with a common faith but who practice that faith a little differently from one another.  And collectively we are discerning God’s will for all of us.  Our mission study is part of that discernment, knowing our history and who we are now is part of that discernment, and our worship is part of that discernment.  We are looking to God as individuals and as a community of disciples.  The relationships we build with each other matter greatly, because they will affect how we handle conflict in our community, how we express love for each other, how we offer health and wholeness and the forgiveness of sins.  

Churches after all are not clubs that the righteous belong to but they are hospitals for sin sick souls like you and me.

So, make sure you see the great physician, get your medicine or your wellness check, because God’s offer of love and belonging, health and wholeness, and the forgiveness of sin is for everyone.

[1] According to the Women’s Bible Commentary the term “son of man” is more accurately translated “son of humanity” because “the term translated as “man” is not the Greek word for male (aner) but for a human being (anthropos), from which we derive our word “anthropology”.  Only Jesus employs this intriguing term.” P. 482

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