Called By JesusPosted: January 29, 2012
Called by Jesus
Have you ever heard the expression you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? When we look at the motley crew Jesus chose for disciples, it seems like he was determined to make silk purses out of sow’s ears. He chose illiterate fishermen, a skeptical carpenter, an itinerant laborer, and a least one tax collector — not exactly promising material for making disciples. His followers argued with one another about who was smarter, better, more important. They vied with one another for position and privilege in the inner circle. At the Last Supper, when Jesus was trying to tell them he was going to be betrayed, arrested and executed, the disciples were arguing about who was going to be the Prime Minister, and who was going to be Secretary of the Treasury, when Jesus became King. They boasted about how devoted they were to Jesus, “oh, Jesus, I will follow you even to death,” and then when the chips were down, they all ran away into hiding. One of them sold him out for pocket change. What a bunch, and all of them were chosen by Jesus, called to follow him to proclaim the Commonwealth of God.
Our scripture this morning focuses on the calling of Matthew, or Levi as one of Jesus’ inner circle. Matthew was a tax collector, and in First Century Israel publicans were outcastes. Good Jews considered tax collectors to be low lifes, lumped together with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. A good Jew tried to avoid contact with them, and if they did happen to be touched by a tax collector they would perform ritual washings in order to cleanse themselves of the contamination caused by physical contact with a sinner. Of course casual contact with a tax collector was sometimes unavoidable and would have been bad enough, but sitting down to eat with one was out of the question. And if you think that is strange or something that only happened long ago and far away just consider, Rose Rushin can remember a time when she would not have been allowed to sit down in many restaurants in Huntsville.
As a matter of fact Rose tells a story about when she was a young woman coming back from a tour of Europe, and she was taking the train home from New York to Birmingham. She had to change trains in Atlanta. It was late in the evening and after the freedom of Europe, she just couldn’t abide the prospect of having to wait in the colored waiting room. So she went and sat down in the fairly deserted white waiting room. A little man came up to her and told her that she wasn’t allowed to sit there. So in protest, Rose stood in the white waiting room until she could board her train. So, maybe the behavior of First Century Jews isn’t so long ago and far away.
Good Jews had four objections to having contact with tax collectors. They were seen as puppets, stooges of the Romans. They were collaborators with the occupying enemy. The system of tax farming almost inevitably led to extortion and theft. Tax collectors bid for their jobs. They paid a fee to be allowed to collect the taxes, and then they were allowed to keep whatever they could manage to extort from the public over and above the fee they had paid for their job — sort of like running for Congress. Such a system guaranteed dishonesty. Maybe the way some of us view politicians today – like the system sort of guarantees dishonesty. Tax collectors in the performance of their duties had contact with all kinds of different people including gentiles – contacts that rendered them ritually unclean. Because they were looked down upon and avoided by “good people,” tax collectors tended to hang out with other low lifes, rendering them permanently “unclean.”
I remember many years ago attending an arraignment hearing for a number of men who were accused of various crimes. There were five of them. The first man’s name was called and he was being arraigned for simple burglary. The second man who looked really tough was being brought up for assault and battery. He had beat up his girlfriend and put her in the hospital. The third man was accused of armed robbery. The fourth man was up for attempted murder with a knife. Even in front of the judge the four tough guys seemed to swagger. They were pretty hardened criminals. The fifth guy didn’t seem to fit the mold. He looked almost mousy. And when the prosecutor read the accusation that he had sexually molested eight children, there was an audible gasp from the tough guys and they shuffled over to their right to put as much distance between themselves and the pedophile. I heard the attempted murderer say to one of the Sheriff’s Deputies, “I ain’t sharin’ no cell with him.” Even among hardened criminals there are outcastes.
So when Jesus called a tax collector to become part of his inner circle, and he even went to Matthew’ s house to sit down and have dinner with a bunch of tax collectors and other low lifes, the good people, the pious people, the folks with the best seats in the synagogue, were having a fit. If you can picture this, a substantial house in Capernaum would have had a front door or gate opening into a courtyard. The feast was probably set up in the court yard around a low table with the guests reclining on pillows reaching into the table with their hands to eat from shared eating bowls. You see why clean and unclean was so important for table fellowship. Some of Jesus’ disciples were probably near the gate, with the pious types not willing to enter the house standing outside looking in at the feast from the street.
I can see and hear a couple of them calling to some of Jesus’ disciples closest to the door, “hey, if your teacher is so great, why is he eating with pimps, prostitutes, druggies and tax collectors?” They of course said this in a loud enough voice for Jesus to hear them.
And if we stop and think about the context we will realize Jesus’ answer was masterful. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners.” I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners. That answer has a kick like a mule. Of course our mission is to those who need help. The church is not supposed to be a museum of saints but rather a school for sinners. If you already have it all together, if you have already aspired to sainthood, if you are perfect, you don’t need Jesus. Jesus helps sinners.
And the truth that we all should know is we are all sinners. We all need help but some of us are so impressed by our goodness we think we can afford to look down upon others, as if their sins or their behavior is somehow so much worse than ours. Like the four hardened criminals who edged away from the pedophile. Sometimes we might even be tempted to try to deny other sinners a place in our community of faith because we believe their shortcomings are so much worse than our own, or their theology or their behavior is so inferior to ours. Oh dear me. We are like the attempted murderer who said to the Sheriff’s Deputy, “I ain’t a gonna share a cell with him.” “I ain’t a gonna share a church with the likes of them.”
The truth is the folks who have the hardest time being saved are those of us good folks who can’t acknowledge our need of the physician. None of us is righteous. We are all struggling with our demons, our addictions, our bad attitudes, our bad behavior our inflated egos, our self-righteousness. And it doesn’t make any difference if our sins are big black and smelly or a peck of petty peccadillos, we all need God’s forgiveness and love. We all need the gospel. Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners, and if we can just get down on our knees long enough to pray, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” if we can just welcome our neighbors no matter their backgrounds, no matter their sins, whether they agree with us or not, maybe Jesus can make us into disciples too. Most of us aren’t very promising material. We’re self-centered, self-indulgent, self-righteous and addicted to our stuff. Oh how we like our stuff. Jesus challenges us to pray and step out in faith, and we play it safe and check our bank accounts.
Jesus has called each and every one of us. We wouldn’t be here, if Jesus hadn’t called us. Follow me. We may have received the invitation through a friend, a spouse, a partner, a book, but we are here because at one time or another we heard Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” We are no better and no worse than that motley crew Jesus gathered around him. And if we can kneel and receive God’s forgiveness, our hearts can be transformed, so we can embrace others with the love of Jesus. For no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.