“When the scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever joined a club? Most people have at some point in their lives. Whether it was a school club or a civic club or a sports club, the options are nearly limitless. The thing about a club, though, is that it is a necessarily exclusionary organization. If you have a club in which literally anyone can claim membership, you don’t really have a club at all. You have the human race. Now, a club may have an open membership wherein anyone can join versus a closed, invitation-only membership, but even in the case of an open membership, you can only join if you are willing to abide by the rules of membership. In this story both the Pharisees and Jesus thought about the kingdom of God in terms of being a club. Their approach to membership, though, is where they differed.
After Jesus called Levi to follow Him, Levi threw a big party at his place and invited all of his friends to celebrate his decision to follow Jesus. The thing is, though, our friends tend to look, act, and think like us to at least some degree. Well, given that tax collectors were afforded a spot at the very bottom of the Jewish social ladder because of their obvious, traitorous sinfulness, the kinds of friends a now-former tax collector might invite to his house for a party weren’t exactly haunting the halls of the Who’s Who in First Century Israel club.
But Jesus went because who someone was didn’t make a whole lot of difference to Him. If you were a person, He loved you and wanted to tell you about the coming kingdom of God. It was that simple. So, when Levi invited Him to come over for a party, Jesus went. And Jesus had a great time too. I suspect Jesus was the kind of guy who could really be the life of a party.
Well, somehow, Jesus’ attendance at Levi’s shindig leaked out to His critics and when they got the chance, they questioned Him about it. Luke writes in such a way that it seems some of these critics were actually at the party which raises its own set of questions, but the point is, when they found out about it, they saw a chance to pounce on His growing reputation. They cornered some of His disciples and laid down their question that was really an accusation: What’s Jesus doing eating with all of these people?
The implication? Doesn’t He know what kind of people they are? Doesn’t He realize that being with them could hurt His reputation? He claims to be a rabbi, someone who is committed to the holiness of the Law and the God who delivered it through Moses. If He doesn’t care about His position, could He at least watch where He goes and who He is with so He doesn’t hurt the prestige of the post in the eyes of the people we’re trying to impress? If He’s not careful, these folks might start to get the idea that God wants to have a relationship with them.
The disciples didn’t know what to do with this question. Some of them may have even tacitly agreed with the charge. So, they brought the complaint to Jesus. I imagine this scene playing out with Jesus laughing and talking and having a great time, fully in the moment with Levi and his guests. He was aware, though, of the conversation happening on the fringes of the event. When the disciples came over and confirmed His suspicions, He cleared His throat and spoke up loud enough for everyone to hear Him. He said what He did with a smile on His face, but He never broke eye-contact with the Pharisees to make sure they understood the seriousness with which He made the point. It would have all been very dramatic; a real made-for-TV moment.
And maybe it played out that way; maybe it didn’t. But I’m the kind of guy who always has just a bit of nagging sympathy for the Pharisees. They thought they understood how God worked. They had been taught all their lives that He was one way. They had committed their own lives to proclaiming Him as this way. Now Jesus had come along and was telling everybody they were wrong. Then He started attacking their character too. The reason some villains do the things they do aren’t because they know they’re evil and are wanting to embrace it. They do them because they sincerely believe they are the right thing to do. Someone like Hitler didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was giving a gift to the world and how dare the world refuse to accept it.
What was really going on here, though, was that Jesus was revealing a profound difference between how the Pharisees understood the holiness of God and how Jesus understood it. They understood it as a treasure to be kept and guarded from all harm. As a result, they put great big fences around it, and were careful not to let anybody get too near without the proper protection (i.e. scrupulous adherence to the Law). It was their job to shield the Lord from anything or anyone unworthy of His presence.
Jesus, on the other hand, thought about His Father’s holiness as a cure to be spread among a people who were sick. In other words, He took an approach that was exactly the reverse of the Pharisees’ approach.
Which one was correct?
Well, Jesus’ was, of course, but think for a minute about all the times and ways we lean in the direction of the Pharisees. Jesus wanted the club of the kingdom to be for everybody. Anybody could get in. The requirements were still strict, but anybody could sign up to meet them. The Pharisees, on the other hand, kept strict requirements, but when they thought about some of the people who might want to get in, they worried about how the club would feel. It wouldn’t be the same once all of…those…folks started joining up. So, they worked pretty hard to make sure they only really allowed in people who were already like them.
We can do the same thing if we’re not careful. We like to go to church with people who are like us. It’s hard to fellowship with someone with whom we feel like we have nothing in common. As a result, whether intentionally or not, we find ways to put up gates and bars that will allow us to control the flow.
But the kingdom of God is for everyone. Even the people who are nothing like us. In fact, if we are reflecting the holiness of God well (and, just as a side note, if we aren’t being intentionally invitational in our efforts, we aren’t actually reflecting the holiness of God well), no one not currently in the club is going to be like us. Not a single one. What we’re doing is using worldly lines of division to guide our efforts and what have those to do with the kingdom of God? Nothing. Which was exactly Jesus’ point.
The kingdom of God is for everyone. The question is: Are we following Jesus in living like it? The way of the Pharisees is safer and easier to be sure. But it won’t lead to life. Let’s stick with the path of life.