MARK 2, 13-17
As last evening’s reflection concluded, I was speaking about “privilege” and the extraordinary gift we have in faith when we recognize and acknowledge who we are as laborers in God’s vineyard. We turn to Saint Mark tonight whose whole Gospel is, what I like to call, a short course in discipleship. It is somewhat like those yellow and black books you can find in book stores (if you can find a book store any more). You may know the series: “Accounting for Dummies”, “Cooking for Dummies”, “Windows 7 for Dummies”, and there is course, “Catholicism for Dummies” which isn’t half bad. When I read it, I thought, “I wish I had written that!”
It is only Chapter Two when we come upon Levi’s encounter with Jesus. Mark skips the business of the nativity. It is not important to him. What is important is the proclamation of the reign of God and that begins with the public ministry of Jesus. According to Mark, Jesus did most of his work in Galilee away from Jerusalem. That place was the center of Judaism, and since Mark was writing to Gentiles, he keeps Jesus out of Jerusalem until the Passion. In a very subtle way he is telling his early church that they do not need to look to the Jerusalem Christian Church as the only or best community.
As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, Jesus is baptized, goes into the desert of his retreat, then returns to call Peter, Andrew, James, and John, his privileged disciples, first. It is not a casual meeting that happens in passing. It is an example of the power Jesus possessed to create disciples. From the way Mark writes about it, you would think that they simply gave up their livelihood and abandoned their families. That silly and uninformed idea is a great excuse for not responding with your whole heart to your privileged call to discipleship. The point is that discipleship means a great change, a question of priorities. For disciples, the reign of God comes first. Then, there in Capernaum, there is quite a scene in the synagogue when an evil spirit is the first one to recognize Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” From the Synagogue Jesus goes directly to Peter’s home where he cures the mother-in-law. You see, in becoming a disciple, Peter does not abandon his family. On the contrary, he brings Jesus Christ into it! Even more interesting to me is that Jesus brings the other privileged ones into that home.
For Peter, before he followed Jesus, his job came first. After the death of Jesus, Peter significantly goes back to fishing. He goes back to putting his job first; he gives up his discipleship. Then when he believes in the Resurrection of Jesus, he once again puts his discipleship first. He becomes a “fisher of men.” Jesus isn’t opposed to fishing. If he were, he would have been hungry and stuck with that big hungry crowd when he worked with five barley loaves and two fish! He never suggested that discipleship and placing the reign of God first means leaving your family to take care of itself. But to be a disciple means we must put the reign of God first regardless of job or family. It means that the reign of God motivates, informs, and guides the decisions and choices one makes at work and at home. That episode also provides another dimension of discipleship: namely, service to others. When Jesus makes a disciple, that person immediately serves others, as did Peter’s mother-in-law.
This event in Capernaum causes quite a stir. The crowds are excited, and the thing is turning into a side-show so, in spite of the fact that Peter probably likes this growing popularity, Jesus splits and heads out early in the morning for a quiet place to pray. Already the crowds are seeing his power, but not the message. So he goes to pray about that, which is a good thing for any of us to do when we’re confused and being pulled in opposite directions. When his prayer time is over, he begins to call other disciples. This now gives us the story of Levi, which is as much about the ongoing conflict with the Pharisees as it is about a man named Levi. Those Pharisees are afraid of Jesus. He is a challenge to their thinking that the only way to avoid sin is to keep every one of the laws exactly. He embarrasses them by playing their own legal game and beats them with a reminder that even David violated the law when circumstances demanded. Law is not unimportant, but faith is more important. The Sabbath is not unimportant; but man is more important. With this, the opposition to Jesus reaches the inevitable outcome as they begin to plot his destruction.
The story of Levi belongs in parallel with the miracle in the synagogue at Capernaum. What is at stake is the presence of one who forgives sin and cures the sick who are, in the mind of the Pharisees, “sinners.” “Sinners” were those who had been expelled from synagogue. The fact that Jesus associates with sinners is a sign not only of the remission of sins but the presence of the one who can forgive sins. When Jesus refers to himself as a “physician” he is using an Old Testament description of God who is the “Healer.” Healing in the Old Testament is a sign of the Messianic Age, so this behavior and this choice of the word Physician is a very important message, one not lost on the Pharisees.
The symbolic sign of the Messianic age is the table fellowship, the banquet, so this description of what happens at Levi’s home is very important to us not only because again, Jesus comes into a home full of sinners, but because others are invited by Levi to meet this man. I think we should not miss the point that even though each call is by name, the call is always an invitation to enter into a relationship with others. There is no solo salvation. There is no individualist reign of God. In the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are not told whether these fishermen had previously enjoyed their work or detested it, whether they were prosperous or impoverished. We do not know how the two pairs of brothers got along with each other, nor how the sons of Zebedee related to their father. The sun may have been bright and the breeze off the lake fresh, but Mark does not say so. The only thing we know is that he called. They answered and came together. I always imagine that they felt the way we do when the phone rings. It just seems like we have to answer it, and you know what it’s like when you don’t. You begin to imagine what it was about, and before long you wish you had answered.
It must have been like that for Levi. There are no details about where he sat, what kind of taxes he collected, how much money he made or why he followed Jesus. We are told nothing of his identity or of his importance later. His name is never mentioned again in this Gospel. All we know is that he was a sinner and he became a disciple on the basis of an invitation: “Follow me.” So we can get the point: it is not about him as much as it is about Jesus and what happens when he is present. This is an act of forgiveness and a crossing of the boundary that separates a sinner from God. The consequence of this forgiveness, of this reconciliation of an outcast is the table. The one excluded is not only now included, he invites other outsiders to come to the table. That table fellowship is an unmistakable sign of an answered call and of forgiveness at work.
This story was treasured by the early church, those Christians who were violating the kosher laws with their indiscriminate association with those who were not clean, who were sinners, who did not keep the law. The answer of Jesus comes with that common sense proverb about who needs a doctor. The self-righteous are exactly that, self-justified; but the truth is only God can justify and only God can make one righteous. We can’t do it ourselves. When we look at ourselves in the light of this episode, we can hardly miss the fact that we cannot accept Christ as our Savior if we do not recognize our need to be saved.
Back in another age, hundreds of years ago when I was in the seminary, we had assigned seats at table in the refectory. Once every semester there was a new seating chart published, and it was a great moment of excitement gathering around the bulletin board. We had little else to be excited about except another paper to write! If we wanted to eat, we sat where we were assigned. I think that custom is the root cause of my unhealthy habit of eating very fast. It got us out of the place as quickly as possible. The only thing that made it possible and bearable was the fact that we followed the old Benedictine custom of eating in silence while someone read an article chosen by a faculty member. It kept peace. This memory is one that keeps me conscious of what is going on with this story. The most unlikely people are gathered around a table at Levi’s home. They are there because of Levi’s faith in Jesus. Not coming to the table because you do not like who is there does only one thing. It leaves you hungry and alone. It leaves you outside while everyone else is inside.
First Levi is invited to follow. When he does, Levi becomes the one who invites. This sequence is very revealing, and it speaks to us just as powerfully as it did to the early Christians. Everything about our culture and society suggests that we should be selective about who we eat with. It shames me to admit it, but sometimes when I am invited to dinner I wonder who is going to be there. If it is people I would rather not eat with, I don’t want to go. Jesus says to us through this story: “If you want to be with me, you have to learn to be with each other.” But look at how we live these days. Our culture and society is nowhere near becoming a sign of the reign of God. Segregated or gated neighborhoods are a counter sign of accepting the reign of God. They may keep us safe, but they don’t make us saved. They may make us look privileged, but they are not a privilege. The secular world in which we find ourselves struggling to live our faith and bear witness to our faith by bringing the value of our faith into our decisions insists that this is silly. The secular world keeps saying: “It’s mine. I earned it.” The secular world, when confronted with the Gospel and the presence of Jesus Christ says: “I would just as soon do it myself. Thank you very much”. You see, the secular world wants to save itself. It is always self-justifying, which is why it might be true that there is no justice today for any of us. The system is broken. We downplay difference and we avoid conflict because we have not remembered what it means to be one.
In the center of this unlikely collection of privileged people, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi, a leper, and a paralytic stands Jesus Christ. He is the transforming unity for all of them. Levi invites his former “professional” colleagues as the story of the dinner illustrates. Levi’s call to discipleship somehow included the duty to invite others to new integrity and justice. This scene at Levi’s dinner part stands in marked contrast to the way we live way too often, and quite frankly, it frightens me to recognize that it is in contrast to the way we sometimes worship. It offers a totally opposite perspective, a perspective that demands the obliteration of barriers, all barriers: color, language, sexuality, job, and age. This episode compels Jesus’ followers to dialogue with and befriend those who do not share their theological outlook. To refuse to talk is to refuse to throw open the kingdom to less than beautiful people. Believers must recall that the community is always an aggregate of sinners who must reach out to other sinners.
The reason that the Lord mixed so freely with this stratum of society was because their need was so great, because they, unlike the religious, were conscious of their need and thus responsive to His message, and because He desired to change them. It was a constant complaint that the Lord was not particular enough in choosing His friends. “This man welcomes sinners and shares the meal-table with them.” Without a sense of need, there could be no healing for them for they were unwilling to come to him, the sole source of healing and forgiveness.
My friends, relationships are healed when people eat together. It takes nerve and courage, faith and a vision of the Kingdom to pattern our eating habits after those of Jesus, for any challenge to exclusivism still produces controversy as well as healing. There are no snobs among believers. No one looks down upon another. We all simply look up; up to Christ, up to the Kingdom of God. I don’t think that God knows anything about or cares anything about passports or green cards. God only cares about persons, and so must those privileged people entrusted with this vineyard and the mission of the Lord. We are so privileged, and living that privileged call to discipleship never implies that we leave home or family, but simply that we alter the way we live at home, at work and with our family. It means that with every decision we ask first what God would want us to do. It means that we invite God into our homes and that around the table in our homes we experience exactly what we find and experience around the table in this church. What an amazing privilege this is! It leaves me stunned to silence.