Imagine the scene, Jesus has told a man He never met; ‘your sins are forgiven’! No one spoke like that; the scribes from the Synagogue are fuming – after all, only God can forgive sins. Outrageously, Jesus then says to them and the whole crowd that is listening and watching on;
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
In these early moments of His ministry captured in just the first two chapters of Mark, Jesus is revealing His authority over all created things. His redeeming power and love to overturn the effects of the curse of sin on people by granting people freedom from oppression and remarkable displays of healing from physical suffering with just His words. Jesus teaches with authority like none other, grants people forgiveness of sins, is feared by the demonic realm and rules over sickness and disease.
In the small fishing town of Capernaum, it is hard to think of anyone who hadn’t heard about Jesus and what He was saying and doing yet. Much like today’s opinions about Jesus, the opinions must have ranged from thinking;
- Jesus was a delusional madman with a blasphemous illusion of divinity,
- Or that Jesus a conman trying to trick people
- While others must have remembered what John the Baptist had been saying about Jesus, and what had happened when the heavens opened when Jesus was baptised, and a voice was heard; “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) wondering is this truly the Messiah?
What was universal was astonishment. Astonishment at the things Jesus was doing and saying and so a crowd followed Jesus like moths drawn to a light. Jesus walks away from the scene of the healed paralytic man and goes down to the sea of Galilee, maybe because it’s calm and peaceful there.
As he walks to the sea, Jesus passes the booth of the tax collector, Levi. This is a man who would have been despised by his community since he is a Jewish man working for the Roman state, enforcing its taxes and using the position to personally profit as well. This is a man that has made a choice that has benefitted him financially but has left him ostracised, separated out from his community as an outcast.
Jesus passes this despised and probably ruthless man who probably keeps thugs as friends to impose his authority, and Jesus does something unpredictable to the crowd of onlookers. The crowd knows that Jesus has an inner-circle of followers (disciples), but they can’t predict what’s about to happen.
Jesus calls out to Levi and invites him to follow Him just like He did to Simon, Andrew, James and John! The crowd is as stunned and perplexed as Levi. Levi is such an unlikely candidate for Jesus to invite into His inner circle of disciples.
In the first chapters of Mark’s gospel, we have witnessed Jesus’ authority, supernatural power and magnetism, but here we encounter Jesus’ grace and mission. Levi is not deserving of love and acceptance according to the crowd. Levi hasn’t seemingly even been with the crowds drawn by Jesus; he is still at his post collecting taxes. And yet Jesus graciously invites him to join Jesus’ inner-circle with the same life-transforming words; “follow me” (Mark 2:14).
Sidebar thought: I am fascinated by Jesus’ choice of who was going to become His 12 disciples. So far we have four fishermen, and the man who’s tax booth by the sea probably meant that he had been the one taxing them and their fishing businesses! The taxed working class and the tax collector on the same team – remarkable diversity unified in Jesus. Those gathered to Jesus have always been diverse people who would not have associated if it were not for Jesus who transforms them into beloved brothers. What hope we have for our divided world struggling with racism! Jesus is the only One who can bring true unity out of diversity.
Amazingly, Jesus’ gracious invitation sees Levi (Matthew) immediately dropping everything as Levi rises and follows Jesus (Mark 2:14). As Levi gets up to follow Jesus he is leaving all he has known, leaving his income generation behind, Levi doesn’t even know where he is going, and surely doesn’t know what will happen next.
As they walk and talk Jesus surprisingly leads Levi to his very own home. When Jesus invited Levi to follow Him, I doubt Levi thought they would be going to his house. I wonder why Jesus takes Levi from his place of work, his place of oppression of people and corruption and takes him to his home?
Was Levi’s house bought or built with the proceeds of corruption? Was Jesus confronting Levi with his sin and compromise and yet graciously loving and accepting him despite it? We don’t know, but what we do know is that Levi throws a great party (Luke 5:29) for his friends who were ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Mark 2:15). Jesus is unlike any other religious leader, and the church is to be like Him.
Jesus loved to socialise with people who were ostracised by society; Jesus is drawn to them. And in this account Jesus tells us why that is so;
16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus announces His mission here in Mark’s Gospel, His purpose. Jesus came for messed up people, for those who acknowledge they are wrong, that they have an incurable problem. Jesus didn’t come for pious religiously proud people who think they are ok!
As we survey the Gospels, we see that Jesus was almost magnetically drawn to people like Levi, broken, sinful people, and they were drawn to Jesus too. It is remarkable that broken messed up people weren’t reticent to come to Jesus despite His teaching with authority with a challenging message that was calling people to acknowledge and to turn from their sins and to believe in Him; “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15)
These people knew that Jesus would accept them and love them, despite His uncompromising message. Jesus was a compassionate truth-teller. True love doesn’t skimp on truth. May we Jesus’ followers, may we the church be more and more like Jesus was. May we be accused of being friends of sinners, may broken people feel magnetically drawn to us not judged by us. May we also be compassionate truth-tellers for that is true love. May we love people in such a remarkable way that even though we don’t join them in compromise or sinful actions may those around us experience Jesus’ love for them so that God can do something radical in their lives because of our close proximity to them.
Thank you, Jesus, that You came for those who know they don’t have it all together, thank you, Jesus, that you came for people like me! People who are broken, people who have made mistakes, and people who still make mistakes and still disappoint themselves and others, people who’ve got a shameful and chequered past like Levi. But thank you, Jesus, that Levi’s story is our story, and that just like you called him to follow You, so too You are calling me to do the same and just like You helped Levi to reach his broken friends I pray that You Jesus would help all of us to reach ours too. That we would become more and more like You, ridiculously compassionate truth-tellers. Amen
A wave of nationalism and increased polarisation between diverse groups of people is washing over the world stage with issues like Brexit and the increasingly hostile international trade negotiations between the USA and China just current examples.
Within our nation (South Africa), we are experiencing the same wave of polarisation. In our recent national elections, there was a rise in support for the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum and the rhetoric in the public space is increasingly acrimonious.
The church that received this letter from the apostle Paul was needing to work out its unity in diversity, needing to avoid polarisation within the church. The Christians who were ethnically Jewish seemingly had some heart re-wiring that was required. They were in danger of spiritual arrogance, trusting in their traditions and ethnicity. They were at risk of potentially looking down on their Gentile brothers and sisters as being ‘less-than’ in some way or another.
Paul has been at pains in his letter, to show that salvation for all people is not something we can earn personally through law-keeping, is not something we obtain through our ethnicity but that God has revealed a righteousness that is received by faith in Jesus alone. (Romans 3:21-24) and so God is the God of the Jews & the Gentiles equally (Romans 3:29), God is the One who mercifully ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5).
All believers are in the same position. None of us is deserving of God’s grace and mercy, none of us was able to earn it through good behaviour, no one has any ethnic advantage – we all need God’s grace and mercy to be saved!
(Romans 9:30-31): Shockingly to Jewish believers, Gentile believers who didn’t even seek God or deserve anything – have been made righteous by God’s gracious choosing.
And Jewish people who wrongfully put their trust in the Law and their law-keeping efforts have not been made righteous because God has revealed a righteousness that is ‘apart from the law’ (Romans 3:21).
All people are in the same position, all people need God’s grace, and all people need to put their trust in Jesus, not in their law-keeping efforts or their ethnicity or traditions but to put all their faith in Jesus only.
(Romans 9:32-33): Which makes Jesus the stumbling block that Isaiah prophesied about. The proud religious person who believes they deserve or have earned God’s choosing of them will battle to put their trust in Jesus – He is a stumbling block to them, a rock in the road obstructing their way.
Paul is uniting the believers in the church in Rome, destroying spiritual arrogance, digging up pride in ethnicity and relaying the same foundation for all people – “…and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33).
The great power to overcome polarisation in our nation and the world is the Gospel of Jesus. Whoever believes in Jesus will be saved! No matter what your upbringing was, no matter what your social standing is, no matter what sin you’ve committed – putting all your faith in Jesus is the answer and therefore is also the great equaliser and unifying power in the world. May we, as believers, be part of churches that demonstrate this unity in diversity that is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ.
Questions for Reflection:
1. What does this passage teach me about God & faith?
2. What does this teach me about myself, what is God saying to me?
3. What should I do as a result?