Jesus loves the wrong people (Mark 2:13–17)

One of the great joys of the Internet is the ability to access endless reams of useless information, such as an incredible list of Yogi Berra quotes. Of course, some of them are real, and some are fake, so you can’t believe everything you read. As Yogi himself put it, “I didn’t say everything I said.”

If you’re still reading this and haven’t yet fluttered off to Google in search of more Yogiisms, I really appreciate it.

One of the classic Yogi quotes is this gem: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Well, we all know that vague, unsettling feeling that somehow we’ve been here or done this before. That sense of déjà vu is what we should be getting when we read Mark 2:13–17. Here, we find Jesus passing alongside the Sea of Galilee. He sees a man hard at work and tells him, “Follow me.” The man drops what he’s doing and immediately follows Jesus.

Sound familiar? That’s how Jesus called his first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John. When he did it the first time, nobody really minded. Sure, it was a little odd for a rabbi to seek out his followers and not vice versa. And it was a little odd for a rabbi to choose grown men already devoted to a particular line of work. However, nobody seemed too offended by it. Maybe the people of Capernaum were proud that this sensational teacher had hand-picked some of their own to be his followers.

As proud as they were then, they sure must be upset now. This time, Jesus has chosen a man named Levi—a tax collector. Now, in American culture, nobody is really a fan of tax collectors. In fact, a man made headlines recently for crashing a small airplane into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. Most people, however, won’t get too mad at someone for being an IRS agent.

The difference between American tax collectors in the present day and Jewish tax collectors in the first century was the degree of corruption. Most IRS employees are just doing their job. However, tax collectors in Jesus’ time were well-known for overcharging, for skimming off the top, for essentially running a crime syndicate. Worse yet, they worked for the hated Roman oppressors; most Jews viewed them not only as thieves but as traitors. They were treated as outcasts from Jewish society; anyone who associated with them was considered to be defiled. So naturally, the only companions of a tax collector were prostitutes and other “sinners” who were fellow outcasts. Jesus’ countrymen probably would have loathed tax collectors and their ilk to the same degree that we loathe inner-city gang members.

So, of course, Jesus picks one of these scoundrels to follow him. Then he throws a party and invites all of Levi’s disgusting friends.

The religious teachers, who serve as the conscience of the community, are not happy. They already got ticked off the other day because Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sins, which is something only God can do. Now, this man—who had seemed so much like the Messiah!—is not behaving like even a respectable Jew ought to behave. Something must be done about this rogue teacher. They corner a few of his disciples and question them, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” You can almost hear the contempt dripping from their mouths. And who can blame them? These sinners are absolutely rotten; they’ve gotten rich by cheating and stealing money from poor villagers, making a lot of people in Capernaum utterly miserable. These are sick people whom Jesus is treating like friends.

Jesus hears that the religious leaders are upset at him. Their attitude bothers him so much that he steps outside the house to confront them. He doesn’t apologize for what he’s doing; and he certainly doesn’t try to convince them that deep down inside, these tax collectors and sinners are basically good people. They aren’t. And that’s the point. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus explains. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus has come for one group of people: sinners. Broken people. Scum of the earth. If you’re not in that category, then Jesus isn’t really interested in you. If you do fit that description, then Jesus wants you to drop your old way of life, trust him, and follow him. He isn’t ashamed to be seen with you. Your sin is not holding him back from asking you to be with him; it’s the very reason why he’s calling you. Jesus is in the business of rescuing sinners. If you’re a sinner, this is really, really good news.

If you’re not a sinner, then this is really, really offensive news. It means that Jesus doesn’t want to be around you. It means that Jesus isn’t interested in calling you to follow him. It means that Jesus is going to pass you by and call people that disgust you. He will love them, he will throw a party for them, and you’ll be left outside—cynical, bitter, and fuming.

Do you want to know Jesus and understand his love? Open your eyes and see the truth: you are a sinner. You are dirty, rotten, revolting, and sick. Then you’ll see that Jesus has come for you.

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