Readings: James 2:1-8; Mark 2.13-17
Have you ever been a person on the edge – on the edge of a community, or a particular group in society? Have you ever felt excluded or different from the majority? If you’re white and British, and have mostly tended to mix with people from the same social class as you, then this might not be something you’ve experienced. But if you reflect further, you might remember circumstances where this does apply to you. Perhaps you have travelled, and spent time in other countries and cultures, where you are very much in the minority. You might come from a ethnic group, or a religious background which is different from the majority. Perhaps you’ve been a woman operating in a predominantly male environment – or maybe a man moving into traditionally female territory. Or you may have experienced being pushed to the edge in other ways. Maybe you’ve been made redundant; or had a marriage breakdown; or been widowed – and found that you’re not as welcome as you used to be in some circles. There are lots of ways in which we might have had that experience of being on the edge. Imagine a school playground, with lots of children running about playing games together noisily and cheerfully – but where there’s also a number of children literally hanging around on the edge of the playground. Many of those children would love to be part of what’s going on but for some reason they can’t break in – possibly held back by shyness, or it might be thoughtlessness or even deliberate exclusion on the part of the noisy majority. What it needs is for another child to notice them and to invite them to join in.
Can you think of a time when you’ve been on the edge? Can you remember what it felt like? As you think about it, think too about whether the situation changed – and if so, how. Did you get drawn in, from the edge to somewhere closer to the middle?
This passage from Mark is all about Jesus going out amongst the people on the edge of his society. He’s been out and about, amongst the crowds, teaching them, when he sees Levi sitting at the tax collector’s booth. In the space of a single verse, verse 14, Levi’s life is completely and utterly changed. There he is, sitting at the tax collector’s booth – then along comes Jesus, who says to him, “Follow me” – and Levi gets up and does just that. Well, we know that he’s not the first person that Jesus has called to follow him who’s responded in this way. So what’s the significance of this call? Why was Levi a person on the edge?
Levi was a tax collector. Now, throughout history paying tax has rarely been popular, and often those tasked with collecting it have been disliked or even hated. However, in Jesus’ time, being a tax collector carried a particular stigma. Levi’s job was to collect taxes, not for the occupying Roman forces, but for Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was a client king of the Romans, ruling Judea on their behalf and with little or no real power of his own. As a result, the Jewish people regarded him as a collaborator with the Roman overlords and he was widely detested. So anyone working for or on behalf of Herod Antipas was regarded as a traitor to the Jewish people, and as tainted, guilty by association. This would have been the view in particular of religiously devout Jews, the ones who believed that keeping the Jewish law scrupulously was the way to earn God’s favour, and persuade God to send his chosen one, his Messiah, to free them from oppression and send the occupying forces packing. So people like tax collectors, people who were seen as maintaining the political status quo, keeping the Romans’ pet king in place, were considered to be beyond the pale, unfit to associate with “decent” Jews.
So for Jesus to call one of these people, considered as the lowest of the low, to be his follower, was a shocking and radical move. Not only was Jesus saying that Levi was welcome to become his follower – he was also bringing Levi into association and fellowship with his existing followers. He was making it impossible for the disciples to keep themselves separate from someone they would have considered as contaminated, as damaged goods.
And this point is reinforced by the rest of this passage. Having called Levi to follow him, Jesus goes to his house for dinner – and the other guests are, horror of horrors, other tax collectors and sinners, other people from the fringes of decent Jewish society – the kind of people the good god-fearing Jews considered to be unfit to associate with. It’s a situation that completely baffles the Pharisee teachers of the law. They just can’t get their heads around why Jesus is choosing to spend time and share a meal with “people like that”, people that so-called “decent folk” would prefer to avoid. And when they ask why Jesus is doing this, it’s Jesus himself who answers them, saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The irony, of course, is that the Pharisees too are sinners, even though most of them at this time don’t recognize the fact. The truth is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But in his answer, Jesus is telling his questioners that nobody is excluded from his invitation to the Kingdom of God. He has come to invite everyone – to abolish barriers between people, not reinforce them. The first step to accepting his invitation is taken by those who recognize that they have fallen short of God’s standards, that they have sinned – using Jesus’ metaphor, those who know that they are ill, and in need of a doctor.
So Levi, and his fellow tax collectors and sinners were definitely people on the edge of their society. That is – until Jesus called them, and they suddenly found themselves in fellowship with a whole group of other people who previously wouldn’t have given them the time of day. They called into a new life – a life in community with others and reorientated around a new purpose, to be found in following Jesus together. And in this new community, the standards and divisions of the world are not to apply. As James tells us, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ are not to show favouritism”. Rich and poor alike are to be made welcome, and treated with the same honour and respect in the community of Jesus’ followers. It is one of the marks that is supposed to distinguish the church from the world around it, which finds it acceptable to treat people differently depending on how much wealth and power they have. But that is not how it is supposed to be in the church. As James says, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, you are doing right.’ And that’s all our neighbours – not just the ones that are like us.
So I ask myself – Who are the people on the edge of my community? Who are those that I don’t naturally associate with, but who Jesus loves and wants to invite to follow him? Do I realize that it’s not a question of “them and us”, but simply of “us”, all equally in need of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness? Can I open my eyes to see the people on the edge, to really notice who they are, and am I brave enough to take the risk to reach out and talk to them? Will I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to do that?