July 10, 2022 ~ 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Discipleship by the Sea ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
Since we started “Social Distancing” in March of 2020, I have not received a single written party invitation! ‘Not a one for a birthday party, a family reunion, graduation party, a friends’ barbeque….nothing. In fact, the parties I had been invited to attend early in the pandemic were all cancelled. For some who are still cautious or anxious in the midst of the pandemic, who once were “party people,” this time continues to cause a crisis of isolation, in the midst of a social butterfly’s world.
Now, I am not fishing for an invitation. I just thought it might be interesting to look at today’s scripture through the lens of an invitation. You know, like the kinds of questions you might see on a party invitation, for instance: Who? What? When? Where? Why? These questions give us a guide to the most important information we need to know when we’re invited to an exciting event. Let’s try it out:
WHO? The answer to this question is the most complex! The one doing the inviting is JESUS. After walking along the lakeshore and teaching the crowds, Jesus comes to the port where Levi (alias: Matthew) is working in the tax booth. Jesus is inviting LEVI to follow him. Who is Levi? He is ethnically Jewish, but he is working for the Roman government collecting taxes from those arriving at or passing through the port. Now, I’m not sure how much you might know about “tax collectors.” These folks were not respected. In fact, they were despised, especially among the Jews.
Levi, was working in a job where he could make a ton of money, but he was working for the government that was ruling over and oppressing his people! And tax collectors were known for over-taxing people so they could pocket money for themselves. In last week’s scripture text, Jesus asked four fisher folk to follow him. While they were unexpected people for a Jewish teacher like Jesus to invite to be students, they were not people who were hated, like a tax collector.
But in some ways this “who” gets broadened throughout our scripture text. Jesus pin-points Levi to follow him, but then in the next scene, Jesus is surprisingly hanging out and eating with a group of tax collectors and “NOTORIOUS SINNERS.” Because of practices like this, Jesus is continuing to distance himself from the synagogue and pharisees little by little. If the many healings and forgiving people’s sins weren’t enough, eating with tax collectors and notorious sinners was putting Jesus on very thin ice in the eyes of the people who thought they held the power in ancient Jewish life.
When Jesus is questioned as to why he eats with those people, Jesus says in verse 17: “People who are healthy don’t need a doctor; sick ones do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous.”
We are witnessing the broadening scope of Jesus’ love. The scripture today ends with Jesus declaring to the Pharisees his deep love and care for the people who they seem to hate and not want to touch with “a 39 and a half foot pole (as Dr. Suess would describe it!). These are people who really need to be loved. So that’s the “who” of this invitation.
Next: WHAT? To what is Jesus inviting them? To follow. What does following Jesus mean? Well at this point in the gospel of Mark, following looks like literally following Jesus as he travels and teaches, like a fan group. Jesus issued the invitation for Levi to follow as Levi was at work collecting taxes. As Levi leaves to follow Jesus, he knows he is forfeiting his lucrative position.
As we make it down the list of invitation questions, “WHEN” can be pretty simple to answer. I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus’ interactions with “tax collectors and notorious sinners” comes at the very beginning of his earthly ministry ~ he’s still calling disciples at this point. He’s not very far into his ministry before he gets to the heart of why he has come. He doesn’t waste any time – and neither does Levi. When Jesus says, “follow me” Levi’s response is immediate. So, the “when” of our invitation could read “right now. Don’t waste any time.”
This naturally leads us to the “WHERE” of our invitation. Not only does following Jesus literally mean following him, but at this point in Mark, we see that following Jesus means fellowshipping with him. Jesus’ disciples spent time with him. Only by eating with, listening to, walking with, and just being next to Jesus could they be followers. If you notice in the scripture, it doesn’t say that Jesus left the disciples and ate with the tax collectors and notorious sinners by himself. No, it says, “While Jesus was reclining to eat in Levi’s house, many other tax collectors and notorious “sinners” joined him and the disciples at dinner.” The risks continue!
Now let’s turn our attention to “WHY.” This might be the most important question of all – for it is the root for all the other questions. The “why” of a party or event might be “to celebrate the new couple” or “to recognize the achievements of the new graduate.” This part of the invitation tells you so much more than the other details – the who, what, when, and where are all just random if there isn’t a “why,” or a reason for the invitation. Here, Jesus has already told us why: Jesus has come to invite those who are broken to follow and be healed. Better than that, the healed broken ones will become healers for others.
While Jesus was on earth, his heart must have ached so much to see how many people were hurting: inside and out. Yet, no matter how broken and sinful the people of Jesus’ day were, (or how broken we are today,) Jesus is willing to invite us, to heal us, and to send us out with a purpose of sharing Christ’s powerful love with all we meet.
Jesus’ love is the persuasive power that invites people to follow – even into unexpected, new, and maybe scandalous or scary places. God’s love is what invited Levi to leave his life of money consumption and cheating others and to come have a new, restored life. God’s love is the reason for the Good News, that each of us here, today, can be reclaimed, restored, and loved deeply into a new life with Christ.
Another question that might be added on to this “invitation card” along with Who, what, when, where, and why, is HOW. How can we accept this invitation that Jesus extends to every one of us to follow a Savior? Last Sunday, we were INVITED to share a sacred meal with Christ. Everyone, even the notorious sinners, are invited and welcomed to share in the meal fellowship, receive the grace and forgiveness of the one whose love knows no boundaries, and follow Jesus on the journey of learning, growing and LIVING unto eternity.
We can’t quite understand God’s love for us some days. God’s unconditional love is weird ~ incomprehensible to us humans. And I am guessing Levi didn’t understand what he was getting into when he left his tax collector job to follow Jesus. I’m sure the other disciples didn’t understand why they were eating with tax collectors and notorious sinners that day.
I’m not sure where you are in your journey with Jesus, but today there is an invitation waiting for you to accept. It’s an invitation to love. It’s an invitation to a new life. It’s an invitation to an adventure. No matter where we are on the journey, there’s always another step to take with Jesus. Let’s make that journey with Jesus together today. Amen.