Journal entry; Preparation, week 1, day 3
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus lived a completely holy life in heaven when one day the Father asked him to go to earth and live amongst the people there. Jesus did not object, saying, “But if I live amongst these unholy, sinful people, they will interpret my presence as God condoning sin.” This commonly applied logic did not stop Christ from coming. Furthermore, it did not stop Christ from fully mingling with sinful people. Apparently, he was not worried that:
- Other people’s sin would rub off on him.
- People would think that he condoned sin.
- People would think that he was not serious about his religion.
- People would not take him seriously when he spoke about God or challenged them to repent.
- People would think that he thought they were just fine the way they were.
Jesus did not require that people change before they began to follow him. They followed and, over time, they changed as they were exposed to Christ. When Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” he did not mean to imply that this was the means by which one becomes a Christian. Rather, this would be an end result. The means to this end is simply following Christ.
It is highly unlikely that Jesus picked Levi because he was rich or because he had a good sense that Levi would be able to throw great parties or feed him well or be a great resource for material goods. Rather, his interest in Levi was related to an interest in Levi himself and, possibly all of the people that Levi knew, since he was clearly well-connected. Jesus did not think, “Wow, what a great party,” but rather, “Wow, what a great network of people.”
How very lucky were the tax gatherers and sinners because they were graced by the presence of God, while the religious folks were kept on the outside looking in with jealousy and incredulity, if not hatred. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not sin that keeps God at arm’s length, but it is religion and legalism. God seems to welcome people who want Him for His own sake.
Jesus was just eating and drinking with tax gatherers and sinners. It’s not like he was going into business with them. Yet, the Pharisees grumbled even then. They thought that a religious person should have no contact with such people. Jesus apparently thought that one did not become unclean or less holy in any way by associating with sinful people. If anyone was at risk of being defiled and corrupted by sinners, it would be the holy Christ. The rest of us are already dirty; if there is only “dirty” and “clean,” then playing in the mud will not change our fundamental state.
Who are the tax gatherers, sinners, and lepers in our society? gays, HIV-AIDS victims, the poor, homeless, drunks, transgender, bisexuals, criminals, the mentally ill, philanderers, bar owners, porn purveyors, porn users.
These are the classes of people identified by the religious as being on the fringes of society, people whom any reasonable person would judge as being far from God or unlikely to be religious or the last ones that God might be interested in. After all, look how God has treated them so far! Doesn’t their chosen lifestyle already scream that they are not interested in God and have no interest in being holy and upright people? And for them to be worthy of any interest by Christians, should they not provide even a little sign that they are willing to change, to adopt a more reasonable lifestyle?
Yet, Jesus asked none of this from Levi, or anyone else, for that matter (with the exception of the Pharisees and other religious people.)
What does it mean that I find myself in a class of people whom God would not be terribly interested in (a religious person)? Putting myself in the crowd in Levi’s house, I understand that God is interested in my whole life, not just my religious life, that I do not have a Christian life and then the rest of my life.
On the other hand, knowing intellectually that I am no less sinful than people I listed amongst the outcasts of our society, why do I see myself as being somehow more worthy of God’s attention than people in that list. Are we not on the same boat? Why do I see myself as being more righteous than those people? When Jesus said, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” was he suggesting that there were, in fact, righteous people around him? Or was he saying this only for the benefit of the Pharisees who thought themselves righteous. Kind of like how he told parables specifically so that people would not understand him. How much risk do I bear that I might not hear him any better than the Pharisees?
Do I believe that, because of the way that I live and the choices I have made, that I am better than those in the list above? Maybe I really don’t believe that I’m any better or much better than my socio-religious peers. But, I certainly believe that I have a leg up on those on the margins. Why? Do I think that my choices in life have made me into a being that is more in line with what God expects? that I am closer to being a godly person than any of the outcasts? Doesn’t this betray what it is that I believe allows a person to get close to God? Isn’t that legalism, cloaked in some kind of quest for self-made holiness? Are the things that I believe are an honor to God actually offensive to Him. Where does love of God come into play? Do I love Him or am I like the elder son, who claimed to have always obeyed, but who never really loved the father for who the father was. Do I need to love God? I mean, really love Him. How do I go about doing that? If I were in Jesus’ shoes, I would have noticed Levi, and walked right by. Thankfully, when he saw me, he stopped, and invited me to, “Come. Follow me.”
1. This prayer time is characterized by a certain level of angst that I, a religious person, might be passed over by God in preference to those who, in my mind, are much less deserving. I realize that I am much more like the Pharisees than the tax collectors and that Jesus chooses to spend time with the latter.
2. Do I think that my choices in life have made me into a being that is more in line with what God expects? God is beginning to raise my awareness of self-righteousness, framing it in the context of the Pharisees, while making it plainly and painfully clear that the Pharisees are not God’s favorites.
3. Thankfully, when he saw me, he stopped… The prayer ends on a note of hope, and appreciation that grace has been extended to me. God is saying, in effect, “I welcome you back tomorrow. Keep it up. Don’t stop.”
1. The contrast between the way Jesus treated the outcasts and the religious is obvious, unexpected, and overwhelming. It is “obvious” because the gospels are full of these stories; they are impossible to miss. It is “unexpected” because, from a human perspective, we would predict that God would cheer on those who apparently were paying attention to Him or trying to please Him. It is “overwhelming” because God’s ability to love the worst of the worst is intolerable to us.
2. Rethinking, reorienting, my life so that it is congruent with Jesus’ life will require nothing short of conversion. I need to convert from one way of life to another. Such conversion does not happen overnight and it is not easy. Moses spent forty years in the desert before he was ready for a new life with God. Likewise, I have spent 40 years in my own barren wilderness.
3. During this night of prayer, my appropriate concern with self-righteousness precluded my attention to a crucial feature of Jesus’ relations with people. It is not that Jesus is not interested in the Pharisees, the religious. It’s that the religious are not interested in God. This is a surprising conclusion, perhaps the most surprising of all, but it is unavoidable. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them… This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” I can detect in my prayer from this night that there is great concern that my worship, my seeking of God, all my religious efforts, could well be in vain. At the same time, there is an implicit trust that God has led me to the Exercises on purpose. He wants to help me, and I want His help. It will be many months before I see in what that help consists.
4. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not sin that keeps God at arm’s length, but it is religion and legalism. I wrote that statement because that is what I saw in this story. “Seeing” and “believing” are two different things, though. Months from now, I will discover that I believe that sin does keep me at arm’s length from God. How is it possible for a person to read this story in Luke 5 and not understand that Jesus welcomes me, just as I am? Yet, it happens (to me!) every day. Behaving in life, and especially in prayer, as if God welcomes me, a sinner, is nonsense. What kind of God could possibly stoop so low? Consistent with our culture’s view of God in which we have molded Him into our own image, we endeavor to clean ourselves up, at least a little bit, before approaching God. Or else, we stay away from Him. In this way, we promote, not Christ, but the antichrist.
5. Jesus asked none of this from Levi, or anyone else, for that matter (with the exception of the Pharisees and other religious people.) What does it mean that I find myself in a class of people whom God would not be terribly interested in (a religious person)? Religious people (it hardly makes any difference what religion) are prone to drawing lines in the sand. We are on the inside; everyone else is on the outside. Jesus reversed this. The religious people were on the outside; everyone else was on the inside. Ultimately, though, Jesus erased the line. There is no inside or outside. That we continue to pretend that the line is still there is antichrist.