The Offense of Grace
Most religions of the world have some things in common. One is the belief in a higher power that can impact life in either a positive or negative way. Religions also share practices like worship, kindness, compassion, and community. But what is the goal of these practices?
The fundamental goal of all religions is to enable worshipers to connect with the object of their worship. To reach that goal, they must find a way to be acceptable to the god or gods they worship. Subjectively, they concern sin and the sinner. Objectively, they seek forgiveness of sin and welcome to the sinner.
Granted, not all religions have a concept of sin. But most of them operate on the premise that the worshiper must DO something to make him or herself acceptable to the one being worshiped. The Rabbinical traditions of Judaism in Jesus’ day followed this premise. All of their cumbersome observances were only an attempted answer to the question, “How can a person be just with God?”
Judaism, as practiced in the time of Christ, stood silent and powerless regarding the forgiveness of sins. It had no word of welcome or help for the sinner. The very title, “Pharisee,” meant “separated one,” and it implied that sinners were excluded. We see this mindset and its effects repeatedly in the Gospels. Pharisees believed that the unlearned or ignorant in the Law could neither be right with God nor live righteously. Contact with such people made one unclean.
Understanding this concept is critical to the proper interpretation of the healing of the paralytic (which we looked at last time) and the text before us today. In the minds of the religious leaders, one needed to clean up their life before coming to God. Once that happened, God would accept them. So, when Jesus welcomed sinners and offered them grace, the scribes and Pharisees were offended because it was contrary to their whole belief system. I’ve titled my teaching “The Offense of Grace.”
That Jesus introduces this concept of grace so early in His ministry is instructive. His miracles of curing human sickness and curing the sickness of the soul showcased His power as the Great Physician.
So, follow along now as I read Mark 2:13 to 17. Follow the sequence of events and the varied reactions to the grace of Jesus.
The sequence of ACTIONS in this text shows us how grace is restorative to the sinner but offensive to the self-righteous. The actions are the call to a sinner, the community of sinners, the contempt of the scribes, and the correction of the Savior.
The First ACTION is,
The Call to a Sinner
Levi was a tax collector for the hated Roman government. Jesus met him, in the words of our text, “…sitting at the tax office.” Sitting at, is literally sitting on the elevated platform or bench, which was the principal feature of the toll office. This customs office was at Capernaum, the landing place for the many ships which traversed the lake or coasted from town to town. It wasn’t only for those who had business in Capernaum but for those who would connect there with the great road of eastern commerce that ran from Damascus to the harbors of the West.
Of the two kinds of tax collectors in Jesus’ day, Levi was among the group that was most hated, the Mokhsa. They were responsible for collecting duty on all imports and exports, harbor dues, town dues, and many other nuisance taxes. These they collected at their discretion. These men were known for their greed and for their partiality. They would show favor to the wealthy, including the religious leaders, but take advantage of the poor and the defenseless. Such a man was Levi, probably very wealthy, but deeply despised!
This word, Mokhsa, seems to be associated with the ideas of oppression and injustice. Because of this, the rabbis forbade tax collectors from serving either as judges or witnesses. In some cases, they were barred from the local synagogue. They also said that repentance was especially difficult for tax gatherers and customs-house officers. That statement has a direct bearing on our text and shows us how Jesus was not bound by rabbinic interpretations of the law!
In light of all this, you can imagine the astonishment of Jesus’ disciples when He says to Levi, “Follow me.” Jesus didn’t hesitate to break cultural taboos and go against prevailing religious sentiments even though it offended the religious leaders. He had the ability to see beyond the exterior of a person and to look into their soul. So, Jesus offers Levi a simple call, “Follow me.” He was inviting Levi to walk with Him, to become one of His disciples.
From his tollbooth near the seaside in Capernaum, Levi must have heard Jesus as he taught the crowds on the shore of Lake Galilee. From his elevated seat, he could observe the eager multitudes that thronged Jesus, the white sails of boats crisscrossing the lake, and the crowds following Him from place to place. He saw the long lines of people with all kinds of illnesses and diseases graciously welcomed and sent away completely whole. And like others, Levi most likely “wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of Jesus’ mouth.”
To this man, whose repentance the rabbis proclaimed extremely difficult, Jesus offered His simple call; “Follow me.” In the Greek text, Levi’s response is only four words. But those four words show the totality of Levi’s acceptance. “He rose up and followed Jesus.”
Jesus is still issuing His call of grace to sinners today. It doesn’t matter what your nationality, your family background, your occupation, or your socio-economic status is! Have you, like Levi, heard Jesus’ call? Do you understand His grace? What is your response?
The Next ACTION is,
The Community of Sinners
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Levi gave Jesus a great feast in his house. Mark just says that Jesus reclined at the table in Levi’s house.
In response to Jesus’ call to follow Him, Levi invites Jesus to his house for a meal. Reclining with Him at the table were many tax collectors and other assorted sinners. This isn’t too surprising. “Birds of a feather flock together.” Most of us like to associate with those of similar backgrounds, employment, and lifestyle. This man, so long the subject of hatred and suspicion, has found genuine love and acceptance in the presence of Jesus. Surely, he would want his friends to experience the presence of Jesus, to know his love and acceptance too!
As human beings, our greatest need is the forgiveness of sin. When that need is met, it brings visible results. For the paralyzed man, whose healing we looked at earlier, forgiveness of sin caused him to “take up his bed and walk.” While he didn’t become one of Jesus’ inner circle, he certainly was a disciple. Levi’s forgiveness motivated him to share his resources and Jesus’ friendship with his fellow tax collectors.
Levi evidently was a man with a big heart. He had just walked away from a very lucrative and secure way of making a living. As long as there was commerce, there were taxes! While he most likely was a wealthy man with accumulated property, he had no certainty of future income. I believe his generosity gives evidence of the new life he was living. Before, he was cold, calculating, and greedy; now, he freely shared what he had without thought of expense.
Levi’s example illustrates an important effect of salvation: grace is restorative; it makes a difference in the focus of our lives and our relationships with other people. Following Jesus calls for a focus on the things He wants rather than what I want. Following Jesus calls me to use my resources for His honor and glory and for the blessing of others. Following Jesus will enable me to do both of those joyfully. How does your life, and mine, measure up to those important truths? Am I willing to share what I’ve found with people like me, my community of sinners?
The Next ACTION is,
The Contempt of the Scribes
“The scribes of the Pharisees…” considered themselves to be among the few who were worthy of God’s attention. After all, they knew the law and had worked out a strict code of rules and regulations to make sure they didn’t violate it. The common people were beneath them; their very ignorance made them unclean in the sight of these “holy ones.” So, for Jesus to meet with these sinners offended them and opened Him up to their criticism.
The common people of the day had a certain respect and fear of the Pharisees. Some saw their outward piety and concluded that they were actually holy men. Other’s respect was more self-serving. They knew that most of these men were wealthy and wielded significant power in their communities. They had the ability to make your life miserable if they wanted to. So, it was best to at least act like you respected them.
The religious leaders really didn’t understand the divine realities of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That’s evident from their question to Jesus’ disciples. “If your teacher is holy, why is he associating with those who are unclean?” They were offended that Jesus would offer grace to these they looked down upon with contempt.
I find it interesting that they complained to the disciples rather than to Jesus. They most likely hadn’t forgotten how Jesus so thoroughly confounded them in the healing of the paralyzed man. Inspired by Satan, they wanted to drive a wedge between Jesus and His followers. The followers of Jesus were yet in their spiritual infancy; they were not settled in their minds on many questions of faith and righteousness.
Are there people that you and I know whom we feel are worthy of contempt? Of course, we’d say, “No.” But what do our actions show? Don’t we often try to avoid messy situations where people are deeply entangled in sinful behaviors? Are we sometimes fearful of what others may say about us if they see us in the company of people burdened with sin? If we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that we have some of the same attitudes the Pharisees did.
Let’s face it: the Gospel is offensive to people because it exposes their sin. It shows them they can’t be good enough to earn God’s approval. It is also offensive to the self-righteous when Jesus freely offers His grace to those they consider undeserving.
The Final ACTION is,
The Correction of the Savior
Evidently, Jesus overheard them asking the question because He spoke directly to their criticism. “Those who are healthy do not need a doctor; only those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus was calling sinners to repentance, but He was also calling them to much more than that! He was calling them to Himself and to become His disciples.
Michael Yaconelli, author of the book, “Messy Spirituality,” shares insight into our need for a physician. He tells how there was a period of time when he and his wife employed a housekeeper. She would come once a week to dust, vacuum, and clean every little corner of their house. He dreaded the day she came because he and his wife would spend all morning cleaning the house for the housekeeper! They didn’t want the house to be dirty, or what would the housekeeper think?
He went on to say that we act the same way with God. We talk our way out of the spiritual life by refusing to come to God as we are. Instead, we decide to wait until we are ready to come to God as we aren’t. We decide that the way we lived yesterday, last week, or last year makes us “damaged goods,” and until we start “living right,” we’re not “God material.”
Some of us actually believe that until we choose the correct way to live, we’re not worthy of being chosen, that until we clean up the mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. The opposite is true. Until we admit we’re a mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. Once we admit how unlovely we are and how lost we are, Jesus shows up and changes us from the inside out.
The New Testament shows us that Jesus is attracted to the unattractive. He prefers the lost ones over the ninety-nine found ones, the losers over the winners, the broken instead of the whole, the messy instead of the non-messy, the crippled instead of the noncrippled.
Have you accepted Jesus’ call to be one of His followers? The call He gave to Levi is still extended today. He’s saying, “Follow me.” He is inviting you to leave behind your sin, rise up from the ashes of your sinful past, and follow Him. What freedom and joy you can experience, just like Levi did.
And then you will want to tell your friends how Jesus has set you free! You will want them to experience the incredible blessings you’ve received as a follower of Jesus. You will invite them to listen and learn, to have fellowship with Him.
But in doing this, you will also surely invite criticism. Not everyone will appreciate your new-found freedom. Your newly cleansed life will make some of your former friends feel the guilt of their sin. They will accuse you of being a do-gooder, a “holier-than-thou” kind of person. And they may refuse to associate with you. That, too, is part of the offense of grace.
But remember, Jesus is calling sinners. The self-righteous don’t see their need for Him. In their minds, they do well enough on their own. So, don’t be offended by God’s grace; reach out, accept it, and let your life and the lives of those around you be transformed.