Follow the Leader

Part 9—Who is He hanging out with?

Mark 2:13-17



ILL: Last winter, Blake, our administrator, invited a friend to church.  He’s actually a fairly well-known rock star, a guy known for heavy metal and raunchy lyrics.  So Blake invites him and the guy said, “I can’t come to church; I’d feel like a turd in a fish bowl.”  Isn’t that a great image?  I think lots of people feel that way—that the church is a collection of really good, really religious people—and if they were to come, they’d stick out in a bad way.  I told Blake to tell his friend that our fishbowl is full of turds; he’ll fit right in! 

Jesus’ mission wasn’t to come collect all the good people, the righteous people, and take them to heaven.  It was to call all the sinners, all the turds like us to join His kingdom and change the world! 

          In today’s story in the gospel of Mark, Jesus calls a turd to follow Him, and then hangs out at a dinner party filled with turds!  We’re going to talk about following our leader!

          (If I offended you by saying “turd” in church, please forgive me.  If I haven’t offended you, hang on because I will—I’m an equal opportunity offender!)


Offering and announcements:

Seeing the world. . .(item #1) – Sunday, August 23

Life Group Leader Training (item #2) – get ready to start a new group in the fall, next Sunday afternoon.

School Supplies drive (item #3) – supply the tools for a needy or homeless child to start school—lists available at the Info Center.  Also, help disburse the supplies; contact Kenna for details.

Introduction: Our Leader hung out with irreligious people…like us!

          We’re working our way through the story of Jesus as reported by Mark in the New Testament.  Our goal is to follow Jesus—follow the Leader. 

Mark 2-3 contains 5 consecutive stories in which Jesus has conflict with the religious leaders.  Last week we read the first story in Mark 2 about 4 guys who brought their buddy on a stretcher to Jesus to be healed.  When they couldn’t get near Jesus because of the house was too crowded, they dug a hole in the roof and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus.  Jesus surprised everyone by saying, “Your sins are forgiven”—this was not what they had in mind when they dropped their friend through the roof!  The religious leaders were offended and thought, “Who does He think He is?  Only God can forgive sins!”  Who does He think He is?  God!  That’s the point.  Jesus healed the man so that everyone would know that He had the authority to forgive His sins. 

This week, the conflict centered on a different issue: not “who does He think He is?” but “who is He hanging out with?”  The religious leaders were very particular about the company they kept.  They didn’t want to be contaminated by contact with sinful people.  But Jesus loved and hung out with these people—here’s the story.

Mark 2:13-17 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Let’s walk through the story and see what we can learn about following the Leader.


1. Jesus chooses a reject. 13-14

          Jesus calls Levi to follow Him.  By the way, Levi’s other name is Matthew—the author of the gospel that bears his name.  Levi—Matthew: same guy.  When Jesus chose Levi, He chose a guy nobody wanted—a reject—a turd!  Why?

          Levi was a tax collector.  Tax collectors have never been popular.  Even today, they’re not very popular—a call from an IRS agent is rarely a good thing!  But in Israel in the first century, they were the most hated men in town.  Here’s why.  Israel was occupied by Roman troops, governed by Rome, and of course, taxed by Rome.  The Jews were a proud and independent people; they hated the occupation and resented the taxes they had to pay.  But what made it worse was how it was done. The Roman government collected taxes through a system called “tax-farming”.  They assessed a district a certain amount—for example, “we need a million bucks from Spokane”—and then sold the right to collect those taxes to the highest bidder.  The winner of the bid had to turn over the assessed amount at the end of the year and could keep whatever he had collected beyond that.  So if he collected a million and a half, he pocketed the extra half-million!  Needless to say, tax collectors got extremely rich—dishonestly.  On top of that, Rome used Jewish citizens to collect the taxes from their countrymen.  So a tax collector was hated because:

  • He was a traitor, collaborating with the Roman oppressors.
  • He was getting rich from this collaboration, by fleecing his countrymen.

Tax collectors were considered unclean because of their contact with Gentiles, forbidden to attend worship services at the synagogue or temple, and were ostracized by their countrymen. Tax collectors were the scum of the earth.  They were the butt of ancient Jewish jokes:

ILL: You all know what a sucker is—the fish?  Do you know the difference between a sucker and a tax collector?  One is a bottom-feeding scum sucker, and the other is a fish. 

Levi was a reject—nobody wanted Levi.

          And Jesus chose him.  Jesus called Levi to follow, to join His team.  What do you think the other guys thought—Peter, Andrew, James and John?  Ten to one they weren’t happy!  They’d all been dinged by Levi, and I’ll bet they thought, “What are you doing, Jesus? Not this guy!”  Levi was the guy nobody wanted…nobody, except Jesus.  Jesus chose a reject.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, I see where this is headed, and I’m no reject.  I’m a successful business-person.”  So was Levi—very successful, made a lot of money, had a huge house, and could afford big dinner parties.  Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m no reject.  I’m educated, I’m intelligent.”  So was Levi.  You couldn’t win the bid for a tax district without being educated and multi-lingual.  Levi was a sharp guy—that’s clear from the well-organized, well-written gospel that he authored—the gospel of Matthew. 

So when I say that Levi was a reject, I’m not saying he wasn’t bright, educated or successful—he was all of those things.  But his chosen profession made him a reject.  Jesus chose him anyway.

          Jesus chose the guy nobody else would have chosen.  I love this about Jesus, don’t you?  Jesus is for everyone! 

ILL: Have you ever done this?  Have you ever thought about someone you know and love, someone who is a good person, someone you respect, but they’re not yet a Christian?  And you say, “This person will make a good Christian.”  She is such a good person—she’ll make a good Christian.  They’re already good; they just need Jesus.  Have you ever thought that?

          On the other hand, is there anyone who you think is the least likely person to become a Christian?  You think of them, and you think, “Fat chance.  It’ll never happen.  They’re so messed up!  Impossible!” 

That’s Levi.  Jesus came for everyone, including the people you think are impossible, the ones who are so messed up that you think they’re hopeless.  Jesus is for everyone, and I love it when Jesus surprises us and calls the Levis!  I’m curious: how many of you think that you were a Levi?  You were a person that others would have picked as least likely to become a Christian?  Isn’t God good?

          Jesus chose the man nobody wanted.  And if we’re going to follow the leader, we’ve got to open our hearts to the people on the margins, the people nobody wants, the rejects.  It’s easy to avoid such people; Jesus embraced them.  Is there anyone on the margins in your life?  Do you avoid the hopeless person?  Or like Jesus, do you see beneath the surface?  Do you see their potential?

Jesus obviously saw something in Levi that nobody else saw.  They saw a traitor and a cheat; Jesus saw a gospel writer and a world changer.  They saw his profession—tax collector; Jesus saw his potential—change agent. 

ILL: Centuries ago workmen drug a great marble block into the city of Florence, Italy. It had come from the famous marble quarries of Carrara, and was intended to be made into a statue of a great Old Testament prophet. But it contained imperfections, and when the great sculptor Donatello saw it, he refused it at once. So there it lay in the cathedral yard, a useless block. One day another sculptor caught sight of the flawed block. But as he examined it, he saw something of incredible beauty, and he resolved to sculpt it. For two years the artist worked feverishly on the block. Finally, on January 25, 1504, the greatest artists of the day assembled to see what he had made of the rejected block. Among them were Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pietro Perugino, the teacher of Raphael. As the veil dropped to the floor, the statue was met with a chorus of praise. It was a masterpiece! The succeeding centuries have confirmed that judgment. Michelangelo’s David is one of the greatest works of art the world has ever known.  Show pic.  See, I told you I’m equal opportunity offender!

          Donatello saw a flawed block of marble.  Michelangelo saw David in that same block of marble.

I think Jesus sees the potential in you and me, too—in everyone of us.  Others may see us as a flawed block of rock, but Jesus sees the masterpiece inside you.  Jesus is for everyone.  And if you feel like a reject—you feel like the turd in the fishbowl, Jesus is for you too. 


2. Jesus hangs out with the riffraff.  15-16

Mark 2:15-16 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

Jesus hangs out with the riffraff.

Levi is so excited about following Jesus that he wants all his friends to meet Jesus too.  Guess who a tax collector’s friends are?  Other tax collectors.  So he throws a big dinner party at his house—it must have been a pretty big house because “many tax collectors and sinners” showed up for the party.  And Jesus is there with his guys, and they’re all eating together, mixing it up, hanging out together—Jesus with sinners and tax collectors.

          The religious leaders, some Pharisees who were known for meticulous keeping of every detail of the law, were upset and asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners.”  Does anybody have the New Living Translation?  How does it translate their question (v. 16)?  “Why does he eat with such scum?”  They would never eat with such people; contact with irreligious people like these would be considered contaminating.  Let me explain. 

          I’ve already explained about the tax collectors, but who were these “sinners”?  The word “sinner” was used in two ways by the Pharisees.  It referred to a person who broke the moral law, but equally of a person who broke the scribal law.  So a person who committed adultery or a person who ate pork were both “sinners”.  A person who stole or murdered and a person who didn’t wash his hands the right way were both “sinners”.  No doubt both kinds of sinners were at Levi’s dinner party.  Some of these sinners had done real moral wrong, but there were others whose “sin” was not observing every scribal regulation.  You could be a “sinner” in this sense and still be a moral person, but irreligious; a good person, but not a church-goer. 

Strict religious Jews like these Pharisees were to have no fellowship with such people.  They weren’t to walk with them, do business with them, or most importantly, share hospitality with them.  The very word “Pharisee” means “separated one” or “separatist”.  So by eating with these “sinners”, Jesus was violating the orthodox conventions of His day.

          And the Pharisee’s question was “Why?  Why is He doing this?”

And Jesus’ answer was: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

          Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors, riffraff, turds?  Because they needed Him.  Because they were sick, and He is the Doctor.  Because they were sinners and He is the Savior. 

          So here’s the deal.  None of us want to be Pharisees, right?  But I’m afraid that sometimes we are without even intending to be.  When we become Christians, in our desire to be holy, to be godly, we naturally seek out people “like us”.  So more and more, our circle of friends becomes exclusively Christian until we end up living in a little Christian ghetto.  We go to church with Christians and a Life Group with Christians.  We play golf and tennis with Christians, and eat dinner with Christians.  We have Christian doctors and dentists; we find Christians schools for our kids and Christian mechanics for our cars.  We sue our neighbors with Christian lawyers and we take our Christian dogs and cats to Christian vets.  We end up isolated and insulated from the very people Jesus came to help.  Did you know that only two years after conversion, many Christians have no significant friendships with unbelieving people?  By the way, this is why we have refused to put together a Christian yellow pages—we don’t want you to do business just with Christians.  We want you to do what Jesus did and mix it up with unbelievers!  It’s very easy to become a Pharisee—a separatist.  But that’s not what our leader did.

          At Levi’s house, Jesus got to speak to a crowd who would never darken the door of the synagogue.  The tax collectors had all been excommunicated and couldn’t go.  The sinners were the irreligious and wouldn’t go.  So Jesus went to where they were: at Levi’s party.

          So let’s have some fun.  How many of you know someone who wouldn’t darken the door of the church, but they would come to a party at your house?  So let’s do what Levi did and throw a party.  Let’s throw a Levi party sometime this month!  Invite some lost friends or family over and have fun and see what God does.  Years ago, I heard of a dentist who caught this vision—throwing Levi parties at his house—and introduced a couple hundred people to Jesus in a year—all at parties at his house.  One couple told him, “We didn’t know we could have this much fun sober!” 

          How do you throw a Levi party?  I want you to get together in groups of 4-6 and I’m going to give you 5 minutes to plan a Levi party.  You can plan anything you want to mix it up with pre-Christian people.  Be creative, have fun, and then we’re going to hear some of your best ideas.  Go!

          Ok, tell me your best ideas.

          I hope you’ll throw a Levi party this month.


3. Jesus is hard on the self-righteous. 17

Mark 2:17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This was Jesus’ answer to their question, “Why are you hanging out with the riffraff?”  It’s the sick who need a doctor.  Then this very interesting line: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

          Is He telling the Pharisees, “You’re righteous, you don’t need Me or what I bring.”  No.  He’s warning them that the self-righteous will miss the kingdom.  Those who think they are well won’t go to the doctor.  Those who think they are good enough on their own won’t go to Jesus.  If you think you’re already righteous, you don’t think you need a Savior, and you won’t come to Jesus. 

Jesus is hard on the self-righteous not because He hates us, but because He loves us.  He’s hard on us because He knows that our self-righteousness will keep us from ever coming to Him. 

ILL: My football coach in high school told us, “I’m going to get after you sometimes.  If I think you’re not playing up to your potential, I’ll get in your face.  It’s not because I don’t like you or don’t believe in you; it’s because I do.  So don’t worry about it if I’m on your case.  Worry about it if I’m not—because that means I’ve given up on you.”

Jesus is hard on the self-righteous because He loves us too.  This was His warning: don’t let your self-righteousness keep you from Me.  It’s very dangerous to be self-righteous.

ILL: At the Leadership Summit this week—by the way, if you missed it, I hope you’ll come next year because it was awesome again.  At the Leadership Summit, Tim Keller talked about the story of prodigal son.  You all know the story. 

A father has two sons.  The younger one takes his share of the inheritance, moves away to a distant country and squanders it all in wild living.  He comes to his senses, comes home and welcomed back by his father, who throws a party to celebrate his return.  That’s the part of the story we usually focus on—the prodigal or lost son.  But Tim Keller says that the main point of the story is in the second half. 

          The older brother is working in the fields when he hears the sound of music.  When he finds out that his brother has returned and his father has welcomed him back and thrown a party, he gets furious.  He refuses to go in, and his father has to come out and try to convince him to join the party.  He refuses.  “All these years I’ve slaved for you, and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to.  And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” Luke 15:29-30

          Jesus told the story because the Pharisees were complaining that He hung out with sinners—just like they did at Levi’s party.  He told the story for the Pharisees—to show them that there is more than one way to be lost.  You can be lost in a distant country, or you can be lost at home.  You can be lost in sin or lost in self-righteousness.  You can be lost in church.  Both sons were alienated from their father: one by his rebellion, the other by his goodness.  The older brother believed that the father owed him because he had been so good.  “I’ve slaved for you, and you never threw a party for me!”  He was angry that the father was using what was rightfully his to throw a party for his crummy brother who had wasted the family’s money.  He was the good boy.  He deserved the party.  He was right to be upset.

          The story ends unresolved, with the angry son still outside the party. 

It’s so dangerous to be good!  It’s so dangerous to be religious!  Jesus saves us and changes us and we get better…and then if we’re not careful, we get so much better, we get worse!  We get so good that we forget we’re still sinners, we still need mercy, we still need Jesus.  It’s very dangerous. 

          Here’s the good news.  Jesus said, “I have come to call sinners,” and I qualify!  Woohoo!  I’m a sinner, so I qualify.  He came to call me…and you.  We can’t ever forget that we are sinners saved by the mercy of God. 

ILL: John Fischer wrote a book called 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (like me)Step seven is “Embrace the belief that we are and always will be experts at sinning.” 

Someone might protest, “Wait a minute; doesn’t Jesus forgive us and free us from our sins? Doesn’t He change us?  Aren’t we new people?”  Yes.  We do change.  And, if we’re not careful, we can change our old sins in for new ones.  I used to sin by looking at pornography.  God delivered me.  Now I sin by thinking that I’m better than those who look at pornography. 

We are experts at sinning.  But the good news is that Jesus came to call sinners, and I am one, so I qualify! 

Step 10, by the way, is “Embrace the state of astonishment as a permanent and glorious reality.”  If you understand your capacity for sin, you can’t help but be astonished, amazed, and wonder at God’s capacity for grace! 

Jesus came to call sinners.  I qualify! 

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”