One day as Jesus was out walking along the Sea of Galilee he passed by one of the Roman tax houses. Glancing inside, he caught sight of Levi, the Jewish official in charge of collecting taxes for the Romans (not an enviable position for a Jew!) When Jesus invited this “outcast” to become one of his followers, he left everything – business and all – and went with Jesus. Not only that, but he was so excited about this new chapter in his life that he prepared a feast and invited all his friends to come and meet the honored guest, Jesus. When the Pharisees and other religious Jews heard about this they were indignant. How could Jesus associate with a tax gatherer and his ceremonially unclean friends? A respectable Jew simply would take the risk. Jesus’ explanation was that he hadn’t come for the “virtuous” (self-claimed of course) but for the “sinners” (Mark 2:17). That being the case, he ministered to those who were open to being “healed” – social outcasts, at least that was what the religious Jew thought about them.
So what can we learn from the way Jesus’ handled this situation? One thing is that he was not hampered in his ministry by the views of the religious hierarchy. He understood that he was called to help those who were open to the truth. Unfortunately the practice of religion often blinds people as to what their religion professes to teach. The “doing” of it takes the place of what it essentially professes to be. Practice trumps reality. The Jewish Pharisee was committed to the way in which his religion had been practiced over the years but clueless as to the change it was meant to accomplish in his life.
What about today? For instance, does the average Christian understand the apostle Paul when he says that becoming a follower of Christ involves a death (complete separation) to sin and a resurrection to a new and transformed life in Christ (read Romans 6)? Scripture doesn’t support the idea that church attendance guarantees heaven. Those who might think that way would be the “virtuous” in Jesus’ statement about the category of those he wouldn’t be helping. Today’s “outcasts” are not necessarily those who live on the edge of morality but those who are open hear and respond to the good news that Jesus has a better way. It would appear that those are the ones to whom we also are to direct our ministry. The gospel doesn’t beg sinners to change but offers the answer to life’s problems to all who are open to change. Someone said that God is a gentleman who offers help not a bully who demands change.