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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:Who did Jesus come to call?
Text:Mark 2:13-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 4
Hymn 62:3 (after the law)
Psalm 9:1-5
Hymn 64
Psalm 48

Reading: Isaiah 25
Text: Mark 2:13-17
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ our Lord,

Though it seems much longer, it was only about 13 years ago that the Internet became popular and widely used. Religious groups were among the first to take advantage of the new technology. But the avidly non-religious and anti-religious were also there. There were more than a few atheist websites, newsgroups and mailing lists. Back in those days, on the odd occasion, I’d wade into one of these places and talk about faith and religion with these folks. One thing that came up with regular predictability was the accusation that religion in general and Christianity in particular is for the weak. Christian faith is a crutch for the dimwits who can’t otherwise get through life on their own strength.

This way of thinking has been around for a long, long time. If we go back to the 19th century, we hear the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saying that “The Christian movement is a degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind…” According to Nietzsche, Christianity is made up of rejects and the garbage of humanity. Back in the 20th century, CNN’s founder Ted Turner, put it a different way when he said that Christianity is a religion for losers. If we have regular contact with the unbelieving world, we hear these kinds of things more often, though usually they’re veiled in subtlety.

We’d like to believe that this doesn’t bother us. However, the fact that North American Christianity spends so much time and effort in putting the spotlight on famous believing athletes, politicians, and entertainers should tell us otherwise. Christians don’t want to be known as belonging to a movement of rejects and losers. We want to be cool, healthy, prosperous, and good-looking. We balk at the idea of being outcasts.

Our text challenges us on this very point. As the Lord Jesus carries out his earthly ministry, he turns the expectations and norms of his culture upside down. He challenges the religious leaders of his day. And he also brings a challenge to us living 2000 years later. To us who are Canadians living in Canada. But he also challenges us who are Canadian Reformed believers in this church, a church with its own sub-culture, with all its expectations and norms. We’ll see that our text gives the answer to the question:

Who did Jesus come to call?

In this passage we’ll see:
  1. A surprising choice
  2. A surly rebuke
  3. A stunning response
1. A surprising choice.

Right before our text for today, the Lord Jesus was in his house at Capernaum. His roof had been destroyed and a paralytic was healed – leaving all who witnessed it in awe. Now when we come to verse 13, we’re not that far away from the last scene. You may remember that Capernaum was located next to the Sea of Galilee – that’s the lake referred to in this verse. The Lord Jesus went out for a walk and, as often happened, soon a crowd gathered around him. He used the opportunity to continue with his teaching and preaching ministry.

But then, as he walked along, he came to a tax office. To understand this and all that follows, we have to know something about the system of taxes in those days. There were several different kinds of taxes, but this passage is referring to the Roman customs system. Basically, when goods moved around across territorial borders, the Roman empire would get a cut. The way this worked was that the tax collection would be entrusted to certain men known as tax farmers. These tax farmers were wealthy men and they would use their wealth to bid for the right to collect taxes in a certain district. The highest bidder would then pay Rome in advance and then go to work to make his living. He might do all the work himself, or (more likely) he might hire others to work for him. The system, though theoretically regulated, encouraged and allowed dishonesty and fraud. The tax farmers would charge as much as they could get away with. Consequently, these men were regarded as lowlifes by most Jews. The Jews hated the Romans to begin with, but this system didn’t make things any better.

If you want something of a contemporary parallel, you can think of bylaw enforcement officers who write up parking tickets. Imagine all the abuse these men and women have to put up with every day! Then take it a step further and imagine that these people worked for an oppressive foreign regime! Then you have an idea of what it was like to be a tax collector. They were some of the least popular and most hated people in their culture. Oh sure, they chose that line of work and they made a killing from it – but that only made them more hated than ever.

There was a tax office in Capernaum because it was at a crossroads for trade. It sat at the border of several different regions and as people would pass from one region to another, the local tax farmer would take his cut. Levi, also known as Matthew, was one of these tax farmers or at least he worked for one of these tax farmers.

This man who shared a name with the patriarch whose descendants would become priests, this Levi was about anything but sacrifices. He wasn’t interested in serving others. His like were typically associated with prostitutes, robbers and other such people. Levi was the scum of the scum, to be detested and reviled.

This was the Levi that the Lord Jesus spotted as he walked along the Sea of Galilee. This was the Levi that the Lord Jesus spoke to. He commanded him to follow. In other words, the Lord Jesus was telling Levi to become one of his disciples. Rabbi Jesus was taking another disciple for himself, in just the same way as he had with Andrew, Peter, James and John in the first chapter of Mark. And while those four were not exactly the cream of the crop in terms of education, they were still respectable Jewish men. Fishing was honest labour. But Levi?? Those with Jesus must have thought that he was out of his mind. Levi was lower than low. A pig farmer might have found more respect. But Jesus decides to call him to be a disciple. Later on, he would even be appointed as an apostle.

Say your congregation was vacant. Imagine if the Calling Committee were to call a congregational meeting and then introduced you to your new prospective pastor, a man they had picked up earlier that afternoon from a crack house somewhere. “He’s been clean for six hours!” I know the analogy doesn’t exactly fit, but your sense of shock would be the same as what the people with Jesus would have felt. Jesus is turning their expectations upside down. They figure that Jesus would act like a respectable rabbi and choose people to follow him who have some class and dignity. Instead, he makes a most surprising choice: Levi the tax collector, scum of the earth extraordinaire.

Even more surprising, when he calls him, he comes. Mark tells us, “Levi got up and followed him.” There’s no questioning, no back and forth. He just gets up and follows Jesus. He becomes his disciple.

Now it appears that when Simon, Andrew, James and John became Jesus’ disciples, from time to time they’d still go back to fishing. But with Levi, there was no going back. Once he followed Jesus, he could never go back to being a tax collector. By walking away, he’d turned his back on it forever. The Romans would never give him his job back. In other words, this was not a light-hearted thing to do. Following Jesus would have an impact on the rest of his life.

And the first thing that Levi does is throw a dinner party for Jesus. We know from Mark’s Greek here that this was a grand celebration – they weren’t eating mac and cheese. This was a grand feast. Then another surprise gets thrown at us when we read about who gets invited to this banquet. Of course, there’s Jesus and his disciples. But then we read that there were also many tax collectors and sinners, people who also followed Jesus. We already know about these tax collectors and what sort of people they were considered to be. But who are these “sinners”? You may notice that the NIV has quotation marks around the word in verses 15 and 16. There’s a good reason for that. The reason has to do with the outlook of the Pharisees. These were people who were regarded as sinners by the Pharisees because they simply didn’t fit in. The Pharisees and their followers were the righteous and all others were sinners. Us and them. These people didn’t follow all the rigid laws and rituals of the Pharisees. More than likely, they were a bit on the shady side as far as morals go. So, if you want, when our text says, “sinners” you could read that as saying “losers” or “rejects.” These were people who were regarded as outcasts. They didn’t fit in with the right people.

So, there sits our Lord eating and drinking with the losers and rejects. The exalted King of heaven and earth is celebrating with the people you warn your children about and hope your children will never become. He sets aside all his glory to do something amazing: eat and drink, celebrate with the lowly. He doesn’t care about their social status – he cares about them.

I think you can see how God’s Word challenges us here this today. Let’s read 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 [read]. The gospel leads us to humility before God and one another. And in Romans 12:16 we read, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” This was most powerfully shown to us in Christ’s ministry on earth. It’s also to be the way of life of those who believe in Christ, those who are united to him by his Spirit.

God’s Word also challenges us here about our fatalism. You might think it strange to speak about fatalism, especially since we believe in God and his power. But you know, so did the Jews of Jesus’ day. They believed that God was sovereign and powerful. But yet many of them were cynical and pessimistic about the possibility that people’s lives could be changed and transformed. They had the attitude that once you were a tax collector or a sinner, you were always to be regarded with suspicion. That’s fatalism. When someone says that it’s impossible for a sinner to repent and be transformed, that’s fatalistic thinking. It’s entirely unbiblical. Verse 15 tells us that these folks followed Jesus. That means they had repented of their sins and they were going to be his disciples. They had turned their back on their old way of life and been forgiven. And that’s why, when the Lord Jesus eats with them, he’s not condoning a sinful lifestyle. He’s attesting that these people and their lives have been transformed. What’s impossible with man is possible with God. By eating with them, Jesus was proclaiming that the impossible had happened: intimate fellowship and friendship had come to Levi’s house.

And so when the Good Shepherd brings back lost sheep, who are we to be cynical? When those who have been lost have repented and been forgiven, who are we to continue painting these white sheep black? Rather, like the Lord Jesus, we welcome them back into the intimate fellowship and friendship of God’s house. It’s a time of celebrating God’s good news for them and for us – sinners are received by God in grace!

But yet there are often those who cannot accept this. We’ll see that as we consider the surly rebuke in our passage.

2. A surly rebuke

As the book of Mark progresses, the teachers of the law begin to shadow the Lord Jesus everywhere he goes. And of course, they’re here in this passage too. Here they followed the Lord Jesus to Levi’s house. From the looks of things, they weren’t invited in and even if they had been invited in, they wouldn’t have accepted. We’ll look at why in just a second. For now, you can just visualize these Pharisees milling around the front of Levi’s house and watching. “Oh, there’s so-and-so, did you hear what he did last week? Oh, there’s that woman, you know what I saw her doing yesterday?” It would have a regular who’s who of the sin circuit in Capernaum. The Pharisaical tongues would have been wagging away.

Because what Jesus was doing was absolutely scandalous. A respectable rabbi would never eat with tax collectors and so-called sinners. The Pharisees would never even consider doing something like that, not even for a minute. That’s because, according to the Pharisees, tax collectors and so-called sinners were unclean people. Though a careful reading of God’s law might give a different conclusion, the Pharisees were convinced that these people were ritually impure. They may as well have been lepers. Certainly they were moral lepers. Proper upstanding Jews were supposed to keep their distance from these sorts of people and certainly never, ever eat with them.

And that way of thinking drives these Pharisees to confront the disciples with the question of why Jesus does such scandalous things. Note that they don’t ask Jesus himself, instead they go to his disciples and confront them. Perhaps in doing this they wanted to wake up the disciples to the fact that their rabbi is a revolutionary who shouldn’t be followed or trusted. After all, he’s turning their cultural norms and expectations upside down. You really should have second thoughts about following a teacher who’s like that.

So they ask their question: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The way the question is asked in the original, it’s clear that this is not a genuine question, but a snarky, surly rebuke. The Pharisees don’t really care about the reason why he does this. All they know is that it’s wrong and he has to be stopped and his disciples have to be turned away from him. The Pharisees are blind to the character of God’s kingdom.

They expected God’s kingdom to come with power and might defined according to their own terms. They expected glory and their culture of righteousness to be vindicated. Their Jewish club, with all its rules and regulations, would be shown to be right and all others shown to be wrong. That’s what drives their words here in Mark 2.

In the face of that, the Lord Jesus came to show and teach something completely different – the truth about the kingdom of God. The truth is that the kingdom is the place where the way down is the way up. The kingdom is the place where to be low is to be high. The kingdom is the place where the broken heart is the healed heart and the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit. The kingdom is the place where to give is to receive and where to bear the cross is to wear the crown. It is the place where one dies in order that one may live. The Lord Jesus ate and drank with sinners and tax-collectors to show that the kingdom of God has nothing to do with self-righteous and self-absorbed narcissistic cultures, even when that culture is found among God’s people.

They asked, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” In asking, they rebuked not merely some renegade Jewish rabbi, but they rebuked the kingdom of God and all that it represents, including and especially God himself. Their question also exposes the stubborn glory-seeking old nature with which all of us struggle. Perhaps we wonder from time to time, “What was the Lord thinking when he brought that person into our church?” Perhaps we are more like the Pharisees in this story than we care to admit. That’s also why we need to listen carefully to Jesus’ stunning response in verse 17.

3. A stunning response.

Though it appears they tried to keep Jesus out of the loop, he overheard what the Pharisees were saying to his disciples. He was not going to let this go. No, now was the time to speak up and set them straight on what he was all about.

First he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The Lord Jesus is using an illustration here to make a point. What he does is take the starting position of the Pharisees – namely that they are the completely healthy ones, and the rest of the people are sick. He takes that starting position and works from there. He’s saying, if you folks are healthy, obviously I don’t need to be among you. I’m a doctor. A doctor needs to be right in there with the sick people if he’s going to help them. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “If your assumptions are accurate, then this is right where I need to be!” For us today, the Lord Jesus is saying that if we think we’re doing all right, if we think we’re healthy as individuals and as a church, then he has no place among us. To put it another way, when we think we’ve arrived, Jesus is out the door and down the road.

Then we read some of the most powerful gospel words in the Bible, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Here’s the crux of the matter: who Jesus came to call. Who did the Lord Jesus come to save? The call of the gospel is not given to the righteous, to the ones who think themselves to be worthy and who pride themselves on their righteousness and respectability. Instead, the Lord Jesus comes to those who are unworthy and who know it, he comes to those who know their desperate need for a Saviour. Jesus came to call the sinners, the lost, the straying, the burdened, the hungry and thirsty – these are the ones whom the Saviour came to call!

Notice that in verse 17, the NIV has taken the quotation marks off the word “sinners.” That’s because here the Lord Jesus is using the word in the broader sense. See, he’s not just talking about the people the Pharisees look at as rejects and losers, but people who have sinned against a holy God. Jesus is speaking about people who know themselves to have fallen short of the glory of God, people who know themselves to be offenders and debtors. These are the people who flee to the cross of Jesus Christ despairing of their own worthiness and righteousness. The Lord Jesus came to call sinners!

Today he is calling us again. He is calling each and every one of us, young and old (including the children) – he is calling all of us to faith and repentance. We often value keeping up appearances and looking respectable to others. The Lord Jesus tells us this that he did not come to call such people. We often value being with the right crowd and working hard. The Lord Jesus proclaims that these things are not on his calling agenda. The Saviour turns it all upside down. He says the only thing that matters is for you to see your total need for him and humbly flee to him. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. He is calling us to cast contempt on all our pride and look to him alone. He is calling us away from ourselves and outside of ourselves. He is calling us, calling us to acknowledge our utter unworthiness, our total unrighteousness and his all-surpassing worth. Brothers and sisters, this is the Saviour we need, the only Saviour, your Saviour.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Ted Turner were right: the Christian faith is for losers. It’s for those who have lost sight of the lie of their own righteousness and have completely embraced Jesus Christ and his righteousness. It’s for those who have lost their own life so as to find life in Christ. He came to call the losers, me, you, us. Let’s heed his call.

Let us pray

LORD God in heaven, we are sinners, entirely unworthy of your love and grace. Of ourselves, we have no righteousness whatsoever. We are so desperately poor and needy. O Father, we flee to the one who came to call sinners. Lord Jesus, we fall at your feet and implore you to have mercy on us. Eat and drink with us sinners. Relieve our hunger with your broken body and relieve our thirst with your shed blood. Feast with us today and every day until the Great Feast arrives. Father, teach us to repent of all our self-righteousness. LORD God, we pray that you would strengthen us to believe the gospel. Help us to serve you according to your Word. We pray for more grace that our lives would more and more be conformed to the image of your Son. Help us with your Spirit so that we would warmly embrace everyone you call into your kingdom. With your Word, we pray that you would bring more light to our eyes and soften our hard hearts so that your Name would be glorified more and more through us. We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord. AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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