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Mark 2.13-17 ‘The surprising God’


This sermon was first preached at the 6:30 PM service on Sunday 5 March 2006 at Ealing (St Mary).

If Jesus were here today, what would his life look like?  What would he say and do, how would he do them, what kind of people would he associate with?

The Surprise of Jesus

In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky includes a chapter called The Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan tells a story to his brother Alyosha, who is a monk.  In the story, Jesus appears in medieval Spain, and is taken captive by the Spanish Inquisition.  The Grand Inquisitor comes to interrogate Jesus, who remains silent.

The Inquisitor tells him that he got everything wrong.  God sent the wrong Messiah to the wrong people.  Instead of giving them freedom to choose between good and evil, he should have given them material security, as the church now has: ‘For fifteen centuries we have struggled with that freedom, but now it is all over, and over for good… did you forget that peace of mind and even death are dearer to man than free choice and the cognition of good and evil?  There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting for him, either.’

Jesus had no right to return: ‘It was all told by you to the Pope and so it is now all of it in the Pope’s possession, and now we should appreciate it if you would stay away altogether and refrain from interfering – for the time being, at any rate.’  The people now belonged to the church, which gave them what they most wanted: security, but at the cost of the freedom Jesus won for them.  The Inquisitor tells Jesus, ‘We corrected your great deed.’

In Ivan’s story, the religious establishment rejected the author and perfecter of its faith.  For the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus’ life was incomprehensible, much as it was to the religious establishment in Jesus’ day.

Before our reading today, we see Jesus telling a man his sins are forgiven – actual blasphemy unless the speaker is God.  The scribes make the right connection between the forgiveness of sins and God (only God can forgive sins), but not then between God and Jesus (if Jesus is forgiving sins, he must be God).

The reason that they couldn’t see what was before their eyes, was because they weren’t expecting God to look like Jesus.  They were expecting a warrior, a king – a political king, who would restore the country of Israel, and conquer their enemies.  They were expecting someone grand, not a nomadic ex-carpenter.

The same thing happens after our reading as well.  The Pharisees want to know why the disciples aren’t fasting.  They simply couldn’t see that God had returned to live amongst them, as he had promised, and that this was a time for celebration, as at a wedding!  They just weren’t expecting God to look like Jesus.  It wasn’t what Jesus did – healing the sick, announcing release to the captives, forgiving sins, casting out demons, preaching about the kingdom of God – it was more the way he did it that caught them by surprise.  In one way, Jesus fulfilled all their expectations of what God would do when he came to live with his people; in every other way he showed that, ‘their wildest dreams had simply not been wild enough.’

The Surprise of Whom Jesus Called

Our passage today is a prime example of that.  The Pharisees expected themselves to be given a special place in God’s plans, because of their knowledge of and adherence to the Law.

But Jesus didn’t call them.  He called fishermen and tax-collectors, people who weren’t really important.  In fact, in the case of tax-collectors, people who were practically outcasts.  No-one likes paying taxes, still less to an occupying nation.  Imagine how much tax-collectors were disliked by the Jews.  Many of them made it even worse for themselves; some cheated people, charging them higher taxes than necessary, keeping the balance.

And so along came Jesus.  He was walking by the sea, and he saw Levi sitting in his tax-collector’s booth.  He looked him in the eye, and said, ‘Follow me.’  Straight away, Levi got up, left his booth, and followed Jesus.  He must have been excited by what happened, because the next thing we know, Levi’s throwing a party at his house for Jesus and all his mates.

Let’s step back a bit and get some perspective.  Mark tells us that Levi’s party was attended by ‘tax-collectors and sinners’.  Perhaps a modern parallel in our country today might be ‘drug-dealers and paedophiles’.  Jesus was eating with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to be seen dead with on the street.  He was eating with the people that society had rejected and ostracised.

Would you be shocked if Jesus called a drug-dealer to be one of his primary followers, and then had a party with all the local drug-dealers and paedophiles, perhaps with a few armed robbers and prostitutes as well.  Does that shock you?  It shocked me when I wrote it.  It perhaps seems entirely justified to be shocked that Jesus would associate with such characters.

But that reaction is exactly the same as the Pharisees’.  That is exactly how they felt, and why they questioned Jesus’ disciples.  Let’s not read the gospels looking down on the Pharisees; when we read the gospels, all to often the Pharisees represent in the text our own attitudes.  They were the religious establishment in Jesus’ day, so sure of their traditions and practices.

The problem was, the Pharisees had forgotten the God who was behind those traditions and practices, the God to whom the Law was supposed to point.  They had forgotten that the point of God speaking was not to tell us what to do, but to say, ‘Here I AM.’  God says that to us: ‘I am your God, the God of your world, the God whose hands flung the stars into space, the God on whose hands your name is written, the God whose hand longs to take yours to lead you into the unknown, the God whose hand holds the future, the God whose hands were brutally pierced on a Roman cross.’

The Surprise of Grace

So who does God say that to?  What kind of person does God address himself to like that?  You know in your head, I’m sure, that God addresses himself to everyone, whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they’ve done.

But perhaps in your heart, you find it difficult to accept that Jesus might want to spend quality time with a sinner, a paedophile or a drug-dealer.  That Jesus would call a sinner to serve him in a special way.  That Jesus might want to go to a party thrown by a sinner, and attended by other sinners.

That is the Pharisee reaction that is in each of us.  It is one of the things that shows us that actually we too are sinners.  From God’s point of view, we are all as bad as each other.  The Pharisees simply couldn’t see this, because they were too busy criticising other people to see their own sin.

And so we come to Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees’ revulsion at the company he was keeping: ‘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.’

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’  No-one in their right mind would berate a doctor for spending her time among sick people.  After all, she isn’t there to rub in the fact that they’re poorly and she isn’t, she’s there to heal them, to make them better.  Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised to find him among the people that need him the most: the outcasts, the down-and-outs, society’s rejects.

The negative simply reinforces the first statement: quite simply, there is no need for Jesus to call someone out of sin, if they are not guilty of it.  If someone were righteous, she would not need Jesus to present her before the Father: she could do that on her own.  Jesus calls out of sin only those who are in sin. 

However, Jesus didn’t say that there are actually some people who don’t need him because they are already righteous.  Neither is he being unpleasantly sarcastic and rude.  I don’t believe the Pharisees were deliberately being nasty; they genuinely didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or why he was doing it.

There is though an undertone in what Jesus said, that gently says to us, as it said to the Pharisees, ‘If you are well, you do not need me to heal you; so are you sure you are well?  If you are righteous, you do not need my grace to make perfect your weakness; so are you sure you are righteous?’

Jesus came to heal the sick and to call sinners into new life.  We who are Christians have received that healing, and responded to that call to a new life, and we go on receiving and responding to it every day. It is our duty, our mission, to carry on, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the work that Jesus began.  We too must proclaim healing for the sick, must call sinners into new life in Jesus.  We too must hold out our hands to those who have been rejected by everyone else, bringing them the message of healing, forgiveness and new life.

In a time of silence now, I’d like us all to do three things:

  1. Say sorry to God for the times we have looked on others as sinners, and failed to see our own sin.
  2. Thank God for sending his son Jesus to heal sickness and to call us out of sin, into a new, forgiven life.
  3. Ask God to help us to have courage and wisdom to take the good news about Jesus to the world in a loving way.

After you have done that, reflect on what we’ve looked at tonight, on the things that struck you, challenged you or encouraged you.  Let’s each do that in a few minutes of silence.

Dear Lord Jesus, we long to be with you in your kingdom.  While we are here in this age, please forgive us when we forget our own weaknesses and look down on others; please help us to receive from you perfect forgiveness and peace, and to offer that to the world.  Fill us with your Holy Spirit, that we may hear your words to us, and do them.  In your name we pray, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.