In the Gospel of Mark we find this story:
"Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 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."
At first glance, this may look like an ordinary calling of a disciple. In a sense it was, but it was also more than that. Jesus was a well-respected Rabbi (teacher of the Jews). He had a following. You notice, he couldn't even go for a walk on the beach without a "large crowd" following him ! So, Jesus begins to teach the crowd, probably some stuff along the lines of , "love your enemy", "turn the other cheek", "when you throw a party, invite the outcasts and sinners not just your friends". What does Jesus do next ? He invites Levi the tax collector to follow him. So what ? you might say. What's the big deal ? To understand the significance we must understand what a "tax collector" was in those days.
In Jesus' day there were two groups of people that the local people really hated. The Romans and the Tax Collectors. The Romans were the pagan, conquering, occupying government of the land of Israel at the time. They enforced heavy taxes to fund their military campaign's, slaughtered innocent civilians, and took peoples homes (the normal stuff a tyrannical, government does). Oh, and any notion of "standing up to a tyrannical government" ( the idea that is so prevalent in the good USA), they dealt with that by torturing and executing you on a cross ! So, how did the Romans collect their heavy taxes ? They instated local Jews to do the collecting for them. That's where the second group, (the one Levi belonged to) the Tax Collectors come in. These guys would collect the taxes that the Roman government required, and more often than not, add an additional amount on top of that to make a profit. You could get rich very quick as a tax collector, ripping off your fellow countryman. For this reason, the Jews hated the tax collectors and considered them almost as evil as the Romans. So, in this context we see Jesus inviting a tax collector to join his inner-circle of closest friends. The story continues :
"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."
Ok, so now Jesus is not only inviting a tax collector to "follow him", he goes to his house and eats dinner with other tax collectors and sinners ! A big party of sinners ! As we see below, the religious people of the day were not too happy with Jesus.
"When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees (the Bible-experts of the day) saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his
disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
You see, back in that time (and very much the case today), it was not considered a good way to follow God by hanging out with sinners. The idea was: we who are following God will hang out with ourselves and leave the other people to themselves. It was looked down upon to talk to a sinner, let alone go to his house and party with him and his friends ! So, why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors ? Jesus answered them below:
"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.”
In other words: You people who think you are well and don't need me because of your supposed good-standing with God, I'm not going to waste my time on you. But the ones who are the outcasts, the looked down on, broken, those who you would turn away from your church because they have a "greater sin" than you, God loves them too, that's who I'm going to invest my time in.
That's what I want to do. I'm going to spend more time hanging out with the sinners, hanging out with the people who think they are beyond God's reach, the people that "religion" and "Christians" have turned away because they don't look, act, talk, behave, or believe EXACTLY the "right" things spiritually, politically or otherwise. Those are the people Jesus came to, and invited to be his friends and party with him. I don't know about you but I'm going to give it a shot.
***Scripture quotations from Mark 2:13-17 ***