In my pastoral and professional work, I have always sought—imperfectly—to follow the way of Jesus. I understood discipleship to be the process of becoming more like Jesus. To be Christian was not to be identified with a particular denomination or a particular political inclination, but at the very heart of the matter, to learn to be human by imitating Christ.
During this particular season, with COVID and all manner of political turmoil, I have observed that we Christians—those of us who boldly say that we are seeking to follow Christ—have found ourselves jockeying for power and position to make sure our positions are well-known and, indeed, heeded. To make sure Christian (wink, wink) interests are preserved, we can easily forget the ways of Jesus. Today, I want to remind us (especially, me) of a consistent practice of Jesus. Jesus welcomed those others would not even invite.
Even in Jesus’s calling of his earliest disciples, he invited a tax collector, a Jew employed by the oppressor, Rome, to collect taxes (without any legal limits for how much a tax collector could surcharge for his services) from his own people. Certainly, the four fishers previously called would have found this addition to their band insulting at best.
The Evangelist Mark tells of the story of Matthew (also known as Levi). Levi held a dinner for Jesus. He also invited many “tax collectors and sinners.” It sounds like an amazing party.
The Pharisaic scribes who witnessed Jesus’s “inappropriate” behaviour wanted to know why he would do such an outrageous thing. Jesus retorted, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17). In the same way we sometimes mark “sinners” with quotations marks to show that it is being used by the religious leaders of the day to cast judgement, I think Jesus’s “righteous,” when properly understood, also need quotation marks because Jesus does not actually mean the religious righteous were righteous.
In Matthew’s telling of this same story, he adds to Jesus’s retort, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Hos 6:6; see also Mic 6:6–8). The citation from Hosea underscores that his welcome of the unwelcomed was central to his mission. For that reason—to call those who needed God’s welcome—he came. Therefore, any mission that bears the name of Jesus but rejects those for whom Jesus came cannot properly be called Christian.
So, the question might well be addressed to us: Why do you not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?