A Sermon Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on January 31, 2021
Photos are all scenes from “The Chosen,” a TV series about the life of Christ.
Our scripture this morning tells us the story of two outcasts: a leper and a tax collector.
The leper is an involuntary outcast. Through no fault of his own he has contracted a disease that requires him to self-quarantine and maintain social distancing. He cannot share a home with anyway, he cannot to town to shop for groceries or other essentials. He has to maintain at least 6 ft distance between himself and others. If the wind is blowing he has to maintain a distance of 145 feet.
After almost a year of Covid-19 I think we can understand a tiny bit of what this leper experienced. We know what it is like to be unable to socialize with family and friends. Multiply what you have experienced by 100 and you may begin to get a sense of what this leper felt.
But it was even worse because there was a shame to being a leper. People were repulsed and frightened by leper. Whenever a leper saw someone else, they required to cover their upper lip and call out “Unclean! Unclean!”
Dallas Jenkins has been creating an episodic TV show called “The Chosen,” which over the course of 56 episodes and 8 seasons will tell the story of Jesus’ life. I have only seen parts of it, but it is very powerful and well done. Below is a 3 ½ minute clip that helps us to experience the impact that Jesus’ healing had on this leper. (click on the link below)
Isn’t that powerful. This scene chokes me up.
Now I want you to notice something. The most important part of this scene is not the physical. Rather it’s the emotional, social, and spiritual healing that this man experiences. Jesus was unafraid to touch the leper and embraced him and welcomed him back to the human race.
But also notice that Jesus’s actions changed the disciples. At the beginning of the scene they are all frightened and repulsed by the leper; John even goes so far to pull a knife. But by the end of the scene they are all stumbling over themselves to give the leper a tunic, and even John now helps the former leper to put on the tunic. That’s what Jesus wants to happen with all disciples, including us. He shows us how not to fear the outcast but to serve and embrace them.
Who are the involuntary outcasts in our day? The mentally ill? the homeless? the developmentally disabled? people of color? LGBTQ people? Jesus reaches out to embrace them and he invites us to do the same.
Now there was a second outcast in this morning’s scripture: a tax collector, and he is what you might call a “voluntary outcast.” His name was Levi, but he was also known as Matthew. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews. Leon Morris notes, “tax collectors were heartily disliked both as collaborators and as extortioners. As a class there were regarded as dishonest and the Talmud classifies them as robbers (Sanhedrin 25b). (Morris, p. 131)” They were kicked out of the synagogue which was not only a place of worship but also the center of community life. They could not participate in the temple worship or the major feasts. They were shunned by their community and could only associate with other tax collectors and undesirables.
They were also despised by the Romans for whom they worked. Joel B. Green notes
…in the wider Greco-Roman world a tax collector was seen as a person of low status. …[T]he Roman elite avoided this politically important and potentially lucrative activity because of the social stigma intrinsic to it. Though doubtlessly there were exceptions, tax collectors as a group were despised as snoops, corrupt, the social equivalent of pimps and informants.
(Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (pp. 245-246). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.)
In a day when honor meant everything tax collectors sold their good name for the opportunity to become wealthy. By doing so they became voluntary outcasts, socially shunned just as much as lepers. One had to have a tough skin to become a tax collector.
But Levi’s voluntary exile did not keep Jesus from loving him and calling him to become a disciple. There is another scene from the Chosen which shows the call of Matthew/Levi. Let’s watch it to catch the impact Jesus had on Levi. (Click on the link below)
I love the dialog between Jesus and his disciples. When one of them says, “I don’t get it,” Jesus replied, “You didn’t get it when I chose you either.”
We could all echo that sentiment. Did any of us really “get it” when Jesus called us? Did we really think that we deserved his love?
Back in the 80s Kris Kristofferson wrote a song that expresses his wonder that Jesus would save someone like him.
Why me Lord?
What have I ever done
To deserve even one
Of the pleasures I’ve known?
Tell me, Lord
What did I ever do
That was worth lovin’ you
Or the kindness you’ve shown?
I think that this song expresses exactly how Levi felt when Jesus called him. And so the first thing that he did was to throw a party for all the other low lifes in his life, the tax collectors and all the other people who were excluded from decent society. David Guzik says,
One reason Matthew gave the party was because he wanted his friends to meet Jesus. A saved man doesn’t want to go to heaven alone. (David Guzik https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/luke-5/)
Now some of the people at this party were Pharisees, which is really quite surprising. The name Pharisee means “to separate” and that describes them perfectly. They were people who wanted to keep themselves separate from any bad influences. They kept themselves separate from certain foods, certain practices and certain people. Today they would probably have a lot of common with those parents who choose to homeschool so that their children will not unduly influenced by secular ideas.
Now I’m not saying that homeschooling, or for that matter, Christian schools are wrong. There is something to be said for giving your children a solid, Christian education and worldview. However, the problem with separatism is that it can lead to a self-righteous attitude that judges those who are different from us.
The Pharisees were not at Levi’s party to participate but to evaluate. They weren’t going to eat the food or drink the wine. They wanted to check out what Jesus was doing. And what they saw, they didn’t like. They didn’t have the courage to take their concerns directly to Jesus, but instead they pulled his disciples aside and complained to them. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus must have overheard them because he interrupted them from the head of the table and said, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” I think he said this with an ironic smile on his face. “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 to repentance.”
Levi and his friends were definitely sinners, but because of Jesus and his love, they changed and became followers. And that is good news for everyone. No matter how badly you may have screwed up, Jesus is going to come looking for you and say, “Follow me.” Don’t be afraid. Answer the call.