In Jesus’ day, there were many cultural barriers between various groups of people. Jews had no dealing with Gentiles. Most men would not speak with women in public. No one wanted to be seen with a tax collector. And no right-thinking person would speak with or dare to touch a person with leprosy. In other words, there was a huge “us versus them” mentality. Since Jesus was an aspiring Jewish rabbi, everyone knew that for Him, some people were off limits if He was to maintain a good reputation in the religious community.
But in full view of the public, Jesus systematically knocked down the dividing walls. He questioned the norms of his day. He took a tremendous risk when He had a theological conversation with a Samaritan woman who had a questionable moral history (John 4:4-42). He went out on a thick limb when He touched and healed a man with leprosy (Matt. 8:1-4). When Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, as one of His followers, He crossed the line. It was one thing to invite a common fisherman to be your disciple, but inviting a tax collector was going too far!
Then to top it off, Jesus spent time in intimate table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The religious leaders of the day were both baffled and outraged by this behavior. They were upset that Jesus spent time with these people, but they were even more outraged when they saw that these common people were fond of Jesus, that they were drawn to Him. Worse, Jesus appeared to authentically love the outcasts, half-breeds, and sinners of the day.
The gospel writer Matthew, whose name was also Levi (the tax collector), records one such encounter:
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” He told him, and Matthew got up and followed Him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with Him and his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
Love compelled Jesus to cross every boundary to reach out to those who were lost and wandering far from God. His choice to reach out to, care for, identify with, and relate to “outsiders” did more than raise a few eyebrows. It brought responses of slander, judgement, and even hatred. This is why Luke writes, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
It would have been safest for Jesus to minister only to those who were on the cultural and spiritual inside track. In the same way, it is easier and safer for us to extend our love and compassion to those who are already part of God’s family. We can lock the doors of our churches, gaze at our spiritual navels, and forget the broken world Jesus died to save. But where is the fun in that? Where is the adventure? How does this put us in a place where we have to cry out for the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit?
Jesus took huge risks when He moved His attention from the “us” of His day to “them”. He calls each of His followers to enter into this same risky journey. When is the last time you were accused of being a friend of drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners? If the answer is never, maybe it is time for a seismic shift.
Excerpt from “Seismic Shifts” by Kevin G. Harney (Zondervan).