Once more Jesus went out beside the sea. All the crowd came to him, and he taught them. As he went along he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the toll booth. ‘Follow me!’ he said. And he got up and followed him. That’s how Jesus came to be sitting at home with lots of tax-collectors and sinners. There they were, plenty of them, sitting with Jesus and his disciples; they had become his followers. When the legal experts from the Pharisees saw him eating with tax-collectors and sinners, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘It’s sick people who need the doctor, not healthy ones. I came to call the bad people, not the good ones.’
Three times yesterday the doorbell rang unexpectedly. First it was the engineer; he came to inspect the foundations of the outhouse. Then it was the builder; he came to measure for some windows that need replacing. Finally it was the electrician; he came to fix some damaged light fittings. (Like the mythical Number 17 bus: you wait for ages, and then three come at the same time.) They came, each of them, to do a job. All went off happily with the job done.
Perhaps the most interesting word in this fascinating passage is that word, ‘came’, in verse 17. ‘I came’, says Jesus, ‘to call the bad people, not the good ones.’ Pause a moment before we even think about the bad and the good. What does Jesus mean, ‘I came’? He implies that, like the builder and his colleagues, he had ‘come’ with a specific purpose. But . . . ‘come’ from where? Isn’t it an odd way of talking about a sense of vocation? Might we not expect someone engaged in a particular mission to speak of ‘I’ve been called to . . .’, rather than ‘I’ve come’?
I think this saying hints at something we noticed right at the start of Mark’s gospel: that Jesus was, simultaneously, called to act out the part of Israel’s Messiah, and to act out the role of Israel’s God, coming (yes!) to rescue his people at last, to reveal his glory and establish his kingdom. I think this is what we see here, reflected off the text in a sudden flicker of light. There are echoes here, after all, of what God says in the prophecy of Ezekiel, chapter 34. There, speaking of Israel as a flock of sheep, God declares that he himself is going to come and search for the lost and the strayed.
Jesus uses that image, too, of course, in various places, but here he chooses another one: that of the doctor. Imagine a doctor who was so keen to put on a good show that he filled up the hospital with healthy people! Not a lot of point in that. But the people who were keeping an eye out for Jesus and what he was doing – the ‘legal experts’ from the party of the ‘Pharisees’, a kind of self-appointed group of moral watchdogs – make out that they’re shocked at Jesus keeping company with all the wrong people.
That, too, is significant. Why would anybody have worried about who Jesus was associating with? People can be friends, we assume, with anybody they like. Yes: but only if they’re private citizens. You or I can be friends with the strange characters we happen to meet. But if the Prime Minister, or his wife, befriends some dodgy or shady person it reflects badly. It calls their judgment into question.
And Jesus wasn’t acting as just another person on the street. He was already recognized as someone claiming to speak for God, claiming to announce that God was now becoming king in the new way he’d always promised. So he naturally became a target. Imagine the journalists and photographers swarming around someone who suddenly announces the foundation of a new political party! Everyone wants to know what signals are being sent, what lifestyle this person will adopt, and so on. That’s what it was like with Jesus.
Jesus leaves them in no doubt: his new kingdom-of-God movement will be all about celebrating a new sort of healing. He’s already been healing people’s bodies, and now he uses that medical imagery to explain what’s happening on a larger scale as well. Tax-collectors were no more popular in the ancient world than they are today. In fact, they were often even less popular, because they would be working for some regime or other – either the Romans, the hated pagans who were the ultimate overlords, or one of the Herod family, local but not much better. (The reason there was a tax-booth just along the seashore from Capernaum is that you would cross over from Herod Antipas’ territory into that of his brother, Philip.) In a small community, everyone would know everyone else, and once someone was regarded as a bad character, that would be it. Nobody would want to be friends – except other people who had been treated in the same way.
And Jesus was determined to treat them differently. This was not (just to be clear) because, so to speak, God likes bad characters and wants them to stay as bad characters. No: God loves bad characters and wants to rescue them! Sometimes people today speak as though Jesus simply tells people that they’re all right the way they are. That would be like a doctor filling the hospital with sick people and leaving them still sick.
When Jesus says ‘Follow me!’ it is, of course, a wonderful affirmation of who we are, deep down inside. You are a human being, made to reflect God’s image and glory into the world, and Jesus is calling you to do just that in whatever specific way God wants from you. That is part of the message of Lent: a new calling.
But this doesn’t mean we can continue to live in the ways we’ve always lived. On the contrary. When Jesus calls some-one, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he commands them to come and die. We shall see that soon enough. The death begins right here, as the ‘sick people’ discover that Jesus heals them so that they leave that old life behind. But, as with the gospel as a whole, the death happens so that new life can grow in its place. When you hear Jesus calling, ‘Follow me!’, you should expect both. From sickness to health. From death to life.
Help me, gracious Lord, to hear you calling, to celebrate your love, and to accept your healing in every area of my life.