Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners
The call of Levi and meal that follows reveals much about Jesus’ mission in the world. He came to invite all sorts of a people to follow him, including the least likely of people, tax collectors and sinners. Mark 2:13-17 records the story of Jesus calling Levi to follow him, the meal Jesus shares with tax collectors and sinners and the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees that ensues. You can listen to my sermon here, as I flesh out the meaning of this text further.
Today, I want to explore one implication of Jesus’ decision to share a meal with the sort of people that would be termed tax collectors and sinners. Purity laws surrounding relational associations and mealtime company would have prohibited Jesus from this sort of interaction. It was believed that sharing a meal with certain types of people would defile you, some teachers went as far to say that even a meal with someone who is poor might make you unclean. These social and religious norms contributed to the Pharisees dismay at Jesus’ decision to share a meal with tax collectors and sinners. Why would a rabbi, who claims to be a follower of God and teacher among His people, choose to defile himself in this way?
As we read this story, about 2,000 years removed from its immediate context, we may want to criticize the Pharisees. We tell ourselves that we are not like them. Sadly, we are often more like them than we care to admit. In fact, motivations for purity still exists in us today.
Disgust and contamination psychology
There is a whole realm of study, known as disgust psychology, which impacts the way we interact with other people. Especially, the relationship between those inside the church and those outside. Richard Beck wrote a book called Unclean, which explores the impact of disgust psychology upon the church. I cannot say that I agree with all his conclusions, in fact, there are many that I do not, but I did find his book helpful as I explored this dynamic.
Here is a quick example regarding the way this plays out. On the most basic level, disgust psychology impacts our relationship with food in pretty clear ways. If I was to give you a delicious pan of brownies, you would probably thank me and enjoy them with some vanilla ice cream. Now, if I was to tell you that I put even the smallest amount of dog feces in that pan of brownies, you would probably want to throw the pan of brownies at me. In fact, you are possibly a bit frustrated with me for even putting such a disgusting illustration in your mind. Even the smallest amount of something disgusting can contaminate a perfectly good pan of brownies. On the other hand, it doesn’t work the opposite way. If you had an entire pan of dog waste, and I was to put a small amount of brownies into it, it would not magically make the dog waste into something you would want to eat. It is important to note, the ability for something unclean to contaminate something that is clean is much stronger than the opposite way. Our disgust psychology is extremely important to help protect us from eating things that would bring us harm, although we do sometimes take it to irrational levels. I don’t have space to explore this with another illustration, but our disgust response is so strong that at times no amount of logic can overcome the feelings we have regarding contamination issues. You can read more about this whole field of study in Unclean.
You might be asking, well what does this have to do with the church? And the answer is what I found most helpful in Beck’s book. Our disgust psychology does not just impact our behavior with food, but also with morality. We have fears that other people’s filthy morality will somehow make us unclean (like feces to a pan of brownies), just because we come into contact with it. Here is a very simple example, researchers have found that many people don’t want to lie in a hotel bed if they know that a homosexual was the previous night’s occupant, or even wear a sweater that was previously owned by a gay person. The reason, Beck suggests, is because behavior deemed to be sin can activate disgust psychology, specifically our contamination logic. Further, I recently heard someone share about two different events they went to. One was hosted by Christians, the other by an acquaintance that was not a Christian. As they reflected back their experience to me, they described feeling dirty after leaving the party that was thrown by the non-Christian. They had not engaged in any sinful activities themselves, but were present in what felt like a sinful atmosphere, and were made to feel dirty as a result.
The impact on the church
Here is where I believe that Jesus’ behavior has an impact on how the church ought to live out Jesus’ mission in the world.
We ought to set aside our fears of contamination. Jesus has changed the dynamic. In the realm of contamination, Jesus cannot be contaminated by the sins of the tax collectors and sinners. In fact, Jesus has the ability to make them clean. The Pharisees feared that spending time with this group of ruffians would contaminate them. Even if the Pharisees did not engage in sinful practices themselves, simply sharing a meal with unclean people could make them unclean. This is not the case with Jesus. Jesus is not made unclean, Jesus makes other people clean. As Christ’s ambassadors in the world, we now carry the message of Jesus. We can’t make them clean, but Jesus can. Further, Jesus has made us clean, and nothing we come into contact with can make us unclean. We need not fear the presence of sinful or unsavory people.
Elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear that it is not what goes into the body, but what comes out of the heart that makes a person unclean (Mk 7:15). It is not the sins of the people we interact with that can make us unclean, but our own sinful heart. Therefore, we ought to make wise decisions about where we go based on our own sin patterns and temptations, but not because we feel like a certain place is too dirty because of the sins of others. For example, I have a friend who once chose to work as a cook at a strip club. She wanted to have the opportunity to build relationships with the people who worked there and share the love of Jesus in word and deed. She was not made “dirty” because she worked with “dirty” people. While it was fine for her to work there, it would not be wise for someone who struggles with lustful temptations to work in the same place. Not because someone else would “make” them dirty, but because of their own sinful tendencies. We must be wise in the way we live this out, but it is based on our own hearts, not the fear that someone else can make us unclean. Jesus has made us clean, no one else can undo that.
The images of salt and light that are used for the church are not images that build defensive walls to shield the church from all the dirty scoundrels in the world. They are images that infiltrate, permeate and transform their environments. A candle is all the more visible in dark places, and it cannot be quenched by darkness. The presence of light cannot be extinguished by the darkest of nights, but a growing flame can have a significant impact on what was once a dark space.
The church in the world
When I pull this all together, Jesus’ decision to share a meal with the outcasts, scoundrels and scum of his day should be a reminder to the church to also carry the Good News of Jesus to people that we might otherwise be afraid to interact with. We do not need to fear getting contaminated or made dirty by people outside the Church. It is not them that will make us unclean, but only our sinful hearts. Jesus is calling the church to be salt and light, to permeate, change and transform our environments. Jesus can make even the most dirty people clean. And praise God he can, because we were all in need of some cleaning when we met Jesus!