When I was a kid I remember the time my dad tried to quit the church. My dad was a deacon. He was in charge of the bus ministry. Some of yall are old enough to remember the bus ministry. We had three old school buses repainted a bright white and red with cool names of Peanuts characters on them. Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown. They ran three different routes throughout our town and they brought a ton of kids into our church.
The problem was most of these kids had never been to church before. So they didn’t know how to act. They didn’t sit still, they talked loud, they ran, there were a lot of hushed and heated conversations about what to do with all this rambunctious activity in our church.
I was standing there the Sunday one of the ladies in our church, an elder’s wife – although at the time I was too young to understand that, cornered my dad in the back hallway.
“This is all your fault, George Dunn!” she hissed. “You and those busses bringing all those little (insert racial slur here) kids to tear up our church. You’re gonna destroy this church with “those people.”
My dad didn’t say a word. We just left. In a hurry.
And when we got home I heard him very loudly telling my mama that he was never going back to that ( word I can’t use here) church and that all those uppity church people could all …. (well you get the idea)
When I was in youth ministry we had the blessing (or curse) of being right next door to the high school. It was a tremendous location and a great way to reach out. Every Thursday we would feed anyone who wanted to come. And if you know anything about teenagers you know that if you offer free or cheap food; they will come. Eventually some of them even began to come to church. And that’s where the problems started.
You see, many of these kids had never been to church in their lives. Their experience was far from church. And they would show up with purple hair, or with all their piercings in place, one even showed up in his full Goth makeup with black lipstick and eyeliner. And that was more than a lot of our people could take.
I got reprimanded for bringing “THOSE PEOPLE” into church. The problem, apparently, is that “THOSE PEOPLE” don’t know how to act. “THOSE PEOPLE” don’t know how to dress. “THOSE PEOPLE” are sinful and we are desperately afraid that their sinfulness might rub off or influence others. Therefore, the safest thing to do was to avoid association with “THOSE PEOPLE” at all costs.
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Levi was labeled. He was labeled a tax collector. That was all. There was no room for him as an individual. There was no place for his personality or individuality. He was labeled.
We label each other because it helps us to compartmentalize. We like things in neat, tidy manageable boxes. Things that are easy to wrap our minds around. Once we make a judgement, whether it is based on activity, history or observation; we slap a label on that person so they are more easily manageable.
The purpose of labeling is to separate and divide. Cause one of the things humans are best at is dividing. We divide by gender, we divide by age, we divide by race, we divide by socio-economic status, we divide by culture, geography, and the list goes on and on and on. We are skilled at finding ways to divide.
And once we are divided, we slap a label on so that we can compartmentalize and keep the division just the way we want them.
We may label people “conservative” or “liberal.” “Progressive” or “Narrow-minded”, “Christian’ or “sinner”, “non-believer” “seeker” “unchurched” “member of the church” “divorced” “homosexual” “hippie” “redneck” “old” “young” whatever.
Once we slap on that label, we have successfully compartmentalized that person in our mind and we can accept or reject them based on how we feel about the label we have applied.
Yet when Jesus encountered those who had been labeled, he peeled away the label to see the person. He looked beyond whatever box they had been placed in by their circumstances to see the person within. Are we doing that? Can we peel away the labels and see the people beneath as Jesus saw them?
When Levi accepts the call to follow Jesus, he can’t keep it to himself.
He wants to call together everyone he knows and share this with them. So he has a huge dinner party at his house and invites all his friends.
Now we just talked about the place tax collectors held in Jewish society. They were outcasts. They were rejects. So who do you think Levi’s friends were? Honorable holy Jewish leaders? NO, they were other outcasts and rejects just like him. So they came together and Jesus was eating with them.
Remember that in Jewish society to share a meal was to share fellowship. And Jewish society was much like ours in saying “You can judge a man by the company he keeps.”
Now notice that Jesus doesn’t defend (like we sometimes do) the character of those gathered here. (Oh well, see, Levi is actually the ONLY honest tax collector and his friends are all good guys too.) He validates the Pharisees estimation. Because they are experts in the LAW. And according to the Law, these guys are sinners.
So Jesus doesn’t talk about how good they are or offer excuses; instead he goes right to the heart of the matter. I’m with them because they need me. Period.
Jesus loves “THOSE PEOPLE” who religion rejects. He embraces those people that religious people shun. And he fellowships with those people that the righteous would push away or marginalize.
Why? Because they are the ones who need a savior. What’s more, they are more able to RECOGNIZE their need for a savior.
Jesus walks into our segregated, compartmentalized, divided and neatly labeled world and starts tearing off labels.
You are no longer defined by your sin. You are not defined by your birth, your parents, your gender, your race, your age, your sexuality, your politics or even your religion.
Look at the last line in v. 17:
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
If you wanna define yourself by religion, if you want to stand before God based on your perfection in regard to the law – that’s fine. Good luck with that.
Jesus says I came for the ones shunned, abused, neglected and cast aside by the religious perfectionists. I came here for the sinners.
Part of our problem today is that we identify with the Pharisees in this story more than we identify with Levi. We usually don’t see ourselves as outcasts. We don’t feel rejected. We don’t think we’re sick or ill. And we definitely don’t think we’re sinners.
Oh sure, we acknowledge the church people sins, but we don’t really see them as all that bad. Not like “THOSE PEOPLE.”
“Those people” do things I would never dream of doing. Thank God that I am not like “Those people.”
As Christians who follow Jesus and live in our increasingly divided and labeled culture, we have to be about pulling off the labels and looking at the people underneath.
Jesus didn’t see a “tax collector”, he saw a man named Levi.
Because it’s not the healthy who need healing. Jesus didn’t come for those who think themselves righteous, He came to tear away the labels and open the doors of the kingdom … to “those people.”
You know who Jesus would eat with if he were here walking the earth today? THOSE PEOPLE
You know who Jesus would call if He were walking the streets and calling disciples today? THOSE PEOPLE
You know why? BECAUSE YOU AND I ARE THOSE PEOPLE!!
You and I are the sick in need of the doctor. There is no equivocation.
Paul says there is none righteous, NOT EVEN ONE! Romans 3:10
You and I are not the righteous! We are the sinners! We are the ones Jesus came for.
Now, our lives have gotten better because we have been redeemed and forgiven. We are no longer in despair and desperation because the Holy Spirit dwells within us and gives us power over sin in our lives but let’s not forget where we came from.
WE ARE THOSE PEOPLE!!!!
So before we begin to look down or cast judgement, let’s remember who we are. Let’s also remember who we follow.
Let’s walk in the steps of the One who sees past labels and sees into souls. Let’s be, like Jesus, not in the business of judging but about the work of loving. And let’s, like Jesus, find ways to see the image of God in “those people.”