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.”
The ministry of the Holy Spirit collapses the compartmentalized categories of sacred and secular, church and world, sanctuary and streets. Jesus does the overwhelming majority of his work right in the middle of the everyday world—where everybody else is doing their everyday work. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be in search of religious facilities. Jesus spends his days next to the Sea of Galilee, in the host of towns and villages around the sea, in the homes of tax collectors, sinners, and friends. By comparison he goes to the synagogue once a week and hardly ever visits the Big House (a.k.a. the temple).
We tend to think the Holy Spirit mostly works when people gather in the church building. We observe the opposite in the ministry of Jesus’the Holy Spirit mostly works where people live out their lives in the work-a-day world. Jesus is not creating environments for seekers. He is going out and seeking them where they live and work. The Holy Spirit breaks the “you come to us” approach, putting in its place the “we go to you” method.
Jesus constantly shows us what it looks like when the Holy Spirit works through a person to enter desecrated places and restore their sacred character. It reminds me of a line in one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, “How to Be a Poet”: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
Jesus is drawn to desecrated people and places with magnetic force. He touches a desecrated leper and restores his sacredness. He approaches a despised tax collector and restores his sacredness as a called one of God.
When sin touches the sacred, it becomes desecrated. When the Sacred One touches the desecrated ones, the desecrated ones become sacred again. This is what got him in so much trouble with the religious authorities, whose work was to maintain the boundaries between the clean and unclean, the sinners and the righteous and to enforce the boundaries between the sacred and secular.
In today’s text we see Jesus in the home of a tax collector seated around the table with a crowd of notorious sinners. It looks to the religious authorities that he is affirming sin. It makes no sense to them.
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?”
The truth? Jesus hates sin because sin desecrates all he has created. He loves sinners and he is willing to walk right into the heart of sin, even if it looks bad; even if he gets accused of going soft on crime, because he loves sinners that much. He doesn’t care what it looks like. In fact, he is willing to risk being misunderstood as affirming sin in order to carry out his mission of restoring desecrated sinners into the sacred sons and daughters of God.
I think this is the kind of risk-taking he’s looking for from his followers. The Holy Spirit is always ready to empower those risk-takers. Yes, they will often pay a price, but those are the ones Jesus will be high-fiving in the end.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
How much have you permitted the world around you to draw lines separating the secular and the sacred in your way of seeing people and things? How might you redraw those lines?
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