"Jesus' Transforming Kindness"
(Delivered Sanctity of Life Sunday, January 18, 2009 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, I ask you to turn with me to the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It's a passage that we would not typically turn to on Sanctity of Life Sunday. But it has something very important to teach us about an often-neglected aspect of our Christian call to defend life in our culture.
This passage speaks of something that happened early in our Lord's earthly ministry. He had been identified to the world by John the Baptist, had performed miracles of healing, and had already begun to call His disciples to Himself. Then, Luke tells us;
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This is the story of how our Lord called a tax collector named Levi to become one of His disciples. We also know this tax collector as Matthew—the author of the Gospel that is called by his name. And to appreciate what a remarkable thing it is that the Lord Jesus called him, you have to appreciate what it meant that he was a "tax collector".
The Jewish people of Jesus' time had no qualms about paying the taxes that God had required of them in the Old Testament law. But Levi wasn't collecting those kinds of taxes. A tax collector in Jesus’ day (or "publican" as some translations have it), was a Jewish man who collected taxes from his own Jewish kinsmen on behalf the Roman empire. He was, at heart, a man who had become a traitor to his own people for money—a sell-out to a foreign, occupying, Gentile government.
A tax collector was doubly hated by his fellow Jews. He not only collected the required revenue appointed by the Roman government, but he made a lucrative living by also collecting a percentage above that required amount as his own 'cut'. A tax collector was considered by the ancient Jewish people to be two things: a 'covenant-breaker' and a 'legal-thief'. A tax collector was, at that time, the worst sinner anyone could imagine—so notorious a sinner that he was excluded from worship in the temple, his money considered “defiled”, and his bodily presence thought to be as contaminating as leprosy. He was not thought of as merely a normal, 'garden-variety' sinner. He stood in a category all its own . . . which is why the Pharisees and scribes used the phrase “tax collectors and sinners.”
And so; it was a profoundly scandalous thing to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus would call a tax collector to become one of His disciples. It was an outrage that He would go to the house of a tax collector and eat! It was an abomination to their religious sensitivities that Jesus would allow other tax collectors to draw close to Him. And what's more, the fact that they spoke critically of not only 'tax collectors' but also 'sinners' suggests that once Jesus permitted the tax collectors into His sphere, all other kinds of notorious sinners flocked to Him as well.
And it doesn't appear that Jesus denied that these were truly sinful people that were gathering around Him. When He was accused of eating and drinking with 'tax-collectors and sinners'; He doesn't seem to say, "How dare you speak of these good and decent people like that!" In fact, He even seems to affirm what was said about them. He compares them with "sick" people; saying that only those who are sick need a physician. And He even contrasts them with righteous people; saying that He didn't come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.
He didn't deny that these broken and guilty people—wounded by the ravages of sin—were truly sinners. He called things for what they are. And yet, these 'sinners' came to Him in droves. They felt welcomed around Him. They felt loved by Him. They felt safe with Him. They felt valued by Him enough to gather to Him—sinful and stained as they were—in order to be made whole by Him.
And I believe that, in our passage this morning, our Lord is exemplifying to us an important element in our battle for the sacredness of life that we—as Jesus' followers—are far too often guilty of neglecting.
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As I thought about this 'missing element', I remembered something I read in a book by Philip Yancey. He shared an event that had had happened to a friend of his who worked with 'down-and-out' people in the Chicago area. His friend said;
Dear brothers and sisters—what have we done that we would make someone feel that way about the place in which the Savior from sin is proclaimed?!!
Now; think about it. Did Jesus ever ignore sin? Did He ever cover-up the sinfulness of sin in order to make people feel better about themselves? Did He ever flatter people; and tell them that they're really not so bad; and that God accepts everyone just as they are—no matter what they do? Far from it. Sin was so horrific a reality to Him that He left His glory in heaven to come to this earth, become one of us, and atone for the guilt of our sin with His own blood. The cross, on which the sinless Son of God died, is His heavenly Father's own clear and unambiguous statement to this world of the absolute sinfulness of sin.
And yet—amazingly—the people in Jesus' day who most felt the guilt of their sins didn't stay away from Him. It doesn't seem that they were ever afraid that He would make them "feel worse" for their guilt and shame. In fact, we read more than once that "all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him" (Luke 15:1).
We read in the Bible of how a scandalous woman of sin once dared to come to the place where He was eating, and drew so close as to wash His feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair, and anoint Him with expensive oil—all because she was grateful to Him for having forgiven her of her many sins (Luke 7:37-38). We read of how a leper—one of societies "untouchables"—would draw so close to Him as to fall before Him and ask to be cleansed (Matthew 8:1-4). We read of how a notorious crook would be so thrilled that Jesus would come to his house for dinner that he immediately repented of all his crooked deals, and returned all that he had stolen . . . with interest (Luke 19:1-10). We read of how a criminal, while being justly put to death for his crime, would feel the freedom to turn to Jesus and say, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (Luke 23:39-43).
Each of these sinners and outcasts felt the loving approachability of Jesus—and were transformed!
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Our Lord never compromised with sin. But it was His kindness and tender mercy toward those who feel the guilt of their sin that made Him so approachable with sinners. And it is the cultivation of our Lord's own qualities of kindness and mercy to the broken and guilty that is the often-neglected aspect of our battle to defend life in our culture.
As the followers of Jesus, it is our duty—as salt and light in this earth—to affirm the sacredness of human life; and to oppose abortion, or infanticide, experimentation on human embryos, or physician-assisted suicide as great evils in our culture that devalue human beings. But could it be that we have done so in ways that drive away those who are tempted to turn to such things in times of desperation? Do we make those who most need the Lord's grace say to themselves, "Why would I ever want to go to a church and ask for help? I already feel guilty enough about myself and the situation I'm in. Why would I want to expose myself to a group of people who will make me feel even worse?"
To put it another way, what was it about Jesus that made guilty people felt safe to come to Him in the midst of their guilt and need? What was it about Him that drew them to Himself for forgiveness, and healing, and power to do the right thing? And is there something about Him that we can imitate, as individual Christians and as a church family, that would also help such people feel 'safe' to come to Him?
As I look at our Lord's example, four things suggest themselves. Let me briefly share them with you. First, we can see that . . .
1. JESUS TOOK THE INITIATIVE WITH LEVI (v. 27).
Our Lord was busy. He was in demand. Multitudes were following Him. But we're told that, "After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office".
Good, decent, devoted Jewish people in those days would not have said to one another, "Where would you like to go today? I know; let's go for a walk and stroll by the tax collector!" And what's more Levi would not have gone to them! You must remember that, at that time and in that culture, there was no sinner more notorious and despised than the kind of sinner that Levi was. Religious people didn't want him around; and he certainly didn't want to face them. And yet, we're told that Jesus went out to where he was—and even right to where he did his dirty worked.
I'm afraid that one of the ways we err is by thinking that, if we are warm and gracious and kind toward someone who has gone the wrong way, we are somehow saying that we don't care about their sin. And one of the things that our Lord's example should teach us is that we help make broken, needy, guilty people feel safe and welcomed to come to Jesus when we take the initiative of love. They are stuck in a cycle of sin against God and hard-heartedness toward the Savior; and they need for us to go to them. We need to cross the bridge of love to where they are. We need to extend the hand first. We need to 'break the ice'.
One of the ways that we create an atmosphere in which broken people feel safe to draw to Jesus is when we—in the power of the Holy Spirit—take the first steps toward them.
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Another thing I see is that . . .
2. JESUS INVITED LEVI TO FOLLOW HIM (v. 27-28).
Isn't it interesting that, when Jesus saw the tax collector, He didn't stand boldly, raise a condemning finger, and say, "I call you, O sinner, to repent this day of your tax collecting!" Instead, He gave Levi a wonderful, two-word invitation—an invitation that no one would have expected: "Follow Me." And in doing so, Levi rose up, left everything behind—not only his money table, but also his criminal behavior and all his unfaithfulness to the covenant of God—and followed Jesus.
I suggest that another mistake we often make in dealing with people trapped in the consequences of their sins is that we focus too much on the sin. We try to help them by telling them to quit sinning. And the problem is that, even if they did quit sinning in the self-destructive way that they were sinning, it still wouldn't save them. They'd be as lost as ever. No one is saved by quitting this sin or that sin. People are saved by entering into a relationship by faith with Jesus Christ. And when they hear His call, and rise up, and truly begin to follow Him, they also leave their sin behind.
It's not our job to make people sinless. That's Jesus' job. Our job is to introduce them to Him, and encourage them to follow Him. He'll take care of the lifestyle-issues along the way.
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Another thing we see is that . . .
3. JESUS DREW CLOSE TO LEVI AND HIS FRIENDS (vv. 29-30).
Levi left his tax office and money tables behind. But he still had some connections. He was still good friends with all the other tax collectors; and he wanted them to meet Jesus too. And so, he put on a big dinner; and invited Jesus and His disciples to come and meet all his other tax collector friends.
What kind of a crowd do you think that might have been? I really don't think it would have possessed any of the dignity of something like Leonardo's painting of The Last Supper; do you? I'm suspecting that it would have been a rough crowd—used to being hardened in their sin. I think there would have been a few profanities flying by and a few gestures being passed. I imagine that some crude gossip got whispered down the line. I'd bet that there were even a few dinner-table jokes that got started—and that were awkwardly stopped before the punch-line could be heard! It probably wasn't the kind of atmosphere that delicate little Christian ears would be accustomed to taking in. But in the middle of it all sat the Son of God—genuinely loving these sinners enough to be close to them and eat with them. They were used to 'holy' people rejecting them. But I believe that, over time, Jesus' manifest love for them began to change them. He making Himself approachable to them by the fact that He was already there with them.
Another way that we can open the door for needy people to be drawn to the Savior is by translating genuine 'love' into objective quantities—things like 'time' with them, 'closeness' to them, an ear that 'listens' to them, and genuine 'respect' toward them.
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Now, all these things take work and sacrifice on our part—which is probably why they aren't done very often. But they are the ways that Jesus made needy people feel safe to repent of their sin and follow Him. It's how He made Himself approachable toward them.
And here's perhaps the hardest one of all. We finally see that . . .
4. JESUS IDENTIFIED HIMSELF WITH LEVI IN HIS NEED (vv. 31-32).
The Pharisees and scribes saw all of this and marveled that Jesus could eat with such people. "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" They would never identify themselves with such people in that way! They would be 'contaminated' by them if they did. But Jesus not only ate and drank with them; He even went so far as to join Himself with their need. He didn't join in with their sin, of course; but He drew up close to them, and so identified Himself with their need that He Himself bore the cost of meeting it.
He said that "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick". Just think of how ridiculous it would be to walk up to a doctor and say, "What's the matter with you, Doctor? Why are you always around sick people?" A physician would never be ashamed to be around sick people! Sick people need healing; and a physician identifies himself or herself with them in their need. Similarly, Jesus wasn't ashamed to be around sinful people. They needed forgiveness; and He is the Savior of sinners—the very One through whom God's forgiveness is given. He didn't come to call the "righteous" to repentance. Righteous people—such as the Pharisees and scribes thought themselves to be—don't feel the need for forgiveness. But "sinners" do. And He said that He came to call "sinners" to repentance.
You and I should never "shun" people who feel guilty and ashamed of their sin. We should never "condemn" people who have fallen, and are afraid, and are tempted to 'fix' their problems by turning to even more sin. They are the very people who most need what we have to offer them—a saving relationship with the One who truly fixes broken lives. We should identify ourselves with them in their need, as representatives of the only One who can truly meet that need.
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When we take a stand against those evil things in this culture that rob human life of its inherent dignity and sacredness, we're doing what we should do. But let's also be careful that, at the same time, we don't drive away the very people who turn to those evil things because they don't feel there's anywhere else they can turn.
There's transforming power and hope in Jesus' approachable love. Let's make sure that, as His representatives, we follow Jesus' example; and make needy, broken people feel safe in turning to Him.
1Cited in Philip Yancey, What's so Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), p. 11.
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