So, why are these types of people, these loose lug nuts, and the ragtag band who followed Jesus in his day, reluctant to be around Jesus' followers today? Aren't we supposed to be the bodily presence of Jesus in the world today?
When we take the Lord's Supper, we are made into Jesus' body, and we are called to continue Jesus' mission (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Luke 19:10). While this one body reality in the Supper is a call to holiness, it is also a call to mission. In the Supper, we pledge to be the ongoing presence of Jesus to the world that is just as broken as the one he came to serve. When we take the bread, we are accepting his mission in our world.
What then, do Jesus' actions with Levi and his friends teach us?
What do they say about Jesus' desire to heal what is most broken in us?
What do they tell us about our need to be in the world of sinners so that we can introduce the Friend of sinners to them?
What do Jesus' and Levi's actions teach us about the people with whom we should share the table?
Who should be at our table of grace?
Let's remember Jesus' call of Levi (also called Matthew) and see what the Holy Spirit is calling us to hear in this important story of redemption, grace, and mission:
Then Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to him. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector's booth. "Follow me and be my disciple," Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.
Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus' followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does he eat with such scum?"
When Jesus heard this, he told them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners" (Mark 2:13-17 NLT).
Jesus' actions challenge us to ask hard questions. These questions are not easily answered.
Mark's previous stories about Jesus help us frame these questions. In Mark's previous story, we meet four dedicated friends who had a paralyzed friend they could not get to Jesus. They loved their immobilized friend so much that they dug a hole in the roof to get their sick friend to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus surprised the four friends by first forgiving their buddy of his sins before he healed their friend of his paralysis.
Jesus' actions carried the not so subtle reminder that all of us need our sinful brokenness healed just as much as we need our physical brokenness healed. In the story Mark shared before the one about the four friends, Jesus touched a leprous man before he healed the man (Mark 1:40-45). Technically, what the Lord did was against the Law. Rather than Jesus being soiled, stained, and contaminated by touching the leper, the holiness of Jesus brought love and fellowship to the man before Jesus healed the man.
God's grace brings care for the body, soul, and spirit. Outcasts are welcomed, loved, and brought to healing. Sometimes that healing breaks the isolation of emotionally being abandoned and left alone. Sometimes that healing forgives the sin of the one being healed physically. That grace is always shared personally, intentionally, and specifically to bring the person in need to wholeness — shalom, the full Jewish sense of wholeness, blessing, and peace.
As Jesus' bodily presence in the world — his second incarnation — what do Jesus' actions mean for us? What do Levi's actions of bringing his "sinful" friends to a dinner party with Jesus mean about our fellowship with those "outside" our normal table fellowship?
While I believe there are some important principles for us to carry with us from these stories, I'm more concerned that we ask ourselves some hard questions. These questions focus on our own practices of table fellowship, friendship, and mission. I want us to wrestle with why the folks at Matthew's party are not generally the folks sharing the Lord's Supper table with Jesus' bodily presence today?
Could it be that we are more afraid of being contaminated by the world than motivated by by Jesus to be salt and light? Where do we take the opportunity to have table fellowship with people trapped in a world of decay and darkness? When do we invite to our table those alienated from grace by the seemingly impenetrable social and religious barriers erected by culture, prejudice, and wrong-headed religion? If we did invite them, would they want to come? How do we make friends who need this grace and might want to come to the table of grace?
What would happen if we realized that our friendships with those in the world were an opportunity to bring Jesus' grace to those who need it most?
What if we realized that our friendship with those in the world is not friendship with the world (James 4:4), but actually our mission (Matthew 28:18-20) given to us by Jesus?
Even more, what if we recognize that our world and its desires are fleeting and doomed to failure (1 John 2:15-17), so we must be friends with those in the world so that they can experience grace and God's eternal love for them?
I don't know about you, but Levi's example has touched me. The Lord's openness to share his meals with the least, last, and lost convicts me. So every time I sit at the Lord's Table, I want to hear Jesus' challenge to make our table into Levi's table! As I take the bread and the wine, I'm going to listen to the Lord's words once again:
Healthy people don't need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.
When I remember these words, I'm going to realize that I too was once one of the least, last, and the lost. I'm going to be thankful that someone who knew grace brought me to this table and to friendship with Jesus. Most of all, I'm going to remember that I have a lot of friends caught up in the world of decay and darkness who need to meet my Friend at Levi's table with me.