What comes to mind when you think of the word “hope”? When you use the word in a phrase, what types of phrases come out of your mouth? Do you say/think things like “I don’t want to get my hopes up”–or “I hope that ___________ happens”, or “I was hoping for ___________”? Do most of your thoughts around hope have to do with your own desires? Could words like “wish” or “longing” be substituted for “hope” in some of your sentences? Do we really know what hope means, especially in the Biblical sense?
Let’s explore hope as we continue our journey through the book of Mark in our Like Never Before series. In this passage we find Jesus teaching by the lake with large crowds still seeking him out. Mark 2:14 tells us “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.”
That one verse is packed with implication. Verse 13 let us know that there were crowds following Jesus, but he saw Levi and singled him out. Levi–whose father’s name was Alphaeus. Levi–a Hebrew name, the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel–the priestly tribe; the tribe set apart for ministry in the temple, the tribe that did not receive their own inheritance of land but who were sustained by the offerings of the other tribes. The tribe set apart for God’s holy purpose. Levi. When Alphaeus gave him that name, I wonder what his dreams for his son were? I don’t imagine those dreams included being in cahoots with Roman power and ripping off his own people. How did Levi come to be a tax collector? We don’t know. What we do know, is that in order to be a tax collector, he was willing to take advantage of others in order to be financially well off. Tax collectors, as we will learn in a few verses, were not well thought of. They were thieves, extortionists, receivers of bribes, etc. They could charge what they wanted by whatever means they chose. They could make up false charges and blackmail people. They could charge double or triple what the Roman government required and pocket the overage.
Again, I don’t know how Levi came to be a tax collector, but would assume that greed had to be part of it. It’s interesting to think that he was in cahoots with Rome, but had no actual power. He was still at the mercy of Roman soldiers and Roman authority. Had he sold his soul for money and the perception of power? Did he feel trapped by his choices? We don’t know, but we do know that it didn’t satisfy the deep longings of his heart.
Jesus “told” him, follow me. And Levi got up, left his booth, and followed. Levi’s Greek name is Matthew and he became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He left money and comfort to follow Jesus. The call of Jesus was more compelling than anything material wealth could offer-and Levi knew it the moment Jesus singled him out.
Levi, who already sensed that nothing in his life would ever be the same, invited Jesus and his followers to have dinner in his home. In addition to Jesus, Levi invited his group of friends to dine with them as well. I love this. He met Jesus, and knew immediately that he wanted all of his friends to meet him as well.
As we’ve already seen in the book of Mark, the teachers of the law were never too far away from Jesus, and certainly didn’t approve of the way Jesus did things. However, they did not confront Jesus directly at this point, so they tried to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of his disciples by asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16)
But–just like he did when he knew their thoughts in the home where the paralytic man was dropped through the ceiling–Jesus responded to them, and what he said was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (v. 17)
Tax collectors and sinners. In the minds of the religious elite, tax collectors and sinners were in the same category as lepers. They were outcasts. They were hopeless. They had messed up their lives by making bad choices, they had excluded themselves from the promises of God, from the religious community, and there was no forgiveness available to them in that system.
This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.
Jesus, when he responded to the Pharisees and used the word call was being very intentional–and I love this about him. The word call means to invite. It can also mean to name, to give a name to…
“I have not come to invite the righteous, but sinners.“
“I have not come to name the righteous, but sinners.”
“I have not come to give a name to the righteous, but sinners.“
He is telling the religious leaders, and I believe giving them an invitation as well, saying I am here to invite those who know that they are hopeless, who know they fall short, to take my name, to be healed by my name, to walk with me and carry my name, to follow me, to trust me. The “sick” know they have a need. They were hopeless, and now they have hope.
Jesus offers hope, becomes our hope by connecting himself to sinners and outcasts. It’s risky business. He offers hope in the form of an invitation–a call. It’s inclusive. Sometimes in the language of “christianese” we use the phrase, so and so has a call on his/her life.” as if that’s not true of all of us. He has called, he has invited, he has given us his name, and we get to be bearers of hope–not hope as a wish, but hope that is grounded in Jesus, that leans into Him and all that he offers. Hope that is inclusive toward all those who we might consider outcasts; who we might consider “sick”.
Returning to Levi’s father Alphaeus–Alphaeus means “change” or “exchange”. Levi had exchanged the meaning and implications of his name by choosing to serve self instead of serving God. Jesus gave him the opportunity to change again–to find his purpose, his calling, his hope. We, too are offered this same invitation, an invitation of hope–but we must understand that:
Hope is not about the preservation of my life, but about the elevation of His.
Hope is grounded in our confident relationship with Jesus. Hebrews 6 exhorts us to grow up in our faith, to move beyond immaturity which makes us susceptible to every fear, every doubt, every storm. Being mature in Jesus means that there is a confidence, a steadfastness in him–no matter what life throws at us. The chapter ends with verse 19 telling us that We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and steadfast. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus our forerunner has entered on our behalf.
Our hope, in Him, is anchored in the inner sanctuary–the very presence of God. Our hope is in the presence of God. Ponder that thought for a moment.
Romans 15:13, one of my favorite verses of all time says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Hope. It comes from God. It can overflow in us by the Spirit’s power. As we trust God, we are filled with joy and peace, which gives us the ability to overflow with hope. Hope that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope that he calls previously hopeless people like me to walk with him and become one that carries his inclusive message of hope to the world–like never before.
It seems Jesus was bent on staying “unclean” during his years of ministry. Seriously. A few weeks ago, we looked at his encounter with the leper and how touching that man moved Jesus into isolated places for the remainder of his time on earth. But that was only the beginning…
Eating with Levi (Matthew) and his group of sinful friends was considered unclean, too. Later, he would be touched by a woman whose issue with blood made her, and him by contact, unclean. He would touch the hands of a dead girl as he raised her to life. He would associate with prostitutes and Gentiles and a Samaritan woman–groups that would further tarnish him and his reputation as a devout Jew. One disreputable woman would anoint him with perfume, and wash his feet with her tears and her hair, as well as kiss his feet. Over and over and over again, Jesus chose to identify with the outsiders. And his invitation to them to come close to him was an invitation to those who disapproved to repent–to change their thinking–so they could come near to him, and to them, too.
In reference to this week’s story, Luanne wrote:
“This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.”
The religious leaders thought they had it figured out. We see throughout the gospels that even Jesus’ disciples, at times, had the same proclivity toward pride that separates “us” and “them”. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were surprised because the Samaritans were “half-breeds”, second-class citizens. They didn’t question Jesus outright, but they certainly had questions. There were other times that they questioned his judgement, because they, like the religious leaders, had biases and precious prejudices that they weren’t aware needed to change. I include this as a reminder to myself and all of us to not read ourselves into the role of the outcasts that Jesus chose to dine with and forget that we often identify more with the role of the Pharisee.
See, the Pharisees had this idea that everyone else needed to look like them, the ones who were keeping the rules and doing the “right” thing. Later, in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, we see the apostles and church leaders struggling with the same thing, as they argued among themselves about what the requirements for new Gentile believers should be. How “Jewish” did they have to become to be included? There was an assumption made by some that the only acceptable way to come to Jesus was to become Jewish first, to look like them, and then they could come and be part of them.
The example of Jesus responds to these scenarios with an emphatic, “NO!” He says, essentially, through both his words and his actions, “You think THEY need to look like YOU. But I want YOU and THEM to look like ME.”
And what did Jesus look like?
Well, the majority of his ministry, he looked unclean. Because there was no one he wouldn’t touch, or allow to touch him. No one so low they escaped his gaze. No one so high that he couldn’t reach them. No one he didn’t want to connect with.
To the leper, to the Samaritans, to the woman caught in adultery, to those who set up and accused her, to the high priests, to Roman officials, to little children and women, to traitors and tax collectors, to prostitutes, to Pharisees, to the demon-possessed and all in need of healing–including those who didn’t think they needed healing at all; to all of these, Jesus brought the hope of himself.
We hear that Jesus spent time engaging the sick, the hopeless, the least–and we have our own ideas about what that means, a picture of who those words describe. But let me ask you this–
Who is sicker? The one who recognizes the depth of their own need, or the one who denies having any need at all? The one whose heart is open and willing to be changed, or the one with a heart made of self-righteous, immovable stone? The one who knows every letter of the ancient scriptures and keeps the law perfectly, or the one who doesn’t know a single verse but soaks in the presence of this one they call Jesus?
I am not a theologian. I have no authority to decipher the original intent and meaning of the verses we study each week. What I know, and what I’m coming to know more and more as I grow in Jesus, is that he is good. And kind. And completely loving. And brilliant.
And he is all of these things for all of us all of the time. I don’t write a single word of this to make light of the impact of the stories we are studying. On the contrary, my heart has been so gripped by the unconditional love of Jesus that it compels me to read every story I thought I knew differently.
I want to identify with the ones Jesus hung out with and look at the Pharisees with arrogant eyes. But my growing understanding of the ways of Jesus won’t allow me to do that. Not only because I’ve more often been the Pharisee than the outcast, though that is probably very true, but because, as we continue to see, Jesus never did something for one group without there being application for all groups present. Luanne brought up a verse in recent weeks that I’m going to reference again here. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says this:
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
Jesus knew that the Pharisees regarded themselves as clean, whole, healthy, righteous. That they would hear the words “sick” and “sinner” and immediately think of others, definitely not themselves. So he gives them an opportunity to share in the hope that the “others” had already readily received. He gives them an invitation too, just like we saw him do when we studied the story of the paralytic–when he responded to their thoughts with an opportunity to change their minds. He brings up an ancient scripture (Hosea 6:6), one they had “learned”, one they certainly “knew”, and he says: Go and learn what this means…
I imagine they were pretty offended. I bet they felt… Indignant? Defensive? Furious?
…The way we feel when we’re told we’re wrong about something we’ve “known” as truth?
I’m pretty sure they weren’t happy. I think it’s safe to make that assertion, because they continue to plot against him and slander his character to all who will listen.
Because we know the rest of the story, we know that many among the Pharisees and teachers of the law eventually did recognize their need, their “sickness” if you will, and not only followed him, but became leaders in the early church.
I love that so much. Jesus came to bring hope–to bring himself–to ALL. Some were more starving and ran to the feast he offered. Some couldn’t recognize their hunger pangs and were slower coming to the table. Some still haven’t come, and continue to mock the Hope-bringer. And he continues to go to them. And asks us who have tasted and seen the hope he offers to embody it and carry it to ALL the ones who need it. The “obvious” “sinners” don’t have the corner market on hopelessness–sometimes the most hopeless are sitting in church, completely unaware of our need to encounter the “God of all hope” who longs for all of us to “overflow with hope”.
May we ask ourselves hard questions, and give honest answers, about who we see as “sick”. May we think long and hard about whether we want to look like Jesus, live like Jesus, love like Jesus–because doing that his way will lead us to places we may not want to go… Sometimes, as the ones carrying hope to the sick… And sometimes as those receiving hope from those we consider “sick” and “sinful” because, often, they’re the first to respond to Jesus’ invitation–and we have much yet to learn.