Mark stretched before continuing the evening’s story. “Jesus headed down to the lakeshore again, and the crowds were coming to him, and he was teaching them. As he passed by the local toll booth, he saw Levi, son of Alpheus sitting there, and Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me!’”
“Ha!” snorted one of Yiftach’s companions, disdainfully. “As if one of Herod Antipas’s toadies would throw his lot in with your rabbi. I can’t see him walking away from such a secure position in life. I had a second cousin who worked that same toll station for Herod Agrippa,” at this he spat on the ground, “and on top of working for that old fox, he cheated people left, right and center. None of us shed a tear when we heard he’d been knifed on his way home one night – no Romans to watch his back in that alleyway.”
Yiftach stroked his beard thoughtfully. “But not all toll collectors are corrupt.” “Maybe not,” replied his friend, “but they all work for Herod. And what have those so-called kings ever done for people like you and me, huh?” “Not much,” admitted Yiftach. “But if your options are as limited as ours, I can see why some Galileans have thrown their lot in with the Herods. You can stomach a lot when your stomach is full.” At this, his friend shook his head, but said nothing further.
Yiftach turned to Mark. “So, what did this Levi fellow do? Throw his lot in with Jesus and throw all that security away? Or tell Jesus to get lost?” Mark answered, “He rose and followed him.” Yiftach’s companion called out again. “I imagine that didn’t sit too well with some of his other followers.” Mark smiled. “Well, they were already a pretty motley crew, so one more ‘sinner’ didn’t make too much difference to them. But I can tell you who it didn’t sit too well with – the scribes of the Pharisees. Jesus walked back into Kefer Nahum, and that evening he was reclining at table in his house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many such people who were following him. And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they said to his disciples, ‘Why is he eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?’” Mark’s voice trailed off, and for a moment the only sound in the courtyard was the chirping of crickets.
Mark looked around the courtyard, his eyes finally coming to rest on his mother’s face. Miryam offered him a wry smile, before saying, loud enough for everyone to hear, “A question I have been asked once or twice myself. Most recently in the last few days, thanks to the presence of our young friends over there,” indicating Yiftach and his companions. “I think you make some of my neighbors nervous. But you are most welcome here.” Yiftach inclined his head solemnly at her words.
“The scribes spoke loud enough for Jesus to hear them,” continued Mark, “So Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, which was now present among them, matched the prophets of old: a great banquet, a feast to which all were invited. That is what got up the scribes’ noses: the very idea that people like these could share table fellowship in the home of someone like them – a teacher of Torah. And at the center of the party was Levi, someone who had worked for Herod Antipas – who styled himself king of the Jews – but who now was going to work with Jesus: Messiah, true King of the Jews. And so Jesus’ response to the scribes’ sneering criticism was to declare that he – the physician – had come to heal those who were sick. And not just the physically sick, but the whole of Israel – indeed, the whole world. And not from a distance, but up close and personal, where he could smell their disease, their corruption, their brokenness in all its forms. That is what offended the scribes, who made sure to keep their distance from the likes of Levi and his friends.”
Miryam spoke up once more. “And in saying this, Jesus made it clear that there are now only sinners on the road of discipleship. Those who consider themselves righteous keep their distance from ‘sinners,’ and cannot – or will not – follow Jesus, who breaks bread and drinks wine at his table with those the righteous declare outcast, unclean.” She gestured around the courtyard. “We are all sinners here, those in need of healing and forgiveness. The difference between us and the righteous is that we know it.”
“And so,” Mark said, “with this meal at home in the company of sinners – and the hundreds of meals like this one – Jesus was profoundly at odds with the pious class in Israel. For every time we break bread together, is it not a guarantee of trust, of peace between us? Have not the Houses of Hillel and Shammai bitterly disputed who one can share table fellowship with? And most certainly, tax-gatherers and sinners are not even considered in their arguments. And we, also, are at odds with the Pharisees, as long as we continue to acknowledge that we are sinners, and welcome fellow sinners to the table with us.”
“This was not the last time Jesus would experience a run-in with the Pharisees – but we will hear more about that another night.” And, after blessing the assembly, Mark turned to assist his mother to her feet, and led her into the house…
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