Is it wrong to want to hang out with people who look like you? People who act like you? People who share your values? I’m actually of two minds concerning it. On the positive side, we have to acknowledge that this is nigh-universal behavior. And no, it’s not a white thing or a black thing or an Asian thing or a rich person thing or a poor person thing. It's a human thing. Whether it should be or not, we all have to admit that it is. It seems to be a natural tendency to want to associate with people who are like you.
But is it right? Well, that’s another issue. I think it’s usually a good idea to stretch your boundaries a little and come into contact with folks who are different than you. Maybe. . .gasp!!! Maybe even people who disagree fundamentally with your core beliefs.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Scripture tells us to encourage each other daily, which would entail spending at least some of your time with fellow believers so that you can lift each other up and also challenge each other. And if one of us is flirting with a kooky theological notion, then hopefully his brothers can step in and intervene.
There also might be the issue of falling back into an immoral lifestyle. If you were involved with, say, drunkenness on a regular basis, then it’s probably not the best idea to hang around with heavy drinkers, at least not until you can handle it. If they’re influencing you more than you influencing them, then there’s a problem.
But having said all that, if we’re not associating with people who are deeply involved with sin, then we’re not following the example of our Savior, are we? Today’s reading tells us the story of Jesus’ calling of Levi. We aren’t told of any prior contact with him, so presumably Christ just walked up to the man—while sitting at the tax-collector’s booth—and called him into discipleship. Luke’s account mentions that Levi left “everything” behind, which apparently meant all the money that had been collected. And of course you also know him as Matthew, the writer of the 1st Gospel.
You’re probably heard this before, but it’s hard to overstate just how hated the tax collectors were. Every one of them was a collaborator with Rome, the state that was oppressing them. And on top of that, they regularly collected more than was due, and kept the extra for themselves, flagrantly robbing their fellow Jews.
And this was the type of man whom Jesus called. And what did Levi do? He called all his friends so that they could meet the Master. And what kind of people would be his friends? You can surely guess. Of course other tax collectors, but also Mark notes that “sinners” of other types were there as well—people known to be involved in immoral lifestyles.
And here are two amazing things about this dinner party. First, there’s no mention that the “sinners” were unhappy to be around Jesus. For some reason, he didn’t put them off. And the other amazing thing is that there’s no indication that Jesus was uncomfortable with them.
How do we reconcile this with the fact that Jesus is holy God incarnate? The God who can’t stand sin, like we read about recently? Well, the only explanation that I can offer is the one presented by Jesus himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He absolutely hates sin, but he loves the sinners. It’s just like any doctor who loves his patients and hates the cancer that kills them. In fact, he hates the cancer because he loves his patients.
By the way, how do we interpret this distinction he makes between “the righteous” and “sinners”? Are there some people who actually are “righteous”? Not according to Paul: The apostle makes it clear that none of us are righteous, at least as far as God's court of justice is concerned. It makes perfect sense if you imagine the word "righteous" here in quotation marks, in other words referring to people who call and think of themselves as righteous. There are two types of people in the world—Those who know that they’re lost and in desperate need of a Savior, and those who don’t know, who think they're righteous before God. If you don't think or know that you're a sinner in need of a Savior, then Jesus isn't calling you, in the sense that he really has nothing more to say to you until you do. It's the same sense in which AA has nothing to say to you until you admit that you have a problem with booze.
As a preacher I heard once put it, Jesus doesn't call white people or black people, men or women, Americans or Brazilians or Chinese or whatever other identity you have. He calls only one type of people: Sinners. And if you come to him, that's the only basis on which you're going to do so, bringing nothing to this meeting except your sin and your need.
I can see how this applies to us, can’t you? First, this is a reminder that I need to take any notion of self-righteousness and drive a stake through its heart. My sins are not as public as some folks’, but I need the blood of Christ as much as anyone else. Second, I think it’s time for me to pray for opportunities to stretch my “comfort zone.” Or maybe I just need to pray for eyes to see the opportunities he’s already placed in front of me.
Lord Jesus, where do you want me to go? Who needs to be told about and shown your love?