I’m thinking about a first-century gathering. Jesus is at somebody’s house and he is laughing. It is a deep belly laugh. Someone has just said something (maybe about the irony of Levi the tax collector hanging out with a spiritual teacher) and Jesus thinks its funny.
And it is kind of funny how people end up at a table with Jesus. They come in all kinds of ways, as many ways as there are people. Sometimes they come broken, and sometimes — like Levi, who learned from the best of them how to cheat people out of money — they don’t realize what they’ve been missing until Jesus shows up.
This gathering at someone’s house is news. It is odd that it would be news that Jesus is eating at dinner with friends; nonetheless, the religious leaders have someone looking in on this little gathering to see who’s there. They count heads and take names and go back to their people to report what they see. “Jesus is at Levi’s house,” they say.
And eyes roll.
“The food is not kosher. These people are not ceremonially clean. I doubt any of them could quote from the holy scriptures.”
More eye rolling.
That’s how people with a religious spirit do it. They judge everything so it is almost impossible to be okay by their standards.
Jesus does not get their standards. He just doesn’t get it. And when they call him out on it — when they call him on these picky little charges, like meeting with sinners — he says, “It’s like you’re treating a hangnail when a person has cancer. Where is the grace for what is? Don’t you see that when I go into these gatherings, I’m not looking for students to grade. I’m looking for friends to walk with.”
And with friends (you can just hear Jesus say it) you start with what is.
Four times in three verses, Mark mentions that Jesus is at this gathering with sinners. When a word is repeated in the Bible, pay attention. When it is mentioned four times, it means something: Jesus is a friend of sinners.
Which means that Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners.
That is great news for us, but a problem for people with the wrong attitude toward sin. People with a religious spirit don’t just have a problem with sinners. They have a problem with saviors, too. Some people have a problem with how Jesus chooses to solve problems. He doesn’t do it by ignoring sin, nor does he do it by running from sin. He does it by leaning in.
In response to our sin, God leaned in. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him and Isaiah 61 tells us God did it this way for the sake of poor, bound-up captives. People imprisoned by all manner of brokenness. Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people and fed a lot of hungry people.
And Jesus ate with sinners.
The whole time he was showing the mercy and compassion of God, he preached this good news about how redemption works. It is God leaning in, being unafraid of our demons, our diseases, our sicknesses, our poor spiritual sight. Over all our sin, Jesus pronounced the Kingdom of God, inviting us to enter in and be forgiven of our sins and made holy by a sinless sacrifice.
Jesus was that sinless sacrifice. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the old system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus willingly gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for — who peeked in on his small groups and judged him for leaning in and letting people start where they are — to arrest him, because he called his brand of compassion the very holiness of God.
And that is the Jesus who invited a group of sinners to sit around in a circle with him to enjoy each other and to find their redemption not in who they were but in who he is. Which means we are forgiven of everything we’re not … because of everything Jesus is.