In Mark 2, when Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) the tax collector to be a disciple, the Master knows what kind of man he is. He knows how hated Levi is by his own people, due to his position with the Roman government and his tendency to overcharge in order to make a profit. Backed by military power, Levi extorts money from his own people—yet it is Levi that Jesus wants, just as he is. Without telling him first to pay anything back, without making him publicly apologize or even telling him that he has to quit his job, Jesus simply says, “Follow me!” And Levi does.
God’s grace will go anywhere and do anything in order to make people whole. God’s grace reminds me of an “advertisement on the side of a plumber's van in South Africa: There is no place too deep, too dark or too dirty for us to handle. What a wonderful explanation of the Gospel![ii]” Jesus calls us, just as we are. Even though he has to go down into the dark and dirty places to call us, He does so, because He’s a redeeming kind of God.
In the Gospels, Jesus is always getting himself in trouble for choosing the “wrong” kind of people. After Levi follows Jesus, he invites his friends to a party at his house, to meet the Master. Perhaps peeking through the windows, the fundamentalist Pharisees ask, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners (v. 16)?” Jesus replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (v. 17).” Even though He has a right to, Jesus doesn’t think He is better than anybody. Instead, he is willing to get his hands dirty, and to even soil his reputation, by hanging out with the people everyone else rejects as unworthy. They’re no unworthy to Jesus. To Him, they are friends.
Too often, we are afraid of encouraging people, for fear we’ll be seen as advocating their actions. Yet sometimes God calls us to celebrate even mistakes that people make it, if those mistakes indicate that they are learning. In Tell Me All About It, Jeffrey Zaslow writes:
Years ago, my father coached a team of eight-year-olds. He had a few excellent players, and some who just couldn't get the hang of the game. Dad's team didn't win once all season. But in the last inning of the last game, his team was only down by a run. There was one boy who had never been able to hit the ball--or catch it. With two outs, it was his turn to bat. He surprised the world and got a single!
The next batter was the team slugger. Finally, Dad's players might win a game. The slugger connected, and as the boy who hit the single ran to second, he saw the ball coming toward him. Not so certain of baseball's rules, he caught it. Final out! Dad's team lost! Quickly, my father told his team to cheer. The boy beamed. It never occurred to him that he lost the game. All he knew was he had hit the ball and caught it--both for the first time. His parents later thanked my dad. Their child had never even gotten in a game before that season.
We never told the boy exactly what happened. We didn't want to ruin it for him. And till this day, I'm proud of what my father did that afternoon.[iii]
Rather than worrying that we’ll be seen as supporting the wrong behavior, God’s people need to be more concerned with supporting people. If you’re concerned that by showing compassion, we’ll be seen as too permissive, then listen to the words of Robert Farrar in Between Noon and Three:
You're worried about permissiveness--about the way the preaching of grace seems to say it's okay to do all kinds of terrible things as long as you just walk in afterward and take the free gift of God's forgiveness. . .While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn't. He wasn't afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He's angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue--that music, dancing, and a fatted calf are, in effect , just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: "Cut that out! We're not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he's alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.[iv]
In order for Christianity to truly embrace this concept of radical grace, we need a change of heart and mind. Jesus addresses this needed change in verses 21-22, when He says, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” In the case of the patch, it must first be pre-shrunk so that the fabric will accept it. In the case of the old wineskin, it must first be treated and made suppler before it can be used again. Jesus says it’s impossible to accept new ideas without a renewed mind. First, like the wineskin, God has to prepare your mind to accommodate the new idea. Then, like the preshrunk patch, the idea has to be put in such a way that you can accept it. So what’s the new idea we need to receive? Jesus says it in Mark 2:17b: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Let that one soak in for a while—I hope you have a new wineskin to accept it—that God calls people “Just as I Am.”
[i] Barry M. Horstmann (June 27, 2002). "Billy Graham: A Man With A Mission Impossible.(Special Ssection)". Cincinnati Post. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
[iii] Jeffrey Zaslow, "Tell Me All About It," 1990. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/g/grace.htm. June 15, 2016.
[iv] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/g/grace_gods.htm. June 15, 2016.