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Jesus is Invited to Dinner...three times"

A Sermon based upon Luke 5:27-35,7:31-8:3 & 19:1-10

Brian McLaren, in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”[1], says that “most human societies are divided between the ‘elites’ and the ‘masses’. The elites are the 1% (or 3% or 5%) at the top that ‘have and hoard’ the most money, weapons, power, influence, and opportunities. They make the rules and usually rig the game to protect their interests. They forge alliances across all sectors – in government, business, religion, media… and the military. As a result, they have loyal allies across all sectors of society, and they reward those allies to keep them loyal.”

“Down at the bottom,” writes McLaren, “we find the masses – commonly called ‘the multitude’ in the Gospels. They provide cheap labor in the system run by the elites. They work with little pay, little security, little prestige, and little notice. … To the elites, the multitudes can remain surprisingly invisible and insignificant most of the time.”

“In the middle, between the [handful of] elites, and the [masses of] the multitudes, we find those loyal allies who function as ‘mediators’ between the few above them and the many below them… They live in hope that they (or their children) can climb up the pyramid, closer to the elites. But those above them (generally) don’t want too much competition from below, so they make sure the pyramid isn’t too easy to climb.”

“These dynamics were at work in Jesus’ day, and he was well aware of them. In his parables, [Jesus] constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and even children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call ‘middle management’ – the ‘stewards’, tax collectors, and others who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious [& civic] leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.”

“In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head, confusing even his disciples.” (quote from Chapter 23, page 107)

That analysis of society from Brian McLaren’s book caused me to look a second time at the three dinner parties that Jesus attended in the Gospel of Luke (which Kathy Dempsey read for us this morning). I was looking for “elites” at the top, middle management “stewards” (like tax-collectors) and representatives of “the multitude” making up the majority of people at the bottom.

Here’s what I found: First, Jesus intentionally called tax-collectors to join his movement. Oh, yes, he first called simple fishermen -- day-laboring brothers like Simon Peter and Andrew, and the two Zebedee boys, James & John. But Luke tells us in today’s first reading:

After this, he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. (Levi was one of those “middle manager stewards”: a tax-gatherer either for Rome, or for King Herod, or for the Temple, sitting in his toll booth).

And he said to him: “Follow me.” And he [Levi] left everything, and rose and followed him. (That’s something!)

According to the Life Application Bible[2], “Levi left a lucrative, though probably dishonest, tax-collecting business to follow Jesus. You see, Jews who were appointed by Rome to collect taxes from citizen/subjects (as well as from merchants passing through the town) were expected to take a commission for themselves on the taxes they collected. Most of them “over-charged” and kept the profits. (!) Tax-collectors were thus hated by the Jews, both because of their reputation for cheating and for their support of the Roman Empire.”

When Jesus called Levi to join his movement, he jumped at the chance… but I’m not sure it helped Jesus’ reputation! Tax collectors were avoided, if possible, and (not unlike Internal Revenue Service agents of today) generally shunned.

Merchants didn’t like how the tariffs, taxes, and fees imposed by the government added to their cost of doing business. You know, governments used to love to impose “tariffs” on imported items, because they got to collect for themselves the 10% or 25% extra charge on every item… while the person buying that item had to face the fact that it would cost all that much more out of their pocket. (!) Imposing “duties” and “tariffs” are always “bad news” for customers, for consumers, for the economy of the masses – the multitudes. But it isn’t called “a tax”, so the elite/governors, get away with it. Tax-collectors like Levi were hated because of collecting tariffs.

Jewish nationalists (called “Zealots”) resented paying taxes & tribute to the Roman Empire, which occupied their land militarily and politically. And the enormous expense of King Herod’s brand-new Temple in Jerusalem saddled the people with additional assessments. It was hard enough to eke out a living in the harsh Middle East of Jesus’ day… taxes made things worse! Common people were going bankrupt.

We all know (deep down) that we shouldn’t blame the IRS agent for the high rate of taxes Americans pay -- federal programs, income taxes, Social Security FICA payroll taxes, not to mention sales taxes, local business & property taxes, county assessments, millage, state mandates, and all the rest of the fees & fines that burden our financial lives -- because the tax collector doesn’t make the rules. Politicians do that! So, take it up with your Township or County Supervisor, or the state bureaucrats in Lansing, or that giant sucking sound coming from Washington, DC, saddling our economy with 17 trillion dollars in “debt”… and a budget deficit this year of nearly $1 trillion more!

Forgive me for sounding a bit cynical and political, but we just came through the annual “State of the Union” address this week -- with an hour-and-a-half of standing ovations -- but not a word was said about any of this tariff/taxation or debt stuff!

Granted, the Internal Revenue Service may have unfair advantage in its legal and police powers -- confiscatory policies and little-known clauses in the tax-code that can trip up even the best-intentioned tax-payer -- but that doesn’t make the IRS employee a “collaborator.” It’s their job. (Right, Dennis?)

Jesus probably raised some eyebrows when he extended an invitation to that “government-employee” tax-enforcer – Levi, also called Matthew in Greek -- to join him as a disciple. And it looks like Levi was proud as punch to follow Jesus! He not only left his job, but he called all his friends together so they could meet Jesus, too!

Luke tells us that Levi held a reception for his fellow tax-collectors (and other so-called “sinners”) so that they could meet Jesus at his house. Levi, who may have left behind a material fortune believes he is now on the road to gain a spiritual fortune. He was proud to be publicly associated with Jesus!

Luke writes: “Levi made him a great feast in his house. And there was a large company of tax-collectors and others sitting at table with them.” Well, here is the first of three dinner parties Jesus attended. Let’s see what happens at this one…

“The Pharisees and their scribes murmured against [Jesus’] disciples, saying: “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do]. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The scribes and Pharisees were the “respectable” folks. They made themselves appear good by doing good deeds in public and pointing out the sins of others. The word “Pharisee” derives from the Hebrew verb “upharsin” (to divide or separate). Pharisees were compulsive “dividers” – kosher from unkosher, clean from unclean, purity codes, Sabbath laws, saints from sinners, Jews from Gentiles, men from women, us from them.

Jesus chose to spend time with people who were not like the Pharisees and their scribes; who were not like the teachers of the Law and their faithful base, the religious “in-crowd”. Jesus invited people who were on the “do not call” list -- the B-list -- the left-outs and left-overs; the ones hated in public but envied in private! Jesus made “them” like one of “us”! (!) Sharing a meal with tax-collectors and sinners -- in their own house, at the same table -- was just not done among respectable religious leaders!

It may not have been good for Jesus’ public reputation among the religious crowd of Bible Scribes & Social Dividers to be seen eating and drinking with “middle-management” (steward-class) government bureaucrats and “collaborators” like Levi and his tax-collecting colleagues … but it probably did them a world of good! (Ought we not do the same in our day?)

The invitation and extravagant welcome that Jesus extended to Levi -- and Jesus’ public inclusion of a publicly despised class of people – put a “mark” on Jesus by the pious and the proud self-righteous judges around him… by the haters and the “dividers” in his day.

And (frankly) such is to be expected in our day, too, as we (as followers of Jesus Christ) intentionally reach out to embrace the unwelcome ones, the unaccepted ones -- the disrespected and disregarded and disparaged ones in today’s highly polarized and politicized society.