friends in low places

When I first sketched out the plan for our lent series, a couple of months ago, I was very excited about the story for this Sunday, where Jesus has dinner with Levi, the tax collector.

I was mainly excited because I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to use some part of Garth Brooks’s song, Friends in Low Places, and really, how can you pass up a chance to include a song as campy as this one?

(I should note, that version is not Garth. Which brings up the odd and unfortunate fact that his stuff is virtually unavailable online. You can’t download it from iTunes, Amazon, or any other retailer, and it’s tough to even find videos or audio for his songs. How can this be? My husband contends that this means they are remastering all of his work and will re-release it soon all prettied up. Let us hope.)

Anyway, when it came down to prep work and reflection on the passage last week, I completely forgot about the song! So, there are no tenuous or strained Garth references in the thoughts that follow, just reflections on the wild, extravagant, even offensive love which we encounter in Jesus.

Audio’s below and the text is after the jump.

We pick up right where we left off last week. Jesus just claimed this outrageous power to forgive, to wipe away sins and give people a fresh start. That scene took place in a hot, crowded house.

No wonder then, that he goes out to walk beside the lake. He needed a little fresh air. The crowds followed him.

Then someone catches Jesus’ eye. It’s not someone in the crowd, not one of the folks hanging on his every word. It’s Alphaeus’ son, Levi, the tax collector, just sitting in his tax booth, taking tolls.

This tax booth, it’s not so different from toll booths today: like when we cross the Narrows bridge, you have to either pay with a Good to Go pass, or stop at the booth and pay a few bucks to the government. Same idea. If you wanted to use a waterway, or a strategic road, you paid a fee to the local government. Levi was in charge of collecting the toll for this stretch of road.

There was, however, one big difference. Unlike the toll booths on the Narrows bridge there were no posted rates. Levi charged as much as he could get away with. He would have agreed with the local government on a certain amount that he would collect on their behalf. And then, he, like most tax collectors, would charge you whatever he thought he could get you to pay. And he’d keep the extra. It was common practice then. It’s common practice now in many parts of the world where corruption is rampant. Today, here, we call it contract fraud, or extortion, and we send you to jail for it, because it’s wrong to steal people’s money.

And just because it was common practice, then, doesn’t mean folks liked it. Tax collectors were not only collaborators with the oppressive government, they also stole your money.

That’s who Levi was, or at least what he did. Anyway, Jesus notices him. And calls him. Follow me, he says, and like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Levi gets up and follows.

Jesus goes to Levi’s house that evening. And has dinner with him. And with all his tax collector and sinner friends.

It was a big party. The word we’ve translated in our text as sitting, is actually reclining. Which was what you did for the fanciest parties—stretch out on the floor and settle in for a long evening of wine, rich food, and revelry.

Some good, upstanding religious people are passing by, and they see the party going on. They hear the raucous laughter, smell the good food and the wine flowing. And as they get closer they realize who they’re looking at. It’s Jesus, who claims to be holy, who has been healing people left and right, who even claims to be able to forgive as if he’s God. And he’s with Levi and all his corrupt buddies.

They ask the exactly what we would ask, what is going on?!

Jesus overhears them, and speaks up. This, he says, is where I belong. I’m a physician. I’m not just here to keep the healthy well. My place is right here at this wild party with these sick people. If you want to follow me, this is where you belong.

Really? Do we buy that? As Christians, do we believe we ought to hang out with folks like Levi? Folks who cross the line, who are corrupt, or immoral? Do we believe we should hang out, break bread with, even party with extortionists, thieves, even just petty sinners, gossips and liars? That’s where Jesus was. But do we agree, that’s where belonged? Where we belong?

The religious folks probably had some reasonable points—at least two.

For one, if our whole lives are to be holy and dedicated to glorifying God, then, shouldn’t we have some standards?

If we hang out with folks who don’t meet God’s standards—who hurt others, who do things that are inappropriate, who have the wrong kind of ideas or the wrong kind of lives—don’t we run the risk of being corrupted, tempted? If we hang out with tax collectors and get used to the benefits of ill gotten gains, might we want some ill gotten gains of our own?

This is the basic impulse that leads religious people into isolation. We avoid conversation with atheists because don’t want to be drawn into doubt. We counsel our children to choose friends wisely, because one can be judged by the company one keeps. And it’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s mistakes.

Jesus, though, says he’s a physician. He doesn’t stand apart, preserving his good health. Instead, like a nurse on the front lines of an epidemic, he washes his hands, gets a vaccination, and plunges in. He’s not overly worried about the sick rubbing off on him. His focus is on spreading health. Holiness, he seems to be saying, is more contagious than sin. If you live my way, you won’t be able to help yourself. You’re going to want to share the beauty and love that we meet in God with everyone—especially sick people.

But, even so, shouldn’t they want to get well? I wonder if this would be the religious folks’ second point: it might make sense to minister to sinners, but shouldn’t they repent and act right? If his love is this big, big enough for Levi and his possibly unrepentant friends, it doesn’t seem quite fair. It feels like he’s rewarding them for their misbehavior, or encouraging them.

It’s easy to get on board with Jesus’ expansive love when he’s drawing in lepers or a woman with a hemorrhage—those people were ritually impure. From the safety of our 21st century seats we can say, they didn’t do anything wrong. It was those silly old-fashioned religious rules that excluded them. Of course we should love lepers and hemorrhaging women. In fact, we should include lots of people that religious piety then or now might exclude. That’s easy to say.

But Levi and his buddies weren’t excluded just because of pious purity rules. There was an element of that. His job brought him in contact with Gentiles. But the bigger issue is that he wasn’t acting right. He and his friends were morally wrong.

And so, if Jesus is opening this door, and saying, my love is this big, the table has room for these folks, who else is he opening the door for? Liars? Thieves? Murderers? People who genuinely do wrong—Bernie Madoff who stole from rich and poor alike, Staff Sgt. Bales who is accused of killing sixteen Afghans last week? If Jesus includes Levi, who got rich by stealing money from his neighbors, who didn’t have any extra to spare, who faced hunger and poverty on a regular basis, if Jesus lets this guy in, who else will he let in?

Levi may have walked off from his tax booth that day, repenting and never turning back, but did his friends? And even if they did, does that in any way make up for all the wrong they’ve done? The harm they’ve caused? If Jesus sits down to eat with these guys, who else is going to be at that great banquet?

The religious folks in this story are right about one thing. Jesus eating with Levi and his buddies was offensive. It offends both our instincts about how to live an upright life, and our sense of fairness.

And yet. There he is—this holy one in whom we meet the face of God—sitting at that party, in the midst of all those sinners. And he says, this, this is where I belong. This is the place of God on earth, in the midst of the sick and the sinner. I’ve come to bring healing even here, mercy to even these.

Was it because he could see past their deeds to their hearts? Was it because his imagination was big enough to envision a new future for them?

Have you ever had someone love you like that? After you’ve done wrong, or hurt others, have you ever had someone look at you and still love you, someone who saw more in you than your failure, who saw a spark of holiness, who saw that seed of the divine image that lives in each of us? Have you had someone who’s loved you the way Jesus loved Levi?

It’s powerful, isn’t it? Humbling, to be loved in the wake of our mistakes, and it’s cleansing. Love like that is powerful enough to make space for the new creation, the kingdom of God to emerge.

Jesus calls us to this kind of wild, extravagant love, this love that takes all comers.

But if we want to join him in this crazy, provocative love we will have to give something up. As we travel this low road with him, this road that leads finally to the cross, we are again asked to give up our ideas of glory, our pretense of being righteous and holy, special and set apart. We don’t get to travel this road without getting muddy.

There are people who offend us, who have done wrong, who don’t seem willing to straighten up and do right. Our place, says, Jesus, is with them—asking the schoolyard bully if he’d like to be part of the game, listening to the stories of the folks who’ve lost their way, making eye contact with those who most offend us.

These folks, says Jesus, they are our fellow travelers, our companions, our table mates. Get to know them; learn their stories; let their proximity expand your compassion. This is what the love of God looks like: a wild party with the most unlikely guests.

And thank goodness, because the truth is, we’ve all got some Levi. We fall short. We screw up. We hurt others, and violate the standards by which we try to live. By any true measure of fairness, most of us wouldn’t make it in.

And yet. And yet, there is no sickness so sick, that the physician cannot bring healing, no darkness so deep that the light of the world won’t enter in, no place so forsaken that the shepherd will not find us.

That is the good news we meet in Jesus. Even the gates of Hell itself will not stand against this overwhelming, enduring, patient, powerful love. There is no gap so great that the grace of Christ cannot cover it. This road we’re on, that leads us slowly, surely to the cross, is a road on which all are welcome, even Levi.

Each of us, all of us, Jesus sees us, catches our eye, and says, I’m coming to your house for dinner tonight. Invite your friends. It’s going to be a party.

by Sarah W. Wiles
March 18, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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3 Responses to friends in low places

  1. elderdeacon says:

    I mentioned the country song for your last sermon thinnking about the low people as those without power but you also bring out the Jesus of the “bad”. Great sermon as always

    • s wiles says:

      I love that you thought of that song last week, too! A good country song always has a lot of gospel in it, I think, mixed up with a lot of irreverence.

  2. Carolyn Joy says:

    Thank you for reminding me that we are called to learn and practice boundless compassion.

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