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Beauty in the Unlovely

I've noticed something about a lot of the bible passages we read in church on Sunday mornings. We always seem to be going back over ground we’ve already covered before? Here, once again, Jesus is calling someone to be a disciple. Today, it’s Levi, a tax collector. I know we’ve heard one of these call stories before, why do we need to go back to the beginning, to hear it again?

 

Jesus sees Levi sitting in his tax booth, and says to him what he always says in these stories: “Follow me.” And, like nearly everyone Jesus calls, Levi immediately gets up and leaves his trade and his source of income without even finding someone to cover for him, without so much as hanging a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door!

 

In the case of Levi, as with so many of the disciples, Jesus has called an outcast. To get some idea of how extraordinary this was we need to understand the role of tax collector for the Romans.

There was a poll tax which all had to pay simply for the reason of being alive, and a tenth of all grain and a fifth of all wine and oil and fish was taxed. Also an income tax which was one per cent of the annual income, and separate taxes for using roads and a cart tax where each wheel was taxed!

 

The system fostered exploitation by the tax gatherers. They could stop anyone on the road, make them unpack their bundles, and charge just about anything they wanted. If the person could not pay, they would offer to loan money at an exorbitant rate; they were trained extortionists.  No wonder they were hated, they were the scum of society, and Levi even more so as he was a rich Jew working for the enemy.  They were outcasts in the community.

 

Jesus said,  "Follow me", and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. This was a decisive act. He gave up his business - there was no going back.

 

In a few minutes the whole town knew about low-life Levi's decision, and they could not believe it!  Later we find him called Matthew, not Levi. Like Peter, it could be that Jesus changed his name, as Matthew means ‘gift of God.’  Jesus sought out a man no one else wanted, which would be one of the hallmarks of his ministry, as Mary Magdalene and many other men and women would attest.

 

Maybe the first lesson we need to learn over and over again is that Jesus calls unexpected people to be his disciples.

 

Workmen were seen dragging a huge marble block into the city of Florence, in Italy; it was to be made into a statue of a great Old Testament prophet. But it contained imperfections, and when the sculptor Donatello saw it, he refused it at once. So there it lay in the cathedral yard, a useless block. One day another sculptor caught sight of the flawed block. But as he examined it, there rose in his mind something of immense beauty, and he decided to sculpt it. For two years he worked on it.  Finally in 1504, the greatest artists of the day assembled to see what he had made of the despised and rejected block. Among them were Botticelli, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci.  As the veil dropped to the floor, the statue was met with a chorus of praise. It was a masterpiece! The succeeding centuries have confirmed that judgment.  Michelangelo's David is one of the greatest works of art the world has ever known.

Jesus saw in the flawed life of Levi, a Matthew, a disciple and  evangelist, and  he still sees men and women with his artist's eye today. The Scripture says, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Ephesians 2:10).

 

He sees in us what no one else sees.

 

Later, Jesus joins Levi at his house. Jesus and Levi and the other disciples and lots of tax collectors and sinners were reclining together at the table. The scene is one of festivity, of intimacy, and of merriment..

 

Maybe the second lesson we need to learn over and over again is that if we want to be in Jesus’ company we can expect to be surrounded by sinners.  Look around  - it is “us.”

 

Then Jesus becomes aware that some of the religious elite—Pharisees, are challenging the presence of the tax collectors and sinners—not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. “Why?” they ask. “Why would Jesus eat with these people?

 

Maybe the third lesson we need to learn over and over  again is that the welcoming ways of Jesus often make other people squirm. Maybe we don’t react like the Pharisees, but it is easy to fall into the trap of seeking out people like ourselves, where Jesus urges us to reach out and touch the unlovely - the leper in society. It was never going to be easy.

 

Jesus responds by asking. Who needs a house-call from the doctor,   the person who is hale and hearty or the person who has a terrible cough and a fever? This is one of those beautiful moments when Jesus manages to disarm his opponents.  You, he insinuates, are so clearly healthy! I will stay with these sick people.

 

Finally we come to the strange imagery as Jesus moves on to talk about the old and the new: garments and wine. In doing so he appeals to local knowledge and folk law.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk (or new) cloth on an old cloak;  the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins;  the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”   There are several ways of interpreting these sayings.   I am going to go out on a limb and say, of all the words of Jesus, perhaps these shake up good church people more than others. It is easy to think Jesus is saying, that the old must be discarded and the new embraced, but the way I read these sentences contradicts that view.  Jesus clearly is suggesting we embrace the new, the new wine, and he is clearly suggesting we maintain and protect what is old, the cloak, which he doesn’t want to tear. It’s not the age of something that should be the judge of whether we preserve it. It’s not whether something is new or old that determines if it is good. Rather, it’s the extent to which the new helps us to welcome in the Kingdom of God and to worship him. Both are of value in their own way.  

 

Maybe the final thing that we need to hear over and over again is this: Look around you. This is no funeral. This is a wedding banquet and we are the beloved people of God. This is what the “new wine” is about ~ not so much the “newness,” as the “wine.” Wine, symbol throughout history and scripture of all that is delicious, all that is wholesome, all that lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart. Wine that is soon to be to us the blood of Christ bringing into our old life his new life.   This, I believe, is what we need to remember most of all. This is why we tell the old, old, story again and again so that we’ll finally take this in, so that we’ll finally believe it.

Mark 2  13-22