Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eating in with the Out Crowd (8/10/14)

Eating In with the Out Crowd
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 10, 2014

Luke 5:27-35
After these events he went out and observed a toll collector named Levi sitting at the toll both.  He said to him, “Follow me.”  Leaving everything behind, he got up, and followed him.  And Levi gave him a great banquet in his house, and a large group of toll collectors and others were dining with them.
 The Pharisees and their scholars would complain to his disciples, “Why do you people eat and drink with toll collectors and sinners?”
In response Jesus said to them:  “Since when do the healthy need a doctor?  It’s the sick who do.  I have not come to enlist the upright to change their hearts, but sinners.”
They said to him, “The disciples of John are always fasting and offering prayers, and so are those of the Pharisees, but yours just eat and drink.”
And Jesus said to them, “You can’t make the groom’s friends fast as long as the groom is present can you?  But the days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast, in those days.”

You know what smear is.
When you have weak argument you can always resort to smear.   A smear is when someone links his or her opponent with someone or something distasteful for the purpose of demeaning the opponent or dismissing his or her opinions in public discourse.   
You see this in politics often.   A classic example was in the 2008 election when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said that President Obama was, quote, “palling around with terrorists.”   She was attempting to make a connection with Obama and Bill Ayers the 60s radical.   

I see this in church politics.   Recent actions by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been smeared with all kinds of evil motivations.  This is done by finding someone distasteful who agrees with one of the decisions and then saying the PCUSA is the same as this person.    

The ultimate smear is linking someone to Hitler and the Nazis.   That is an old smear tactic on internet conversations that has earned the name, Godwin’s Law.      According to Godwin’s Law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."   In other words, regardless of the topic, if the discussion goes on long enough, someone will eventually make the comparison to Hitler or the Nazis. 

Smear has nothing to do with content but everything to do with perceived associations.     If I can associate you with something distasteful, whether it be an ideology, a person, or a movement, then we don’t have to deal with the content.  You have been smeared.

The smear campaign is at least as old as the Bible.   

“Why do you people eat and drink with toll collectors and sinners?” 

Or to use the Sarah Palin vernacular:

“This Jesus fella is palling around with sinners!”    

When we read the gospels we are reading the residue of controversies and skirmishes that have been preserved for us in a frame.   This historical task is to try to remove the frame and see what the skirmish was about and who the players were.

Who were toll collectors and sinners?
Why did Jesus eat with them?
Why was he criticized for it?

I used to think that the Pharisees were like modern day self-righteous church people and the toll collectors and sinners were the outcasts of society because of their sexuality or poverty or whatever, the uncool people.  They were discriminated against and Jesus cast his lot with them.   

“I am palling around with these people you church people reject.”  

That is a fairly common interpretation.  The “sinners” are the hoi polloi, the poor common folk who didn’t have the means to follow the ritual of the law.  They were the underdogs despised by the religious and political power structures.   Jesus hung out with them.   

I like that interpretation.  It is a good thing to be in solidarity with the oppressed and those who are the victims of discrimination and the underdogs.    I think Jesus probably did that.  

But those aren’t the toll collectors and the sinners. 

The thing that bothered me about that interpretation, even though I really liked it, is that when asked about it, Jesus doesn’t defend them but says he is like a physician and is here to call these sick sinners to repent.   He agrees that they are sinners and that they need fixing and he wants to fix them.  That isn’t quite the same as being in solidarity with them.  

A book that has been valuable is James Crossley’sWhy Christianity Happened.      His book helps answer this question: 

Who were the sinners?

First we have to let go of 2,000 years of Christian theology that calls people who are not Christian, sinners, or those who do not engage in appropriate Christian piety, sinners.    We have to let go of the notion that sinners have something to do with sex.    Those aren’t the sinners of the Old Testament and the Gospels.

The Greek word for sinners is hamartolon.   You find it throughout the Bible.  Sometimes it is translated as sinners at other times wicked.  This is Psalm 72:

For I was envious of the arrogant;
   I saw the prosperity of the wicked (sinners).
For they have no pain;
   their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
   they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
   violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
   their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
   loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven,
   and their tongues range over the earth.

According to James Crossley, sinners were “violent, oppressive, and exploitative rich people.”  P. 76  The sinners had power.  They were greedy, wealthy, and successful.   They were like in modern parlance, the one percent. 

In the time of Jesus, Palestine was occupied by a foreign force, the Roman Empire, sinners par excellence.    It truly was, if not one percent, just a small few percent controlling, oppressing, insulting, and keeping at subsistence level with heavy indebtedness, the other 99 or 95 percent. 

Toll collectors were especially nasty, because they would often be Jews who have sided with the oppressors and collect tolls on behalf of the occupation.   These toll collectors profited from the occupation. 

When Jesus and his disciples are eating with the toll collectors and sinners, they are not eating with the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  They are eating with the rich, the powerful, and the oppressors.   The sinners are those we would call the bad guys, the wicked. 

This is Psalm one verses one and five:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path the sinners tread,
or sit at the seat of the scoffers.

Therefore the wicked
will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

The belief was that eventually, judgment will come upon the sinners.  God will make things right, one day.  In the meantime, what do you do with sinners?  You don’t pal around with them.  They should be avoided.   If you are not careful, you could become one.    Right?

Don’t drink, smoke, chew, or hang around with girls who do.

Don’t be an oppressive, violent, greedy, rich person who profits by the occupation of others.    Who are the sinners?   They are sodomites.   Remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?  It has nothing to do with sex.  According to Ezekiel:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom:  she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  16:49

Those are the sinners, the wicked, the sodomites:  the exploitative rich.

The Pharisees are asking a legitimate question.  Why are you associating with these people who are exploiting us?  The Pharisees didn't like the occupation either.   The accusation that the disciples are eating and drinking or that Jesus is a glutton or a drunkard is a damning one.  They are eating and drinking like the sinners and the wicked do.   It is another way of saying that they are palling around with the occupiers.   

Jesus and his disciples are eating with those Jews who are wicked and who are sinners.   These are people not following the Torah.  They are lending money at interest.  They are exploiting fellow Jews.  They are collecting tolls on behalf of Rome.  They are bad apples. 

When we read the gospels we are reading the remains of intra-Jewish conflicts.  Jesus was a Jew, 100%.    Crossley makes this point and I agree:  every thing that Jesus says and does is in line with the Torah.  He is a prophet, teacher, and movement leader within the tradition.     The Pharisees are too.  They are both concerned about the law and both opposed to the occupation.  They represent competing movements within second temple Judaism.   

What do you do with sinners? One answer is to avoid them.  Do not follow in their paths.  God will take care of them eventually.  

Another answer also in the tradition is that sinners can repent.  

Earlier I quoted Ezekiel.  This is Ezekiel again.  In these verses, the Lord is instructing the prophet as to his mission:

Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?  33:10-11

Turn. The Greek word is metanoia.   It means repent.   It doesn’t mean feeling bad or when you get caught, crying to Jesus and mama on the television.  It means changing behavior.  It means turning one’s life in a different direction.      

Jesus saw as his prophetic task, calling sinners, the wicked, the sodomites, the greedy, exploitative, violent, successful wealthy people to repentance.  As he said to the Pharisees:

“Since when do the healthy need a doctor?  It’s the sick who do.  I have not come to enlist the upright to change their hearts, but sinners.”

We are familiar with the story of Zaccheus, the wee little man in the tree.  He is a toll collector.   Jesus tells him he will eat with him and Zaccheus is so overwhelmed that he repents and gives back four times the amounts that he has defrauded others. 

While this particular story is more legend than history, it shows that Jesus was understood as one who sought out the wicked and the sinners, the exploitative wealthy and called them to change. 

Why are the Pharisees picking on Jesus for doing this?  Why are they calling him a glutton and a drunkard and smearing him with “sinner?”  He is doing what prophets are called to do, call sinners to repent.    

Crossley suggests envy might be a reason.  This is an intra-Jewish conflict and the Pharisees don’t want Jesus to be successful as people might follow him rather than them.

On the other hand, if Jesus is not successful, they could accuse him of wasting time and effort and even becoming one of them.  A respectable teacher like Jesus should not be palling around with these bad apples who show no signs of repentance.   His mission is naïve.  

What to take home?

It is interesting that much is made of this in the gospels.  Several stories independently attested have Jesus eating with the wicked and the sinners.   He is not eating with the marginalized or the oppressed.  He is eating with the bad guys—those who are unjustly wealthy and who are oppressors.   This could be the gospel. 

It appears that the historical Jesus did believe in something naïve and acted on this belief.  He believed that the house of God, the Greek word is oikos where we get the word economy, is a just house.    He believed and he preached that the economy of God was one of justice.   

It is a house in which the rich do not exploit the poor. 
The powerful do not oppress the week.  
The sinners do not scoff at the plight of the hungry.  
Jesus believed that people could change. 
Jesus believed that the kingdom of God could exist on earth as it does in heaven.
It could exist in reality as it does as an ideal.  
Heaven to Earth.   

Religion is about spirituality for sure.  It is a spirituality about a just economy.   At least that is what the Jesus tradition is about.   It isn’t about political opinions.  It is about the gospel of the economy of God.    We are all part of it.

Where might we see a glimpse of this gospel today?     I see it in the work of those who advocate for a just society all around me in this very sanctuary.    Those who write letters and columns in the newspaper and who lead workshops and who teach classes and who work hard to convince people of what it means to live sustainably and fairly.  

Economic justice. 
Health care justice. 
Reproductive justice. 
Immigration justice.  

This is Jesus business whether those who do it are Christians or are religious or spiritual or not.   

This is not politics.  This is gospel.  This is what Jesus did.   

Jesus ate with the wicked.  
If he were here today, he would eat with me.  

He would tell me to open my eyes, get off my butt and participate.    At the supper table he would say,

“John, I want you to look at my servant, Sister Simone Campbell, the nun on the bus.   She hardly has any money or any influence and she has to speak her truth to everyone from politicians to the Pope about people who are dying because they can’t afford an operation.    

She doesn’t whine about it, John, like you do.  She gets on the bus and travels the country and talks with everyone.  She calls up the politicians who don’t have their heads on straight and she introduces them to those who are hurt by their policies.  

She doesn’t give up hope either.    She expects that people will repent.   Read what she wrote, John, from her book, A Nun on the Bus:  How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.”

All right Jesus, here is what she wrote:

“Conversion?  People tell me that’s naïve.  And yet my heart, and the hearts of my sisters, have been profoundly changed by encounters with so many people….

…I believe that walking with people who are struggling in our country will open our hearts to our better selves.  If that’s naïve, I’m proud of it.  Because we have been effective, for the sake of God.  Maybe we should all be more naïve.”   Pp. 71-2

If Jesus were having supper with a sinner like me, that is what I think he would do.  He would tell me about what life is really like for so many people in our world.  He would connect me with others from all walks of life.  He would talk about what bad policies and laws do to real people.     He would show me what we could do.

And he would invite me to change my heart.   


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