Have you ever been somewhere when you have entered, and immediately you are met with a gaze that questions your very appearance? Maybe it has been turning up for a job interview either over-dressed or not smart enough, wearing the wrong outfit to a themed party, or just guessing dressing wrong in those pro-covid days when we could see friends!
Everything context has an expectation, a framework by which to be judged, and a standard to conform too. Ironically the groups/organisations in our society today that would define themselves by ‘non-conformity’ expect people to look like those who don’t conform to the norms. There are always standards that need to be met. Everything in our culture has a certain expectation of how we might look or look, and when we do not meet it, we cause offence.
I can think about two different places I worked that had such different work culture, for one I was warned about turning up with a beard to an interview (because the interviewer did not like them… I still had one) and for the other being warned not to turn up in a suit (because it was a very casual). Every culture has ideas and standard that shape it and the people who live within. the problem often comes when certain cultures collide: the question – what do we do then?
When Cultures Collide
We meet Jesus travelling out to the shore of the Lake. Mark comment “once again” reminding us that this was a consistent movement for Jesus, it was a journey he made out of the towns to find space to teach, minister, and bring about the Kingdom of God. There at the lakes those who seek him find him: the sick, weary, and outcasts of society find hope! They also hear the word of God taught and demonstrated in ways that evoke memories of the prophets of old and make the crowds wonder what is going on.
What is Jesus doing? He is beginning something; not just his ministry, no, he is beginning something that will never end and affect every culture humanity knows. In his teaching, ministry, and life, he begins the final act of God’s redemptive move in the world. It is what we mean when we talk about Jesus bringing about the Kingdom of God. Here at the start of Mark’s Gospel, we see the King laying the foundations of his Kingdom and teaching its ethic by his words, actions. He is showing the culture of his kingdom.
Cultures collide. Often what we see on the news today is the clashing of opposing cultures: American Politics, the rise of Nationalism. They are the public fruits of cultures. It is not that they are good or bad: it is the reality of this world. Today’s passage challenges us in many ways, as we Jesus calls Levi to follow him we are challenged to consider just what it means to be his disciple, as Jesus eats with the outcasts of the world and confronts the sinful culture of the Pharisees we are challenged to consider our own context and the things that are forming us. Mostly, we are challenged to consider are our churches and we more being formed by the things of God or the things of the world.
Passgage: Mark 2:13-17 NIV
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
The King, The Kingdom and its Culture (13-17)
Mark’s Gospel is an urgent one, it is as if there is not enough time or pages in the world to say what he wants to say. Jesus is always on the move and always focused on fulfilling the call of God on his life. Here is no different; Jesus has been on the move since John the Baptist announced his work, he has been ministering and inaugurating the Kingdom of God in word and deed. Healing many, restoring those who suffered from leprosy, showing his authority over demons, defeating Satan in the wilderness, healing a man paralysed, and preaching a message of repentance.
Jesus has begun something that this world will not comprehend and that will shake the foundations of this world. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is not of this world. This much is clear from the off as Jesus moves from the lake after teaching and calls Levi, the son of Alphaeus sitting in a Tax Collectors both with the words “follow me.”
The Power of Calling: Follow Me (13-14)
We can lose something of the radicalness of those words and who they are offered too. Remember that Jesus is currently seen as a Teacher of the ways of God. Yes, he has been radical in his ways and deeds, but still, he is understood through the lens of a teacher. That is a Lens with certain expectations of conformity: How a teacher should act, who they should associate with, and what their disciples should look like.
In two words as Jesus calls Levi, he dismantles that preconception of himself and those he will call to follow him. In doing that he says something about who he is as a teacher and leader. More significantly, he says something about the heart and character of God.
Levi represented (through the eyes of the world) the worst of society, not only was he an outsider to his people, he was worse – a traitor! One who would choose to sympathise with the Roman oppressors and collect taxes for them. He was one who betrayed his people and then made a living off that betrayal. Levi was a person who would never be considered as one who God might use or work through. Yet, Jesus called him from the place of his betrayal (the toll booth) to follow and serve him.
In his call of Levi Jesus demonstrates for use the counter-cultural way that God works in this world, and the counter-culture of the Kingdom of God. A place where membership is not defined by any human framework. The Kingdom of God in belonging, structure, ethic, way and culture stands in contra to the kingdoms of the world as God works to bring people to repentance and make know his way. When opposing cultures meet, there will be fireworks, and here is no different. Yet, as people of the Kingdom of God, those who have received Christ we know in the end that there will be only one place forming us – The Kingdom of God
The Power of Association: The Meal (15-17)
The narrative moves forward, and it seemingly goes from bad to worse as after Jesus has called Levi he seems to join him at his table. Again, we often lose such a movement’s audacity because we are looking back with a different lens. Within Jewish culture to eat at someone’s table was a declaration of belonging and friendship! It was a statement of association and an act that always said something:
“to eat with someone in ancient times often meant to be identified and reconciled with him. Hence, Jesus’ eating with the wrong company suggests he has no reservation about being identified with such people, and may convey the scandalous message that God accepts them”1
Jesus not only calls sinners to follow him and join him in the work of building the Kingdom of God, but he also associates with them. It is an act that tells us something not just about Him but about what he came to do. Jesus came no for those who consider themselves well, but who know themselves as sinful, hence in the rebuke of the Pharisees: “It is not the fit and flourishing who need the doctor those who are ill. I did not come to invite the ‘righteous’, but the ‘sinners’.” (Mark 2:17 PHILIPS) Jesus not only calls sinners to him, his work and cause: he draws close to them and identities with them in an intimate way. Jesus is both the saviour and friend of sinners! The challenge is are we?
Conclusion: Living in and Living out the Kingdom
Covid has changed so much of how we interact with one another and the world. Nothing has been spared, even how we are doing and will do church. The last 11 months have been spent living in a hybrid paradox of online ministry and socially distant gathering. Everything has changed, yet, there should be one thing that reminds the same for the follower of Jesus – what forms us!
Often we allow the world culture to shape us and our view of following Jesus and not Jesus! We compartmentalise everything, so our faith becomes an aspect of who we are, not the essence of who we are, and how we interact with the world. Passages like Mark 2:13-17 should challenge us as we stop, think, and consider shaping how we see the world and interact with it and what is shaping our faith and relationship with Jesus. Villodas writes:
”Whether we know it or not, see it or not, or understand it or not, we are always at risk of being shallowly formed. We are formed by our false selves, our families of origin, the highly manipulated presentations of social media, and the value system of a world that determines worth based on accomplishments, possessions, efficiency, intellectual acumen, and gifts.”2
We see two cultures at work in this account, both are forming people and the world, only one is transforming by the power of God. The way, culture, and worldview of the Pharisees and the way of Jesus confront every aspect of their world. The challenge: What is forming us?
The Battle for Formation
Being Formed by a Culture of Self
The Pharisees approach the world with a clear sense of right and wrong, with clearly defined boxes on who is in and who is out, what righteousness looks like and how God should be approached. They have a clear sense of who God might look to and work through, and as far as they are concerned, they are right about it all. Coincidently they are also at the centre of it all: Their worldview, their culture centres around them, and nothing will change that.
When we read this narrative, it is so easy to see the error in their ways, the stubbornness of their hearts, and the ugliness of their self-righteousness. It is easy for us to judge them: it is hard for us to see ourselves in them. The Pharisees are us! Quite simply, it is a culture of sin. Yes, our world and worldview might look different in so many ways, but often when you get to the heart of it a worldview and culture without Christ at its centre is built around us! We love the things that give us value, security and comfort and we feel threatened by anything that might oppose that. That is why the Pharisees reacted aggressively to Jesus, his teachings and his ways because they threatened their status and power and pointed to another way, a better way – The way of Jesus. There are two cultures in the one: The Culture of Sin and the Culture of Christ (The Kingdom of God) the question is which one is forming us?
Being Formed by Christ
The Christian must be formed by Christ, the answer to the selfishness of the world and its views is a life rooted in Jesus. A person who knows they cannot save themselves in light of eternity and their sin and trusts in the one who can. A life based not on self-strength, power, or influence but on the sufficiency of Jesus.
To follow Jesus is to be formed by Jesus, when Levi responded to the call (how could he not), it was not a choice that offered some of him to Jesus: it was a response that committed all of him! it is as Villodas continued: “we need to be regularly called back to the essence of our lives in God. That essence is one of ongoing transformation; that is, Christ being formed in us.”3
We can know all the things about God, we can know our bibles inside out and yet never truly known God. To truly know God is to know Christ, know Christ is to be shaped and formed by him as the Holy Spirit works in us. Then as we are being transformed by the work of Grace in our life as we live for him in a way that stands opposed to the rhythms of the world we make known the Kingdom of God and the saving hope of its king. There are two cultures in the world: Sin & Jesus, both are forming – which one is forming us?
It Takes Time
What I love about this passage is that we see the beginning of something, the beginning of Levi/Matthew’s journey to walking with Jesus, being formed by him and living for him. Yet, all this encounter marks is just that – a beginning. A beginning that marked the start of being formed, but the formation of Christ in the disciple was not a one-time event, no it was and always will be a lifetime event. Matthew would spend the rest of his life living for Jesus, getting to Known Jesus and making him known. Today’s passage placed in the context of Levi’s development as he walked with God reminds us that the work of God is an ongoing thing – it takes time.
We must also give it time, the formation does not just happen without intent. Yes, we realise that we cannot save ourselves, that we do not choose God that he reaches to us and calls us to himself, that even to become a disciple (like Levi) is a gift of Grace and wonder of Mercy. Yet, therein lies the paradox of the Christian faith, we bring nothing to the table in terms of what we offer God. All the world’s possessions would not come close to the value of the gift that one person receives, yet, we must in some way chose to live for him, be formed by him, and confront the world as we live out his Kingdom reality.
As We Go
What is Forming Us?
We are all being formed by something. In this account, there are two cultures at work and forming people. One represents the ways of this world and its works, the other the ways of God and the wonder of Grace at work in a believer’s life. We are all being formed, the question is which one is forming us?
The Privilege of Following Jesus
In our passage today we see the wonder of Grace, that the call of God to the individual. Jesus called Levi, and Levi could do nothing but respond. Even the privilege of walking with God is a gift of Grace – he calls us unto himself, not because we bring something but because he can. Thus, we can never rise above our station in the kingdom of God, we can never start to think of ourselves as important, or needed because we did not earn the right to be there, we received it greatly through the work of Christ on the cross. The world’s culture tells us it is all about us, Kingdom culture humbles us because it reminds us it is all about Jesus, and to simply be there is an honour. Hence in the Kingdom of God, we are free from the burden’s of the world, and in that freedom, we live in a way that confronts the world and offers hope beyond hope.
Are We living out the Ethic of the Kingdom of God?
Cultures form us in ways we do not even realise. How we dress, speak, think, treat people are all fruits of culture – the question is which culture. The Call of Levi and the meal Jesus ate offended the religious leaders not because it was sinful, but because he was not conforming to their standards in his actions. Levi and his friends did not look like the people they thought a Teacher should associate with. Levi and his friends did not dress the right way, they had the wrong sort of employment, so they were considered outsiders.
They did not fit the mould! We read these passages (and I am speaking to myself) and often we never consider ourselves in the same position, yet, what if we truly considered the culture of our churches: the people we might want to serve in it, and even the people we would welcome in without flinching. Furthermore, in our mission are we like Christ and proactively seeking the people the world ignores because it is not the righteous who need a doctor, but the sick or are we happy in our private member’s clubs? In Levi’s call and the meal at the table, he demonstrates to the way and culture of the Kingdom, so as we go from here, let’s make sure it is that which is forming us as we live for him and nothing else.
- Tan, K. H. (2015). Mark: A New Covenant Commentary. (M. F. Bird & C. Keener, Eds.) (pp. 37–38). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books ↩
- (from “The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus” by Rich Villodas, Pete Scazzero) ↩
- Villodas, Rich. The Deeply Formed Life . The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ” ↩