Olympic glory is the pinnacle of athletic achievement. The 2016 Rio games saw Katie Ledecky smash her own previous world record in the 800m women’s freestyle. Michael Phelps also capped off his swimming career with a 28th medal. That made him the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Disqualification shatters any hope of that glory. French hurdler Wilhem Belocian was disqualified before his only race began by a false start. Ezekiel Kemboi initially took Bronze in the 3000m steeplechase, but was disqualified by stepping out of bounds.
Disqualified forever? Ouch…
While most of us will not compete in the Olympics all of us run a race. That race is called life and there is a prize for that race: life forever in God’s house, a.k.a. heaven. After we run the race of life we will all stand before God and be judged for the deeds done while we were alive. Heaven is God’s house and there is where his rules rule. To be disqualified from heaven would be the ultimate fail.
We all start off disqualified and Jesus came to requalify. That is what he was about while teaching and walking in Israel. There was a man in Israel during the days of Jesus named Levi. He belonged to a group of Jews who collected taxes for the Roman empire. As one might imagine that brought a good income, but it also enhanced his isolation. He was so to speak disqualified from being embraced by the Jewish culture at large.
Crowds were following Jesus, but Levi was collecting taxes. Watchfulness and observation for who owed this and who owed that would have been standard fare for a man such as Levi. Observation and watchfulness was also standard fare for the man Jesus. Walking and discerning were not his goal, but his means. Finding and requalifying was the goal. He found Levi.
Disqualified from the Jews but not from Jesus
Jews in the leadership and the larger group of Jewish nationals had long before discarded men like Levi. It is not difficult to see why men hated and discarded the tax collector. Not only were such men semi-traitors, but their ready demand for taxes due (plus a little extra…) deeply drove in a wedge of enmity. When Jesus walked by Levi who was not following, Jesus called Levi to follow him. All need grace and all need repentance.
Standard fare for the people of that time was avoidance of those despised. That is probably standard fare for you and me as well. Jesus neither despised nor avoided; Jesus engaged. He engaged so much that the man followed and invited Jesus to his house.
One does not need to think too hard to imagine how the crowd might have shifted once the shifty man joined up. Some would have discarded Jesus for doing this. Others, of the “sinner-class”, seeing Levi in the crowd would have perked up and also joined.
Levi and his ilk were long dead to the Pharisees. These teachers of the law of Moses had disqualified and discarded that pot of people. Mosaic law was valued by Jesus and we should not too quickly discard the Pharisees for their judgment. Honesty and integrity, purity and obedience were not discarded by Jesus. Fuming and chafing these Pharisees collided with Jesus’ disciples.1
Jesus saw all things in larger categories that the Pharisees did. All had sinned the sins were just in different classes. Levi was not pure, but needed the message that Jesus brought. Stringent followers of Mosaic laws were not pure either. All sin and fall short of God’s glory. All are disqualified, but Jesus came to requalify all.
Authority to forgive sins had been the watershed moment for the Pharisees as Mark recorded just before this scene. Jesus was bringing Levi and the more base sinners to points of repentance as well. The meal Jesus and the early band of followers was taking with these miscreants was not a meal of baptism or acceptance forever. It was a meal of engagement.
Jesus’ double meaning
The play on words does not get lost in translation; neither did the phrase offered by Jesus get forgotten in the 20-40 year span from its utterance to its being recorded by Mark.
Doctors treat illness. Jesus treated sins. Jesus did not call the righteous for they would not need called. There were none truly righteous but Jesus does not delve into those nuances. The double meaning, though, is that the Pharisees were not truly righteous, but Jesus let them keep their label.
The poignant implication of the words Christ gave here is the discarded nature of the Pharisaic order. These religious leaders are not righteous. Jesus gave them an answer that obfuscated set them aside. It is as though he said, “You will never accept your false assumption of righteousness so here is my cryptic answer that will discard you and let me get on with God’s mission.”
Jesus gave them an answer that simultaneously hid the message from them and enhanced the message his disciples and the tax collecting crew needed to hear. Additionally, the ceremony police were silenced. Jesus had moved on from the religious leaders.
Back to the Olympics
By this stage in the era of Jesus the Pharisees have run their qualifying trials and missed the cut. Levi’s house is the stadium where the qualifying trials are still going on. The religious leaders are hurdlers and javelin throwers, sprinters and shot-putters with shortcomings. They are hanging around picking at those who have yet to attempt their qualifying trials.
Jesus discarded them a second time. They had had their opportunity and knew crucial things about the spiritual nature of Jesus. Spiritual connection to God was not something they had, but something they confidently assumed they did have. Connection to God was something that Jesus had but that the Pharisees did not. He spoke their language when he discussed authority to forgive sins. He was now speaking a language that the tax collector class could understand.
What do we take from this?
Are we smug in our assumption of personal goodness? Are we withered under the influence of sin? Jesus did go to the Pharisee and Jesus did go to the tax collector. The entire gamut of the culture was pursued by Christ. He did not come to call the righteous, but none were righteous. Once men and women had been brought to the point of understanding he moved on to another group. Jesus never forced the issue. Jesus offered and the people responded. Some responded by discarding Jesus. Others responded by embracing his teaching.
Whatever part of the spectrum you and I are in we need the ongoing leadership of Jesus in our lives. This is provided by the Holy Spirit who is a daily and constant presence to teach and to remind. We need to be sure to accept the offerings that Jesus holds out so that future lessons will not be hidden and cryptic but helpful and crucial.