The Peril of Putting Jesus in a Box
How do you react when Jesus doesn’t live up to your expectations? Continue reading . . .
How do you react when Jesus doesn’t live up to your expectations? Now, don’t give me any of that pious bologna about how Jesus has always fulfilled even your highest and most outrageous expectations. Has he always answered every prayer in the way you thought he should have? Has he always orchestrated your life according to your schedule? Did he always teach the doctrines you thought he should have taught? Has he reacted to people in the gospel stories in precisely the way you thought would have been most appropriate?
The bottom line is that Jesus often times does things that shock and surprise us. He never does anything wrong, sinful, or unwise, but he many times does things that are utterly unexpected and contrary to what we believe either would happen or should happen.
Regardless of your response to my question, I can assure you that there were people in the first century to whose expectations Jesus rarely if ever measured up. That’s not to say they weren’t living in hope of the appearance of the Messiah. Indeed, they were. But they wanted a Messiah on a leash! They wanted a savior and deliverer who would fetch and heel and sit at their command and according to their wishes. They wanted someone who would live by their rules.
But if there is one thing about Jesus of which we can be rock solid certain, it is that he will not be domesticated! He will not dance to the tune of human expectations. Any attempt on the part of these people in the first century to set boundaries beyond which Jesus cannot go always proved fruitless. Any attempt on our part in the twenty-first century to create a mold into which we can stuff Jesus and make him conform, will likewise prove futile, if not fatal. Jesus will not be put in a box. We must accept him on his terms, not ours.
Mark 2:13-17 is a beautiful illustration of precisely this point. The religious leaders of the day, Mark refers to them as the Scribes and Pharisees, the seminary grads of the first century, those guys who made a living at religion, were continually scandalized by what Jesus said and did. They were especially offended when he refused to repudiate the social outcasts and notorious sinners of their day. Jesus made matters even worse when he not only denounced the Pharisees but then joined the sinners for dinner and a drink! Mark writes:
“13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:13-17).
Here we read of how Jesus issued his call to Levi, who most believe is Matthew (many in those days had more than one name; e.g., Simon Peter). Even if it isn’t the apostle Matthew, the story is profound.
Matthew was a tax collector. Sometimes they are referred to in Scripture as “publicans” (not Re-publicans! Publicans). There are people in our church who hold honorable positions with the IRS and I thank God for each of them. I also feel sorry for them due to the incredible abuse they take. Unfortunately, some people in our society rank the IRS a notch or two below Al Quaeda!
But you need to understand that no matter how deep the dislike people today have for the IRS, it could in no way match the disdain, the utter disgust in which people held tax collectors in the first century.
In the first place, tax collectors were viewed as traitors, as guilty of treason. They were Jews who had chosen to work for the Roman government, the very people who oppressed the Jewish people and occupied their holy land. In other words, the first loyalty of the tax collector, the Publican, was to the enemies of his own countrymen!
How did one become a tax collector? You didn’t go to school. Universities didn’t offer a course called “Advanced studies in Tax Collecting” (subtitled, How to Alienate your fellow Jews!). Usually by purchasing a franchise! That’s right, the government would auction off to the highest bidder a region or area over which you would have responsibility to collect taxes. As long as you met your specified requirements, as long as you collected all that Rome demanded, anything above and beyond would go into your own pocket. This opened wide the door to extortion, bribery, graft, corruption, and just downright stealing. Tax collectors, therefore, were often extremely wealthy.
They were also, as you might guess, extremely hated and despised. It’s truly amazing the lengths to which people went to distance themselves from tax collectors. By Jewish law he was barred from the synagogue and was forbidden to have any social contact with his fellow Jews. Imagine a sign on your front door: “IRS Employees not allowed!”
He was regarded as unclean. In other words, he ranked right there alongside pigs and lepers! Great company, huh! No publican was permitted to give testimony in a court of law. The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean! Lying was forbidden, unless one lied to a tax collector. Publicans were dirt bags, pond scum. Are you beginning to get the picture?
I’m sure that Matthew had already seen Jesus out and about and had probably heard him preach on several occasions. He most likely had witnessed some of his healings and maybe even knew a few people out of whom Jesus cast demons.
When Jesus calls him, Matthew is seated at his booth on the border between the territories of Herod Antipas and Philip the Tetrarch. Capernaum was a critical juncture in the ancient world and he was probably taxing goods going in and out of the area over which he had responsibility.
The call is quick and to the point: “Follow me!”
Matthew doesn’t hesitate for a second. “And he rose, and followed him.”
Stunning! What must have the other disciples been thinking? “Are you kidding me? Jesus, would you like to reconsider? You expect us to entrust ourselves to this guy? You want us to share our lives with him? Surely the gospel you’ve been proclaiming has limits. Surely there are some scruples you’ll observe. Please, not a tax collector! Not Levi!”
Even more stunning to the religious leaders, and maybe even a few of the disciples, is that Jesus didn’t say: “Levi, stop overeating, give up smoking, never watch porn again, buy some decent clothes, clean up your mouth, clean up your act, and then come, follow me.”
Religious people demand that you first get yourself right by your own efforts, that you fulfill their expectations, that you strive to make yourself worthy of being called, and only then are you qualified to follow Jesus. Jesus says, “Come follow me and I’ll change you. I’ll make you different.” I’ll return to this later.
It’s always helpful to combine Mark with Matthew and Luke to get the fuller picture of what happened. In Luke 5:28, it says, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.”
It’s interesting that Matthew himself, in recording this incident, chooses not to say that he “left everything.” Why? I can’t prove it, but I suspect that in view of what he knew he had gained by following Jesus he felt as if he had lost nothing! Remember Paul’s words in Philippians 3:7-8, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ!”
You may be tempted to say: “What an incredible sacrifice Matthew made to follow Jesus. He gave up everything. He left everything.”
Before you draw that conclusion, consider the testimony of David Livingstone, the great pioneer missionary to Africa. On December 4, 1857, he spoke to the students at Cambridge University.
“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice” (cited by Piper, Desiring God, 243).
Some of you are still wondering, “What will it cost me to follow Jesus?” The answer is: “Everything.” I would be lying to you if I said otherwise. It may well cost you friends and family and money and promotion and the praise of men. But I believe with all my heart that you will find the surpassing excellency of knowing Christ to be of such incomparable, infinite value that you will regard as refuse, as dung, all that you leave behind! You will never think of it again as a sacrifice!