Invitation to Outsiders (Luke 5:12-39)
You may have heard somebody say, “I have good news and I have bad news. Which would you like to hear first?” Whenever I hear this, it is never a good thing.
Doctor: I have some bad news and some very bad news.
Patient: Well, might as well give me the bad news first.
Doctor: The lab called with your test results. They said you have 24 hours to live.
Patient: 24 hours! That’s terrible! What could be worse? What’s the very bad news?
Doctor: I’ve been trying to reach you since yesterday.
So you don’t want somebody to tell you they have good and bad news.
The reason I bring this up is because the reaction to Jesus is decidedly mixed. When we get together to talk about Jesus, you can say that we have both good and bad news.
Jesus is one of the most controversial figures to have ever lived. He was when he lived, and he still is today when we really get to know him. He was so controversial that they ended up murdering him, they couldn’t stand him.
The amazing thing is that the reaction to Jesus today is almost the opposite to what took place during his lifetime. There are two reactions to Jesus and his life: one positive, and one very negative. Today they’re switched.
Today, if you went on the street and asked people about Jesus, you’d find some interest. If you pressed really hard, though, you’d likely find some suspicion about Jesus – if not for Jesus directly, at least about those of us who follow him. As somebody’s said, “I like Jesus but I don’t like the church.” For whatever reason, what Jesus has to offer is now something that people aren’t sure they want. If you walk up to the average person on the street and say, “Can I tell you what I think Jesus would say about your life?” I think you’ll find the other person will say, “No!” or at least run. Jesus has become bad news to a lot of people.
On the other hand, Jesus is seen as really good news to those of us in the church. This is just what you’d expect. We sing about Jesus. We read stories about Jesus. We pray in Jesus’ name. Churches and church people just love Jesus.
This is so matter of fact that it’s easy to miss something important: this is exactly the opposite of the reaction that Jesus found when he was on earth. When Jesus was here, people who were outsiders to religion saw Jesus as being very good news. It’s the exact opposite of today. When Jesus walked around, those who weren’t religious, those who didn’t darken the door of the synagogue and carry big Bibles, those were people who were amazed by Jesus and embraced them. More importantly, these were the people that Jesus embraced. The question for me is: why are outsiders, those who are far away from church, people we would never expect to darken the door of a church – why don’t they see Jesus as good news for them? Why do they see Jesus as irrelevant, perhaps even hostile, to their lives?
Then flip it around. When Jesus was here, religious people found him very threatening. The people that Jesus confronted, the people that couldn’t stand Jesus, the people who killed him – they were those who went to synagogue every week, who memorized the Bible, who prayed multiple times a day. The question is, why are church people never threatened by Jesus today? Is it that we are so much better than the religious people of Jesus’ day, or is it possible that we haven’t really understood who Jesus is?
To put it simply, why in Jesus’ day was he good news to religious outsiders and bad news to religious insiders, whereas today it’s the very opposite?
I’d like to look at some events in Jesus’ life that give us the answer to this question. We’re about to see some encounters with people that illustrate the two ways that people reacted to Jesus. We’re going to see three outsiders who discovered that Jesus was radically good news for them, and we’re going to think about outsiders today and how Jesus might be good news to them, right here and right now in our community.
We’re also going to see how the religious insiders reacted, and we’re going to ask how religious insiders – most of us, actually – might be threatened by Jesus today.
The passage we’re about to look at describes the people that Jesus came to serve and liberate. It’s about the people that we are called to serve today, because we’re called to live like Jesus. If you have your Bibles with you, let’s look at these encounters from Luke 5.
When we read this passage, we discover that Jesus is both good news and bad news. Let’s look at the good news first.
The good news: Jesus welcomes outsiders
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, like you’re an outsider. Sometimes I’ve felt alone in a crowd, like I shouldn’t belong there. Usually it’s because I guess wrong and under-dress for an occasion. I don’t wear a suit jacket when I should. One time we were in London, England, and I was dressed very casually – jeans and a t-shirt I think. We ended up touring Buckingham Palace, and I remember feeling very strange in the palace in a t-shirt. It’s strange to feel out of place.
Imagine feeling that way all of time. There are people who are always on the edge of society, who never feel like they fit. Think of somebody that you would be surprised to see in church today, or in a nice restaurant. It could be somebody with a severe disfigurement, somebody experiencing extreme poverty, maybe a drunk. It could be somebody who’s dressed inappropriately or has a highly contagious disease, somebody that you would not only be surprised to see, but somebody that would make you very uncomfortable.
If you took that and multiplied the shock factor, you would come close to understanding how surprising it is that Jesus chose to associate with these people. In Luke 5, we read about three shocking people – outsiders – that Jesus chose to love and to serve. Let’s look at them and try to understand why it was so surprising, and why Jesus was such good news to them.
Luke 5:12-13 tells us that Jesus met, touched, and healed a leper.
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said, “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
Leprosy was a powerful and highly infectious disease. It’s more than what we call leprosy today. There were a number of skin conditions – psoriasis, lupus, ringworm, as well as Hansen’s disease – that back then would have been called leprosy. Everybody knew that this man’s body was full of leprosy. He lived away from his family and everybody. If people approached him, he would have to cover his mouth and yell out a warning that he was unclean. His family would probably leave out food for him, but stay clear when he came to collect it. Nobody had touched him in years. This was the ultimate outsider, a social outcast.
The leper comes to Jesus. By all rights, Jesus should have kept his distance to remain clean and to stay safe. He could have healed this man from a hundred meters away. To touch him would have been to risk becoming contaminated himself.
The heart of the story is the shocking action that Jesus took in verse 13. “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” Jesus touched a man who hadn’t been touched in years. Instead of being contaminated by the leper, the cleanness and wholeness of Jesus cleansed the man. But as Jesus reached out and touched the man, you can bet that everybody in the crowd gasped. As we read later in the passage, it would take a week before the man would be pronounced as healed and clean by a priest. Jesus reached out to the ultimate social outcast and proved that there is no such thing as an untouchable person.
The second encounter Jesus has is with a paralyzed man. You know the story; we read it this morning. This man has a physical disability. The common view back then – of both lepers and of paralytics – would be that the illness and disability was a sign of God’s displeasure. We live today in a society that views those with physical disabilities in a much healthier way than before, but back then, this man would have been somewhat of an outcast. He can’t even get to Jesus on his own. Picture the clay and little pieces of the roof falling down on people in the room. Picture this man being lowered down from the roof (“Don’t drop me!”), the crowd whispering and looking. Jesus looks at this man and not only heals him, but forgives his sins as well. He gets more than he bargains for.
Then there’s a third encounter to cap it off. We read in Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”
I imagine that if you were an auditor with Revenue Canada, you would experience a little of the hostility that is directed at tax collectors. We don’t like tax collectors even today. But take the feelings you have toward an auditor with Revenue Canada, and multiply that a number of times, and you understand how tax collectors were hated in Jesus’ day. Tax collectors were extortionists, shaking people down for as much money as they could manage, keeping some of it for themselves before they remitted the rest. They were collaborators with the enemy, the foreign occupying government that went against their religion. They were unclean, because they were always in contact with Gentiles. They were also very rich, which would make people resentful. They were rich because they had dirty money.
So imagine Jesus going to this guy and saying, “Follow me.” Then picture this guy throwing a party with all of his shady friends. “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them” (Luke 5:29). There are a few things we need to notice here. Levi is throwing a party that is costing quite a bit of money, and he’s doing it with dirty money, proceeds of his tax collecting career. How would you feel about that? Second, he’s invited his tax collecting buddies. Of course, who else would he invite? They stuck together, because nobody else would have anything to do with them. You have a room full of shady characters. Third, Jesus eats with them. In that culture, eating with people implied acceptance of them. The Pharisees, some of the religious people of that day, wouldn’t even eat with the average person, never mind tax collectors. They were afraid of being contaminated. The food might be unclean, and it might not have been tithed appropriately. Jesus is invited to this party, and – gasp – he goes.
So look at the people Jesus embraces, who see him as good news. He embraces outsiders. Not just any type of outsiders, either. He touches the most untouchable type of person. He forgives and heals someone with a disability. He invites an extortionist to follow him. It was scandalous. He ate with the wrong people. He touched the wrong people. He reaches out and touches people on the very edge of society. Jesus is good news to outsiders, to the very people who don’t belong and don’t fit. Jesus even says that’s what he’s here for. In Luke 5:31-32, Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Now let’s think about this today. I mentioned earlier that the average person out there isn’t so sure Jesus is good news for them. Think about those who are modern day lepers – those who are on the fringes of society, people who are untouchable. Think about them – who are they today? The homeless, those with AIDS, alcoholics, those on drugs?
Think about those who are sick, and it’s easy to blame their sickness on their lifestyle. Think about those with diseases that may have come from lifestyle choices. People (wrongly) thought that the paralytic was judged by God, just like sometimes we blame those who suffer from certain illnesses as being judged by God.
Think of those who are employed in immoral careers. I heard this week about a stripper who knocked on the door of a church and said, “I don’t want to go to work anymore.” Think of the person who works in the pornography industry. Think of the drug pusher, the pimp. Jesus is good news to these people. Jesus might even go to their house, hang around their friends.
Now ask yourself: if we understand Jesus, and follow him, then Jesus is going to continue to be good news to these same people. Jesus is going to have relevance, and bring hope, to be good news to those in the margins, those who are outsiders.
Now ask yourself, how is the life of Jesus in you going to be good news to those in the very margins of our community? If your life is not touching those who are outsiders, those who think Jesus is for them, then you’re not living the way Jesus did. Same with me. How is our church loving and embracing people who are outsiders, who think that Jesus has nothing but bad news for them?
That’s the good news. The Gospel is for the outsider. It’s for those who are far away from the church and from God – for outcasts and outsiders.
The bad news: Jesus is potentially threatening to insiders
I told you there was good news and bad news. So far we’ve seen the good news: Jesus embraces outsiders. Now it’s time for bad news. The fact that Jesus embraces outsiders is potentially bad news to us. If you read these encounters, you start to see people reacting against what Jesus was doing. Those of us who are religious are the most likely to struggle with Jesus embracing people in the margins.
This is the first time we meet the Pharisees. The Pharisees have a bad name today, but they haven’t always been seen as the bad guys. Their specialty was observance of God’s law. They emphasized obedience to God. It’s hard to criticize that, isn’t it? This is the group that went to worship services, read and memorized the Bible. They’re also the people who had a problem with what Jesus was doing.
The Pharisees were so ticked by what Jesus did that they accused him of the most serious charge a religious person could bring, a crime for which death was the penalty: blasphemy. In Luke 5:21, they think to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Later on they ask Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)
At the end of the chapter, they ask, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking” (Luke 5:33). Jesus answers by giving three pictures with the same answer. Basically, the old ways don’t work under a new system. The old ways of withdrawing and separation from sinners don’t work under the Kingdom, which Jesus has inaugurated. If you try to fit the old ways of doing things into Jesus’ ways, it just won’t fit. We need to learn a new way of living life.
So that’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is that Jesus embraces everybody, even (especially) outsiders. The bad news is that we don’t always get it. Reality is that we may be the people saying, “Jesus, are you sure about this? Are you sure that we’re supposed to touch that person? Are you sure I’m supposed to go to that party? To embrace that person?”
How I’d like to end this service is to ask you to take a few minutes to identify the outsiders in our community – people that are far away from God, the untouchables, the immoral. I don’t want you to name individuals, but let’s start to name the types of people that Jesus might be calling us to embrace in his name. These are the people that Jesus is calling Richview to love and embrace, just as he did, and continues to do.
Now, what would it take for these people to see Jesus as good news for them rather than bad news? What would it take for us to show them that the Good News about Jesus rather than the bad news they’re used to getting?
I’d like to pray for us. Jesus is already willing to go out there, to embrace and forgive and heal and love these people. The challenge is that we might get away. So let’s finish today by praying that the good news doesn’t become bad news to us. Let’s pray that the good news doesn’t become threatening to us, so that we can bring the good news to outsiders just like Jesus did.