“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?’” Mark 2:16 (NIV)
Can’t you hear them? “What does he think he is doing?” “He had better be careful or else he might be contaminated by those kinds of people?” “Jesus, there’s plenty of room at our table. Come sit with us.” Always the observant type, but rarely if ever helpful, the Pharisees were dumbfounded. Jesus had shattered the expectations of those “in the know” that day when he fellowshipped with a tax collector turned follower by the name of Levi. Jesus had been out by the sea once again drawing in the crowds as he taught of God’s Kingdom. Suddenly he came upon this son of Alphaeus who was performing his regular task on behalf of the Roman Empire. As has been shared in many studies and sermons, tax collectors then were among the lowest of the low within Jewish society. While being socially or even religiously Jewish, they were considered outsiders due to their close association with Rome and the taxation process. The rule of thumb went something like “give what is owed to Rome and keep whatever is left over as your own.” That sounds about as corrupt as many things we hear of in our world today.
Nevertheless, as a result of their livelihood, tax collectors had earned the designation of “sinners” and were lumped together with some of society’s “very best.” Why would Jesus want to be around “those type of people?” After all, Jesus was God’s Son, a respected teacher, and worker of miracles beyond imagination. It seemed undignified for the Jewish Messiah to long to be with the very dregs of society especially in the context of table fellowship. Maybe the Pharisees would have cut Jesus some slack if he had just “smiled and nodded politely” at such people on the street and moved along. But no…Jesus had extended the invitation for Levi to follow him just the same as with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Such a strange setup for ministry. Shouldn’t a righteous man seek out on the very best society could offer to serve as disciples? Jesus was very quick to set the record straight by reminding those who questioned his actions that “it is not those who are healthy who have need of a physician, but rather the sick.” Jesus made an important point at this juncture in his ministry by indicating his calling was not for a chosen few, the elite of his time, or holy people with an impressive resumé. Jesus came for the broken, downcast, ignored, ostracized, and, yes, sinful. You know…people like you and me.
This is an essential reminder when we consider our calling to “reach as many people as possible for Christ.” If we isolate our ministry as the Church to those who are “righteous,” how exactly are we expanding the Kingdom of God? The reality is that God’s Kingdom grows as people come to know Christ in a personal way that leads to a transformation of life. However, we must acknowledge that this portion of our calling is no overnight success. It is not a “quick sell” or matter of satisfying a “quota” of new believers, but rather an opportunity to engage people where they are in a way that creates fellowship, builds trust, and opens an opportunity for “grace to take place.” It is as Rick Rusaw shares in his work Living a Life on Loan, we must “pay attention to the intersections of life.” By this he emphasizes that just as we must be sensitive to the intersecting roads that we come upon day by day when we are driving, so also must we be cognizant of the places when our lives interact with the lives of others. Rusaw suggests that when the story of our lives intersects with that of another person “grace takes place.” That is a beautiful image. Rather than “blowing through such intersections,” as the Christian community we should look for ways in which we might allow God to use our lives in those specific moments to express something of our faith in ways that leave a meaningful mark upon others.
I believe this is why relationships are so important to effective evangelism in our world today. In previous generations, very little emphasis was placed upon getting to know a person and looking for opportunities for our life story with Christ to speak to him or her. The primary focus was that of asking the right questions, discerning if they knew the Lord, and if not, giving them a list of Scriptures and saying a prayer. While there is a time and place for leading people through the Bible and wrestling with the implications of various theological questions, often times people want to be treated as fellow human beings about whom we sincerely care. As former pastors and professors have stated to me time and again, “People really don’t care how much you know until they know you care.” Who are the people you truly care about who may not know the Lord as Personal Savior? Neighbors? Family members? Friends? The fact is that we all know people with whom we are engaged in regular points of contact and fellowship who may not be a part of the faith community. Such relationships can be the ideal space for personal outreach and witness to occur. Studies have indicated over the years that more than 80% of invitations to attend worship or discipleship, as a starting point for Christian evangelism, have occurred as a result of the meaningful relationships laity have with others in the community. Relationships go a long way toward drawing people to or pushing people away from a life-altering encounter with the Savior of the world.
I bring up the relational aspect of evangelism because it was such an effective part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Think about the many times and places when Jesus met people where they were: the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Zacchaeus, just to name a few. If this was important for Jesus, then should it not prove to be important to us as the Church in 2019? Relationships open doors and create spaces in which we can ask someone if they know the Lord or would like to attend Sunday school and worship with us. When you think about the amount of time that we spend with the local church as compared with the time we are out and about in the world working, socializing, playing, etc., we realize quickly that each of us has a mission field before us. The question then becomes one of what we will do with said mission field and how we will tap into the opportunities God offers each of us. The key is an openness to God’s Spirit and obediently following the promptings regardless of the time or people with whom we are associated. After all, from time to time, we all have need of a physician.
The Rev. Kelley Smart