For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about “Sharing Our Faith”. If we are going to follow the example of Jesus Christ, then we’re going to have to reach out to the lost because Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). That was his mission, and it’s our mission as well.
The first week, we talked about the importance of sharing our faith with integrity. Because we can’t share our faith until we first live out our faith. We can’t expect to teach other people to put God first in their lives until we’ve learned how to put God first in our life. Otherwise, they’re just going to see us as hypocrites.
And then, last week we talked about the importance of sharing our faith with grace. There are people out there who are hesitant to listen to what we have to say because they’ve seen people who claim to be Christians, and yet, those people hate and condemn others. But Jesus was someone who spoke words of grace, and we’ve got to do the same thing as we share our faith, especially with those who are looked down on and ignored in our society.
This morning, we’re going to talk about sharing our faith with intimacy.
The American poet Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Mending Wall” in which he made a statement that has become popular through the years. He said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But I wonder if that’s really true. It may be true for someone like Joey and Clair because their fence keeps their animals from wandering into their neighbors’ yards and so that definitely helps their relationship with people around them.
But, for most us, a fence is simply a barrier that separates us and isolates us from our neighbors. So I’m not convinced that good fences make good neighbors.
For example, in our neighborhood, just about every house has a fence around the back yard. Which is great when it comes to privacy, or keeping the grandkids contained when they come to visit. But that fence does absolutely nothing to help me to get to know my neighbors better. How can I possibly have a close relationship with my neighbor if there’s a fence between us that separates us?
We sometimes talk about the importance of having an intimate relationship with God, but it’s also important for us to have an intimate relationship with people if we’re going to introduce them to God.
That word “intimacy” is often understood by people. The idea of intimacy means so much more than we think it does and it’s much more important to sharing our faith than most of us seem to realize. The definition of intimacy is “friendship, closeness between people in personal relationships.”
As I said a couple of weeks ago, the way that Jesus reached the lost was by spending time with sinners, talking with them, associating with them, establishing a relationship with them. And if we want to reach people like Jesus did, then we’re going to have to establish relationships with people the way he did.
To Jesus, intimacy involved, more than anything else, eating a meal with people. Eating with someone in the first century was an intimate act. Eating with someone in the ancient world wasn’t just an act of hospitality; it was a statement. When people ate with other people in the time of Jesus, they were making a statement that they were willing to be connected with — and that they accepted — that individual or group with whom they were eating.
No barriers. No fences.
And, as we’ve already seen, this practice of Jesus – being intimate with sinners – was one of the biggest reasons that Jesus was criticized by the scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke 15, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1)
In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning explains why. He said, “In first century Palestinian Judaism, the class system was enforced rigorously. It was legally forbidden to mingle with sinners who were outside the law. Table fellowship with beggars, tax collectors . . . and prostitutes was a religious, social, and cultural taboo.”
Manning says that even in the Near East today, “for an orthodox Jew to say, ‘I would like to have dinner with you,’ is a metaphor implying ‘I would like to enter into friendship with you.'”
And so, when Jesus ate with people, he was committing an act of intimacy.
Jesus was criticized – and ultimately, killed – partly because of his close association with people that the scribes and the Pharisees wanted to keep on the other side of the fence. Those religious leaders believed that it was their duty to protect those fences, those barriers that they had put up all around them.
And when Jesus came along and he didn’t have any respect for their manmade barriers, that made them angry. And ultimately, it made them want to kill Jesus. Which seems a bit extreme to us. Why would the leaders of the Jewish community want to kill Jesus just because he ate with sinners? How could they hate Jesus that much? How could they hate sinners that much?
To understand the answer to those questions, we need to understand the difference between Western thinking and Eastern thinking. We tend to think that everybody in the world sees things exactly the same way that we do, and that’s just not true.
People with a Western way of thinking, and that includes those of us here in the United States, we highly value the concept of individualism. We like the feeling that we are independent. We tend to value personal success over group achievement.
On the other hand, people with an Eastern way of thinking — and that would include people in China, Japan, India, and ancient Israel — people with an Eastern way of thinking highly value the concept of collectivism. In other words, the group is more valuable than the individual.
Let me give you an example. If you are considering leaving your job and taking another job, the only question you’re likely to ask is this – “What’s best for me?” But those with an Eastern way of thinking would be more likely to ask, “How will this affect my company if I leave? What will happen to this group if I make this decision? How will it affect my family if I make this decision?” Because the group is more important than the individual.
So, what does all of this have to do with Jesus and the Pharisees? Quite a bit, actually. We need to understand that the Jewish community in Jesus’ time was group oriented. Your identity and your place in society were determined by the group with whom you belonged. That group took precedence over the individual, so protecting the group was of primary importance.
When Jesus ate with sinners, like Levi and the other tax collectors, he wasn’t just saying “I like you” or “I am with you.” He was saying “I am you. You and me, we’re the same.” That’s the way the Jewish community saw things — people only eat with people who are like them, family eats with family, Pharisees eat with Pharisees, sinners eat with sinners.
And this is the essence of the incarnation — Jesus didn’t just come to visit us here on this earth; he came to become one of us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14). He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7).
And that’s significant because it means that Jesus didn’t just come to preach at us or to teach us; he came here to be one of us. To fully and completely connect with us, to associate with us. Jesus was fully and completely God, and yet he became fully and completely human. If Jesus were alive on this earth today, you would probably find him at the Waffle House late at night, and he’d be able to tell you the name of every server and how long each one of them has worked there.
He would enjoy sitting with you on your porch and talking about the weather. He would cry with you when he hears about your miscarriage. He would celebrate with you on your 30th wedding anniversary. He would sit at your dinner table and compliment your pot roast, even though you both know it’s a little bit dry. He would eat with you and he would eat with me because he associates with people like us.
The problem for the Pharisees was that “Jesus’ kind of people” — the people that Jesus usually ate with and associated with — were viewed by the Jewish community as being of a lower class. The peasant farmers, craftsmen, day laborers, tax collectors, and all the others who belonged to this lower class were known as the “people of the soil.” And there was a saying among the rabbis that said, “The disciples of the learned shall not recline at table in the company of the people of the soil.”
In other words, people like us don’t associate with people like them. Because, remember, for the Jewish leaders, “people only eat with people like them.” Levi and his tax-collector buddies were definitely “people of the soil,” but Jesus didn’t care. He associated with Levi, he connected with Levi, he accepted Levi. And Levi, in turn, accepted Jesus and threw a banquet in his honor, which made the Pharisees furious.
Our text this morning is found in Luke chapter 5, beginning with verse 27
“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
“And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32)
The Pharisees wanted to know, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Good question. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners because, unlike the Pharisees, unlike the teachers of the law, and unlike some Christians, Jesus wanted to have an intimate relationship with all sinners.
Jesus wanted an intimate relationship, but the scribes and the Pharisees wanted to build fences to keep people like them over there and people like us over here. So, how do we know whether we’re acting like Jesus or acting like the Pharisees? Let me suggest three things that can keep us from having the intimacy with others that Jesus wants us to have.
1. Exclusive Cliques
Most of us experienced this in school growing up. We had cliques in our schools. Unlike regular groups of friends where members are free to socialize with others outside the group, people in cliques usually do everything together. They sit together in class, they eat lunch together, they go to the mall together after school — and they only do stuff with other clique members.
Cliques can be made up of the populars (the rich and good-looking kids), the jocks (who are good at sports), the brains (who excel academically), the fine arts (who are artistically gifted). But whatever your clique is, that’s who you hang out with. And if you associate with someone outside your group, that’s frowned upon. It may even get you kicked out of your clique.
One of the most frequent criticisms directed at many churches is this, “They’re very cliquish.” And I’ve seen it happen. Everybody has a small group of people in the church they like to spend time with, so as soon as the closing prayer is said, they get together with their small circle of friends and everybody else gets ignored. Those are the only people they talk to, and the only people they associate with throughout the week.
And that’s the reason that almost every church says, “We’re a friendly church”, and almost everyone who visits them says, “This is not a friendly church.” Because, in most churches, everybody is friendly…but only to their closest friends.”
The Jews in the time of Jesus had their own little cliques. There were four main ones — the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. They were all guilty of being exclusive. The Pharisees excluded anyone who didn’t follow their traditions. The Sadducees, mostly from the wealthy aristocracy, excluded the sinful and the poor. The Zealots viewed submission to Rome as an act of unfaithfulness to God and excluded anyone who disagreed with them. The Essenes excluded anyone who wasn’t an Essene.
So, that’s why the scribes and the Pharisees got so upset with Jesus. They had their own little clique which included all the rabbis and teachers, and Jesus was supposed to be a member of their clique, so they couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to associate with someone like Levi, much less want him as a part of his team. So, when Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27), he shocked the religious leaders, because Levi was exactly the type of person they excluded.
I don’t think anyone here is part of a clique, and I appreciate that about you. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, if we were making up a dinner list and inviting people, there might be a few people we would exclude. The problem is — if I read the Bible correctly — those of us who are Christians are not allowed to exclude anyone.
Why are we tempted to exclude people? We tend to exclude people when we allow ourselves to become isolated from them. When we build fences and isolate ourselves from people, we lose the ability to connect with them. So we have to work really hard to build relationships with non-Christians, because we know that the more we’re isolated from non-Christians, the less effective we will be in sharing Jesus with them.
“The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Cliques love to build fences because cliques thrive on isolation. These Pharisees and teachers of the law were isolated from other religious groups, their fellow Jews, and the very people they were supposed to be helping. Their isolation meant that they were totally ineffective when it came to helping anyone.
In his book Contagious Holiness, Craig Blomberg writes, “Judaism viewed mealtimes as important occasions for drawing boundaries. Dining created an intimate setting in which one nurtured friendship with the right kind of people, eating the right kind of food.”
As the Pharisees saw it, Jesus ate the right kind of food, but he ate it with the wrong kind of people. Jesus refused to isolate himself from the very people he came to seek and to save. Because it’s impossible to help someone who is separated from you by a barrier.
I heard about a gardener who took great pride in caring for his lawn, but one year it grew full of dandelions. He tried every method and product to get rid of them, but nothing worked. Exasperated, he wrote the Department of Agriculture, explaining everything he had done. He said, “What should I try next?”
Their response was, “Try getting used to them.” You may not like being around certain people, but I suggest that you try getting used to them. Isolation is not an option for any true Christ follower.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14). Salt and light impact their environments in significant ways. But salt that’s left in a saltshaker is worthless. It only has value when it gets poured out of the saltshaker. An oil lamp hidden under a basket isn’t effective. Light and salt both make their biggest impact when they’re not isolated from their environment. The same is true of us, so let’s make sure that we don’t practice exclusion.
So, exclusion is a barrier to intimacy. Another barrier is….
2. Party Allegiance
Once you’ve established your clique, and you have this group of friends who are like you, it’s easy to make the jump to the next step, which is to say that “We are the only ones who matter. If you’re not a part of our group, you’re a nobody.”
For the Pharisees, they took it to the next level. Not only did they think, “If you’re not a part of our group, you’re a nobody.” But they also thought, “We are the only people God loves. We are the only people God cares about. God doesn’t care about any of you guys who are not in our group.” Which explains why the Pharisees didn’t do any evangelizing. Why talk about spiritual things with people who don’t even matter to God?
And so, the scribes and the Pharisees made it clear — in their dealings with people like Levi and other sinners — that they thought they weren’t worthy of any of God’s attention.
They totally ignored passages from God’s Word like we saw like week concerning the coming Messiah. Jesus read this from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61: 1, 2).
Jesus made his mission clear: he came for the benefit of all people. He didn’t just come for people who look like us and believe like us. He came for everyone. And if we don’t fully understand that, it will make it very difficult for us to share our faith.
For example, if you believe that God only cares about Republicans, well then, you’re going to find it difficult to reach outside your circle to Democrats and bring them to Jesus.
If you believe that God only cares about Americans because this is his country, then you’re going to find it hard to reach outside your circle to share the gospel with people of other nations.
If you believe that God only cares about people with your color of skin, then you’re going to find it hard to reach outside. your circle to share the gospel with people of different ethnic backgrounds
If you think that God only cares about people who have the same income level you do, or the same educational background, or the same kind of job you do, then you’re going to find it hard to reach outside your circle to share the gospel with anyone else.
And if you believe that God doesn’t really care about anyone with more than two tattoos and more than zero body piercings, then you’re going to find it hard to be used by God to reach anyone under the age of thirty.
I know, I’m preaching to the choir. All of you obviously have a passion to reach out to people who are not like you, and I am so thankful for that.
But the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t believe that anyone who called himself a man of God should ever be intimate with tax collectors and sinners. They didn’t think those kinds of people should even be reached out to, because they weren’t deserving of God’s grace.
But I pray that God will keep us from ever drifting to that kind of mindset. I like the way Brennan Manning put it:
“Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used car salesmen. Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them—fully aware that his table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who hold up the robes and insignia of their authority to justify their condemnation of the truth and their rejection of the gospel of grace.”
Party allegiance — thinking that God loves us more than he loves “them” — can hinder our efforts to reach lost people and help them get back to where they are supposed to be.
A third barrier to intimacy is….
3. Pleasure in the Destruction of Others
Jesus spoke about hell on occasion, but he never did so taking delight in the punishment that awaits some people. Just the opposite, in Luke 19:41, Jesus came into Jerusalem and wept over it, because he knew that they were going to reject him and be destroyed.
But it seems that the scribes and the Pharisees were eager to destroy lost people. In fact, the rabbis had a saying that Gentiles were created for one purpose and one purpose only — to fuel the fires of hell. And they threw tax collectors and prostitutes and all other sorts of sinners into the same category. God doesn’t love them. God doesn’t care about them. And we can’t wait until they burn in hell.
But Jesus was very different. He saw it as his purpose to do everything in his power to keep lost people from being destroyed. As he put it, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32).
Doctors exist to help people, not destroy them. You don’t have to persuade them to help people; it’s who they are, it’s what they do. And it’s what we should be doing.
I think one of the greatest compliments a Christian can receive is when non-believers are drawn to you because of your love for them. That is what it means to be Christ-like. I pray that all us here in this church will always be welcoming, loving and approachable to all people. That doesn’t mean that we compromise God’s word or we water down the teachings of Scripture. We can speak the truth, but do it in love.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if people said about our church what the Pharisees said about Jesus: “That church welcomes sinners. Those people welcome sinners.” The Pharisees spoke it as a complaint. We need to take it as a compliment.
May God help all of us to share our faith with intimacy. May we do everything we can to associate with those who are lost, establishing a relationship with them so that we can share the good news about Jesus.
But, if we’re going to do that, we need to avoid the temptation to form cliques where we only associate with people like us. We need to avoid the temptation to believe that God doesn’t care about people who aren’t a part of our little group. And instead of being eager about the destruction of the lost, may we shed tears like Jesus did, wanting to do everything we can to save as many as we possibly can.