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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #37: What does Jesus do with rejects?

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 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 2:15-16

Every society has its rejects. The word carried an outcast sting to it. You’re not one of us. You’re defective in some way. You’re the wrong color. You’re the person we will give to the other team when we are choosing sides. You’re wearing the wrong kind of clothes. We don’t want to play or eat with you. You’re a reject. No one likes you—except other rejects.

The Jewish nation of Jesus’ time also had its rejects. Jesus’ life intertwined with so many of these rejects—shepherds, women with menstrual problems, people born blind, prostitutes, those who failed to keep the purity laws. And especially tax collectors, those men rotten enough to collaborate with the Roman overlords to extort money out of their own people. The word on the street to these people was, “Don’t even bother to show up at the temple. You won’t be let in.”

Do you ever wonder what it was about Jesus and his good news of the kingdom that was so attractive to this lot? Why did tax collectors and sinners party with Jesus?

We who look back might say that it was because Jesus loves rejects. And we would be partly right. There is no question that Jesus had a ‘yes’ face instead of the Pharisees’ ‘no’ face. He was approachable and right at home with people who were out of step with the religiously righteous without being wishy-washy about truth. He challenged them to know God and to live righteous lives, and they still came to eat with him.

But they came not just because he loved them. He had something to give them, something we now call grace. This grace he offered was not merely a free pass into the kingdom, but the power by which people were genuinely changed.

John Barclay, in his book Paul and the Gift, argues that the nature of God’s gift of grace was its incongruent nature. By incongruent he meant that those who receive this gift are totally unworthy of it. This kind of gift giving runs counter to how social gift exchanges were supposed to work. Gifts were supposed to be given to people of merit. But God, through Jesus, goes beyond the social and religious niceties. He reaches out to the rejects and offers them the same gift that the Pharisees believed they already had.

Why?  Because they understood better than the Pharisees that they were a mess. They had no hope that they would ever muster up the strength to become a transformed child of God. They were persona non grata to man and God, and would continue to be. Except, here was this Jesus who offered them wholeness. The Jewish religious system would never open the door for them to have that. They were the sick ones that needed a doctor. So the doctor came to them.

Take Zacchaeus. After Jesus came over for lunch, Zac readily gave a generous gift to the poor, as well as repaid all those he ripped off. In effect, he is saying, “I am free to act righteously.” Jesus noted, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Even though he had been messed up, Zacchaeus was transformed by Jesus who was full of grace.

Or, how about the sinful woman who crashed Simon the Pharisee’s party in order to wash Jesus’ feet, anoint them with perfume, kiss them repeatedly and dry them with her hair. In answer to Simon’s unspoken contempt, Jesus told him that she, who had been forgiven much, loved just as much. As strange as this was to Simon, who was shocked by her display of gratitude, she was a changed woman.

And what of Levi (Matthew), at whose house a motley crew of sinners and tax collectors were partying with Jesus? He had pulled them in because he had not only been changed, but had been invited to follow Jesus as part of the inner circle of disciples. Incongruent grace has him declaring, “I am included!”

Why were the rejects attracted to Jesus? Because he offered them hope: They were not stuck forever living as rejects by God, but could actually receive power to become the children of God.

-Steve Smith