Not the Righteous But Sinner
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Pastor Megan Torgerson
Here, in the second chapter of the gospel of Mark, we are just beginning to learn the shape of Jesus’ ministry. In the first chapter of this gospel, Jesus does three central things that go on to define who he is: Jesus calls disciples to follow him, Jesus shows power over evil by healing illness and casting out demons, and Jesus teaches people. For this gospel, this version of the story of Jesus, we launch right into Jesus’ actions and we learn who he is by what he does.
So at first, this story looks like a continuation of that. Jesus teaches a huge crowd, heals someone who is paralyzed, and calls a tax collector named Levi to be his devoted follower. It’s Jesus doing more of the same – but in this story, we start to get another nuance to Jesus’ work. Yes, he’s here to teach and heal and make followers, but he adds two things to the list: he’s here to forgive sins and tear down walls. And this is what starts to get him in trouble.
It looks simple enough at first. When the paralyzed person finally reaches Jesus, Jesus tells him “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Those who were present questioned why Jesus dared offer the forgiveness of sins, but I found I had a different question. I wondered: why son? Jesus doesn’t call anyone else “son” in the entire gospel of Mark. The word our Bible translates “son” is actually the Greek word for “little boy”. This isn’t a man – this is a child. In verse 3, the original Greek version of this gospel doesn’t say the people carried a paralyzed man – just that they carried a paralytic, a person who could not walk.
The whole scene takes on a new dimension. In this time, it was very common to believe that if a person was born with any kind of physical problem, it was due to the sins of his parents. In fact, almost any ailment could be traced back to sin of some kind. We still have a remnant of this belief; who among us hasn’t gotten an illness or injury or been part of a tragedy and wondered “what did I do to deserve this”? In this story, this poor kid is likely assumed to have either done something in his short life to be in such a difficult situation, or his parents doomed him before he was even born.
It’s no wonder that the people wouldn’t let him in. They weren’t just hyper-focused on Jesus’ teaching. They didn’t want anything to do with this kid. He deserved what he got. What business did he have there? And to make matters worse, children in this time were not actually seen as people. They were property, insurance for the continuation of a household, valued at best for the worth their work and marriage potential could provide a family. No child belongs in the presence of a rising star teacher who’s come home to share his blessings with the neighbors.
But Jesus doesn’t buy into it. In fact, he takes the opportunity to press the issue. He looks at the little boy, dropped on the floor in front of him after dangling from the ceiling, and tells him: “Hey, kiddo. Anything you’ve ever done wrong doesn’t matter. You’re forgiven.”
Well, how dare he? It’s one thing to heal someone – that’s a pretty impressive stunt, after all. But forgiveness? Telling someone that the bad stuff they’ve done, the things that they obviously deserve a lifetime of punishment for, that it’s just wiped out? Now that’s just unacceptable. I’d rather continue to see myself as better and more worthy than this kid who clearly deserves whatever comes to him.
And just to drive the point home, Jesus even takes away the perceived punishment. He tells the kid: “Take your mat, that thing that reminds you of how weak and dependent you were, pick it up, and walk on out of here, right past those folks who think you’re not worth it. You’ve learned and seen all you need. Go.”
See, this kid was never being punished for sin, his or anyone else’s. Bad stuff just happens. Suffering is real. We only tell ourselves that someone deserves it to trick ourselves into thinking we can avoid suffering, too. We feel better about ourselves when we say someone brought it on themselves. We try to put a boundary between ourselves and those who hurt, those who ache, those who suffer, because we think we’re so great and them? Well, they probably had it coming. And to us, Jesus says: not only are you wrong, but I forgive you of that sin, too. We are all made level and equal when it comes to our need for God’s grace.
And from here, the story continues: Jesus goes out for a walk and meets Levi. The Palestine of Jesus’ time was an occupied territory. The people paid hefty taxes to Rome to keep them submissive and supportive of the empire. Locals were tasked by Rome with collecting these taxes. Not only were they condemned as complicit with the work of Rome, who worshiped the emperor himself like a god, but they sometimes added a little to the top. They committed extortion, because if you were desperate enough to take a job that made you a social pariah, you were probably desperate enough to make sure that you could make a living from it.
Tax collectors and sinners are frequently paired together because they belong together. They defy God’s rule and offend God’s people. Or at least, that’s the perception. And it’s a perception Jesus is happy to shatter. He doesn’t just invite tax collectors like Levi to follow him, to learn from him, to be part of his inner circle, but he joins them at their dinner table. He condones their lives by eating with them. After all, says Jesus, he’s not here for those who have it all together. He’s here for those on the margins, who struggle, who act out of desperation: the sinners.
And in this, Jesus tears down walls. Sure, he’s here to forgive sins, but still greater, he’s here to sit with those whose lives are broken. He chooses not just the careful listeners, the good disciples, the obedient rule-followers, the well-dressed, the law abiding, the polished and proud. Not that he’s not here for you, he just sees that you’re probably doing fine. So he chooses to sit with the confused, the rejected, the outsiders, the marginalized, the condemned, the hurt and hurting. That’s who he’s here for.
And in that choice, he reveals us all to be not righteous but sinners. When he shows up at the side of tax collectors and turns all his attention on a struggling boy, he makes a clear point: we’re not any better than these folks, these beloved of God, these sinners in need of forgiveness and hurting in need of wholeness. He breaks the boundary we try to put between us and them, safe and dangerous, welcome and not worth it. You are not better than “them” – whoever you understand in your heart “they” are. And that reminder, that we are all sinners in need of grace, that we are no different from those we paint as the enemies, the subversives, the threats – that’s what gets Jesus in trouble.
Our Savior is not only an insightful teacher, a welcome healer, and a charismatic leader. He is here for the least of us, the last in line, the ones lost in the crowd. It’s a message the world wants to fight, wants to deny, wants to kill. But it doesn’t change that Jesus chooses to be with those who are told they don’t deserve it, at to prove to them that God loves each of us, no matter what. And that, beloved of God, that is good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.