Jesus - the Unorthodox
Think for a moment about the pictures of today’s orthodox Jews in Israel praying at the Wailing Wall. Men, of course. They are dressed almost wholly in black. They have long beards even as young men. Their hair is ring tailed. Some may have the phylactery visible. It is a small leather pouch with texts from Exodus 13 and Deuteronomy 6 inside and it is tied on to the forehead with leather thongs. They are very intense and shut in with their devotions. But the portrait of Jesus in Mark 2 is different from this. And it must have been different in comparison with the turbaned Orthodox Jews of his day also. And certainly His lifestyle was.
In Mark 2:13 we learn that Jesus had taken to preaching out in the open air - by the lakeside. Was this because He was suddenly unwelcome in the synagogues? Possibly. The Son of God was outside the Church of God. There was nothing unusual about a Rabbi holding open-air gatherings. This was a busy area. The main east west road ran through Capernaum. It was a customs town. There were import and export taxes. Matthew probably worked for Herod Antipas, one of Herod’s sons who succeeded the rule of that area. But his occupation was loathed. Tax collectors in our society are not visible people actually taking your money out of your hand. Matthew was. The most hated professions in our society apparently are top bankers, politicians and journalists. Similar ill feelings were directed at tax collectors in the time of Jesus. Tax collectors took their cut and demanded the most rather than the least or fairest from ordinary people who could not fight back. Thus tax collectors became rich but were social outcasts without respectability.
Jesus passed by one of the customs posts and saw Levi. He later gave him the name Matthew as He also changed Simon’s name to Peter. Maybe Levi hated his job. Maybe he hated his life at that time and maybe he even hated the money he had made. Perhaps he had heard the preaching and teaching of Jesus. Maybe he was ready for a change of direction in his life. If he had serious spiritual longings, the orthodox Jews of the day would not welcome his interest. He would not have been accepted as a member of a local synagogue. His occupation made him in breach of the Law. There are people in our society like that. They might own one-arm bandit machines supplied to pubs, hotels and gaming centres. Night club owners too and even pub owners and some doubtful second-hand car dealers would not feel comfortable sitting in Church. It should be noted also that Levi was educated, literate and numerate. As a possible disciple, he had great potential.
But Levi met Jesus and Jesus met Levi. Jesus sought him out. What is surprising is that Jesus asked Levi to abandon his post and the money on the table and follow Him and Levi did just that. He must have known that he was giving up his job for good. He would not be re-employed. We can put that down to the strength of Jesus' presence and redeeming invitation. Jesus was well known if not famous and well respected and this was an invitation that Levi could not turn down even if he did not know what the outcome was going to be. It was an unorthodox call from the unorthodox Jesus to an unorthodox man. It worked. This was an instantaneous conversion.
Soon thereafter, it appears that Levi asked Jesus to visit his house. His home was probably upmarket and large because the text says ‘many tax collectors and sinners’ were able to dine there. He could afford it. Jesus and His disciples joined one of his large scale evening feasts. It wouldn’t be ‘men only’; there would have been plenty of women around and some would not have been good. There may also have been a number of ordinary non-synagogue going types present - those who were not bad people but who did not positively practise Judaism. Some of those who had been listening to Jesus had also come along. Put pub and church together and you get the picture.
The spies were still trailing Jesus and they asked his disciples why Jesus was eating with such people. It was unclean for Him to do so, it was breaking the Law for Him to do so, it was endangering His soul for Him to do so. It seems that the disciples reported this questioning to Jesus to get His answer. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick”, he replied. And there you have the heart of Jesus - the Unorthodox. What we take for granted today was a new thing in the structured Jewish society of Jesus’ day. Remember too, though that in Hinduism to this day, there is a caste system of social and spiritual exclusion and inclusion. Social hierarchies exist among all peoples and nations and - I must say - to its shame to some extent in the Church that bears Jesus Christ’s Name also. Posh people easily become influential in the Church of Scotland. However - our Church is tempered by Jesus’ life and teaching and example. Because He was unorthodox and set new standards for inclusion based on conversion and commitment. This is the point that liberals today often fail to make. Levi was accepted on Jesus’ terms not his own. Jesus was the spiritual doctor who diagnosed people’s problems, offered them treatment and healed their souls.
Next we learn about Jesus’ attitude to fasting. Devout Jews fasted regularly. Their faith on certain days was more important to them than food. The annual Day of Atonement was a compulsory fast for everyone. However some strict Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays from 6 00am - 6 00pm. Some of these made a public display of their piety wearing white make-up and wearing dirty clothes. Jesus rejected this performance religion.
He used the example of Jewish marriage to make his point. Couples of that time did not go on honeymoon - even though they were nearer Corfu than us here. They stayed at home and had a week of fasting with family and guests. Judaism allowed exception from fasting and other duties for that week so that joyfulness could be maximised. So - the reason Jesus and his disciples did not fast was because Jesus was with them and they were part of the spiritual marriage celebrations of the New Covenant. Jesus brings joy. Our faith is a celebration. Our worship is meant to uplift and inspire us. Spiritually - we are at a wedding banquet - 'the marriage feast of the Lamb'. Jesus also warns this early in His ministry - that He will not always be around. Then - if they wish - His followers may fast for spiritual purposes - in the light of His redeeming death and resurrection. Jesus - the Unorthodox Jew, the unorthodox Rabbi, the unorthodox Son of God.
That Jesus was making a clean and complete break with Judaism is seen in His parables of the patch on the old garment and the new wine in old wine skins. If he had not taught these things - Christianity would not have become the distinct entity that it is in the world. In those days if you put a new patch on a garment it would shrink when wet and tear the garment itself. The same kind of thing happened at The Reformation. Luther had not intended to break away from the medieval Roman Catholic Church. But when the liberating and transforming teachings on grace and justification by faith were attached to the old Church it split and fragmented. In Jesus’ time they did not have ginger bottles - they did not have ‘the pictures’ either, come to think of it. They used animal skins for wine which, when new, were elastic and supple but when much used hardened. Fermenting wine gave off gases and new wine skins expanded but the old ones could not do so and would burst.
Our faith is meant to reflect the new wine in new wine skins. And yet, we become set in our ways and suspicious of change. Later years bring a liking for familiarity and routine. But Jesus is not so orthodox. At heart it is spiritual change that is important not cosmetic change. It is the things that really matter that are at stake. Recently the Free Church of Scotland voted to allow non-Biblical songs in their worship in congregations who wish to do so. That will open out Free Church congregations to the hymns of Charles Wesley like 'Love dive all loves excelling' and the songs of Graham Kendrick such as 'Shine Jesus Shine'. To us that seems an obvious thing to do but it is a big step for them. The deep respectful silence of Free Church worship will be lost in some churches for ever. Even the Gaelic Psalm-singing may erode over time. But the Gospel will not change - whatever the music.
Similar things have happened in the Church of Scotland. Pews are taken out and multi-media systems are introduced. These work well in some places but I see that Roman Catholics have not gone this way - relying on the centrality of the Mass as their authentic worship. Neither have the Orthodox Christian Churches nor the Anglicans to any great extent. But in these churches liturgy carries the service. In our tradition, the liturgy is simple and unadorned. For myself, I like the distinctiveness of the sacred space of a Church building in which an atmosphere of prayer and worship has built up over many decades and centuries. I don’t like or want pop music at funeral services here. I like to speak with the children rather than ask them to look at a screen. That’s all OK if the worship experience is convincing and convicting enough, meaningful and deep, challenging and inspiring. If not - then change for change’s sake has to come. Jesus the Unorthodox asks us always to be open to the future and to change if helpful.
In the way we live out of faith and congregational life, we have to reflect the best of Jesus the Unorthodox and allow ourselves to be lifted above pettiness into the glorious light and joy of the Gospel. We have to have something added, something extra, something special to give as Christians. Or else our Christianity is moribund and will be consigned to history. We can have spiritual hardening of the arteries. Jesus the Unorthodox is still doing the unexpected in this world - maybe not so obviously here at present but in China and Africa and Asia and South America. And yes - even here - albeit unnoticed by press, TV and media - Jesus is doing the unorthodox, the unexpected, in the lives of those who turn to Him in prayer and who seek His forgiving grace and the gift and promise of eternal life.