The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining … saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:30-32)
The above passage from Luke’s Gospel is from the conversion story of Levi the tax collector (versions of which appear in all three synoptics). Most often, it is commented upon as follows: “A self-righteous man does not recognize his need for salvation, but an admitted sinner does.” That’s true enough, I suppose. And here’s where we might expect the apostle Paul to chime in: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Jesus, however—in this passage, at least—is much less inclusive. Avoiding any debate about predestination or human nature, he frames his mission statement succinctly: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Later on—after embracing yet another despised Roman collaborator (named Zacchaeus)—Jesus would elaborate: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). In other words, not those considered the “best” people, but those regarded as the worst.
Whom Jesus called “the lost,” we might refer to as “losers”—not only sellouts and turncoats, but all those shunned by respectable society: prostitutes, foreigners, refugees, the working poor, those unemployable because of intellectual or physical disability; plus the “lepers” of our modern day: addicts, petty criminals, AIDS sufferers, those afflicted by serious mental illness. And of course, rough, uneducated (and smelly) fishermen!
Ah, yes—like those fishermen whom Jesus summoned to follow him. And that despised tax collector. And maybe even a terrorist or two (“zealots”). What kind of disciples were these?
In one of the NOOMA series of videos (entitled “Dust”), Rob Bell tells us something about first-century Judean rabbis and their disciples. Being the disciple of a rabbi wasn’t something you simply volunteered for; you had to be accepted. The rabbi had to call you. As Bell explains, the Jewish system of education in Jesus’ day was made up of three primary sections: Bet Safar, Bet Talmud and Bet Midrash. I won’t explain these in detail (if you’re interested, see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM3qHBAekhg).
Basically, it worked like this: Bet Safar was the most elementary level of instruction, aimed at boys aged 5-10. At the end of this elementary level, “the best of the best” students were allowed to enter the intermediate level (Bet Talmud). After that, “the best of the best of the best” would continue on to Bet Midrash—which required them to apply to a rabbi, asking to become his disciples. That’s when they were faced with a series of challenging, probing questions, as the rabbi quizzed them about the Torah and other subjects. If he concluded that a particular applicant was qualified—if he believed this young man could “take on his yoke” (i.e., not only learn the rabbi’s teachings but also learn to do what the rabbi could do), then he would say to him, “Come, follow me.” But if the rabbi felt the applicant was not qualified, he would tell him to return home and learn his family’s business (“Go, ply your trade.” Learn to be a good carpenter, or weaver, or fisherman, or whatever).
At least, that’s what usually happened. Now let’s consider a well-known gospel text, which reports the manner in which Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth called his first disciples:
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22, NRSV)
The fact that they dropped everything and ran to follow Jesus is not all that surprising; to be the disciple of a rabbi—this was something every Jewish boy hoped for. It was, in fact, the best thing they or their families could hope for. It was the “best of the best of the best” of outcomes!
But … hold it a minute. These fishermen whom Jesus plucked from obscurity along the Galilean coastline … they couldn’t have been the “best of the best of the best” … could they?
No. Because if they had been … they would already be following another rabbi.
They didn’t make the cut! Even if they had proceeded through the intermediate level of instruction, some rabbi (or maybe several rabbis) had rejected them, and sent them home to “ply their trade.”
The Nazarene, however, has another set of criteria. As Rob Bell puts it, this is “a movement of anybodys.” Whom does Jesus call? The rejects. The third-rate. The losers. The ones who’ve been told they’re not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough or devoted enough or serious-minded enough.
And why? Because he sees something in them. He sees something in each one of them. Peter and Andrew, James and John and the others whom he would call later—Jesus believes they can take on his yoke.
To quote Rob Bell again, “He calls them to be his disciples, and they change the course of human history … He leaves it all in the hands of these anybodys—and they do it!”
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)