Our Fellow Followers
“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” Lk.5:27-28
“Hey-- who said you could join us, you dirty, low-down tax-collector?!” That’s not written in the Bible, but we could easily imagine any of Jesus’ other followers asking that. In 1st century Jewish society, tax collectors weren’t merely annoying IRS agents, they were thieves and traitors, men who cooperated with the Romans and cheated their own people just to gain more wealth. They’d totally alienated themselves from other Jews, and the Romans didn’t respect them either.
Up till then, Jesus’ followers included fishermen, at least one Zealot, some rural-types, an urban white collar professional, and a few women who were allowed to tag along because they were family and cooked for the guys. Sure, they had their different ways and quirks, but had learned to get along. However, opening their circle of fellowship to a tax collector? Didn’t they need to draw the line somewhere? If they weren’t careful, there’d be no standards left, and before long even Romans would be joining the club! (In fact, that actually happened a few years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection).
What about today? Do we limit our fellowship circle to “acceptable” kinds of people? Do we still have our prejudices? Are some kinds of people ok to reach out to as long as they’re “out there” on the streets, or in the office, but “please don’t let them sit by me in church!”? Like homeless people? “Loose women”? Liberal activists? Right-wing conservatives? Nerdy intellectuals? Country music fans? (Watch out, those last two refer to me!) Whatever else one of us might find distasteful?
Worse yet, what if some of “those people” end up in our small groups?! Or ministry teams? Imagine Jesus sending out the disciples two by two, partnering Simon the Zealot with Levi the tax collector-- “You gotta be kidding, dude! I used to kill people like this!” “Well, you’re not so sweet either! When was the last time you had a bath?!” Or some modern variations on this model: High-powered career woman and homeschooling mama of 6 get assigned to nursery duty together; Tattooed trucker and Italian-fashioned financial consultant get paired as prayer-partners at the men’s conference. The discomforting possibilities abound when Jesus is around, to shake up our sensibilities and make us learn true fellowship—that which delves beneath the surface of people’s past, position, and personality.
All of us can think of people we’d rather not encounter, much less “do life with”. They’re just not “our kind”. Or, they’re not “nice” – i.e., socially acceptable, well-mannered, pleasant company. Jesus addressed this issue at a dinner gathering (Lk. 7:36-50) when one of the “wrong kind” of people crashed the party and behaved in a very socially unacceptable manner—first she stood over Jesus crying her eyes out, to the point where her tears plopped onto His feet. Awkward. Then she “solved the problem” by bending down to wipe His feet with her hair, followed by pouring expensive perfume all over them! Who does that? The host, Simon, a Pharisee in good standing, was mortified, wondering how any respectable person, let alone publicly acclaimed religious teacher, could let a prostitute approach him that way! Jesus responded with a parable, getting the Pharisee to realize, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Lk. 7:47) In other words, the more we realize our own need for grace, the more grace and love we’ll give others.
With that in mind, it seems we should reconsider how much sincere love and empathy we’ll receive from those “beautiful people” we’re striving to please and associate with. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fellowship with them either, or challenge anyone to more godly attitudes and behavior. Just to keep in mind that someone else may find it difficult to fellowship with us! And that we’re all followers of the One Who extended grace to us first and extended the “right hand of fellowship” to us so that we could truly love Him and our “fellow” followers.