Saturday, February 20, 2010

An end to prejudice (Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Luke 5:27-32)

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house,
and a large crowd of tax collectors
and others were at table with them.
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying,
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

* * * * * * * *

Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) in the gospel reading today. He was a tax collector, and therefore a sinner and an outcast in Jewish society. Tax collectors were regarded with such great contempt by the ordinary Jews that anyone who befriended them was regarded as a sinner and an outcast himself. They were regarded as traitors to the nation because they collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. And many of them also resorted to all kinds of unscrupulous practices in order to increase their collections, having no qualms cheating their own countrymen. They gave to the Romans what they required, and kept the remainder to themselves.

Jesus’ association with Levi was therefore most scandalous to the ordinary Jew. But what made the situation even more scandalous was the fact that Jesus was regarded by many as a holy man, a devout and righteous Jew, a rabbi. Now those types don’t normally associate with sinners, lest they be branded as sinners themselves.

True to form, however, Jesus sought to abolish the deep-seated social and religious prejudices of his people. He was, after all, sent to seek "not the righteous, but sinners".

There are times in our lives when we too find ourselves giving in to biases and prejudices against people whom we consider unacceptable. Just imagine, if Jesus associated himself with those at the extreme margins of his society and religion, individuals whom no one would mind calling the “scum of the earth”, with whom would he be associating if he lived and walked in our world today?

In a world that still holds deep prejudices when it comes to race, gender, religion, social status, sexual orientation, education, and many others, we are reminded that Jesus' message of compassion, love, tolerance, and respect remains far more powerful than any bias and prejudice human beings set up.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)