In today’s passage, we see Jesus offending sensibilities. He claims authority to forgive sins. He eats with tax collector and sinners. His disciples act differently than those of the Pharisees and even John the Baptist. And to top it all off, Jesus has strange ideas about the Sabbath. Ultimately, the Pharisees are so offended that they begin to plot Jesus’ death.
Though they are not mentioned directly in this regard, I wonder if the disciples’ sensibilities may also have been offended by Jesus. In yesterday’s reading, we saw Jesus call two sets of brothers to follow him. Both sets were fishermen, but a close reading reveals that they were probably not in the same economic class. (This reading follows a very brief speculation in David Garland’s commentary on Mark.) When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, they are throwing their net into the lake from the shore. There is not boat to speak of. When he calls James and John, though, they are with their father in a boat along with “hired men.” It seems that James and John are bit more well-to-do than Simon and Andrew. I wonder if the difference in means ever caused tension in the group. (After reading this post, a congregant raised a good objection to this reading of the fishermen. Follow this link, if you’d like to follow up.)
Then in today’s reading, Jesus calls another disciple who is very different from the first four. They, at least, were all fishermen. Levi is nothing of the sort. He is a tax collector who makes his living collecting funds for Israel’s overlords and by skimming off the top. As such, Levi would have been despised by his own countrymen. Jesus’ other disciples already have reason to dislike him. But their dislike may have gone beyond general indignation at Levi’s profession. In his commentary on Mark, Ben Witherington suggests that Simon, Andrew, James, and John may well have known Levi first hand because fish were a taxable commodity. In this light, their dislike of Levi may have been more personal in nature. Whatever the case, Jesus calls people from disparate backgrounds who are now joined because of their disicpleship to him. I imagine that it may have been challenging to find common ground in light of real differences in life circumstances and even dislike of one another. At times, following Jesus puts us in strange company, and the call is to unity rather than discord. Offending sensibilities, indeed!
In this light, one does not need to be on the other side of the fence like the Pharisees to be offended by Jesus. Disciples can be offended as well! There are times when Jesus steps heavily on the ground of our lives and calls us to move beyond ourselves. This may be in the call to unity or the call to forgiveness; in the call to service or the call to purity. Whatever the call, Jesus sometimes makes claims that ruffle our feathers. The question is what we will do with our offense. Will we become hostile like the Pharisees and seek to neutralize his voice? Or will we seek to heed his word and example? Herein lies the dilemma of discipleship.