Guilty by Association – February 2, 2020

Isaiah 42:5-13, Mark 2:13-22
February 2, 2020

It was said to me recently that the people of Jesus’ time should have known!  They should have welcomed the Messiah.  They had awaited him for hundreds of years.  Their prophets told of him.  In their prayers they longed for him.  They should have known!

So, why didn’t they?  Why didn’t they embrace him?  (Why not even the Romans?  They understood power when they saw it!)  Why instead this, the greatest irony of history, that the very people who looked so longingly for a Messiah, rejected him when he came?

As you can imagine, there have been many books and sermons written on that subject over the years.  It is at the heart of the Christian message.  And as I think about it, the simplest way to answer that question is that Jesus did not live up to the expectations they had for their Messiah.  And one of the biggest expectations, and we’ve said this before, is that he did not become a political Messiah.  He didn’t free them from the Romans!  That’s a huge part of this great irony.

But besides that, Jesus made people feel uncomfortable.  He made them “nervous” with the kinds of things he did.  And the bottom line of that is that there were many who didn’t like what he did, they didn’t like what he said, and especially they didn’t like who he “hung around with.”

That’s why I used this phrase as my title.  In some people’s eyes, Jesus was “Guilty by association.”  You know what that means?  It means that you are guilty, you are looked down upon in some way, simply because you associate with the guilty or those who are looked down upon.

In this case it was the tax collectors.  I’ve always loved how the tax collectors are named separately along with “sinners.” It’s like that have their own category of sinfulness.  The Pharisees say it here.  “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?!”  Tax collectors were political traitors!  They were fellow Jews who were “in cahoots” with the hated Romans!  They had sold out for a share of the profits – that is, the money they exacted from the people.  As I understand it, they were told how much to collect – for Rome – and whatever they collected, above that, was up to them.  They were hated by the people, and here Jesus was dining with them!

Now, the other thing that’s been about Jesus is that he “hung out” with such people, rather than with the “important people,” the “elite” of society.  And actually, that’s not true. There are a number of places in the Gospels where we find him dining at the home of one of the Pharisees.  And in some cases, there were other Pharisees there as well – like a Pharisee dinner party.  At first, they wanted to associate with this Jesus.  They knew there was something important about him.  They didn’t understand it, but they wanted to be a part of it.

But gradually there became a rift.  Jesus began to question a lot of their rules and practices.  And as time went on, he publicly criticized them, calling them “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones.”  That was not a very good way to ingratiate himself with the leadership!  And we can only imagine what the people felt!  Think about how people feel today when someone criticizes a leader they like!  (Oh, don’t even get me started!)

In all that, though, I think one of the big things that made them feel uncomfortable, at least here at first, was the people Jesus chose to reach out to, and to associate with.  In their eyes, he was “Guilty by association.”

This is a great story all about that.  Jesus is walking by the tax office of Levi, son of Alphaeus.  (Do you remember his other name?  Matthew!)  And he calls him.  In doing so, he says the same thing he said to the fishermen.  “Follow me!”  He’s calling this tax collector to be one of his disciples.

His reputation is not going up in the eyes of the people.  It was bad enough when he called fishermen to be his disciples!  And now this!  But then what happens?  Levi invites him to dinner.  And who is there?  All his friends!  And who would be the friends of a tax collector?  You got it, other tax collectors!  (So now it’s a tax collectors dinner party!)  And that’s when the Pharisees had this reaction.  They went to his disciples, and said, “Does he know what he’s doing?”  “Look who he’s associating with.”  And remember that “breaking bread” with someone, implied a deeper level of intimacy, or at least an sense of “acceptance.”  That’s the same with us, too!  Isn’t it?

So, I think this was a huge thing for these Pharisees, right off the bat.  I’m sure it raised a certain feeling in them of “guilty by association.”  Remember, we just read in Mark the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law and the casting out of the demon in the temple.  And I’m sure they were there, watching, as the people brought to Jesus all the sick and possessed in the whole region.  I’m sure they were apprehensive about what they were witnessing – nervous, even.  But then this!

At the very least, they probably thought Jesus was exercising “bad judgment.”  And I’m sure they were beginning to think, “This guy could be dangerous.”  Soon they would see him breaking more social barriers.  Soon he would be associating with the outcast, he would heal lepers – by actually touching them!  He would reach out Samaritans.  He would challenge the social status of women!

Of course, many of the common people responded to Jesus.  He drew huge crowds.  But in the end, the powers that be didn’t like who he associated with, they were nervous about the powers he had, and they finally sought to silence him.  Then, after his disciples seemed to be imbued with the same God-like powers as they continued his ministry, they tried to silence them, too.  Even though, as we said last week, they could not deny the power that was at work, still they tried to stop it.

I think the words of Gamaliel would come back to plague them.  Do you remember what he said?  This was after the disciples started to do miracles.  “If what they are doing is of their own power, it will fail.  If what they are doing is of God, you will not be able to stop them.  You might even find yourselves fighting against God himself!”

So, that’s a lot to consider about this story.  But the important question is always, what about us?  How would we have felt about this Jesus and who he associated with?  We might have admired him for reaching out to the downtrodden and the outcast.  But what about these tax collectors?  What if he started to criticize the religious leaders that we loved and respected?

The great question of history is, would we have accepted this Jesus as the Messiah, if we had been there at the time?  Or would we have been part of that incredible irony of history, and rejected the very Messiah we longed for?

That’s a tougher question than we might realize.  But while we’re thinking about it, let’s remember this.  We are called to be like him.  This is the Jesus we follow.  And as his followers – as his disciples – we are called to love those who he loved, and to associate with those to whom he reached out.

So, what does that look like in your life?  We live in a world that tries to teach us who to love and who not to love, who to associate with, and who not to.  And many of those “teachings” are different than Jesus would teach.  The challenge is always to be striving to be like him.  We are his followers, we are his disciples.  He is our Lord, and we follow his example.


Eternal God, help us to follow Jesus.  That’s a simple sounding prayer, but it means so much!  Help us to follow, no matter how hard the road might be.  Help us to know of your presence with us, of your strength in our souls, and your spirit in our hearts.  For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.