SERMON: KEEPING THE RIGHT COMPANY
by John R. W. Stott
Preaching Today Tape No. 46
It is often said that you can tell what a person is like by the company he
keeps. Look at his friends, and from them you can deduce what his character
is like. There is some truth in it. Birds of a feather, as we often say in
the well-known proverb, flock together. But you know it’s not the whole truth
by any means for the simple reason that you have to consider the motives of
people for the company they keep. Why do they choose particular people to
fraternize with? It is possible to seek people’s company not because you like
what they are and acquiesce in what they are, but because you hope to have
some influence in changing them.
Teachers, for example, spend their lives in the company of children not
because they prefer the company of children to the company of adults, but
because they regard it a great privilege to have some share in developing the
potential of children to become adults. Again, social workers spend their
time with problem families not because they prefer families with problems to
families without problems, but because they hope to be able to help to solve
the problems in the families they serve. Now that’s elementary, isn’t it? But
it was a failure to discern, to recognize, this and to inquire into the
motive of Jesus in fraternizing with publicans and sinners that led the
Pharisees to make a false judgment about him.
Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners, so they assumed he preferred
their company to the company of the righteous. In fact, they assumed that he
approved of their sinful conduct. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these
Pharisees that Jesus might have kept bad company for a good reason. But he
did, you know. So should we. The problem we’re going to face is that most of
us don’t have any bad company, as we ought to have if we are followers of
It’s going to be very challenging for us this morning to consider whether we
are more like the Lord Jesus in the company he kept or more like the
Pharisees, who avoided that company. There is a great deal of Christian
Pharisaism in the church today. So, you see, what we’re going to consider
from the passage set for us this morning has something to do with mission.
It is also very relevant to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day of
Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit is a missionary spirit. If Jesus kept bad
company, so does the Holy Spirit. He’s reaching out to people–to people we
often neglect and avoid. He loves them more than we do. That’s the theme.
Would you be good enough to take your Bible and turn to Mark’s gospel,
chapter 2, and I read from verse 13. “Jesus went out again beside the sea
[that’s the Lake of Galilee]; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he
taught them. And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alpheus [you know
from the other gospel that his name was Matthew; he’s the same person]
sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, `Follow me.’ And he rose and
followed him. And as he [Jesus] sat at table in his [Levi’s] house, many tax
collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there
were many who followed him. The scribes and Pharisees, when they saw that he
was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, `Why does
he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard it, he said to
them, `Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are
sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'”
This well-known story of Levi Matthew is usually taken as a model of
conversion because Jesus called him and he rose up and followed him. But it
seems that it is incorporated by the three synoptic evangelists in their
gospels much more because it was a model of mission than that it was a model
of conversion. What is most important in the story is not the response that
Matthew Levi gave to the call of Jesus but its sequel, namely, the dinner
party. That was the real essence of this story.
It’s an exquisite little drama which Matthew, Mark, and Luke record in their
gospels. In this little drama are three actors, and the attitudes of these
three actors to sinners or to outsiders are contrasted with one another.
That’s the whole point. First, there is Levi Matthew, who, after responding
to the call of Jesus, throws a party for his colleagues in order to introduce
them to Jesus. Second, the Pharisees, who criticize Jesus for accepting the
invitation to the party and attending it. Thirdly, there is Jesus himself,
who defended his behavior by likening himself to a doctor.
We’ve got to ask ourselves where we fit in the drama. Are we like Matthew
Levi, or are we like the Pharisees, or are we like Jesus? Their attitudes are
contrasted. Every one of us belongs somewhere, so don’t switch off. This is
for you and me.
We begin with Levi Matthew. Verse 40: “And Jesus saw him sitting at the tax
collector’s office.” Well, tax collectors were regarded as unclean by the
Jewish rabbis on three counts: politically, because they were in the
employment of the hated Roman occupation of Palestine; ceremonially, because
their job brought them into constant contact with Gentiles; and morally,
because they were almost always dishonest. That is, they were guilty of
extortion and they exploited their clients by demanding more tax than they
had any right to demand. So politically, ceremonially, and morally they were
despised and even hated by the common people, and the Pharisees, the scribes,
and the Jewish rabbis condemned them. That’s why they are bracketed with
sinners: publicans, that is tax collectors, and sinners. But Jesus did not
regard them as being beyond the pale. On the contrary, here was one Levi
Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and Jesus called him to
Jesus Christ has room in his kingdom community for disreputable people like
Levi Matthew and disreputable people like us. Christianity is not a religion
for the respectable. It is a religion for the disreputable. Jesus had room
for people like that. He called Levi Matthew.
Moreover, Levi Matthew responded wholeheartedly. It’s Luke actually who says
he left everything. Luke has a particular interest in money matters–the
poor, the rich. There’s more in Luke than in the other gospels about these.
Levi Matthew left everything and followed Jesus. And the first thing he did
as a follower of Jesus was to arrange a party in his own home to which he
invited his erstwhile colleagues and Jesus, because he wanted Jesus to meet
them and he wanted them to meet Jesus. He wanted to bring them together, and
what better way to bring them together than a dinner party in his own home?
I learned two elementary mission lessons from this sequence of events. Could
we learn them together?
Levi Matthew couldn’t invite his friends to meet Jesus until he’d met him
himself. Is it too elementary to say that? It’s the first lesson we have to
learn in Christian evangelism. The first and major and indispensable
prerequisite for evangelism is our own personal conversion. WE have to know
Christ before we can make him known. It had been the same with Andrew, who
when he met Jesus went to fetch Simon. It was the same with Philip, who met
Jesus and then went to fetch Nathanael. And now it is the same with Levi
Matthew, who finds Jesus, or is found by him, and goes out to win his
Many years ago I used to lead a thing at St. Peter’s called “The Children’s
Church.” There was a little girl who was a member many years ago. Jillie was
10 at the time. We’d been studying Matthew’s gospel, and in those days at the
end of the year we set these poor kids an examination- -a written
examination. Having asked them 30-odd academic questions, I permitted myself
a final personal one. This is what I said, because we’d been studying the
Gospel of John, chapter 1: “Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Philip brought
Nathanael to Jesus. Whom have you brought to Jesus?”
Do you know what Jillie answered? “I have brought myself to Jesus.” She was
quite right. Have you? You can’t bring anybody else till you’ve brought
If I may turn from a child of 10 to an Archbishop of Canterbury, here is a
lovely quotation that some of you know from William Temple: “It’s quite
futile saying to people, `Go to the cross.’ We’ve got to be able to say `Come
to the cross.’ There are only two voices that can issue that invitation. One
is the voice of the sinless Redeemer, with which we cannot speak, and the
other is the voice of the forgiven sinner who knows himself forgiven. And
that is our part.”
So the first lesson is, we’ve got to know Jesus ourselves before we make him
known. The second is that once Levi Matthew had met Jesus himself, it was the
most natural thing in the world that he should want to introduce his friends
to him. New converts ought to be discouraged from dreaming about exotic and
distant places to evangelize. The first thing Jesus says to them is, “Go home
to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you.”
Our friends and our family, our colleagues at work, and our neighbors where
we live–these are the people who have the first call on our evangelistic
witness, and our home is the best place in which to introduce them to Jesus.
There are many people today uncomfortable about accepting your invitation to
come to church tonight to the invitation service, but they’ accept your
invitation to come to your home. That’s where they can relax. In the home
among friends and neighbors we can talk freely of Jesus. Well, that’s the
first thing Levi Matthew did. Let’s copy him.
Now secondly, let’s go to the Pharisees. You know, don’t you, that the word
Pharisee means more or less “separatist.” And that is what they were, unlike
the Sadducees. To oversimplify the difference between them, the Sadducees
compromised with Roman culture. The Pharisees held themselves aloof from it
altogether. We can applaud the motive of the Pharisees. They wanted to live a
holy life. They wanted to live a righteous life. They wanted to live a life
that was pleasing to God, which is fine. Their mistake was that they
interpreted holiness in terms of insulation. They thought the best way to be
righteous is to avoid contact with the unrighteous, so they were shocked to
see the company Jesus kept. Why, he even went into the home of a tax
collector and a sinner! He even made friends with disreputable people like
that! In their view, Jesus was contaminated by that company. But they had a
false view of holiness. The Pharisees didn’t understand the meaning of
True holiness is quite different from Pharisaic holiness. True holiness is
not a matter of our external contacts. True holiness is a matter of the
heart. It’s the pure in heart, Jesus said, who see God. It’s the heart that
is at the heart of holiness in the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees didn’t
understand the meaning of holiness.
Well, the tragedy is that ever since those days, there have been in the
Christian church many Christian Pharisees and many Sadducees. The Christian
Sadducees are so determined to live in the real world and not isolate
themselves from it that they adopted its standards and surrendered the
standards of Jesus Christ. The Christian Pharisees are so determined to live
a holy life and not surrender the standards of Jesus that they withdraw from
the world altogether. The Sadducees were conformists, and the Pharisees were
separatists. Both got it wrong. Jesus was neither.
So we turn, thirdly, to Jesus himself. You will remember in verse 16 the
Pharisees complained to the disciples of Jesus: “Why does your master eat
with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus overheard the complaint. He didn’t
apparently give the disciples an opportunity to reply. He replied to the
Pharisees’ question himself. He said–his actual phrase you’ll see in verse
17–“Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are ill; I came
not to call the righteous, but sinners.” As a doctor spends his time with the
sick not because he likes sickness nor because he approves of being sick
(still less because he wants to perpetuate disease in the world), but because
he is dedicated to healing, just so, Jesus mixed with tax collectors and
sinners–and still does–not because he likes their ways or approves of them
(still less because he wants to encourage and promote sin in the world), but
because he came into the world to save the. He is the physician of our souls.
Christianity, Jesus taught her, is a rescue religion. The doctor has no
relevance for those who are well. You don’t go to the doctor if you are well.
You only go to the doctor if you’re sick. So Jesus Christ has no relevance to
the righteous, but only to those who are sinners. Now please listen carefully
to this; don’t misunderstand this point. Not that there are any righteous
people who don’t need Jesus, but rather there are self-righteous people who
think they don’t need Jesus. He didn’t come for them, the self-righteous. The
people Jesus came for are those who humble themselves to acknowledge the fact
of their sin and guilt and their need of his forgiveness. But for those who
are self-righteous, he has no message except that it’s time they humbled
Now this reaching out to people in need, this outreach to sinners that we
call mission, is of the very essence of the being of God. It tells us what
kind of God he is.
Christ came into the world to save sinners, and his entry into the world in
order to reach us was not a superficial entry. He didn’t just touch down upon
the earth as the Apollo astronauts touched down on the moon and then withdrew
again. They never identified with the moon. They would have been dead in a
moment if they’d tried to. The Apollo mission–it’s interesting that it’s
given the same name–is quite different from the mission of Jesus. Jesus
identified with the earth. He identified by incarnation. He entered into our
world by assuming a human nature. He exposed himself to our temptations. He
experienced something of our loneliness and of our pain. And on the cross he
even bore our sin and died our death. It was total identification. He entered
right into the world where we are in order to reach us for God.
So the way of Jesus was poles apart from the Pharisees’. THe Pharisees’
philosophy was withdrawal. Jesus’ philosophy was involvement. The Pharisees’
philosophy was insulation from the world. Jesus’ philosophy was
identification with the world. And the Holy Spirit, whose wonderful coming we
celebrate today, has the very same nature. He is God. Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit have the same nature, and it is a nature that is given to outreach. In
other words, love. Reaching out in love. God is love. The Father is love. The
Son is love. The Spirit is love. Reaching out in love to those who need to be
loved and to be rescued.
There is, as some writers have said, something centrifugal about the being of
God. He flings himself out into the world. So the Father sent the Son, and
the Son sent the Spirit and sent the church into the world. That’s mission.
That’s why Jesus said that any believer who is filled with the Holy
Spirit–you know what happens–out of his innermost being there flow rivers
of living water. He cannot keep the Spirit to himself.
William Temple, in his Readings in John’s Gospel, says, “Nobody can be
indwelt by the Spirit of God and keep that Spirit to himself. Where the
Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not
there.” That’s striking isn’t it? You cannot keep the Holy Spirit yourself.
If he fills the Christian, the believer, he overflows. WE drink sips of
water, as it were, when we receive the Spirit, and the sips are transmuted
into rivers that flow out into the world of drought and need.
So, Pentecost was just as much a missionary event as the Incarnation. There’s
an interesting book called Pentecost and Missions written by a Dutch-American
called Harry Boer, who worked for many years in West Africa. His whole theme
is that the great motivation for mission in the Book of Acts was not the
Great Commission, which isn’t mentioned once, but the Holy Spirit. Let me
just quote: “One hardly knows where in Acts to look for a distinction between
church and mission. Restlessly the Spirit drives the church to witness, and
continually churches rise out of the witness. The church is a missionary
church, because the Spirit is a missionary spirit. This is the very essence
of God himself.”
So you see, the mistake the Pharisees made was worse than being a mistake
about the meaning of holiness. It was actually a mistake about the very being
of God. They misunderstood the nature of God. They thought he avoided
sinners, whereas God doesn’t avoid sinners. God loves sinners. He comes after
them. He went after them to the desolate agony of the Cross. He has come
after them in the Holy Spirit. He is pursuing them himself today.
A way even more dramatic than the imagery of the doctor is that of the
shepherd who goes out after the lost sheep to seek and to save. It is the
unique thing in the Christian religion. Bishop Steve O’Neil used often to say
that it is at this point Christianity is different from every other religion.
Even in Judaism, if a sinner came back to God, God would accept the sinner.
But Judaism never taught that God went out into the wilderness like a
shepherd to seek and to save the lost. Neither does any other religion. Only
Christianity: God in Christ, God through the Holy Spirit reaching out to
people in need.
Well, we’ve looked at the three actors of the drama. We’ve seen that Matthew
Levi by throwing a party for his former colleagues understood more of the
heart and the mind of Christ than the Pharisees, who avoided contact with
people like that and criticized Jesus for his contact.
What about us? Where do we fit in the picture? Do we care for outsiders like
Matthew, who understood the mind of Christ, or do we avoid them like the
Two things in conclusion. One is, this is a personal question–for me and for
everybody else. Do we have any non-Christian friends? Could we be described
as Jesus was: the friend of publicans and sinners? Are all our friends
Christians? If so, we are more like the Pharisees than we are like Jesus. We
need to be the friends of publicans and sinners.
Yes, we shall be criticized for it. Matthew was. Jesus was. The fact that
we’re not criticized for it shows the measure of our departure from the
example of Christ. It’s a personal thing. I found in university missions
again and again that the mission succeeds in a university when the Christian
students are infiltrating the non-Christian segments of university life. But
when the Christian Union is a little holy hospital, and all they have among
their friends is themselves and one another, and they don’t have any friends
that are non-Christians, and they’re not in the ruby 15 or football 11, or
they don’t play at the games, they don’t get into the student union, and they
avoid contact–no mission will ever succeed where Christian students are not
in contact with non-Christians. It’s a personal question.
Second, it is a church question. It’s a question as to whether our church is
penetrating the secular world around it for Christ. I know our director of
evangelism is very concerned about this. We thank God for our Clubhouse,
which is a Christian community center in the parish that has a constant
outreach. We thank God for the visitors who came two by two, house to house
in visitation with the message of Jesus. We thank God for our invitation
services like tonight.
But if we made a careful survey of the parish–the BBC next door, St.
George’s Hotel on the other side, the Polytechnic of Central London, the
business houses, the professional institutions–I think we would still find
that there are whole secular segments of our local society that have never
even begun to be penetrated by the followers of Jesus Christ. So let us
determine not to be like the Pharisees. Let us repent of Pharisaic
Christianity or evangelical pharisaism, and let us determine to follow Jesus
like his apostle Matthew, to make friends with unbelievers, to love them, and
to seek to introduce them to Christ.
Copyright 1995 (c) Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP JOURNAL