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Old Dogs

That’s more or less what Jesus is getting at in this confrontation with His critics. You can’t easily reach those who don’t think they need a savior or a teacher. They want to know why Jesus eats with sinners and hated people like tax collectors. They want to know why Jesus and his followers don’t fast (abstain from eating as a means of holy reverence) like other religious groups. But the truth is, they don’t really want to know. They want to criticize Jesus and His followers. Their questions are really saying to Jesus, “You’re doing it the wrong way!” 

The old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” goes back to the 16th century. The author is instructing how to train sheep dogs. He says that training must be done as a whelp (meaning a pup), for you cannot train an old dog to stoop (meaning to sniff the ground). The truth is that you can teach an old dog. It just takes longer than it does a puppy. The reason it takes longer to teach the older dog is that the dog already has ingrained behaviors it has practiced for a lifetime. To change that behavior will be difficult. Have you ever tried to change a habit you know you should change? Then you know how hard it can be. It takes lots of focused energy on behalf of the trainer and lots of reinforcement. The young pick it up more quickly, because they don’t have the baggage.  So why place so much time and energy on the old dog?

Here is how I am hearing Jesus’ response to them.

Jesus tells them, “It’s because I am not calling you. I came to heal the sinner. You think you don’t need me. I bring good news to these sinners you tend to avoid, good news of God’s love and mercy. It’s time to celebrate, not mourn, for many are coming into the kingdom of God!  But you go on and do as you always have, following your traditions. You think they will save you. Good luck. I’ll work with these sinners, who are hungry for the gospel. If you change your mind about me, you know where to find me. I’ll be with the broken, sinful and lost.”

Jesus called as His disciple, Levi, the tax collector, otherwise known as Matthew.  Levi left his tax collection career behind to follow Jesus into ministry. The text says that Levi “got up” and followed Jesus. The Greek translated as “got up” is the same as the word used to describe resurrection.  Something about the encounter with Christ caused a transformation within Matthew.  Something of the new creation was birthed in his heart when He decided to follow Jesus.

Few of us can fathom just dropping everything and following Jesus, but it does still happen today.  The call of Christ comes to clergy and lay persons alike. 

Consider Jim Parsons, who was afraid of public speaking. He couldn’t shake the notion that God was calling him to preach. He had always felt 100% himself and encouraged to use his gifts and abilities in his church youth group.  These positive experiences in church led to a desire to possibly work vocationally in the church. Despite Jim’s fear of speaking, he followed his call to seminary and then to leading a local congregation in the UMC.  While he still fights fear in the pulpit, it’s there that he feels the closest to God. His can feel God using him and working through him. (See more stories like Jim’s at http://www.isgodcallingme.org/stories.html)

Place yourself in the story. Are you like the critics of Jesus who don’t understand why he is friendly to people with bad reputations?  Do you struggle with the church’s emphasis on helping the poor, needy, and lost?  When you consider the state of your soul, would you say you don’t need a physician? But what do your habits say?  What are the holy habits you practice to open your life to Christ? If you are to be inspired (God-breathed), how are you daily placing yourself before God to receive? If you’re like me, you’re much too busy doing other things. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t need you, Lord. I can do life on my own without your help. I’ll let you know when I do, though.”

When your habit is to not have a habit of spiritual practices, you are like the old dog who will be difficult to train.  You’ve got other habits that don’t lead to life in the way.  But you are not unreachable, nor are you without hope, for Christ is calling you. 

You are Levi in this story. In the midst of your busy-ness, Jesus stands before you and says “Follow me.”  In the depths of your heart, can you sense the miracle of new creation, that sharing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ into new life?

How will you respond to the call?

Pastor Scott

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