Nothing makes legalists mad like seeing God’s grace applied to people they deem unfit. This truth can be seen clearly in the passage we will look at today.
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!”
Now, right here at the beginning Jesus is getting off on the wrong foot with the religious leaders. He calls a tax collector to be his disciple. Big no-no. Why? Well, because tax collectors were the epitome of evil for every self-respecting Jew. And the Pharisees were nothing if not self-respecting.
You see, the tax collectors (referred to in other versions as “publicans”) were the glue that held the Roman Empire together. Their work funded the famous roads, the coliseums, the aqueduct, and – what most rankled the Jewish people of that day – the presence of the Roman Army in their land.
Not only that, but they were notoriously corrupt. They charged over and above what was required by Rome, and padded their pockets with the difference.
To put it in terms our modern American ears might understand, they were deep state, and the Jews had come to see the Messiah as one who would come and…well…drain the swamp.
And not only does Jesus not drain the swamp, He picks a “swamp creature” for His cabinet.
Now can you understand the outrage? I thought perhaps you might.
It is important to note that, at some point, a genuine conversion occurred in the life of Levi (also known as Matthew). We can see this by what happens next.
So, leaving everything behind, he got up and began to follow Him. Then Levi hosted a grand banquet for Him at his house. Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others who were guests with them.
Levi left behind his old life, embarked on a new life of service to Christ, and invited his friends to meet his new Master. Salvation, sanctification, and service. It’s all there.
And although they didn’t understand why Jesus would choose a tax collector, the religious leaders rejoiced at the marked transformation in this man.
But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to His disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
I can hear the comments now. “How could you hang out with such a rabble, Jesus? Don’t you know that ‘you are who you associate with’? I mean…what kind of example are you setting for the others.”
And I have a fair idea of the nature of the questions, because I have had them asked of me. “Pastor, I would never sit at the table with those guys while they were drinking, like you did. What about your testimony? What will you say to your kids?”
For the record, my kids seem to have handled it ok, and one of the half-inebriated guys at that table now attends our church quite regularly.
That the Pharisees had an overworked sense of their own righteousness can be seen by our Savior’s response:
Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
As I was working through another passage in Luke with my Dad recently, he made the comment to me “Jesus seems to have liked a good zinger.” And what we have in the quote above is a brilliant zinger. If clickbait headlines had existed back then, it would have looked something like this:
Pharisees Complain About Jesus Eating with Tax Collectors. Jesus ABSOLUTELY DESTROYS Them.
Or something like that. When He talks about the healthy, Jesus is not implying that the Pharisees are actually healthy, spiritually speaking. In fact, one could actually get His meaning by putting big ol’ scare quotes around the word “healthy”. Using rapier irony, Jesus is telling them “You are not healthy, but you think you’re healthy, and because of that you are being passed over for God’s grace in favor of this miserable tax collector.”
And that should frighten each one of us Modern American Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians (TM) to our very core. Is our standing with God based on some inherent quality we think we have, over and against others who don’t have it, or is it based on Christ’s reconciling work on behalf of miserable sinners?
Or, put it a better way, which person in this narrative best matches you: the repentant sinner, or the reprobate saints?
This is part of a series in Luke, adapted from messages currently being preached at the Ebenezer Regular Baptist Church in São Luís, Maranhão, Brazil. For the first in the series, go here.
Banner painting: The Calling of St. Matthew by Juan de Pereja