Later, as Jesus left the town, He saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow Me and be My disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up, left everything, and followed Him. Later, Levi held a banquet in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests also ate with them. But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum? ”
Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”Luke 5:27-32
Notice the links in this pericope to the one before it. It is clear we are still looking at the setting of the opposition from Pharisees and teachers of the law. Notice too the link between those who need forgiveness for their sins and the sinners Jesus is now associating with. As is spelled out in this story when asked “Why he dared to eat and drink with such scum” Jesus replied sick people need a doctor not healthy ones. Well, actually those who know they are sick and go to the doctor. There are others who think themselves righteous, but Jesus came to those who knew they were sinners and needed to repent. Does that mean those who think themselves righteous don’t need Him? No of course not. They need Him just as much if not more but they won’t come because their pride prevents the connection with Truth and their self-righteousness gets in the way of true righteousness.
Levi represents scum in the eyes of the masses. Why did they use the word scum here? He was a despised tax collector – one of those who is siding with the Romans to oppress his fellow Israelites. He was a tax man who collected the customs tax on goods entering into the kingdom. He was synonymous with the Roman rulers. He was a tax collector of the worst kind – a mochas. He was the intermediary tax official who collected tax for the tax farmer. He was the one who added his cut to the tax required by the Romans. He was bleeding his own people for his benefit.
It is interesting that Jesus didn’t just see Levi by chance but singled him out. He selected him. The verb theomai [see] has the sense of noticed with a purpose. Jesus deliberately choses Levi (Matthew). It is clear that Levi and Matthew are one and the same person if you compare this passage with Matthew 9:9. The people Jesus selects for His band of “merry men” are certainly not the ones we would choose. I don’t know who you would choose because I don’t know most of you. But they are not the ones I would choose. They are not the ones most likely to succeed. Furthermore when one combines a man who sides with the authorities with a freedom fighter in the form of Simon the Zealot who opposes them and wants their downfall, surely you are asking for trouble. It’s like combining oil and water, chalk and cheese. They are different; don’t try to combine them. One who works for the Romans with one who works against them. Only Jesus can pull together such a rabble bunch as these guys. More on that in a later Gem though.
“Follow me” was a call by a rabbi for the one called to leave behind their work and their family and take on the role of student to the rabbi. It was an honour to be called. Yes there was risk involved to take on the yoke (the teachings and practices) of the rabbi who called you. The ones who were called were the ones who showed promise or offered something more than the other students in Beth Sepher, the House of the Book where all Jewish children went to study the Torah. The talented ones were called out from among the group to continue to pursue their studies. In this case Jesus is calling a tax collector. One who has already left the study of the Torah behind and settled on his life’s career as a despised tax collector. It is like calling an adult these days back into a life of learning from a despised job where everyone hates you to be a student of the rabbi who is calling. Immediately he leaves behind the tax business and follows. I can’t think of a better example of a modern day version of the tax collector of those days than maybe a pawn shop owner. A job which has a stigma attached to it.
There is an interesting order to the way Luke describes what happened. He says “having left everything Levi rose up and followed”. One would expect Levi rose up and follow” leaving everything behind. But in this case the leaving everything” preceded it. It is an interesting sequence. It seems to indicate that in his mind and in his practice he left the open books and the business and stood up and left it all behind. Bear in mind for a tax collector it was a well paying job. You got a good percentage on the taxes you took from the people. That added to the stigma because not only were you taking from your fellow jew for the sake of the Romans you were getting rich doing it. Siding with the Roman oppressors and getting richer while your fellow Jews became poorer. Luke order of participles (verbs) here stresses a very definite break with his past in order to step out into his future. Something that all who follow Jesus need to do. I remember all about that when I left high school teaching behind with its good salary to step into the unknown to follow Jesus, not knowing how I was going to earn a living to support my family. But that is another story, too long to tell today.
Levi put on a banquet with Jesus as the guest of honour and Luke says there was a crowd of tax collectors. There were a large number of tax collectors there. That stands to reason that Levi would invite the people he worked with. And how much more so when they constituted a band of people others despised. Clearly they would stick together to support one another against a tide of opposition and bad feeling. Perfectly natural for fellow tax collectors to be there. This could be read to infer the Pharisees were there too but that is highly unlikely. It is inconceivable that the Pharisees would have been there. They strictly applied rules of separation in the context of ceremonial cleanness. There is no way they would have been at a gathering of tax collectors and Jesus. I imagine they were hovering around outside to see what happened.
Only Luke includes the disciples in the accusation. Matthew and Mark just have the accusation addressed to Jesus but Luke has it addressed to the disciples and Jesus answers it. I think the disciples were coming and going in the course of the meal and the pharisees were close by outside and grilling the disciples as they came in and out. But Jesus responds to their accusations. To eat and to drink is to associate closely with such scum. You don’t invite just anyone home to your house. Those you invite into your inner sanctum are the ones you value and want to spend time with. Hence the Pharisees’ disgust that Jesus would accept such an invitation.
Jesus answer is another classic. He is being accused of associating with the wrong people and making Himself unclean. It is unthinkable to them that Messiah or God Himself as He is claiming to be would lower Himself so far as to have a meal with tax collectors and the scum of the earth. It is the equivalent of going into a bar and drinking with drunkards and prostitutes. Something no self respecting rabbi or Pharisee would ever do. Jesus’ answer or response borders on the absurd. Surely a doctor associates with sick people. How could a doctor do otherwise? If not, what is the point of being a doctor? Jesus response is a perfect foil for their accusations. “I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” The tax collectors know their standing in society and that they are despised. They know they are in need of forgiveness and repentance. But the heavy inference is “What about you Pharisees? You particularly are in need of repentance but you don’t know it. You call the masses to repent and turn from their ways but you don’t do it yourselves.” This is the beginning of Jesus opposition from the Pharisees.
Do we call others to repent but fail to repent ourselves? Are we modern day Pharisees?Ian Vail
Religion is what happens when God leaves the room.Bono
One of the greatest ways to be humble is to get comfortable saying, “I was wrong.”Joyce Meyer
The best way to get even is to forgive.David Branon
You can’t soar with eagles if you are hanging out with turkeys! Choose associations carefully!Rick Godwin
Are we wiling to get our hands dirty to reach the lost?Ian Vail