Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/19/1994
Luke 5:27 And after that, he went out and noticed a tax-gatherer named Levi sitting in the tax office, and he said to him, "Follow Me." 28 And he left everything behind and rose and began to follow him. 29 And Levi gave a big reception for him in his house. And there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat with the tax-gatherers and sinners?" 31 And Jesus answered and said unto them, "It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
We have been looking at three incidents in the life of our Lord that illustrate what it means to be a fisher of men. They immediately follow the acceptance by Peter and his friends of the call to be fishers of men, and they amount to Jesus teaching this role to his new disciples by example. Last week we saw how the cleansing of the leper makes the point that man-fishers need to be separated from the world but not isolated from it. As the Lord touched the leper, so we must not be afraid to get our hands dirty in ministry if we are to be fishers of men. Then follow two incidents that make the point that the primary issue involved in man-fishing, the primary thing Jesus came to give us and therefore the primary thing the Gospel offers, is the forgiveness of sins. The first was the healing of the paralytic, where, as we saw last week, Jesus goes out of his way to raise the issue of forgiveness. The second is the calling of Levi (or Matthew, a name by which he is also known and under which he wrote the first Gospel), which we will examine today. to understand this exchange, we must think about
There were basically two theological parties in mainstream Judaism at this time: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were what today we would call theological liberals. They were secular-minded people who downplayed the supernatural elements of Jahwism and went so far as to deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead outright. (That's why they were "sad, you see.") You don't hear much from them in the New Testament (though Caiaphas and Annanias were Sadducees, and their scholars did challenge Jesus once on the resurrection with their story about the seven brothers who all married the same woman, and whose would she be in the resurrection?) because they were usually too secular-minded to be all that interested in one more nut claiming to be the Messiah; hence most of Jesus' debates were with the Pharisees, as in this passage.
The Pharisaic party were what today we might call the conservatives, or maybe even the puritans. They saw themselves as the guardians of the true Jewish traditions. They generally have a bad name amongst Christian believers today because they spend so much time in the Gospels being refuted and even made fools of--and deservedly so, given their judgmental and legalistic attitudes. But we must also remember that they were at least enough on the same page with Jesus to be arguing with him; they at least perceived that they and Jesus had something to discuss. They were dead wrong at many points, but at least they and Jesus inhabited the same universe of discourse. Most of the early Jewish converts--like the Apostle Paul, for example--were from the Pharisaic party. If they were wrong, at least they were wrong about the right things, you might say--as they will show here.
The very crux of the difference between Jesus' understanding of theology and that of the Pharisees lies here. For the Pharisees, repentance is itself a meritorious act whereby a sinner turns himself back to the Law. They at least understood that people are sinners who need to be forgiven. But in their mind we must merit forgiveness through good deeds, fasting, alms, and the study of the Law. What must a sinner do to be pardoned? Or, to put the question as one of them did to Jesus on another occasion, "What must I do to be saved?" Here is a typical Pharisaic answer: "If he had been accustomed daily to read one column in the Bible, let him read two; if he had been accustomed daily to learn one chapter of the Mishnah, let him learn two" (Edersheim, Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 513). Well, this has an interesting corollary: for all practical purposes, only Pharisees--professional students and teachers of the Law as they were--could be saved! There was little hope for the despised "people of the earth," the "am ha-aretz." God was ready to receive them if they would repent, but they had to make not only the first move, but travel all the way back themselves. Theoretically they could make it, but the Pharisees weren't holding their breath.
The Pharisees looked down their noses at sinners in general, as we have seen. Think of the "righteous" man in the Parable of the Publican: "I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men . . . ." But the tax-collectors were the lowest of the low. This attitude actually had a basis in fact. For tax-collectors like Levi were hated Collaborators with the Roman oppressor. They were the first-century equivalent of Scalawags--even worse than Carpetbaggers. Not only were they collaborating with the Roman overlords, but they were notorious cheats who were getting rich off of the misery of their fellow Jews. The whole system was corrupt. The tax-collector owed the Romans a certain quota, and anything he collected over that he got to keep as his compensation. And the tax laws were so complicated that the poor citizen had no way of knowing how badly he was being cheated. It was easy for the collector to be arbitrary, and you just felt helpless and full of impotent rage. No wonder these people were resented and vilified as the scum of the earth. Everybody felt that way about them, but, the Pharisees added a theological twist to the general hatred: of all the despicable and hopeless sinners, the tax-collector was the most despicable and the most hopeless. It was considered simply impossible that one should repent--according to the Pharisaic definition of meritorious repentance.
In their own way the Pharisees hungered and thirsted after righteousness, but it was not the righteousness of God, but rather their own self-serving definition. The very name Pharisee means "righteous" in the sense of "separatist." Righteousness was an outward observance of Law and Tradition so complicated that only Pharisees could attain it. The common people were utterly incapable of understanding it, much less practicing it. So the Pharisees gloried in their superior attainments in this outward and legalistic "righteousness" and looked down on those who could not compete with them in practicing such artificial skills. Ceremonial purity was a big part of this whole game. We see the Pharisees in the Gospels obsessed with elaborate rules of ritual washing, etc. Most important was to avoid all contact with sinners. Especially you would be defiled if you ate with them. For table fellowship implies acceptance. And this must be avoided at all costs.
Understanding the attitudes of the Pharisees helps us to put their attack on Christ into perspective. Here was a man who implicitly claimed to be the Holy One of Israel, and he is blithely violating every standard of holiness that the Pharisees held dear. How can he possibly be eating, not only with sinners, but with a big bunch of the worst of the whole lot, and claim to be a person who loves God and upholds righteousness? The Pharisees were so completely scandalized they could hardly contain themselves. But their response is interesting. They address it, not to Jesus himself, but to the disciples. Their question, "Why do you eat with the tax-gatherers and sinners?", is designed to appeal to very deep-seated assumptions about what is right and wrong that they can assume the disciples share. Their purpose is twofold: with respect to the disciples themselves, it is to try to drive a wedge between them and Jesus. With respect to the overhearing crowd, it is to discredit Jesus and destroy any credibility he might have as a candidate for Messiah. And they knew their audience well. This strategy was one that could be expected to be very effective. What they had not reckoned with was the radical genius and the profound theology of their Opponent, who overheard their innuendoes and answered for himself in ways that exposed the shallowness of their hearts and the inadequacy of their assumptions in ways that were most embarrassing. It would not be the last time.
This is one of those embarrassing moments when you have just made a case that sounds brilliant and irrefutable and impresses your audience most wonderfully--until someone has the audacity to utter one simple sentence that exposes its fatal flaw for all to see and makes it all come crashing down to the ground in ruins. "It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." And your mouth just drops open and you stand there staring stupidly. What can you say in answer to that? The Pharisees were left standing stupefied, but the people who overheard had the opportunity to realize that they were being presented with a concept of what repentance is and how it relates to forgiveness that was radically and profoundly different from anything they had ever heard.
The Jews said, we must make ourselves worthy, and in response to that, God will send his Messiah to give us the (earthly) kingdom. Jesus said, you simply accept me and I will grant you forgiveness and count it as worthiness of the (heavenly) kingdom. The Jews said, the Messiah comes to save the worthy and judge the unworthy. Jesus said, those who think they are worthy delude themselves, forfeit salvation, and come into judgment--because self-righteousness is the worst form of unrighteousness. I came to save the unworthy, whose primary need is forgiveness, and who know it. And this forgiveness is a free gift granted (as Paul would explain later) by grace alone through faith alone. the paralytic on his mat could not perform any of the Rabbinic acts of righteousness to merit forgiveness. Jesus just up and gave it to him out of the blue when he wasn't even asking for it. He did not say to Levi, "Reform yourself first, and then you can follow me." He just said, "Come!" And Levi just up and left everything and came, and he was accepted immediately. Now, Levi did become a different man. He started by leaving his sinful employment to follow Christ. But he did this because Christ had already accepted him, not in order to be accepted. And that is the bottom line, the watershed between God's way of salvation by Grace and man's way of righteousness by works.
The offer of forgiveness reveals Jesus Christ as the One with the right to bestow it--as God. The acceptance of that forgiveness reveals Levi as a saved man. The refusal to admit their need of it reveals the Pharisees as condemned. And Jesus' acceptance of that redeemed and forgiven sinner Levi's hospitality reveals his readiness to accept the worst of us without reservation if we will only turn to him. All this reveals the forgiveness of sins as the heart of Christ's mission and explains why his path took him inexorably to the Cross. What does your response to it reveal about you?
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 10/30/2004 3:00 PM