Friend of Sinners

This is more of a lengthy devotional on one passage.  Read this one when you have some time to read and think without rushing (I’ll devote about a paragraph, at one point two, to each verse).  Contemplate the story as you turn through its surprising twists and insightful turns.  Here’s the text:

After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32, ESV).

In this brief passage, Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) to be one of the twelve disciples.  There are several amazing turns in this incident.

First, there is the shock that Jesus, the Son of God, would invite a duplicitous, despised tax collector to follow him (v 27).  We know that the Roman government used people indigenous to the nations they controlled to collect the state’s taxes.  Jews saw tax collectors as traitors, thieves, and sinners of the worst kind.  And their opinions weren’t far off; these weren’t “good people;” they lived selfishly, exploiting their own oppressed people for personal profit.  So when Jesus comes along and calls a tax collector to be his disciple, everyone halts.  Did he do what I think he just did?  He asked that crook to follow him?

Another surprise turn comes in the next verse: Levi left everything behind and began to follow Jesus (v 28).  Here was a man that gave up respectability and relationships in order to make a lot of money.  Now, when Jesus comes along and invites him to discipleship, Levi lets it all go.  It may not have been instantaneous like we think when we read the gospel.  He might not have immediately risen from his tax booth, leaving everyone’s papers and money in the street.  The text could be translated, “And, after leaving everything, he rose and began to follow him.”  Levi likely had some loose ends to wrap up, but the point is he put his old life in order, wrapped it nicely, and then was done with it.  And this verse marks a decisive turning point in his life; he gave up something old and began something new—following Jesus.  What would compel someone like Levi to quickly dismantle a life he’d worked hard to build, and begin something unknown, new, and daring?

Then Levi puts together a “great feast in his house” and invites a bunch of his friends (v 29); Luke describes them as “a large company of tax collectors and others.”  This isn’t just a casual dinner; it’s a massive block party.  Tax collectors probably formed close ties because of their shared vocation and the hatred they elicited from people.  So among those at the party are a bunch of these hated criminals, national traitors, “and others” (we can only imagine what “others” might have joined this group!).  And smack in the middle of this sinful bunch is Jesus.  Verse 29 doesn’t mention this, but the complaint from the Pharisees in verse 30 lets us know Jesus was certainly there.  Levi wanted his friends to meet his new boss—the man who gave him a new trajectory, a hopeful prospect, a way out from his life of selfish shame.  The surprise here is that Jesus joined this notorious group to share a meal.  Table fellowship signified social acceptance and willingness for personal relationship.  By eating with these sinners, Jesus made it clear that he wanted to open a friendship with them.

Today, we might read right past this, but it’s truly shocking and convicting if we pause to think.  Jesus found the worst sinners in town and accepted their invitation to friendship.  Jesus reached out to one, and then the many reached out to him.  Think of the “worst sinners” you know around you—who are they?  Criminals, exotic dancers, homosexuals, gamblers, alcoholics, or other addicts?  Who are the very worst?  (Of course, just because we deem certain sins “worse” doesn’t make our distinctions valid).  Now consider—do you have fellowship with them?  So often we complain about these “worst sinners:” they flaunt their wickedness and contempt for God; they have no regard for responsibility or civility; they’re hopeless, useless, and rubbish; they make the town look bad, keep us from bringing in good business, don’t do their part.  But while we complain about such people, Jesus eats with them.  While, with disgust, we wish they were gone, with love, Jesus goes where they are.

Well the next movement in the story is no surprise.  The “religious folk,” the Pharisees and scribes, disapprove of Jesus’ acceptance of these sinners’ overtures (v 30).  His association with them brings the religious establishment a bad name.  They simply can’t condone his behavior.  Perhaps because he does something they’d never do, and so they can’t understand his motive, they cast judgment on him.  The text tells us that they “grumbled” to his disciples, which means that they complained subtly (The Greek word here can mean “to complain” or “to whisper;” perhaps there’s a sense of both at work in this verse).  They didn’t address Jesus, but they cast seeds of suspicion and complain among his followers.  The religious institution, which thrives on respectability, doesn’t like it when the gospel extends to the outcasts and sinners.  They don’t have room for such people and can’t comprehend why good believers would want them around.

The next word is from Jesus; in his sovereign wisdom, he knows what the religious are thinking and saying (the text tells us that he answered them, which means he knew of their complaint).  He says this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (vv 31-32).  Jesus’ response contains both instruction in the way of God’s kingdom and critique of religious posers.  First, he shows us that the mission of the kingdom, the purpose of the gospel, is to heal the spiritually sick, to save the spiritually lost.  If our lives and churches don’t go looking for the sinners (even the “worst sinners”), we leave them in their mire of sin.  We have the only power that can extricate and clean them—the gospel of Christ—how then can we in good conscience of faith withhold their only source of hope, healing, and life?

Also, note the irony in Jesus final statement.  He didn’t come to call “the righteous” to repentance.  But this is really a jab at the religious leaders.  In their self-concept of righteousness they were really unrighteous.  In thinking they were better than sinners, they were worse off than anyone.  I find here a bold challenge from the Lord, to not let my spiritual standing create distance between myself and the lost.  Rather, the more I grow in the Lord, the closer I should become in love and friendship to the worst sinners on earth.

Let’s pray: “Lord Jesus, you have saved us from sin, and yet sometimes we forget the foundation of your mercy and grace that brought us to faith.  The more we grow in religious stature, the further we find ourselves from those your gospel longs for.  Work in us your compassion, your vision, your mind, by pouring out your Spirit in our hearts.  We wait for you to fill us.  You have called us by grace; now you send us in grace to build a kingdom of peace, mercy, and justice for all.  In your name, lead us in faithfulness to this mission to the spiritually sick of this world, for your glory, Amen.”

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