Sinners Only

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 5:31-32

And Jesus answered them, “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.”

Luke 5:31,32 rsv

It must have raised a lot of eyebrows in the community when Jesus called Levi. The young prophet from Nazareth had been gaining quite a reputation. People had noticed how He spoke with authority. He had performed some remarkable healings. God was with Him, no doubt about that. But what could this holy man have in common with Levi?

Levi was the local tax collector. Such officials are hardly popular anywhere, but in Israel they were the objects of special hostility. They were usually Jewish men who worked for the Romans, hated overlords of Israel. When they came around to collect taxes, they had all the might of the empire behind them. And they usually worked on a kind of commission basis. Everything they could extract from the people beyond what Rome required was theirs. So they were not only traitors to their nation, they were becoming rich at everyone else’s expense. Levi lived in a beautiful house. He wore the finest robes. But to loyal Jews and to all the devout, he was a scoundrel.

One day Jesus met this man and, of all things, invited him to be a disciple. Listen as I read about it. This is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 5, verse 27:

After this he went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he left everything, and rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “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.”

THE CALL

The record makes it plain that Levi was no volunteer. He didn’t go looking for Jesus. As far as we know, he had not the slightest intention of following the man from Galilee. He was at his place of business, doing his job. This for him had been a day like any other day.

The initiative was all with Jesus. Notice how that goes. Jesus “went out” on that day and He “saw” Levi, the tax collector, sitting at the tax office and He “spoke” to him. Jesus went to where Levi was. He looked him up and called him. Levi certainly didn’t enlist. He was drafted.

Did Jesus know about the man’s profession? Of course He did. He found him right there at the taxation office. Did He understand what these tax collectors did to the people? He must have. They were scorned and cursed on every street corner. Jesus knew what He was doing just as He did later when He went to the home of Zacchaeus, another man of the same dubious trade. This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity.

What did Jesus see in this man that He wanted him for a disciple? Good question. It’s evident that He saw something in people like Levi and Zacchaeus that no one else saw. Jesus did not estimate the value of persons for His kingdom by looking at their present occupation. Levi’s was a fairly disgraceful way to earn a living. Nor did He judge them on their past record. Levi may have had some questionable transactions in his financial history. At least, there’s no evidence that he was any better or worse than the average tax collector. And the average, we learn, was low.

Jesus apparently saw what this man could become, his potential as a servant of God. He wasn’t put off by the man’s record or reputation. Jesus knew what His grace could do in the life of Levi, what His redeeming power could make out of a tax collector. He called Him to be a witness to that power, a trophy of that grace.

Try to picture the scene in your mind. Here’s this prosperous business type, Levi, alternately hated and feared by the common people. He gets a visit from a wandering preacher, a man without income, without standing in the community. Jesus simply arrives, engages Levi in conversation and says to him, “Follow me.” Levi made a decision on the spot. He decided to close his place of business, resign from his job and throw in his lot with this Jesus. There was something about the man who stood before him, something about the call. Levi (we also call him Matthew) couldn’t say no. That’s how he got started as a disciple.

THE FEAST

That was surprising enough, but now he did something else extraordinary. He was about to leave his profession, break with all the old ties, but first he decided to have a great banquet to which all his friends and business associates would be invited. All the tax collectors in the area were on the guest list, along with others of questionable reputation. Jesus and His disciples were there with all these assorted swindlers and law breakers. The party must have resembled to the ordinary people of that town a kind of gathering of the Mafia.

What do you think prompted Levi to throw this lavish party? He had already decided to leave his former life behind. He had renounced his old business and was prepared to sell everything and join Jesus in His itinerant ministry. Levi was making a radical break with his past. So what was the point of inviting Jesus to a feast with all these old cronies? Someone says, “Maybe Levi wanted one last fling, one more time to savor the old life.” Or “Maybe he saw this as a going away party for himself when he as the retiring executive would receive his gold watch and have speeches made in his honor.” But those suggestions don’t make a great deal of sense when we remember that Jesus was invited, too. If Levi had wanted one more revel with his old buddies or a grand sendoff for himself, why invite Jesus? And the others who had committed themselves to follow Him?

I think Levi’s reason for the banquet was quite different. I think meeting Jesus and making the decision to follow Him had already brought about a profound change in this man’s life. I think he wanted his friends to meet the Master. He wanted them to know the One who had given him a new life. The reason I believe that is that Luke says expressly Levi made Him a great feast in his house. He had this celebration not for himself but for Jesus. Jesus was the guest of honor. Levi was already doing the work of an evangelist, telling His friends and acquaintances about the Savior.

Some years ago, when I moved from the first church I had served to take on another pastorate, I was finding it hard to leave. The town had not known a great deal of gospel proclamation. There were still many people in that community I knew with whom I had not yet been able to share Christ. So I decided that before I left I would submit an article for the local paper, telling of how I had enjoyed my experience in that community and what I had been seeking to do there for the past six years. I simply explained the heart of the Christian faith, commending Jesus Christ to all who would read it. It was my farewell opportunity to bear witness to Christ in that place. I think Levi was doing something very much like that. Before he left town, he wanted everyone he knew to meet Jesus and hear His word.

THE QUESTION

Levi’s party attracted considerable attention even among those who weren’t invited. It was such a huge event that everyone around had become aware of it. Apparently some of the Pharisees and their scribes had gathered just outside the house. When Jesus’ disciples came out for some fresh air, they were suddenly surrounded by these hostile critics. “Why?” the religious officials wondered. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

What do you suppose was behind that question? For devout Jews, meal-time behavior was hedged about with religious sanctions. Only certain foods were proper for general consumption. Some meats were expressly forbidden. Careful washings were to be observed before partaking of a meal. But most important was the meal-time fellowship. Those who feared God were to partake with others of like mind. To sit at table with those who were ritually unclean or racially different or morally suspect – that was unthinkable.

Now Jesus and His disciples were, of course, Israelites. Jesus was supposed to be a teacher of the Jewish law. How did this behavior square with that profession? Why, the critics wondered, are you doing this forbidden thing?

The tone of the question was fairly dripping with blame. We can ask another person, “Why are you doing this?” with mild curiosity or with an earnest desire to know. We can ask with the confidence that there must be a good reason. That’s the way we do ask when we respect others. When we believe in them, we try to put the best construction on their motives. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We trust them even when there seem to be some grounds for suspicion. We hold onto the confidence that if we had the whole picture, we would understand, and so we ask.

But with these Pharisees, we sense something different. The question is an indignant challenge, a snarl of judgment already passed. The religious officials are demanding an explanation. They circle around the disciples, ready to pounce, certain that no answer can justify what’s being done.

The question was asked of Jesus’ disciples, but He must have overheard it. Before they had a chance to reply, He spoke. Jesus knew that the rebuke implied here was really meant for Him.

THE SAVIOR

The question itself He seemed eager to answer. It uncovered the key issue. Why did He go to this feast? Why did He and His followers sit at table with these tax collectors and violators of the law? To the Pharisees it seemed a flagrant act of disobedience to God, endorsement of a corrupt lifestyle, compromise with all that is unholy and evil. It meant for them descending to the level of the worst elements in Jewish society. For His enemies, the answer was plain: Jesus and His disciples were mingling with this company because they themselves were also far from God.

But listen to Jesus’ explanation. He puts everything in a different light. He answered, “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.”

Notice. Jesus is not defending the character and lifestyle of these dinner guests. He isn’t arguing that they’re really quite nice people to be around. He rathers describes them as “sick,” afflicted, in desperate condition. Yes, these wealthy guests in all their finery, if the truth were known about them, are sick unto death.

Why is Jesus moving among them, sitting down at table beside them? Because He is the Physician. He’s a healer of all human plagues, especially the most deadly ones that destroy us within.

It’s as though He hurls back a counter-question: “Tell me, what would you expect of a medical doctor? Would you look for him to spend his time among the healthy? To lavish attention on those with no physical problems? Or would you rather expect to find him visiting the diseased and endangered, pouring Himself out for their health? Isn’t that the only way he could be true to his calling as a doctor?”

He describes these party goers also as “sinners.” There He agrees with the Pharisees. The tax collectors are law breakers. They have disobeyed God. They’re guilty. They’re lost. They hasten toward certain judgment.

Again, why does Jesus spend time with them? Why seek them out? Why speak to their hearts? Because He is a Savior. Again, the question takes His critics by surprise. “What would you expect from a savior?” He seems to say. “Would he cultivate those with unblemished character? Would he give his attention to those with perfect records?” Of course not. He’s after the lost ones. When a building is ablaze, the firemen aren’t going to people comfortable in their homes on the other side of town. They’re thinking about those whose lives are threatened in the midst of that inferno. They’re going in there at the risk of their lives to try to get them out. That’s what saviors do. They can’t rescue from a distance. They can’t redeem without becoming involved.

So there you have it. That’s why Jesus went to the party. He’s a physician of the spiritually sick. He’s a savior for guilty sinners. And so He goes where people like that are. Isn’t it great that He does that?

What about the people who think they’re spiritually healthy, who pride themselves on being upright? Is there a message here for them? Indeed! A doctor won’t be able to help you unless you’re willing to admit your sickness, and a savior won’t be able to call you to repentance unless you admit you have something to repent about. So, friends, let’s stop pretending that we’re any better at heart than the guests at Levi’s party. Let’s not imagine that we’ve no sin that needs forgiving. Instead, let’s welcome Jesus as our great physician and our mighty Savior. Because, you see, the good news is for sinners only.

Prayer: O God, may all of us be able to see ourselves as the sick ones who need healing, the guilty ones who need forgiving, that we may welcome Jesus as our healer, Savior and friend. In His name. Amen.