While Jesus was having diner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Him and His disciples, for there were many that followed him. When the teachers of the Law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’
Horsham 25th January 2024
Luke’s Gospel affirms that in following Jesus, Levi left everything behind. ‘He burned his bridges, and enthusiastically invited some of his sinner friends to meet the Lord Jesus.’ (i)
Just occasionally, I feel overwhelmed by God’s grace. It’s not just that he is a gracious God, but it’s that he would consider me, even me, to be worthy of His grace. I know my own life history. I haven’t always been good. I don’t deserve his grace.
This is a story about a man called Levi. This is a story which reassures us that God’s love and grace is for everybody.
Levi was a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered to be really bad people. They were generally excluded from the synagogue and would have no support from the religious community. Here we meet a bunch of them together. They’re eating together. They’re socialising together. We don’t know for sure who the other ‘sinners’ referred to here would have been, but they would have been people who either broke the moral law or failed to observe the scribal law (ii)
As far as the Pharisees are concerned, the idea of associating with these people was wholly wrong. To share a meal with them was unthinkable. Yet here is Jesus in the same house, at the same time, sharing a meal with the bad boys. For a rabbi and his disciples to be having dinner with them was, in the view of the Pharisees, unacceptable.
We have already seen Jesus mixing with those who are physically sick, and we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus and his disciples are now meeting with other people on the fringe of society. We shouldn’t be surprised that the group of religious leaders who were by now following Jesus didn’t like this. Perhaps it was to avoid a confrontational conversation with Jesus that they launch their attack on his disciples.
This was an early stage in Christ’s ministry. His disciples still have so much to learn. It is Jesus who responds to the Pharisees’ questions.
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (v17)
People who were sick were often regarded as ‘unclean’ and were to be avoided. Until their health was restored they were excluded from taking part in the life of the synagogue, and everyone would avoid them. Unable to work or mix with people at the market, the sick could quickly become desperate and isolated. But of course what they really needed was not religious rules and exclusion – they needed a doctor.
To Jesus, the sinfulness of Levi’s friends did not mean that these were people to be avoided. It meant that they were people in need. They were spiritually unhealthy. They didn’t need to be abandoned in the mire of religious rules and exclusion – they needed a doctor.
Whatever else we learn from this encounter, we learn that Levi, who we also know as Matthew, is a man on the outside of society. He mixes with other people who are on the outside of society. Yet Christ has sought him out. This is the man who leaves everything to follow Jesus and became one of his closest friends. This is the man who becomes an evangelist and apostle. This is the man who came to write the first Gospel.
This is the man whose story should leave us in no doubt that Christ can, does and will extend his welcome, love and grace to anyone. To everyone. Even me. Even you.
(i) Wiersbe p34
(ii) Barclay, Gospel of Mark, Mark 2:15-17