In Luke ch4-5 we see Jesus on his mission; proclaiming, telling, teaching that the kingdom of God is now here, that he has come to bring freedom and favour with God (4:18-19). Ch5 has shown us Jesus proclaiming that message and outcasts responding, those made outcasts by leprosy or illness and those made spiritual outcasts by demon possession. But here Jesus is confronted with another outcast, a social and moral outcast. And as Jesus deals with the situation we see two contrasts; firstly between the way Levi and the Pharisees respond to Jesus and secondly in the way Jesus with his followers and the Pharisees respond to sinners.
Jesus gives the illustration of what he has come to do as being like that of a doctor. He has come for those who recognise they are sick and are looking for healing. Except the disease that Jesus comes to deal with is not diabetes, cancer or any other physical illness it is sin. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus has come to deal sin but what is it? It is our rebellion against God. We mustn’t confuse the symptoms of sin with the actual problem. We tend to think sin is the things we do: swearing, anger, gossip, greed, lust and so on. But Jesus doesn’t, he doesn’t come with a self help programme, or a cream to rub in, he knows that we need a more radical treatment than that, we need a heart transplant. The real problem is what our symptoms reveal – all the things we do that we think of as sin are the result of a heart defect. Just as surely as a sore throat, temperature, runny nose and aching limbs are symptoms of the flu.
We want to decide right and wrong for ourselves. We don’t want to think of a creator we are responsible to, we want to be free to decide for ourselves what we do and how we do it. Jesus comes to deal with the cause of the problem rather than the symptoms. And the sickness that Jesus speaks of is a very serious one, sin is serious because it leaves us spiritually dead before God and facing judgement for our refusal to recognise him.
What are the two groups of people Jesus speaks of? The righteous and the sinner. What does righteous mean? It is someone who fulfils God’s demands regarding right living – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind strength and love your neighbour as yourself. That is how the Pharisees see themselves, but clearly they don't live like, just look at their attitude to Levi and his friends. And Jesus doesn’t think they are righteous he knows their need that’s why he proclaims the good news in the synagogues. The Pharisees see themselves as being right before God and they reject Jesus and his message.
(27-28) But not Levi, Levi recognises his need, that he is far from God that he has a problem and when Jesus says follow me what does he do? “Levi got up left everything and followed him.” He knows there is a problem and he repents. Do you see that, he leaves everything, everything that held him back and makes Jesus the priority in his life. That is repentance; a radical repositioning of priorities. Do you see the right reaction to Jesus words? How do you see yourself this morning? A sinner in need of grace or a Pharisee who will not accept Jesus diagnosis and therefore thinks he doesn’t need saving?
For Levi this is great news, it is the cause for a celebration and it is a reason to get his friends to meet this man. Levi calls this great banquet so his friends can hear, just like the fishermen Levi is called to fish for people, to witness to the wonder of the freedom and favour with God that Jesus proclaims. Sometimes we can forget how amazing our salvation is, that it is a cause for great celebration. Jesus came so that I would know what my problem is, where that left me before God and to call me to accept that he would save me. Grace should amaze me anew every day. Why not stop now and praise God, thanking him for saving you.
But that isn’t all there is here, we also find two reactions to Levi in this passage, and they show us two possible responses to sinners. Look at (30), how do the Pharisees deal with sinners? They quarantine them; they have nothing whatsoever to do with them. That is why they are horrified that Jesus and his disciples would be at eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and their scribes are complaining and grumbling about what Jesus is doing – how could a good teacher do this? How could a prophet from God associate with sinners? The Pharisees may have listened to Jesus teaching in the synagogues, they may have heard the message, the good news that he is proclaiming and seen the miracles but they still haven’t got it.
But Jesus attitude to sinners is totally different, that is the contrast here. Yes Jesus is in the synagogue proclaiming to the Pharisees but he is also in the street with the outcast. Because he is about the mission his Father has given him; proclaiming freedom to the poor, prisoner, blind and oppressed, because he has come for the outsiders. Jesus attitude to Levi is the exact opposite of the Pharisees quarantine approach; Jesus engages with and welcomes sinners.
(27) “Jesus saw a tax collector” Jesus spots Levi and homes in on him, this is deliberate. Jesus knows that he is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Romans that he is an outcast, an outsider, a sinner, morally beyond the pale and yet he sees him and zeroes in on him. Why? Because he is in the business of calling people, calling them from fear to follower, from outcast to sonship. Jesus wants this morally dubious, religious no hoper to know God’s favour, to experience grace.
I guess that would have been bad enough for the Pharisees but what happens next? (29) Jesus and his disciples go at Levi’s invitation to share a meal with him and his socially dubious and notoriously immoral friends. Jesus engages with and welcomes the religious outcasts because his mission matters, a mission so important that Jesus turns down the devils offer of a shortcut to worldly power, so important that he leaves his home town, refuses to live as a celebrity in Capernaum and here will risk opposition and complaints from the religious leaders about who he spends time with. Because Jesus did not come to engage in social niceties, to be popular with the religious but to proclaim God’s kingdom, to preach freedom, to “worship the Lord his God and serve him only”. He has not “come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (32). Jesus comes to save the outcast no matter the cost to his reputation because salvation matters, lost sinners need saving.
Do you see the contrast in attitude to sinners? Quarantine or rescue. Jesus models for us engagement with sinners because that is his mission and do you see what grace does for Levi? It means he engages in the same mission, grace doesn’t make him religious it makes him a witness and a fisher of people (29). Am I prepared to risk my reputation for the sake of the gospel? To risk being misunderstood in order to take the good news to the social and moral outsiders?
The danger is that we, that I, adopt the Pharisees approach – quarantine. We would never verbalise that as what we are doing but our programmes, our events, our friendships confess for us. But here we see Jesus proclaiming to everyone, will we do the same? Jesus actions are prompted by his knowledge that the gospel, the good news of the kingdom is for everyone from those in the synagogue to the hated tax collectors, from the Pharisee to the lady at the well with a string of failed relationships, from the religious scribe to the prostitute who will be dragged before him. That it can change people, that it can bring hope and freedom, that sin is a universal problem and he is its only solution.
Maybe this morning you’re toes are curling at the thought of what this passage is calling us to. But the challenge is clear and the impossible application, the one the passage doesn’t allow us is that I am to go away and do nothing. Which is it? What will our reaction to sinners be? Will it be the quarantine of the Pharisees or the engaging with and welcome that Jesus and his disciples give to outcasts because the gospel matters? Because it is such good news that it changed us from outcasts before God to sons that we know it can do it for anyone.