Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"
31 Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Jesus Questioned About Fasting
33 They said to him, "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking."
34 Jesus answered, "Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast."
36 He told them this parable: "No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. If they do, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And people do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for you say, 'The old is better.' "
When I was a young man I absolutely loved collecting cassette tapes. There was a particular type of music that I grew up with and enjoyed and I so I took great pleasure in the fact that I had developed a rather large collection. I had such a large collection that I regularly had people come to me to ask me to borrow tapes. It got to the point that I had several tape carriers that were full of tapes that I carried in my car at all times and I also had many boxes at home that were full of tapes. As I passed through my teens and into my twenties, however, cassette tapes began to go quickly out of style and everyone around me began to get CD’s. I resisted that for a long time and refused to buy CD’s. I just simply did not want to accept CD’s because I didn’t really like them and I knew that it would render my incredible tape collection worthless. As people began to tell me more and more each day how great CD’s were, I grew stiffer and harsher in my opposition to them. I would, I declared, never own a CD player. Then I became a Christian and my taste in that particular kind of music faded and so it didn’t matter that much anymore but my new pride and joy was my collection of VHS tapes that were full of historical documentaries and films. I knew that these would never go out of style and I had spent an incredible amount of time working on recording, marking, and creating these tapes. I got to the point where I had over 1,000 hours of video tape and some incredible historical videos. Then all of a sudden, this new format called DVD’s started slowly gaining steam. Once again, I would not accept this. I hated DVD’s and never wanted one. What would I do with my VHS collection? I resisted getting a DVD player for years but finally my wife got one after our VCR broke. Now we don’t even have a VHS player and all of those video tapes sit in dusty boxes in my basement.
That’s what happens, though, when new things break into the old world. Those who have so much invested in the old order of things just will not accept the new. They don’t like it, they don’t understand it, and they don’t want it because they think it will make everything that is important to them useless. And in some respects that’s true. I cannot mix my old technology with the new. I cannot play my tapes on a CD player or my VHS tapes on a DVD player. I had to put away all of my tapes and embrace the fact that these new things were not only different, they are much, much better than the old way.
We should not lose sight of the fact that Luke is continuing to demonstrate the authority of Jesus as he reveals that the much-anticipated kingdom of God will be very different, as it breaks into the present age, than most people were expecting. Jesus continued to call disciples to follow him which was highly unusual in two respects. One, was that it appears that the common practice at the time was for students to approach the rabbi or teacher from whom they wanted to learn and then hope to be selected by them as worthy (this rabbinic training was apparently a still rather informal process in the 1st century that would be not be formalized until the 2nd century) . For a teacher to go around choose disciples was very uncommon if not unheard of.
The second unusual thing was in the type of followers that Jesus was choosing to be his disciples. These were not men of impressive stature. If a Messiah-figure was going to around and gather disciples the expectation might have been for him to put together a collection of the best and brightest rabbis, teachers of the laws, and religious experts. But these men were fishermen and now a hated tax collector. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors who worked in league with the oppressive Roman state. In fact, tax collectors were so reviled that they were seen as unclean under the law. In fact, it was common to not even allow a tax collector into one’s home because of the belief that it would make the entire home unclean.
At the heart of this scene, then, is the kind of people that Jesus is spending his time with. If the Messiah was sent to purify Israel from sin and unrighteousness, as the Pharisees believed, then how could anyone making any messianic claims seriously hang around these kind of people? The fact that he would share table fellowship with the likes of men like Levi (an alternate name for Matthew) demonstrated to them that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting. Jesus’ associations constantly raised opposition from those who did not approve of the fact that he would spend time with those who were separated from God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, radically pursued a lifestyle that avoided sinners and saw them as the problem that was keeping God from returning to Israel. To add to that, table fellowship was very important to the Jewish people. For the Jewish people, banquets were a symbol of God’s age to come which was often symbolized by referring to that time as the time of the feast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11). For Jesus to share table fellowship with these sinners meant that he was embracing the idea that there might be a place for people like this in the age to come. That they would be accepted at the table before repenting was simply unacceptable.
The aim of the Pharisees was to remain quarantined from the lowly like of sinners and tax collectors. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t quarantine himself. His aim was the recovery and reconciliation of those that had a ruptured relationship with God? Jesus saw his ministry as one that could be likened to that of a doctor. How good would it be to have a doctor who refused to go around the sick and injured because he didn’t want to catch what they had or deal with their less-than-palatable conditions? How good would it be if you had a doctor who would only go around other doctors or those that could demonstrate that they were passably healthy?
Why would Jesus spend such time with obvious sinners and people that were sinful and separated from God in both heart and actions? Because those were the ones that needed healing. His point was not that the Pharisees and their types weren’t sinners or were actually righteous but that they thought they were and would be wholly incapable of being spiritually healed until they realized that they were the sick, they were the sinners just like everyone else. Jesus came to bring sinners to repentance not meet his own needs by hanging out with people who agreed with everything he said and pleased him with every word that came out of their mouths. This is such a vital point for us to remember today. As soon as we find ourselves not wanting to be around someone because of their “sin,” we have completely lost sight of who we are as sinners ourselves and what Jesus called us to be for the world. We are not called to gather a group of Christians and quarantine ourselves off from the world but instead, we are called to take up Jesus’ vocation as doctors that bring the healing message of the gospel to those who so desperately need it. When we break it down to simplest terms, the Pharisees wanted to see repentance before table fellowship was offered, while Jesus knew that showing them that the kingdom of God could be open to them would lead to their healing and repentance.
The fact was, though, that the Pharisees just couldn’t comprehend or accept the new era that Jesus was bringing to light. Fasting was a part of Jewish life. It was required by the Old Testament only for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29) and to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (see Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19). But the Pharisees had taken fasting far beyond that and, like John’s disciples, engaged in a large amount of fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. Part of the reason for their constant fasting was to show their religious commitment and as a necessary part of their preparation for Israel’s long-awaited redemption and the end of their long exile from God. Fasting for the Pharisees, then, was a sign that God’s kingdom had not yet arrived. But that was exactly the rub between their deeply held beliefs and what Jesus was doing. They were fasting and hoping for God’s mercy and Jesus was saying that God’s mercy was there, that is was breaking into the present age in new and radical ways that they could not imagine. God’s mercy wasn’t something that needed to be somberly hoped for, it was there in exciting ways inviting all to come in and be healed. The kingdom was like a party. In fact, it was more like a wedding banquet than a funeral. You simply wouldn’t go to a wedding and abstain from the celebratory act of eating and drinking. That wouldn’t make sense. A time would come when Christ would die and be absent from his people, said Jesus as he is already beginning to allude to his death. The groom was there, so it makes sense that Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. When the groom has left, then God’s people will long for and anticipate the time of his return and the completion of their redemption. Jesus doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about fasting during this time but he does confirm that fasting is appropriate during that time.
Jesus’ three short parables are really vivid demonstrations of our opening illustration. The new will not mix with the old. You can’t tear out a piece of a new article of clothing and try to patch it into an old article of clothing. In doing so, you will ruin both garments. And you can’t pour new wine into an old leather wineskin because it will cause the skin to burst. For that matter, when someone drinks the old wine, is used to the old wine, and is invested in one way or another in the old wine, they simply find it very difficult to ever accept new wine. Just like you cannot jam a VHS tape in to a DVD player with ruining both, you simply cannot take bits of the old way and combine it with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus knows the sad truth that most of the Jews that hear him will not switch their expectations and allegiances easily. We get used to the old ways and new things intimidate us.
Our challenge today is to constantly be ready to allow God’s kingdom to challenge us in new and fresh ways even though it has now been around for a very long time. It is crucial that we don’t become the people who cling to our old ways and don’t constantly allow the kingdom to break afresh and anew into our own lives. It is our task to live out the new kingdom life that Jesus has brought into our lives and to remember that we simply cannot mix our old and comfortable ways with the new.
Do you ever find yourself being a little like the Pharisees here and wanting to separate yourself from the unsaved rather than getting messy and being around them, with all that that brings with it? How does Jesus’ example here challenge you right now? Is there any attitudes or actions of yours that you need to change?