Genesis, chapters 12-14; Luke, chapter 5
Luke 5:27-31 (NLT):
Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.
Later, Levi held a banquet in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests also ate with them. But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”
Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”
First, some context. Jesus began his ministry by going to Galilee, his home territory. In chapter 4, Luke tells us about Jesus’ first message in Nazareth, his hometown. The people responded favorably at first, but then turned on him because they didn’t like what his message implied. (See Luke 4:23-30.) But other people did respond to him; by the beginning of chapter 5, a large crowd has gathered to listen to him.
However, as the people welcomed Jesus, the religious leaders opposed him. It may have been jealousy, because the crowds were following Jesus. Perhaps some of them were genuinely concerned about his theology; it seems clear, though, that their opposition became personal. Because of that, they started to criticize and attack everything Jesus did.
Levi, the Tax Collector
In our passage for today, Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow me and be my disciple. That would have shocked anyone; tax collectors were almost universally hated. The Jewish people viewed tax collectors as criminals and traitors. That meant that the only people who would associate with tax collectors were other tax collectors, and other people of questionable morals and character. (Hence the common biblical phrase, “tax collectors and sinners.”)
For whatever reason, Jesus called Levi to become his disciple; perhaps even more surprising, Levi accepted the invitation. Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. Levi was clearly transformed by his encounter with Jesus, because he decided to hold a banquet in his home in honor of Jesus. He invited his friends – many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests.
Those who think they are righteous
Well, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were upset. Luke tells us that they complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples. Why? Were they upset because they hadn’t been invited to the party? Were they motivated by concern for Jesus’ reputation? Or were they just looking to attack whatever Jesus did? No matter the reason, their question is revealing: Why do you eat and drink with such scum?
We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” The NLT rendering of verse 32 puts it plainly: “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” Our natural response is to be grateful that Jesus came to call those of us who know that we are sinners who need to repent. We’re overjoyed that God in his grace has offered us forgiveness and life through Jesus!
But if we’re not careful, we can turn into those who think they are righteous. I’m not sure when that happened to the Pharisees, but I can tell you the sign that it had happened. “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” To refer to another human being who is created in the image of God as scum is a pretty strong indication that we’ve forgotten how much we needed to receive God’s grace. We need to notice that Jesus does not say, “those who are righteous,” but “those who think they are righteous.” The perception does not match the reality. Those who are righteous are only righteous because of what God has done for them. When we forget that, we lose our sense of connection with those who need Jesus just as much as we did – and still do.
I believe God is reminding us that righteousness only comes from him. When we forget that – when we start to think that we are righteous on our own – we can quickly lose our way. Anything that causes us to view other people as scum does not come from God! That doesn’t mean that we have to approve of everything that other people do. After all, I’m sure there were people who didn’t approve of what I did before I got saved! But “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and that means all of us need a Savior.
That’s why Jesus’ statement “those who think they are righteous” is so important. When we remember that our righteousness comes from God, we have no reason to judge or condemn anyone else. I saw a post on Facebook recently that said this: If Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world (see John 3:17), God’s probably not sending us to condemn the world either. Remembering that will help us to point others toward Jesus instead of causing them to turn away from him.
Father, thank you for the grace that you showed us in sending Jesus to reconcile us to you. Thank you for continuing to show your grace to us each day, as we seek to walk obediently in faith. When we start to think that we are righteous, remind us that our righteousness only comes from you. We don’t deserve it; we didn’t earn it, and never can. Help us to show and tell others that they too can come to you for forgiveness and life and peace. Amen.