(Bible quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise stated)
Who did Jesus come for?
30th November 2006
This story is also in Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:27-32. Mark and Luke call the tax collector "Levi" but Matthew calls himself "Matthew". We don't know for sure, but it seems likely that Levi was his original name and Matthew was a name given to him by Jesus (as Simon was given the name Peter). As I say, we don't know, but Matthew means "gift of the Lord" and it would be great if Jesus did give him that name, as if to say that an outcast and sinner could be really valuable to the Lord.
For as long as I can remember, and probably much longer, people have joked about hating the tax man. This is not without reason; after all, the tax people take away about half our income. But in our country, it's just a joke, because we know that tax inspectors and their colleagues are about as honest as the rest of us. They take from us what the government decide they should. But in Jesus's time, the tax collectors were genuinely hated. They worked for the despised Roman occupiers, and many of them took much more in tax than they were required to.
But Jesus called Levi!
I - and every genuine Christian - am glad that Jesus doesn't just choose the popular, morally upright, model citizens. Jesus loves outcasts, he loves the socially awkward, he loves the failures, he loves the dishonest. He loves sinners!
And something happened in Levi's heart when Jesus called him. Luke 5:28 says:
and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
All Christians are supposed to follow Levi's example. Jesus said,
But few do.
Perhaps Levi's response is an example of what Jesus told a Pharisee regarding another sinful person who knew Jesus's forgiveness:
Those of us who know that God has forgiven us much, are truly grateful to Him.
And we read in Luke 5:29 that:
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
A HUGE banquet! When we see that Jesus accepts us absolutely, just as we are, warts and all, then we should worship Him and serve Him EXTRAVAGANTLY! It's those of us who think we're really quite nice people, that think we're somehow doing God a favour by serving Him, that don't have this extravagant heart.
Those whom Luke calls "others", Mark and Matthew call "sinners". Well, Levi/Matthew ought to know! They were his friends, eating at his house. Why would Levi ask Jesus to have dinner with such a group of sinful people - hated by the decent folk? Why? Because they needed to meet Jesus! They needed the same forgiveness and acceptance that Levi now knew!
And why did Jesus agree to eat with them? For the same reason!
The Pharisees were so full of judgementalism, they couldn't understand this. They asked:
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?"
And Jesus told them:
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Every Christian is a sinner. If we had never sinned, we wouldn't need to be forgiven.
1 John 1:8
1 Timothy 1:15
We do those outside the church a huge disservice when we give the impression that we think that Christians are somehow "better" than non-Christians. It's us who are sick, it's us who need Jesus's help. It's us who are sinners, and need Jesus to bring us to repentance.
In Matthew's own account of this story, he quotes Jesus as saying one more thing in his response:
Well, what does "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" mean?
It means loving and forgiving others is much more important than any religious ceremony or observance. Christians today, like the Pharisees of old, need to remember that the first duty of a Christian is to love God and the second is to love other people. All the rest comes a very distant third.
And judging others because they're sinners, while forgetting that we're sinners, too, is the opposite of love.