- God came to the earth in the flesh. Jesus, the Almighty God, left the majesty of heaven and the splendor of the spiritual realm to visit the human race. The King of Glory has arrived on the earth. The Messiah, the promised Deliverer, has come to restore the kingdom of God and remove people’s sins. Jesus determines the need to establish an inner circle of followers, friends who will carry on his teachings after he dies.
- We understand and appreciate the need to think about having people ready to take over in case of death. The choosing of a vice-president is an important of our presidential race. We want someone who is capable of the task of taking over in case something were to happen to the president. Just as important is the selection of the president’s cabinet. This inner circle of people advise the president when called upon, offer words of encouragement and criticism, and certainly represent the tone of the administration. Regardless of your feelings about George W. Bush as president, most people agree that Bush surrounded himself with some of the more respected leaders of our nations. Such respected leaders included Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell.
- As Jesus, God in the flesh, is choosing his inner circle to carry on his teaching after his death, who would you expect Jesus to choose? Would we expect Jesus to choose the powerful people of the world, asking the current emperor of the Roman Empire to be in his circle? Would we expect Jesus to choose knowledgeable people of the world, asking the philosophers of Athens to be in his circle? Would we expect Jesus to choose the militarily powerful of the world, asking the great generals of the time to be in his circle? In Luke 5:27 we read, “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!'”
I. Getting To Know Levi
A. His name
- We must remember that names were not given in New Testament times just because they sounded good. The names of the Hebrews had a meaning saying something about who they are or expectations of what they would be. Moses’ name means “drawn out of water” because he was taken out of the Nile River. Hosea named one of his children Lo-Ammi, which meant “not mine” as his wife was acting as a prostitute. Joseph and Mary named their son, Jesus, meaning “Savior, Deliverer.”
- How fascinating to come across a man named Levi! He is named after the priestly tribe of Israel. One wonders what expectations his parents had of him. Did they think he would be a priest, serving in the temple courts daily preparing sacrifices to the Almighty God? Did they expect Levi to live up to the high expectations of the tribe after which he was named, the tribe set apart and claimed as the Lord’s?
B. His occupation
- If so, Levi’s life did not turn out the way his parents expected. Levi was a tax collector. To us in the twenty-first century, such an occupation is really not a big deal. While we are not thrilled with the IRS, I do not think we would be hateful toward someone who worked for the service, even if they were an auditor.
- But it was totally different in the first century. To have the occupation as a tax collector was to be rated with the sinners of the land. The gospels and Jesus himself recognizes that the tax collector was considered the scum of the earth (Luke 7:34; Matthew 5:46). The attitudes of the Jews toward their own people who decided to be tax collectors for the Roman Empire were extremely negative. Tax collectors were part of the despised outskirts of Jewish life, ranked with harlots as they would practice extortion against their own people, considered traitors of Israel, deemed to be among the most apostate of Jews, and potentially unclean for dealing with Gentiles. Levi’s public opinion poll would be 100% unfavorable. Why would anyone decide to be a tax collector when you would become the hated scum of the earth among your own society? Working as a tax collector was a lucrative job. No doubt the tax collector was paid well by the Roman Empire for collecting money for the imperial treasury. But the greater reason for the hatred was that most tax collectors practiced extortion. Tax collectors would charge high sums of money, higher than demanded by the empire, and keep the excess for themselves. This is why tax collectors were ranked among the sinners and scum of society. It was a lucrative, dishonest job.
- As Jesus is walking through Galilee, Levi is sitting in the tax office doing his job, collecting taxes. Jesus goes up to Levi and asks him to be his disciple. One can only imagine the great shock that Levi would have experienced in knowing that this rabbi, Jesus, wanted him, of all people, to follow him! Levi would have been excluded from most religious circles. He was shunned by society. The average Jew would have walked the other way when he or she saw Levi coming. Levi has received the invitation to become a disciple of Jesus, an invitation that was a great honor. One can see Levi’s excitement in the invitation for Levi leaves everything behind and begins to follow Jesus. Levi drops his job and follows the One who would bring him into his religious circle. Levi’s excitement and appreciation is further seen in that he throws a banquet for Jesus. It was typical in the first century to repay the honor by holding a feast. Levi is repaying the honor by holding what the scriptures call “a grand banquet” (Luke 5:29).
II. The Grand Banquet
A. The invited guests
- Levi, of course, has the ability to throw a grand (megas) banquet. Look who Levi invited to the great banquet: “Now there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others eating with them” (Luke 5:29). Do we suppose that these others were good people? Who would be the “others” that would be with a bunch of hated, “scum of the earth” tax collectors? Matthew’s account tells us that the invited were “tax collectors and many other notorious sinners” (Matthew 9:10). The “others” were not the reputable of society. Other tax collectors and notorious sinners are the friends of Levi. One can only imagine the amount of corruption that was present in the house. Sinners of all sorts are present for the grand banquet Levi has prepared.
- As Jesus would walk up to the house, the limousines, Ferraris, Porsches, Hummers, and other high-end chariots are parked out front. Open the door to Levi’s house and you would see the notorious extortioners, cheats, thieves, liars, and all kinds of evil represented. What would you do? Would you have left upon opening the door and see what kind of people were eating together? Would you have pulled Levi aside and chastised him for inviting this kind of filth into his house? Would we have told Levi that “evil companions corrupt good morals?” Would we have advised Levi to find a new group of friends?
- Jesus, however, goes into the house, reclines at the table, and eats with Levi and his invited guests, other tax collectors and notorious sinners. Jesus does not turn and walk out the door. Jesus does not pray to the Father to reign down fire and brimstone on this house of evil. Jesus does not keep his distance. Jesus sits with these people and participates in the most intimate act of fellowship in the first century: eating with them. Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the earth, sat with people known in the community for their sinfulness.
- But the words of the religious leaders of the day is extremely telling. The Pharisees and scribes see what is going on and begin complaining to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Now we realize we may have missed something when we first read this story. Jesus is not alone when he comes to the house of Levi and eats with the tax collectors and notorious sinners. Peter, James, and John are with Jesus, themselves also new disciples of Jesus. We will talk about their calling in a future lesson. What are Peter, James, and John thinking as they are walking into the house of Levi and eating with this unseemly crowd? Jesus is not acting alone, but teaching his new disciples something extremely important by going into the house of one considered the scum of the earth and ranked with harlots.
- I am impressed that Peter, James, and John do not say out loud what the Pharisees and scribes incredulously ask. “What are we doing here?” “Why are we eating with these people?” It is probably the question on everyone’s mind. It is not like the tax collectors and notorious sinners of the day are used to a Jewish rabbi and his disciples coming to eat with them. A devout Jew in first century would never do what Jesus did. At least that was the common logic and teaching of the religious. But Jesus and his disciples eat, to the criticism of the religious structure of the day.
B. Jesus’ teaching
- Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough” (Luke 5:31-32). What a simple, obvious response that can be easily forgotten. A doctor does not spend time with well patients. A doctor must spend time with sick patients, otherwise the doctor is not of value. We cannot be a doctor who goes to the well patients, checking if they are still well. Unfortunately, this has become 21 st century evangelism and it seems it was a problem in the first century. The doctor must find the sick patients and treat them.
- We want to spend our time with people who think they are good enough. We do not want to spend time with the sinful. We want people who seem to be clean. We judge the filthy and decide to not spend time with them. If they do not think the way we think, then we will reject them. If they have different values and beliefs than we do, we decide we will not be around them. If they are clearly in sin, we want to run the other way. But that was not the example of Jesus.
- It is critical for us to not look at ourselves as different from these tax collectors and notorious sinners. Too often we think they are beneath us or unworthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ because of their actions, as if we were worthy. I enjoy golfing when I can get out. My father and I have gone out a few times together when he has come down and I have gone up there, and we will be added to another group of two to create foursome. When first meeting someone and you are trying to make introductions, you know what one of the first questions is: what do you do for a living? My father and I respond that we are ministers. This answer usually receives the answer of “oh.” They now are looking for any way out of this foursome because they think their fun is gone. But by the end of the round, without fail, they ask us what church we belong to because we have acted like normal humans who enjoy playing golf. A teaching opportunity has been created by acting rightly, not by dropping “sermon bombs” on them on the first tee box.
- Do we see that this is exactly what Jesus was doing here? Jesus does not open the door and declare them going to hell for their clearly attested sins. Jesus gets to know these people, spend time with them, and creates opportunities for these people to be influenced by Jesus and his new disciple, Levi. Can you imagine what would have happened if Jesus would have let them have it as the first sentence coming out of his mouth? Can you see Levi crawling under his chair if Jesus had done this? These are Levi’s friends. The goal is not to ostracize them or run them off. The goal is to share with them how Jesus had changed Levi’s life and offer them the opportunity to experience a new way of living. When it came to teaching unbelievers, Jesus did not “shoot first and ask questions later.”
A. To Christians
- Under the same circumstances, what would have been our reaction to what Jesus and the disciples saw? Would we have had a reaction like the Pharisees and scribes, wonder why anyone would dare eat and spend time with these kinds of people? Would we have had a reaction like Jesus that is willing to spend time with those who are the “shady” people of our society to share the good news?
- Too many times we are cutting off opportunities to teach because we want to preserve an appearance of self-righteousness. What will people think if we were to spend time with unseemly people? What will happen if were friends with our neighbor who does immoral things for a living? What will happen if we spend time with our co-workers who discuss their immoral ways of living as a badge on their sleeve? What will happen? We will begin to be like Jesus. Jesus came to spend time with the spiritual sick and has given his disciples the purpose to do the same.
B. To unbelievers
- If you have not decided to follow Christ in your life, allow me a moment to direct some thoughts to you. First, it does not matter what you past has been. You may have been performing great immoral acts. You may have a job like Levi that is renown for evil and immorality. You may have willfully participating in things you know you should not have done. But Jesus still extends his invitation to you to get to know him and come follow him. The call of Christ does not demand you throw your address book away, never associate with your previous friends and family, and isolate yourself from the world. Rather, you are to come follow Christ and show your friends and family that you have found a better way of life.
- Second, you will be amazed at the kind of life change that can take place in the Lord. Would you be surprised to know that Levi has a more common name in the scriptures. Levi is also the apostle Matthew, who wrote the gospel of Matthew. Jesus can take a traitorous, despised, thieving tax collector and change his life to become one of the trusted twelve apostles going out and preaching the gospel across the earth. Jesus can change your life, bring it substance and meaning, purpose and value if you will simply follow Jesus.