For those who profess Christ—if we have been attending church for very long, we become accustomed to using Christianese. Do you know what I’m saying by that? Christian jargon. We refer to ourselves as “unworthy sinners,” talk among ourselves like that. We even use words like “wretched” and “totally depraved.” Some Christians, when asked how they are doing on a given day, might respond to you by saying, “Better than I deserve,” right? And they are acknowledging in a statement like that that they know they deserve judgment, so they are getting better than they deserve by the fact that God has given them grace. And while those ways of referring to ourselves are maybe confusing to the uninitiated—“wretched,” “totally depraved”—they are really reminders—in our speech, in discourse we have amongst ourselves— that we are indeed sinners. At the end of the day, we are redeemed by God’s mercy, but we are far from perfect.
But I wonder how many of us truly believe what we freely and opening profess at times when others actually treat us according to that statement. Think about it. When someone speaks to you in a less than complimentary way, how do you handle that? What’s your immediate impulse? “Well, thank you for that insult; it’s better than I deserve.” When someone is disrespectful of you, when they’re dismissive of your opinion because you’re a Christian specifically, when they look down upon you as foolish and weak-minded, when they malign your intellect for believing an old book “full of contradictions,” when someone despises you—do you call to mind that you are being treated better than you deserve? Do you agree with them and say, “You know you’re right. I am wretched. I’m an unworthy sinner saved by grace.”
William Carey is known as the father of modern missions. He prayed constantly from a very young age that God would send him to evangelize the heathen in India. This was at a time when the English were colonizing different parts of the world, including India. And Carey prayed that he would have the opportunity to be sent to India to evangelize. So Carey is a young guy. He made good use of his time waiting. He was eking out a living as an apprentice in a shoemakers’ shop. He made his living repairing shoes and it provided a meager income. But at the same time, he also taught himself Greek in the shop. He’d learned Latin at 12—clearly a gifted boy. He caused consternation of many who did not want to send him to India due to his less-than-noble humble beginnings—no high school or college equivalent educations and no one to commend him, to advocate for him—yet Carey finally found a way to India. It was the answer to his prayers. He spend the next 41 years there without any furlough, and in the end, he had translated the entire Bible into six Indian languages. He had also translated significant portions of the Bible into about 24 other languages. There is a well-known story that illustrates Carey’s character. And according to one source, Carey says that when he first went to India, some regarded him with dislike and contempt. At a dinner party, a distinguished guest—I think the man was a general—hoped to humiliate Carey by saying in a loud voice, “I suppose, Mr. Carey, you once worked as a shoemaker.” Carey responded humbly, “No, your lordship, not as a shoemaker, only a cobbler.” Carey didn’t even want to claim to make shoes, just to mend them.
We don’t tend to think that way about ourselves, do we? We’ve been trained by good old American education that we are star students. We’re honor students. We’re the most important thing in the universe. We’ve been trained to think of ourselves as great, as having very significant potential, as being an untapped source of greatness. Many young people go into their employers the first day on the job, and they’re just waiting for their employer to recognize all of their brilliance and to give them a raise their very first week. Our problem is not that we’re frustrated in our high aspirations; our problem is that we think too highly of ourselves in the first place. Listen, if you consider yourself to be a Christian, you need to get used to the fact we are despised by the world. And if they only knew us better, they’d see that everything they say about us is true. We are worthy of their contempt in and of ourselves because of our own sin and our shame. But do we think that way about ourselves? Do we have that right self-estimation?
As we look at the text before us today, Luke 5:27 to 32, we’re going to see Levi in exactly that light. We call him Matthew. We know him as Matthew. To the Jews, though, Levi was one of the most despicable characters in all society. And I hope to show you why that was so in today’s message. And yet we note in Luke 5:27 to 32 that Jesus specifically chose Levi for discipleship. In fact, Levi was not numbered among the 12 apostles. The Holy Spirit had great plans for him to use him to author the gospel that bears the name Matthew. Why do you think that is? What is the point of choosing someone like that? Folks, it’s a lesson in grace. Follow along as I read Luke 5:27 to 32.
After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
I love that story. This calling of Matthew is just an incredible story of grace. It teaches us about the long reach of divine mercy, the great compassion that God has for all kinds of sinners no matter where they fall on the social spectrum. Because the truth is that we are all equally distant from God because of our sin, and I think we forget that sometimes. This story is put right here to help us remember that God has had to reach the same distance to snatch every single one of us from the path of his judgment. We have a lot to cover, so we want to get right into our study, and the first point in our outline—this whole thing is about the glory of God’s grace. So the first point is The Glory of God’s Grace in Choosing the Despised.
Let’s start by looking at this choosing of an unlikely disciple—Matthew, Levi. If the Jewish kids were picking teams, this guy Matthew would have been the last kid chosen. In fact, they wouldn’t even allow him on the field. But Jesus went after him specifically. Take a look at verse 27 again. “And after this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” There are three verbs in that verse: Jesus went out, he saw and he said. We need to note right from the start that the word translated “he saw” doesn’t reveal the intentionality indicated in the original language. The verb can mean “to look at,” but it conveys more than that. It conveys “to look at with interest.” So, it’s better translated, “Jesus went out and he came to visit Levi.” He came to seek him out; he was looking, really, by seeking him specifically. Levi is the other name of Matthew. Levi is the Jewish name; Matthew, the Galilean name. We know him as Matthew because of the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew, but I’m going to probably drift into both names today, so don’t let that confuse you.
But, why was Jesus seeking Levi? For discipleship. He went out, he sought out Levi, and he said to him, “Follow me.” Follow me. That command “follow me” uses a verb that is the common word for calling people to discipleship. Jesus often used it. It’s the same verb that—if you back up to verse 11 in the same chapter here—is how Luke recorded what he saw in those early disciples: “They left everything and followed him.” So it’s an intentional, it’s a full-time, it’s a permanent call to discipleship. And the command here—the verb tense indicates exactly that. It indicates Jesus’ intention that Levi leave everything behind and follow him into permanent life-long discipleship. He’s calling him to never look back.
Before we move on, I want you to notice how verse 27 opens. We smooth over this a lot, but look how Luke has made this transition, moving us from one account to the other with the opening words, “After this.” In considering Matthew, we’re reminded of what we covered last week—that the Son of Man does indeed have authority on earth to forgive sins. We need to take that conclusion—that he has authority to forgive sins—from that previous story and carry it forward into this story—that Jesus is authorized by the Father to forgive. That may not seem as necessary to you and me, but for those first-century readers—absolutely vital. If Luke had tried to tell the story of Matthew’s calling without addressing Jesus’ prerogative to forgive sins, most people would have put the book down at this point and never picked it up again. In fact, some may have even burned it. It would have been an outrage to them to think about Jesus calling Matthew to discipleship. It would have been an unreadable story that would have angered them.
Let me tell you why. Jesus, by now, is one of the most famous and celebrated figures in all of Palestine. He’s on the same level of the greatest minds in Judaism. Clearly, in the mind of the common people, he is on track to be numbered among the greats, like Shammai or Hillel, one of those rabbis, probably even greater because after all, not only could he teach like no one else could teach, but he could heal. This Jesus has just sought out and called a tax collector to follow him as a disciple. No rabbinical leader would ever do something like that—to seek Levi, to address him directly, talk to him, treat him like a person, and then to invite him—not just to invite him to follow, but to command him to follow, to become a permanent member of your band of disciples. That is another matter entirely. And that they could not stomach. Why would you stain the entire group with that one bad apple? No leader would intentionally seek out someone with such a poor reputation, with such contemptible character. That would be an absolute career-killer because it would be indicative of very, very bad judgment. We’re looking at some things going on in our country politically, right? That is an indication all over the place at all kinds of levels of some very bad judgment of character, and they work into all levels of society and politics. And we look at all of that and rightly question their credibility.
We were introduced to tax collectors back in Luke Chapter 3—remember that, way back in Luke Chapter 3? Let me give you just a bit of review so you can get the full picture. We talked about then there were two kinds of taxes collected in Israel at this time. There were direct taxes and there were indirect taxes. Direct taxes were like property taxes, a head tax—those taxes were collected by the Jewish national counsels like the Sanhedrin, local counsels like synagogue officials—and they were legitimate taxes. They funded the police force and some of those things in the temple. It was understandable. But the indirect taxes—these are the taxes that come from Rome through Jewish peoples, and they’re taxes on things like making a living. They collected toll taxes to use the roads. They collected taxes on goods, customs taxes, taxes that were levied on trade and commerce. These are the taxes on trying to increase own’s own wealth, to try to improve one’s station in life. And they provided all kinds of opportunity for greedy tax collectors. The Romans were in charge of collecting these indirect taxes. And that just added insult to injury—the insinuation of a pagan power oppressing the people, making money off of their own productivity.
That really angered the common man, and the Romans knew that. They were smart. They kept their own officials protected by avoiding direct contact with the people they were taxing, thus the reference to an indirect tax. They sold tax collection enterprises to the highest bidder, involving Jews who were willing to betray and oppress their own people. So an individual tax collection office was privately owned by a publican. A publican was often a foreigner, sometimes a Jew, but he was always someone with sufficient capital to purchase a contract with Rome. The actual operation of tax collections, though, was run by the telónés. That’s what we’re talking about here—telónés—the tax collectors are responsible for collecting money for Rome. They provided a percentage for the publican eye, and then they took a cut for themselves. The publicans, at the top of the food chain here, found greedy, unscrupulous men who were willing to profit off of their own people, and they hired them to do the actual collection of the taxes for them. So those men were from the underbelly of society. They were social outcasts who didn’t mind looking a fellow Jew directly in the eye while taking money from his wallet, making personal profit from somebody else’s hard work.
The Romans, the publicans—they had enough sense of shame to hover above all of that corruption, but these tax collectors are right down in the dirt, willing to get their hands dirty. And they were utterly despised for it. The Talmud—it’s like a rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament, a collection of Jewish national oral law, oral tradition called the Mishnah and also a commentary on the law called the Gemara—and this Talmud, this collection of the Mishnah and the Gemara, differentiates the two different kinds of tax collectors at two different levels. At the higher level in the tax office and the tax enterprise is the Gabbai, and you might think of him as the local branch manager. Okay, so he’s hovering above it at some level, too. He’s maybe like midlevel management. The tax collection that he personally conducted was a more controlled level, one that was more regulated, maybe a little more insulated from graft. Alfred Edersheim notes that the Gabbai collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground income and poll tax. The ground tax amounted to one tenth of all grain and one fifth of all the wine and fruit grown. That’s pretty high, right? Ten percent and twenty percent. Partly paid in kind, partly commuted into money. The income tax amounted to one percent, while the head money, or poll tax, was levied on all persons, bond and free—in the case of men from the age of 14 and women from 12 all the way up to 65.
So none of that was overly terrible, overly burdensome. But underneath the Gabbai was this group of tax collectors who were the real bad guys. They were called the mokhes (20:44). It looks like “mokies” when you see the word written. But it’s actually pronounced mox. And it was the job of the mokhes to interact with the people, to really get near them and squeeze them for the taxes that were a lot less regulated. It provided all kinds of opportunity for their own personal profit. Again, Edersheim tells us about the mokhes and taxes that they collected: “They collected tax and duty upon all imports and exports on all that was bought and sold—bridge money, road money, harbor dues, town dues, etc. The classical reader knows the ingenuity which could invent a tax and find a name for every kind of exaction, such as on axles, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians, roads, highways, on admission to markets, on carriers, bridges, ships and quays, on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses—in short, on such a variety of objects that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names.” When was the last time you looked at IRS Tax Code?
There seems to have been very little oversight or restraint on all the kinds of taxes they had to pay and on the amounts of taxes the mokhes were able to exact from their own people. Edersheim continues, “But even this was as nothing”—he’s talking about the money you have to pay—“compared to the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack animals—when every bale and package was opened and the contents tumbled out, private letters opened—and the mokhes rules supreme in his insolence and rapacity.” Now, the mokhes is just a tax collector. How is he going to get all of that done? By hiring a brute squad, right? And brute squads cost money. So he needs extra money to pay for the muscle that is going to get the money from you. I mean it’s just insult upon insult with these people. These mokhes were greedy. They were unjust. They were oppressive. They’re easily bribed. And they favored their friends and billed everyone else. They were so filled with greed they lacked scruples, the sympathy to care for people. They took advantage of their own people, of poor people. You might think of them as being on the same level as slum lords. You know, those people who are in charge of tenement housing who jack up the rents to keep people impoverished and dependent and who make their wealth off of other people’s poverty.
Folks, Levi—or Matthew—is one of those guys. You would not like him. He was a mokhes,and he’s actually not even a mokhes—he’s a little mokhes. He’s the one who’s really down there. He’s sitting in the customs house himself. He hadn’t advanced to the level of hiring subordinates. He himself had his own hands involved in all the dirty work. Capernaum, where he was, was situated on the Via Maris, which is also known as the Way of the Philistines. It connected the countries of the East with Syria and then ran along the Mediterranean Sea all the way down to Egypt. Mark 2:13 indicates that Levi’s tax office was located down by the sea. What’s he doing down by the sea? Well, it tells us he is preying upon the vessels that pulled into the harbor. He’s taxing them for docking at the quay, for loading and unloading goods. One source says, “Of all such officials, those who had to take toll from the ships were perhaps the worst if we’re to judge by the proverb, ‘Woe to the ship which sails without having paid the dues.’”
That brings us back to where we are in in verse 27, which tells us that Jesus sought out and found this tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth. And you can imagine switching around from a social perspective to Levi’s perspective—there he is and he sees Jesus approaching, and then he sees Jesus fix his eyes on him personally. Jesus is walking directly toward him. Imagine what that must have felt like for Levi. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to have been that despised by your own people? That hated? Someone to be ignored and avoided at all costs? It must have felt like—well, kind of like being a leper. Your disease can’t be hidden from other people. Levi was in effect a social leper. People saw him coming, and they wanted to get away from him. They couldn’t stand the sight of him. And since Levi was too far down the road in this business to salvage his reputation, to get into some sort of legitimate, respectable line of work, there’s a sense in which Levi must have felt absolutely trapped, crippled. He felt unable to escape, unable to do anything else. Economically, socially, culturally, he was as disabled as the paralytic we just read about. He had no productivity of his own. He had to derive his income from the hard work of other people. He survived by feeding off of the people in his own community, like a parasite that can’t survive without the blood of its host. Can you imagine being that kind of a person? And perhaps, you’re saying to yourself, “No, I can’t imagine what that must have been like at all.” Oh, really? If you think a little bit, I’m sure you can.
I believe you can put yourself in Levi’s shoes if you just maybe do a little uncomfortable self-examination, self-reflection. Think about it this way. I’m certain that every single one of you can remember something you have done or said or an attitude that you’ve had, something that you’re not proud of, something, in fact, that makes you wince with shame whenever you remember. Perhaps it’s an ugly argument you had. Maybe it’s a false judgment you made. Or maybe it’s a downright cruel remark picking on somebody. Maybe it’s an arrogant boast, your pride—everything you said was just dripping with pride. Perhaps it’s a temptation of some inordinate lust or a perverted passion. Maybe you’re guilty of some kind of cowardice, a time when you should have stood up with boldness and courage, but instead retreated into self-protecting fear. Maybe you remember a time you cheated, trying to achieve for yourself honors or glory that you didn’t truly earn. Shameful stuff, right? Maybe it’s an interpersonal relationship kind of shame, like a thin-skin response to some personal slight, some petty jealousy. Perhaps you’ve allowed a root of bitterness to grow up within your heart, you’ve been justifying your right to be bitter, and you’re just too proud to let it go, afraid of admitting you’re wrong to withhold forgiveness. Again, shameful.
Now imagine that ugly, shameful thing. Not one of us is blameless in this, are we? Imagine that shameful thing, and imagine that it’s no longer on the inside, no longer a secret shame known only to you and your own soul. Imagine that thing is on the outside. Everyone can see it. And they respond to you exactly as you would expect them to respond—with utter revulsion. People see you coming and they hide themselves. They recoil because your shame is emblazoned before all. It’s like it’s flashing with neon lights. People turn their children away from you. They whisper about you to one another. Ah, when you fail, they look at you and they say, “Ha, ha ha,” rejoicing—“Finally, that guy is getting his due.” You’re getting what you deserve for how wretched you are. For the ugliness of your sins. You’re despised by others because they see all of your internal sins displayed on the outside. No hiding it.
Okay, do you have the picture? It’s awful quiet in here. I’ll just let you in on a little theology here. It’s called omniscience. God sees you. And yet, if you’re a Christian, the joy of the Gospel is that he sees it all, and he has forgiven you and removed all of your shame. Isn’t that awesome?
Listen, that’s how Levi felt all the time around people. And Levi knew and Jesus’ disciples knew and everyone else around them knew that when Jesus found Levi sitting at the tax office and he chose him, Levi was absolutely the most unlikely choice for discipleship. He had nothing to commend himself to Jesus to be a great addition to the twelve. Notice Levi’s response to Jesus, verse 29, “Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” A very simple statement. Very clear. Jesus had come to the most despised of all people and chose him to become his disciple. It is an absolute marvel of divine grace. And for this most unlikely of disciples, he never looked back. As soon as Jesus commanded him, he left everything, he rose up, and he followed him. He obeyed immediately. He obeyed entirely. No looking back.
The word order in this short pointed little verse is instructive. It would seem at first glance the result of getting up and following Jesus, namely leaving everything—the result of it is put up front in the verse. It’s almost like it’s an emphasis, you know. It would be quite natural that when Levi rose and followed Jesus, he physically left everything behind, that the longer and farther he followed, the farther and farther his everything was located. But that’s not what’s going on here. Luke is drawing our attention not to geography, not to location; he’s drawing our attention to what Levi is thinking, to his decision-making process. Look down at verse 32 for a second. Do you see that last word in the sentence—Jesus came “to call sinners to”—what?—“repentance.” “esus came “to call sinners to repentance.” And that is what Luke wants us to see pictured very graphically in Levi’s response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. This is a portrayal of true repentance. It was a matter of the heart. To follow Jesus, Levi had to first turn away from everything in his life. Following Jesus meant he had to leave his means of making money, which was tax collection. If he’s going to leave that behind, that means he has to deal with the heart that got him into tax collection in the very first place. He had to deal with that heart of greed. He had to abandon his habit of manipulating people, his quick and dirty methods of extracting money from other people.
Following Jesus meant he had to leave behind his lifestyle, which had all kinds of implications on his social relationships. When he left, he’d lose partners, associates, and acquaintances over all of this. And when he left, he had no prospects to look forward to. He had nothing for the future, no way of forming relationships because he was such a scoundrel—nothing to commend him. He had no credibility to get a loan, start a business. Nothing. No trust with others. So, he’s going to have to learn entirely new habits. I mean he’s starting over, not just at zero, but at negative whatever because he’s already got a bad, bad reputation. All of that, Levi—Matthew—he had to deal with all that in his heart. And he had to leave it all behind. It was only after making that break in his heart that he could truly do what he did here, which is to rise up and follow Jesus from his entire life in obedience to that command, “Follow me.” That’s the true starting point of repentance, folks. You leave what’s in your heart, you abandon it all, and you embrace Jesus.
Now, as much as we like to think Levi just made a snap decision right here on the spot in this moment of time, we don’t dare romanticize what happened here because that does not help us at all. We need to understand a bit better how Levi was processing all of this, what led to this decision, the background that informed his decision-making process and caused him to be that sudden to get up and go. Levi is not making some kind of snap decision here. He’s not simply overwhelmed with the emotion, at the love displayed in Jesus’ eyes or something like that. It wasn’t just the power of Jesus’ presence, the command of his voice, his presence, anything else that might be superficially persuasive—that is not what’s going on here. Levi’s obedience to Jesus’ command really did come at the end of a long chain of careful reasoning, probably one that had been going on for maybe a year, a year and a half, or a little more.
Levi is sitting in his tax office that day, but he’d been doing some thinking. In fact, he’d been doing a lot of thinking. As a resident of Capernaum, you know there was no way Levi could have been unaware or avoid the reputation of Jesus and his ministry. I mean, Jesus had emptied Capernaum of all disease, right? He’s a marvel. What Jesus had done, what he had said, what he had taught, the outlines of his teaching, incredible claims of Messianic fulfillment, all of his healing, his miracles, amazing power—all of that was permeating the entire community. Levi was connected with everybody in the community. He can’t avoid learning about Christ. He knew about him. Absolutely no way to escape the knowledge of Jesus Christ in Capernaum. It was impossible to not know who Jesus was, what he’d been doing. So Levi had been mulling that over before Jesus arrived at the tax office that day, most certainly. But even before that, going all the way back to Luke 3, it’s pretty clear by doing a little bit of inductive reasoning from Scripture that Levi was one of the tax collectors who had come forward at the baptism of John. In Acts 1:21 and 22 when Peter called for the early disciples to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the Twelve, and then when he outlined the criteria for which he’d be judged, we find there a very important clue. Peter told all those people there that Judas’ replacement had to be—here’s what it says in Acts 1:21 and 22—“one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning [get this] from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” So, Levi was already numbered among the twelve at that point in Acts Chapter 1. He is the “one of us,” one who had then been with Jesus starting at the very beginning from the baptism of John all the way to the day of Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven.
So, what did Levi know from the ministry of John the Baptist? What did he learn? Well, go back to Luke 3 for a second. Let’s read it for ourselves. We’ll start reading in verse 3. It says there:
The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Remember that’s talking about preparing hearts. It’s not talking about landscaping.
He said therefore [verse 7] to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him [these are the seekers], “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors [like Levi] also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”
Stop right there. That right there, folks, is where it all started for Levi. From the baptism of repentance in the ministry of John. Later in Luke in Chapter 7, Jesus is extolling the prophet John as the greatest of all Old Testament prophets. “And Jesus said”—Luke 7:28—‘I tell you among those born of women none is greater than John. And yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’” You mean like Matthew? Yeah, like Matthew. Then this, the next verse—“When all the people heard this, and all the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John.” Levi—Matthew—he’d been baptized with the baptism of John, and not only that, but it’s safe to assume he’d been doing, ever since then, what John had instructed him to do—namely this: He’d stopped collecting more than he was authorized. It might explain, going back to Luke 5, why Jesus found him sitting in his tax office, rather than finding him hustling the ship captains for the quay tax, out collecting taxes on goods and luxury items. He hadn’t left his profession because John hadn’t required that, but he had stopped collecting more than he was authorized to collect in obedience to the word of John the prophet. Now that he is doing business in a righteous way, it not brought with it only a degree of legitimacy, but there’s a very real sense in which it reduced all the anxiety he felt, the stress he felt, the conflicts he had. It’s as if he’s just sitting there—he’s peaceful, he’s prepared for Jesus to arrive. His heart and his mind have already been prepared. He’s ready to receive him, ready to obey. We need to see that Levi had been prepared by the forerunner well before Jesus ever arrived to call him to full-time discipleship, to call him even later to apostleship. It was by God’s design. John’s ministry of preaching a baptism of repentance—it’s still bearing fruit as he cleared the way for Jesus to bring the ministry of forgiveness of sins.
So this response on Levi’s part, which is just noted briefly there in verse 28—it’s a response of genuine faith. Not only that, but notice how this genuine faith, this response—it’s also a response of great joy and humble gratitude. Levi is thrilled to leave behind all the signs and symbols and reminders of his avarice and corruption and greed. Take a look at the jubilation of this unlikely disciple. It’s portrayed graphically and also expensively, I might add—lavishly. It’s there in verse 29. “Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them.” This where we see the fruit of repentance. This is the fruit of embracing Jesus Christ by faith. Levi is profoundly grateful to Jesus for accepting him of all people. And not only that, but commanding him to obey Jesus’ call to discipleship.
We should just pause for a little self-reflection here. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us had constantly, continually that same joy in obeying our Lord’s commands? That we should be counted worthy, not only to be accepted, but commanded by Christ to do anything? Who are we? What are we? It’s a high and holy privilege to be commanded by the Messiah to do anything. Not everyone, after all, shares in that same privilege like we do as his people. We should never, ever take that for granted.
Levi here throws a banquet for Jesus—a big one. As Alfred Plummer put it, “The new disciple wishes his old friends to make the acquaintance of his new master.” I like that. Money is no longer his master. Jesus Christ is. He’s no longer enslaved by greed. He’s enslaved to righteousness, bound to Christ. He’s been set free from his enslavement to greed. He’s been set free from the shame that has covered him all those years. So out of joy, a joy that he wants to share with others: Jesus is calling on him to give his whole life to discipleship. And that has pointed the way for Matthew to hope and to spread that hope, to spread that joy, that other tax collectors might be saved as well, just as he was.
Banquets here, according to first-century Middle Eastern custom, are conducted in private homes. Guests were invited, but often the uninvited showed up as well. Guest lists guaranteed you’d be received at the door, but more people than had been invited would make their way to the party. The lavishness of Middle Eastern hospitality meant you didn’t want to turn them away. And so you were funding whoever wanted to show up—all your food, all your wine, all that kind of stuff. It can help paint a little bit of a picture of perspective for you from Jesus. You know, their running out of wine at Cana of Galilee. Why did they run out of wine? Well, because people showed up. It’s hard to plan. Not everything is great about that, right? But it is lavish, and Matthew had the money. He used it for one final blow-out party. You might consider this one of the few publicly funded banquets held in Jesus’ honor. You get it—publicly funded? The tax money? Okay.
There was a cheap tax collector later in Luke Chapter 19 named Zacchaeus. He’s also getting money. He’s one of the Gabbai. He’s not one of the mokhes. He’s going to hold another banquet. We’ll study that when we get to Luke 19.
The invited guests have come and while they’re lounging around, they’re surrounded by the uninvited folks of the local population, and they’re all at Levi’s house. And the position of honor—Levi had put Jesus there. The text is specific on that point. That Levi made a great feast in his house for him. Jesus is the focal point, as he ought to be. And Levi wants everyone to listen to him because the banquet was, in Luke’s words, “a great feast,” because we know there was a large company present as it says there, and it’s all in his house. We can surmise that Levi was very wealthy, which means he was a very effective mokhes, a very effective tax collector with an enormous house to hold all of these people. They were not your average citizens either. The text tells us they were a large company of tax collectors. They were there along with what Luke politely calls “others.” The scribes in verse 30—they’re a bit more direct about those others. They just get to the point. They’re sinners is what they are. They are known by sin, characterized by sinfulness. These are the kinds of people you did not want in your home, right? Especially as the night wears on and they’ve had more to drink. Not good to have these people around—a very unsavory bunch visiting Matthew’s house that night. They’re social outcasts—people involved in all manner of illicit industry—and these folks are prone to some very unruly, self-indulgent behavior. This is going to get expensive. All the holes in the wall, all the moving this and moving that—it’s going to be a nightmare.
Matthew’s not thinking about any of that, is he? He just wants them to hear Jesus. And there’s Jesus and all his disciples, and they’re smack dab in the middle of all of them. What do we imagine Jesus doing at this point? Is he partying? No doubt he enjoyed the goodness of the food and the drink that the Father had given all of us to enjoy—1 Timothy, right? But never to excess, never to the point of gluttony and drunkenness, not a hint of sinful behavior at all. From what we know by what we have read everywhere else in the gospels, he was not engaging in frivolous, stupid conversation. True to character, Jesus loved these people, and he loved them by teaching them, by calling them to repentance, just as John the Baptist had done. As it says in verse 32, “He had come to call sinners to repentance.”
Now, just a footnote here. There are those who would like to point to this passage in particular to support their view that we need to “hang out with sinners,” be with them in the bars and the nightclubs and the places of ill repute if we’re going to win them for Jesus. Is that true? Sometimes you’ll hear professing Christians—they’re usually professing Christians in their 20’s and 30’s saying things like that. They’re trying to justify hanging out in bars with unbelievers. “Well, Jesus hung out with sinners in bars, and so we should too.” I believe in many cases that opinion is just a thinly veiled excuse to indulge in some worldly behavior. Hang out with friends that you haven’t had the strength to cut ties with. Certainly, that was the case in my early Christian life. It’s tough.
But let’s suppose that for the moment. Let’s grant them the point just for the sake of argument. Let’s grant them the point that Jesus truly hung out with sinners. What of it? Should we also hang out with sinners? Does what Jesus did explain what we should do? Does what we see described here prescribe our own behavior? Should we be where they are? Do what they do? First of all, we need to remember if the truth is known about these guys–Levi, Matthew, the tax collectors, all the sinners that hung around with them—no one in that society really wanted to hang out with Levi and his tax collecting buddies. These people were the very worst of society. I mean they betrayed their own people. When you got saved, you were pulled out of the world and you were hanging out with all those people. They aren’t like that. They’re different kinds of sinners. They’re not the ones who are extracting money from your friends and stealing money from your dying grandmother. These guys are filled with greed and they are loyal to nothing but their own avarice. Superficially, I mean obviously they’re as likable as anybody else, but they’re funding their parties with your money. They’re funding their parties and drinking, getting drunk on your grandmother’s savings. Are you going to hang out with them? The point of this story is not to provide antinomians with excuse for keeping company with their worldly pleasures. The point of this story is to demonstrate the exceeding grace of God, which is put on display in our Lord Jesus Christ as he shows mercy to all kinds of people and, by the way, calling them to repentance.
Also, remember Jesus could hang out with sinners, if that’s what you want to call it, but he never came away having been polluted by sin. He never gave in to any temptation. He never stumbled, he never fell. He possessed an impeccable, sinless nature as the sinless Son of God. You don’t. Let’s admit this about ourselves and face it pretty squarely. You’re not sinless; neither am I. You’re not beyond falling, being tempted; neither am I. You’re still weakened by indwelling sin. You’re still enticed by a sinful nature. You’re still prone to fall. And you can’t just hang out any more wherever you want to hang out. You’ve got to put up boundaries at times. We need to be more careful because God has called us to pursue holiness and the fear of God. As Peter says in 1 Peter 1:15, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Wait a minute, Peter, you’re quoting from the Old Testament. We’re not Old Testament people anymore. That’s all gone. Not true. It’s repeated over and over in the New Testament, isn’t it? Holiness is the larger concern for us, isn’t it, as redeemed sinners? So, it’s not prudish, it’s not pharisaical to steer clear of temptation.
The Bible warns us about that over and over again. A very common metaphor is “flee temptation,” right? 1 Corinthians 6:18, “Flee sexual immorality.” 1 Corinthians 10:14, “Flee from idolatry.” 1 Timothy 6:11, “Flee from the love of money.” 2 Timothy 2:22, “Flee youthful passions.” Run! Don’t hang out with it. Do we need to show compassion to sinners like Levi, to the despised, the defiled? Absolutely. Paul reminds us, “Such were some of you,” 1 Corinthians 6:11. You were once alienated from Christ, as well, Ephesians 2:12. As Paul told Titus in Titus 3:3, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” But what does he continue to tell Titus to do? “Be a people zealous for good works.” If anyone should know how easy it is to be enticed once again, to fall back into temptation, to engage in sin, it’s us, right? So often we sin against the light that we have. All the people out there, not in church today—you know what? They’re not doing this week by week. They’re in darkness. Have some compassion for them. We’re the worst sinners, aren’t we? Because since we’ve come to Christ and been studying Scripture, when we sin intentionally, you know what? We’re sinning against the light.
We need to be compassionate, yes. But we need to be careful, too. Don’t befriend the world in that sense. Don’t hang out in dens of evil as if all those things are innocuous and harmless; they aren’t. Those places are a snare to you. “If you think you stand, take heed lest you fall” 1 Corinthians 10:12. We need to be very careful that we don’t love the world, neither the things in the world, 1 John 2:15. When we evangelize—when we come into contact in work or play and family and neighbors—when we evangelize, we need to be very careful lest we become ensnared by temptations. Paul said, “If anyone is caught up in a transgression, you who are spiritual [that’s Christians] should restore him […but] keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted,” Galatians 6:1. Jude says the same thing. Evangelism is like fire and rescue. We are snatching them out of the fire, but we’re respecting the deadly power of the flames. We’re snatching them out of the fire. Our mercy is to be tempered with a healthy fear, Jude 23: “Hating even the garments stained by the flesh.” We have to hold both of those things in tension.
Jesus is there on this occasion not to party, not to drink beer. He’s there to call these sinners to repentance. He’s so gracious to call Levi to be one of his disciples. He’s gracious to allow Levi to throw this banquet. He’s gracious to attend. He’s gracious to take the special place of honor. Perhaps it wasn’t that good for his reputation, but Jesus is never concerned about his reputation. Jesus saw this as an opportunity to show love for Matthew and his tax collecting friends by injecting personal holiness into their midst, teaching them, extending to them the gracious call of repentance.
Sadly, not everybody saw Jesus’ good intentions here. Not everybody was there to learn about grace. This scene is marred by controversy, yet again, as once again the Pharisees and the scribes draw near not to learn, not to rejoice, but to criticize. This gives us, though, another opportunity to learn about grace. Point number two in your outline: The Glory of God’s Grace, Befriending the Despised. Now don’t worry, I know the time. We’ll have an opportunity to consider more of this. But just quickly, I can’t leave you without saying this. Take a look at verse 30:
And the Pharisees and their scribes [that is not the scribes that were connected to the temple or the Sadducees or any other party, but the scribes connected to the Pharisees’ party] grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Here they are—these guys—scribes and Pharisees—it was very unlikely these guys are on Levi’s guest list, not out of spite, but simply because they do not run in the same social circles at all. Not Matthew’s choice, not Levi’s choice. But they wander by or they hear about it and take a closer look. And they find Jesus’ presence and participation in this banquet to be deeply troubling. He wasn’t just eating and drinking there on the fringe. He’s not just getting a free meal. He’s the guest of honor. He’s imbedded into it. So they complain about it. They murmur. The verb is gongyzo—to express oneself in low tones of disapprobation. I like that word “disapprobation.” Write it down; it’s an awesome word. It means to grumble, to mutter and complain. And you’ve got to say it kind of with your head down and your shoulders kind of hunched over because it’s one of those onomatopoeic words—sounds like its meaning. Gongyzo, gonzysmus. It sounds like [whispering noises]. And notice, when they complain, they don’t complain to Jesus personally, do they? They’re going after Jesus’ disciples.
Notice they’re not singling out Jesus even in what they say—asking the disciples to somehow explain Jesus’ behavior. They’re calling out the disciples themselves for their behavior. “Why do you [plural, you disciples] eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” By involving themselves with this class of social outcasts who are despised and rejected, the disciples have put themselves in the company of the despised and the Pharisees—they’re just there to do them the service of putting them on notice. By doing that, though, see what they did? They’ve asserted themselves as the true authorities over Jesus’ disciples. They have stepped in an attempt to draw these men away from Jesus. They’re trying to get them to question him, to question his behavior, to part with him and follow them instead. Look at the tactics. They haven’t confronted Jesus personally. They don’t dare deal with the leader. They’ve just seen what he could do with a paralytic. They don’t want any more of that action. Instead, they go after his disciples, his followers, to draw their loyalties away from Jesus. And let’s face it, at this early point in their relationship, the disciples are pretty vulnerable. They don’t have enough knowledge to answer questions, to respond to challenges posed to them by the brain trust of Israel. Not only that, but they don’t know Jesus really well at this point. They’re weak. They’re vulnerable. They’re subject to all kinds of doubts—whether or not it’s okay to be sitting there, whether or not it’s okay to be sitting among the tax collectors and known sinners. Not only sitting there, but sharing a meal with them—eating and drinking the fruits of tax collecting, after all. Is that okay?
This is what I love about this part of the story. The disciples don‘t get a chance to answer because Jesus looked over, noticed what was going on, and stepped in to deal with the Pharisees and the scribes. Verse 31, “And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’” What a friend! As the strong one here, he plays the protective friend. Jesus intervened. He handled these accusers. He steps in between them and the disciples, and he puts his disciples behind his back and he faces the bullies square on. Think about that next time the devil accuses you of a sin you’ve failed in. Think about that. You call to Jesus and ask him to step in between you and the accusing bully, Satan, and put him to flight. As Jesus answers, he’s kept the disciples completely out of it. Their behavior, their conduct has nothing to do with the situation. He’s made this into an issue about himself. And he’s clarified the fact their issue is not with his disciples, it’s with him. “Deal with me,” he says.
But notice, he’s not putting up his fists. He’s not ready to smack him with omnipotent power, blow them to Pluto. In a very gracious way, he responds. Very gracious. He gives them an explanation they don’t deserve at all. He tells them about the nature of his mission. He explains to them the nature of his mission. He starts in verse 31, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” That’s called a tautology, okay? It’s a statement that is true by definition. There’s no proof necessary. And if that’s true, it’s the sick that need doctors—that’s reason enough for his presence among the tax collectors and sinners. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” In other words, “Why would I avoid them? Those people are the whole reason I’ve come. They are the mission field.” Jesus is showing himself here to be such a friend of sinners. As the old hymn says, “Jesus, what a friend for sinners. Jesus, lover of my soul. Friends may fail me, foes assail me. He, my Savior, makes me whole.” Jesus doesn’t come here to indulge their sins. He doesn’t come to indulge in their sins, or to affirm them in their sinfulness. After all, he of all people, knows what sin costs. He died to forgive those sins. But he’s come to call them all to repentance and—get this—to also empower them to pursue repentance. And all those who repent—and only those who repent—are truly friends of his.
Listen, are you willing to consider yourself to be numbered among the sinners? Are you willing to be counted among the despised? Because that’s what Jesus’ question here does. It calls for self-reflection. His statement calls for self-reflection. It calls us to abandon the pride of the scribes and the Pharisees to think we’re healthy, to think we’re righteous, to think we have no needs. We need to count ourselves as no better than Levi and his tax-gathering friends. We’re not the righteous; we’re the sinners. We’re the reason he came. We’re the ones needing to repent. It’s only when we consider ourselves to be the same kind of sinners, no better than Matthew and his tax collecting buddies—when we know that we’re really sick—only then will we reach out to the Great Physician. He’s the one who befriends the despised. And we who are despised by others are accepted by him that we might bring glory to God’s grace.
Going back to 1 Corinthians 1 where we started, “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. So that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Jesus, friend of sinners—he is our only boast. n Jesus’ name.