12 March 2011

Luke 5:27-32

"I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." (v. 32)


Tax collectors not only collected the required taxes but often profited from charging people extra. The post was associated with corruption and tax collectors were despised as collaborators and cheats. Contact with Gentiles (non-Jews) made them 'unclean'. For Jesus to call a tax collector to be his disciple would be regarded as outrageous by the Pharisees.

The call of Levi from his tax booth here and in Mark 2:13-17 is paralleled by the call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13). This has led to the suggestion that Matthew and Levi are the same person who is given a second name just as Simon was called Peter (from the Greek meaning 'rock'). If so, what better name to show acceptance than Matthew, meaning 'gift of God'?

In Jewish society it was essential, socially and spiritually, to eat with the right people. By sharing food you accepted your table companions as equals. It was also important to maintain ritual purity at mealtimes. Sharing a bread basket with someone 'unclean', a known sinner or a Gentile could contaminate you spiritually, entailing a lengthy purification process before you could re-enter the worshipping community. In the Pharisees' minds Jesus, by associating with sinners, was making himself into a sinner.

Jesus eating with the tax collectors would have had a similar social impact to when Princess Diana first sat on the bed of a man dying from HIV/AIDS, held his hand and chatted to him. Jesus was demonstrating in a tangible way that no-one is beyond the reach of grace, that even those who were regarded as outcasts from society could play a role in the kingdom of God and that they were included within the love of God.

I wonder about the conversation over the meal. Whatever Jesus said was a cause for celebration, so it's unlikely that he stressed their sinfulness or God's wrath. His dinner companions would have heard that often enough already from the Pharisees. It seems equally improbable he told them they must believe in events that hadn't happened yet. More likely is that he offered them freedom, healing and reconciliation, and gave them a vision of what they might become.

To Ponder

What do you think Jesus said to the tax gatherers and sinners?

Who are the 'spiritually sick' and the 'socially undesirable' in our society? How can you show your acceptance of those whose lives still need to change?

Many people today are trapped within walls of their own making - guilt, anger, regret, or bitterness; they lack trust and hope. What can we learn from this passage about how best to encourage them to seek God's help to free themselves?

Bible notes author

Philip Sudworth

Philip has retired from a career in the education service. He is now kept busy by voluntary work with local children's charities.