Text: Luke 5:27-32
What would you rather do: eat your last Rolo yourself, or give it to me? Spend and hour and a half watching TV, or an hour and a half in a prayer meeting? Have a moan at your nosey neighbours for being nosey, or make friends with them so that it becomes the most natural thing in the world to invite them to one of our services here at HT?
Simple choices like this illustrate the chasm that so often looms between theory and practice, between what we know we should do, and what we actually do do. So often in the Christian life, the problem is not that we don’t know what God’s will is for our lives, but that we simply don’t want to do it. ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Our Bible reading suggests the question, ‘Why bother with undesirables?’ We can readily agree that we ought to, but what would motivate us to actually do so?
Meet Levi, that most undesirable of characters, a tax collector. Jesus strolls up to him one day and says, “Follow me.” Levi jumps up, leaves everything and follows Jesus. He’s so thrilled with what’s happened that he lays on a great banquet, to which he invites Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, and a whole lot of tax collectors and other undesirables.
Not everyone is quite so thrilled
v30 – But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
You need to understand that the term ‘sinners’ included ordinary folk whom the Pharisees regarded as inferior because they did not live up to their own high ideals. It also included notorious sinners such as robbers and adulterers. And, of course, tax collectors. Tax collectors not only had a reputation for fleecing people mercilessly, but they were also seen as traitors and collaborators because they did this on behalf of the Roman occupying forces. To the Pharisees, all these types of people were ceremonially unclean, and to share table fellowship with them was a disgrace. That was their stance, and it was a moral high ground stance.
Of course, the most damaging heresies are not those that are completely false: they are the ones that are based on half-truths. And the Pharisees were dangerous because they were half right. Their grumble was not wholly unreasonable. They were well aware that the OT teaches that the Lord wanted his people to be distinctive, holy, set apart. Lev 15:31 “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place.” The Pharisees were just trying to maintain this tradition of separateness. Their very name means ‘separated ones’. They held themselves aloof from all contact which they thought might ‘defile’ them, including Gentiles, tax collectors and ‘sinners’. The tragedy was, that in their zeal to be distinctive, they had forgotten that the Lord had also called his people to bring comfort for the oppressed, succour to the needy, and a light to the nations.
Can such an attitude be found today?
What about when we fall into the habit of being more critical of others than we are of ourselves? Some of us can too often seem smugly self-righteous with regard to our own behaviour and harshly condemning of the behaviour of outsiders. That’s a pharisaic attitude. True, we do not want to be ‘soft’ on sin, but we do well to remember that the church is for sinners. We ourselves are, at best, highly imperfect saints. The church is not a museum of rare spiritual exhibits, but a convalescent home for the sin-sick, a refuge for the helpless, and a common lodging-house for wayfarers. Just as AA is for recovering alcoholics, so the church is for recovering sinners. Don’t forget that Paul had one foot in heaven when he described himself as ‘the chief of sinners’ and ‘the least of all the saints’.
What about when we become too fearful of spiritual contamination? Some Christians are apt to think that the only way to avoid conformity to worldly standards is to avoid worldly people. They life a life of religious seclusion, insulated from the world. That, too, is a pharisaic attitude. The biblical balance, of being ‘in the world, but not of the world, is memorably stated by James (1:27), ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’
So how did Jesus respond this grumble of the Pharisees?
V 30-31 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
‘My business,’ says Jesus, ‘is not with those who think they are self-sufficient, but with those who know they are needy.’
That phrase “sinners to repentance” reminds us that Jesus was not soft on sin. He himself is described (Heb 7:26) as ‘…holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners.’ But this did not mean withdrawal, but involvement. The Gospels are littered with examples of this.
(a) Jesus often touched the sick. In fact, this very banquet was interrupted by the news of a little girl who had actually died. Jesus went to her, took her hand, and restored her to life. And that interruption was itself interrupted by a woman who had had a haemmorhage for many years. She came up to Jesus and touched him, but he did not rebuke her, but sent her away in peace and health.
(b) The Pharisees regarded people who had leprosy with especial loathing, and would even throw stones at them to drive them away. But Jesus had compassion on them. Earlier in this chapter, we read how he stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, and healed him.
(c) When the parents tried to bring their children to Jesus, the disciples ‘rebuked’ them. But when he saw this Jesus was indignant, and he took the children in his arms and blessed them.
(d) When blind Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, many in the crowd tried to silence him. But Jesus asked for him to be brought to him, and restored his sight.
(e) The Pharisees would have recoiled with horror from a prostitute. But Jesus allowed one to bathe his feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair, kiss them, and anoint them with ointment.
(f) In those days it was said that ‘the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’. But Jesus was an exception to this rule. The one he met at Jacob’s well was three times despised – she was a Samaritan, a woman, and a ‘sinner’. But he talked with her, and offered her the ‘water of life’.
(g) Finally, Jesus was happy to accept invitations into the home of disreputable folk such as Zacchaeus and Levi. Oh, and by the way Levi had another name, didn’t he: we know him better as Matthew, who was accepted into Jesus’ team of apostles, and later became the author of the first of our Gospels.
Why did Jesus do all this? Because his whole mission was ‘to seek and to save the lost’, because “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick;” because he did not come “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
And now Jesus says to the church: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We follow in the footsteps of the rescuer of the lost sheep, the healer of the sick, the father of the orphaned, the deliverer of the oppressed.
How can a doctor do his job without involvement with sick people? How can the Saviour of the world do his work without contact with sinners? How as Christians can we be the church in the world if we keep ourselves aloof from the world?
How involved, how committed, was Jesus to the sinners he came to call to repentance? His body was broken for them. His blood was poured out for them. As we receive the tokens of his commitment to us, let us ask, “What further motivation do we need to follow his example of love for the unlovely?” For to do this is our duty, our responsibility, our privilege, and our joy.