bible blog 1863




27 Later Yeshua went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi sitting in his tax-collection booth; and he said to him, “Follow me!” 28 He got up, left everything and followed him.

29 Levi gave a banquet at his house in Yeshua’s honor, and there was a large group of tax-collectors and others at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their Torah-teachers protested indignantly against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?” 31 It was Yeshua who answered them: “The ones who need a doctor aren’t the healthy but the sick.32 I have not come to call the righteous, but rather to call sinners to turn to God.”cara2

In my last bible blog I wrote about the gospel habit of depicting Jesus as one who redefined the meaning of “God’s house”. In the story of the paralysed man Jesus shows that God’s house/ kingdom is characterised by the open forgivness and healing power of God. In the story of Levi’s banquet, the message is the same but more sharply focused on the issues of forgiveness and discipleship. Luke is still following his main source, the Gospel of Mark, closely, making small but significant changes here and there.

The Roman use of native tax collectors in their imperial territories has been the subject of much historical research. It seems clear that they recruited educated native people to their bureaucracy, since A) this practice made the empire attractive to able people and B) the unpopularity of tax collection was borne by natives rather than Romans. In effect employment as a  tax collector was a sort of franchise. Potential employees would bid a certain amount above a minimum that they would pay the Romans, while of course they also collected their own remuneration. This arrangement gave scope for ripping off the tax -payers in a sensible manner. If they caused public unrest, thr Romans would get rid of them. In addition to their unpopularity as oppressive cheats, they were hated by patriotic Jews as collaborators, taking advantage of theor fellow citizens.

As can be seen from this passage, the Pharisees who were both patriots and Torah-keepers, viewed tax – collectors as a kind of “sinner”, that is, a jew whose work or habit of life meant that he would not keep the Torah rules, the rules of holiness, as the Pharisees required.

cara 1Following Mark, Luke recounts Jesus call to Matthew as a disciple. The pattern, as first established in Mark’s storytelling is a) Jesus “sees” a named person at work b) Jesus calls on the person to follow him and c) the person leaves everything and follows Jesus. There is no discussion, there is no question of the person’s suitability, no forgiveness of sin, simply an urgent request which is heard and obeyed. Of course this is not actually what happened in any of these cases, but the pattern established by Mark selects these elements as essential. The painter Caravaggio has a stunning version of this in the Chigi chapel in Rome, a detail from which is used at the top of this blog. He shows Jesus and a disciple, both of them with the bare feet of the poor, entering Levi’s office where he and his associates are surrounded by money and comfort. Levi can hardly believe that Jesus is pointing to him, but the force and seriousness of the summons is unmistakeable. It is one of the great masterpieces of Christian art. Luke shows that the house of Rome, the house of oppression and corruption, can become the house of God’s summons, when invaded by Jesus.

Then there is Levi’s own house which becomes a house where a version of the messiah’s banquet can be held. The expectation of this banquet derives fron Isaiah chapter 25, especially verse 6.Those who belonged to the Messiah would be invited to his victory banquet. In this case Levi who has responded to Jesus’ invitation to belong to him, invites many of his disreputatble associates and friends to meet Jesus, who is glad to share food and wine with them.This careless assocition with law-breakers disgusts the Pharisees and their Torah teachers.

We must be careful not to misunderstand the Pharisees: they were not saying that Jesus should have no association with law- breakers, but rather that he should issue to them, as John the Dipper had always done, a call to turn to God, away from their sins. When they amended their lives, they might be proper associates of righteous people. This may sound a bit finicky to our permissive culture, but it is simply the common practice of most people who are serious about their morality:”bad company ruins good character.”

Jsesu will not have it. God’s house is a place where offenders are offered an advance of trust, an affectionate welcome which restores their tarnished honour. In the banquet given in honour of Jesus, he transfers some of his honour to the other guests. Doubtless Jesus expects that this will encourage them to turn to God, but the welcome and the advance of trust are where he (and his God) want to start. Mark has Jesus say simply that he has not come to call righteous people but sinners. Luke is nervous about this and adds “to turn to God.” This addition risks turning Jesus’ / God’s love into a tactic for moral improvement. Mark just leaves his readers with the stark fact: Jesus loves sinners more than the righteous; and sinners love Jesus more than the righteous do.cara3

But Luke is right in thinking that there is more to uncondional love than simply a warm welcome, it’s just he chooses to focus on the change ( turning to God, Greek metanoia) rather than the means by which the change comes about, Jesus’ call to discipleship; for Jesus does not simply enjoy the company of sinners, he wants them to be co-agents of God’s goodness in the world, a task that will involve continuous, disciplined learning from him, as Levi has already begun to do.

Many of today’s lukewarm churches are poor at both the welcome and the call to radical discipleship.




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