27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinåners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” – Luke 5:27-38 ESV
Jesus’ healing of the paralytic amazed all those who witnessed it. Even the scribes and Pharisees who had come to Capernaum to investigate this trouble-making Rabbi were amazed at what they saw. But they were also infuriated by Jesus’ blatant display of blasphemy. By claiming to have the power and authority to forgive sins, Jesus was clearly placing Himself on equal standing with Jehovah. And despite His miraculous healing of the paralyzed man, the religious leaders found Jesus’ actions unconvincing and His words, unacceptable.
And it wasn’t long before these men had more evidence of Jesus’ unorthodox and unacceptable behavior. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus left the house where He had healed the paralytic and made His way to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where He began to teach the people who had gathered to hear Him. When finished, He made His way back into town but made an unexpected stop at the business of a man named Levi (Matthew), who was a tax collector or publican. Levi would have been a prominent member of Capernaum society but would have been despised by his fellow townspeople. He was essentially an employee of the Roman government, who received a commission for collecting taxes from his own people. And it was not uncommon for publicans to use their position and the threat of Roman force to exact surcharges that they used to line their own pockets. As a result, these men were viewed as traitors by their own people and treated as the worst of sinners. He would have been considered a social outcast in Capernaum. So, when Jesus made an unscheduled stop at Levi’s booth, the people would have found His actions shocking. To make matters worse, Jesus invited this man to become one of His disciples, and to the peoples’ surprise, Levi accepted.
To celebrate his inclusion in Jesus’ company, Levi threw a party at his house. And Luke records that “there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them” (Luke 5:29 ESV). Matthew and Mark are much more specific, describing the “others” as sinners. And right in the middle of this collection of disreputable and despised moral outcasts were Jesus and His disciples. Because of His popularity, it was virtually impossible for Jesus to do anything without being seen, and this particular incident did not escape the notice of the ever-present crowd. Everywhere Jesus went, a throng of people gathered to see and hear Him, and this occasion was no different. And among those who stood outside Levi’s home were the scribes and Pharisees, who looked on with self-righteous indignation as Jesus and His disciples ate with “tax collectors and other disreputable sinners” (Matthew 9:10 NLT).
Somehow these men were able to get word to Jesus’ disciples, asking them, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30 ESV). This question was meant to shame the followers of Jesus, raising doubts about their spiritual discernment. As good Jews, they should have known better than to associate with people of such low moral standing. To the religious leaders, Levi and his guests were considered ceremonially unclean and, as a Rabbi, Jesus should have known that He risked moral contamination just by associating with them.
But when Jesus heard the question raised by the religious leaders, He responded with a proverbial statement that must have left them scratching their heads in confusion.
“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT
Jesus was reclining at a table in the house of a notorious tax collector, sharing a meal with people who were considered the worst of sinners. But to Jesus, they were no different than the self-righteous religious leaders who were displaying their unwarranted pride and hate-fueled prejudice. Both groups were made up of sinners in need of a Savior. But the scribes and Pharisees refused to acknowledge their own insufficiencies. They deemed themselves as spiritually superior and morally pure because they were strict adherents to the Mosaic Law. But as Matthew records, Jesus saw through their facade of religious legalism and rule-keeping. Quoting from the prophet Hosea, Jesus challenged them to display the true fruit of righteousness.
“Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Matthew 9:13 NLT
Jesus was echoing the words of John the Baptist, spoken to the scribes and Pharisees who had come to the wilderness to watch him baptize.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:7-10 NLT
These men were convinced that their status as God’s chosen people was secure because they were good Jews and law-abiding members of the religious elite of Israel. But both John the Baptist and Jesus pointed out that their rule-keeping was not enough. They were going to have to acknowledge their sinfulness and recognize their need for a Savior. And later on in his gospel, Luke records another encounter between Jesus and another tax collector, a man named Zacheus. Jesus would issue a call to Zacheus as well and share a meal in his home. Then He would pronounce the miracle behind Zacheus’ life-altering transformation.
“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10 NLT
But the religious leaders remained unconvinced and unconvicted by Jesus’ comments. In fact, they simply change the subject, accusing He and His disciples of failing to live up to the standard set by John the Baptist and his followers.
“The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” – Luke 5:33 ESV
Their emphasis is on religious rule-keeping. There was only one official day of fasting required by the Mosaic Law and that was on the Day of Atonement. But over the years, the religious leaders of Israel had expanded the number of fast days, creating another layer of religious observance that allowed them to publicly display their righteousness before men. Jesus exposed this self-righteous hypocrisy in His sermon on the mount.
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18 NLT
The scribes and Pharisees want to know why the disciples of Jesus don’t follow their example by keeping the prescribed fast days. But Jesus responds by using a series of analogies to illustrate the absurdity of their point. The guests at a wedding feast would not be expected to fast at the celebration of a wedding feast. That would be unacceptable behavior and considered offensive by the bridegroom and his family. There was a proper time for fasting and feasting. But these men failed to recognize the difference. Next, Jesus compares their methodology to using a new piece of cloth to patch a tear in an old garment. When washed, the new cloth will shrink, causing even more damage to the garment. And no one would ever consider putting new, unfermented wine in an old wineskin because as the fermentation process took place, the rapidly expanding gases would burst the old skin and waste the wine.
These men were addicted to the old ways. They were living in the past and attempting to gain favor with God by keeping the law. But Jesus had come to offer something new. As the apostle Paul would later point out, God had a different plan for redeeming sinful mankind.
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of placing their hope in human effort. They were convinced that their self-righteous acts would gain them favor with God. But Jesus wanted them to know that they were sinners in need of a Savior. They were sick and desperately in need of a physician. But these men considered their way to be the preferred way. The old was better than the new. In Jesus, they saw a threat to their accepted way of life. He was throwing a wrench into the carefully crafted machinery of Judaism that they had come to know and love. In a sense, Jesus was fulfilling the words of God recorded by the prophet Isaiah.
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 43:18-19 ESV
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New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson