"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." Luke 5:29
Read Luke 5:27-32.
What type of person or what group of people would make you feel real uncomfortable to share a meal with? Think about this for a moment. Addicts? Sexual predators? Legalists? Rich people? Poor people? Someone of a different race or ethnicity? Homosexuals? People dying of cancer? Perhaps you'd feel uncomfortable sharing a meal with your extended family because of severed relationships. Be honest with yourself.
Now take that feeling you have toward a group of people and imagine seeing Jesus sitting among them sharing a meal. What would your initial reaction and feelings be? If I were honest, my first thought would probably be, "What is he doing with them?" "Of all the people these are the least deserving to be at that table." "Why would he extend grace to them?"
Turning to the text, we are told that Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him. Now I think it'd be helpful to know something about tax collectors to understand why the following actions of Jesus were so repugnant to the Pharisees. A tax collector, also known as a toll collector, was "a person given to dishonesty and abuse of authority" and viewed "in the wider Greco-Roman world as a person of low status." "Toll collectors as a group were despised as snoops, corrupt, the social equivalent of pimps and informants." (See Joel Green, Luke, p. 245-246) This really puts things into perspective! Stop for a moment and imagine sharing a meal with pimps. Now imagine seeing Jesus with pimps. Or, imagine seeing your pastor or your Bible study leader at a table with pimps. Get the picture?
If nothing else I want you to hear this today: To dine with Jesus is also to dine with sinners. We don't get to pick and choose who gets the invitation to follow Jesus. We don't get to pick and choose to whom we are to take the gospel. It simply doesn't work like that. If Jesus was lowly enough to go to the least desirable, the rejects of society, then so must we.
Sometimes as Christians we want to show grace to whom we want to show grace; but God's grace pushes the limits we so often put in place. We think that we are somehow more redeemable, more deserving of grace, than others. The fact of the matter is none of us is deserving. (Read Romans 1-2!) That is what makes grace grace. It is unmerited, undeserving. While the Pharisees were shocked by the group of people Jesus chose to associate with, it was for these people he came. Notice that Jesus doesn't try to defend them as innocent people. He acknowledges to the Pharisees who they are -- "sinners" (v. 32). In fact Jesus uses an analogy in which this group of people is compared to those who are sick (v. 31). What Jesus said might be interpreted as harsh in today's postmodern America. We don't want to call sin sin or people sinners. But if we don't acknowledge sin and our state as sinners, then we will never think we need forgiveness of sins or a Savior.
Notice too that although Jesus calls these people sinners, he doesn't expect for them to stay in their current state. Rather, he associates himself with them so that they might be transformed into the image of God through the process of repentance. His mission is to redeem people from sin.
But this passage tells us more than who Jesus dined with; it tells us about the identity of Jesus and his work. Here are some further reflections from this table:
1. Jesus is divine, the Son of God. If you were to read Luke all the way through, you would find that the author is concerned with the identity of Jesus. When an angel appears to Mary in chapter 1 he tells her the baby she will conceive "will be called the Son of the Most High," and "will be called holy -- the Son of God." Then in 5:17-26, right before our passage, Jesus does something that only God Himself can do -- forgive sins. Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, and the words of the Pharisees are very poignant here. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 21). They recognize that only God has the power to forgive sins. Jesus then heals the paralytic so that "you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (v. 24).
2. Flowing out of his identity as God is Jesus' mission and work of forgiveness of sins. His mission and identity go hand in hand; they are inseparable. Let's look at Levi's story. Luke tells us that Jesus calls Levi to follow him. The invitation to follow was an invitation to having a relationship with Jesus, to become a disciple. What is implied in following Jesus is repentance, seen in the act that follows in which Levi leaves everything behind. At first glance we might think he just left behind his career, his place of work, his possessions or salary. But then Luke tells us Levi makes a great feast in his home and invites a large group to come, which would have been very costly. Perhaps Levi did leave behind his work, but most likely what he left behind was his life of sin. He left behind that which was displeasing to God. We can perhaps see it symbolized in that Levi was sitting when Jesus called him to follow him and then Levi stood up and left everything. His repentance was active, a complete change. If we read Levi's calling in conjunction with what Jesus tells the Pharisees in v. 32, I think it is fair to say that Levi's change wasn't just a moral or economic or career change but a heart change. Levi had found forgiveness of sins.
3. I love how once Levi found forgiveness of sins he invited all of his friends to come meet Jesus. We aren't told if or how many people at that table also found forgiveness of sins but it is very likely given the context that many did. Isn't it such an awesome thing that when people experience the grace of God they want to share it with others? All the more reason that we should share our tables with people who need to hear about the love of God.
4. We often want to separate the identity of Jesus from the mission of Jesus. We also have a tendency to reduce the mission of Jesus to something that is merely physical and not spiritual. In the name of social justice, we give people bread and medicine. We want to change their economic status and provide them with education. We want to emulate Jesus by associating with the least desirable. These are all great things! But if we do these things apart from the identity of Jesus and his mission of forgiveness of sins then we are no longer particularly Christian. If we don't couple our social acts with the message that Jesus, who was fully God, also became fully human, to bring salvation and to forgive our sins so that we might be reconciled to God, then we really do not know the Jesus of Scripture. On the other hand, if we preach this but do not extend God's grace to the unlikely of people and dine with sinners, then we aren't being obedient either. We must do both.
So this Easter, we will dress up and look our best. We'll go to church and then have a family meal. Let me ask you, will you consider getting dirty and dining with those who most desperately need to hear the Easter story? Will you be messengers of God's grace to them?
(I took some of this material from a Bible study I wrote for mymissionfulfilled.)