Not righteous, but sinners

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Tax collectors tend not to be popular in any culture, but you need to understand what it was like at the time of Jesus. Israel, remember, was a conquered country, and the reason the Romans conquered other countries, was so that they could collect taxes from them.

Luke 5:27-32

We complain about taxes now, but it’s nothing compared to what taxes were like back then. If you were a farmer, they collected 10% of all your grain. They collected 20% of all your fruit and grapes and wine. Then, every year, everyone had to pay a head tax – every male over 14 years of age, and every female over the age of 12.

If you weren’t a farmer, you had to pay income tax. Every time you went from one district to another, you had to pay customs tax. Like, you pay a tax when you cross the county line? You paid tolls whenever you traveled on a paved road, whenever you crossed a bridge, every time you sailed your boat into a harbor, and every time you took your goods into a market place.

You paid tax on the goods you transported, on every pack animal that was with you, and you paid per wheel on every cart or vehicle you had. The Roman government had a monopoly on a variety of products and services, such as beer and salt, mining and road construction, and all that had to be paid for.

Collecting taxes got so complicated, the Romans came up with a solution. They calculated how much tax a given area should be able to pay, then they auctioned off the job of collecting them. If you won the contract, you collected as much as you could from everybody, you paid the Romans, and you pocketed the rest. A lot of room for bribery and corruption there.

So, tax collectors were not real popular. They were hated! Everybody saw them as working for the Romans, and getting rich from it. People would cross the street so as not to greet a tax collector. Pious Jews wouldn’t trade with them or have anything to do with them. You wouldn’t let your son or daughter marry the daughter or son of a tax collector.

Nobody wanted to cooperate, so the Romans provided armed soldiers to accompany the tax collectors. A tax collector could stop you on the road, or stop you in the market place, and shake you down. Tax collectors were barred from coming to worship. People spit at them as they walked by.

That’s the kind of person Jesus decided to talk to that morning. Someone that nobody else would associate with – a traitor, an outcast.

The guy’s name was Levi. Doesn’t say whether he’d ever met Jesus before. The one thing we can tell about him, comes from his name.

Maybe you remember, generations before, there were 12 tribes that made up the people of Israel. 12 tribes, descended from 12 brothers. Big drought, big famine, they all went down to Egypt to find food. Lost everything they had. They became slaves.

God sent Moses to lead them out of slavery. Back to the land God promised them. God always keeps promises! Took them a while to find their way back home, though. 40 years.

Along the way, they had lots of problems. Lots of people rebelled against Moses. One group – one out of the 12 tribes – stayed loyal to God. That tribe was named after Levi. God said that the family of Levi were going to be rewarded, forever. They were going to be priests of the Lord. They were going to be God’s servants, forever.

All the other families got land when they got home. The Levites didn’t get land. God said that they would be honored and supported by the rest of Israel, forever. All through the generations, the descendants of Levi would be loyal to God, servants of God. Everyone would look up to them.

You’ve heard the phrase, how so-and-so has “come down in the world”? Lost their status, lost their upbringing, lost what they inherited from their forebears?

That’s the second level of today’s gospel story. Levi was a tax collector. People turned their heads away from him. He was an outcast, a traitor.

But his name said that he was also a descendant of the family of Levi. He was born to be a minister. He was born to be a servant of the Most High God. He was supposed to inherit the loyalty and the honor his family had been given.

Do you see what I’m saying? Level one: he picked a bad career. But level two: he abandoned his true identity. He lost who he was born to be. His birthright was to be a servant, a minister, a priest. He sold his birthright of honor, to rob and cheat his own people, to support the new slavery of his fellow Israelites, and to get rich off their ignorance and misery.

This was the guy Jesus walked up to that day.

It doesn’t say whether they’d ever met before. It doesn’t say if there were other people around. It was one of those moments where time stood still. Jesus, the traveling teacher, the one who healed people, the one who people were whispering might possibly be the Savior of Israel, stopped at Levi’s office.

All it records is that Jesus said, “Follow me,”, and Levi got up, and left everything, and came along.

Jesus did the same thing with other people. That’s how Jesus recruited the fishermen – Peter, James and John. He said “Follow me,” and they left their boats, and their nets, and came along.

Levi was only one of the strange group of misfits that followed Jesus. There were unchurched fishermen. There was Levi. There was a doctor. There were some women – we know some of their names. Women like Mary, and Martha, and Mary Magdalene. There was a major skeptic, Thomas. One of Jesus’ followers had a violent past – the name Judas Iscariot literally means “Judas, the knife.”

But let’s stay focused on Levi. First thing he did, once he decided to follow Jesus – what did he do? He threw a big party for Jesus. This was not a quiet, dignified dinner for 6 at home in the dining room. This was a blowout! This was good wine, and great food, the best in town.

And who did Levi invite? He invited his fellow tax collectors. All the good people in town were scandalized. “Who does Jesus think he is? What on earth is he doing? Is he deaf, dumb, blind and stupid? Doesn’t Jesus know who these guys are?”

See, the Pharisees thought God only cared about good people. They spent their whole lives being good. The Pharisees were so law-abiding and rule-loving, so squeaky-clean, that they were nasty. They thought that if God made a law, and they followed it, that let them look down on everybody else. They wore T-shirts with “Pharisee Pride” written across the chest.

But Jesus chose one of the worst people in the community to join him. He didn’t scold Levi. He didn’t have to. Levi knew, and everybody else knew, exactly what Levi did. You hear people now talking about “knowing each other’s business.” Well, everybody in the county knew what Levi’s business was, and they despised him for it.

But Jesus didn’t just see a sinner. He saw one of the lost children of Israel. Jesus saw a child of God’s promises. Jesus saw him as a minister, as a messenger, as an apostle.

Jesus knew, and Levi knew, that Levi was going to need to change if he followed Jesus. He left everything when he got up out of that chair in his office.

Levi knew, at some level, that his old way of life was hopeless. He was as much of a social outcast, as if he had leprosy. Levi was the original rich fool. He had everything, but he lost his soul. When Levi got up that day, he lost everything, but he got his soul back. He knew it, and Jesus knew it.

When something like that happens, you have to celebrate. You’ve got to throw a party! He didn’t have any friends to invite – Levi didn’t have any friends. So he invited his fellow tax collectors.

And he told them, “Good news today! I’m quitting the life, forever. Somebody else can do this old job. I’m not going to be a part of it, never, no way, no more! Jesus invited me back, to be one of God’s children. And if it happened to me, it can happen to you.”

To this very day, a whole lot of people don’t get this story. They want church to be made up of nothing but good people. Church should be made up of good people, from good families, dressed good, acting good all the time.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good person. I try to be a good person myself, and I strongly encourage everyone to try to live a good life.

But a living church is open to all kinds of people. People with scrambled lives. People who’ve made mistakes. People who need to be lifted up, and people who need to take themselves down a peg or two.

Any time a church tries to wall off some people, and say how much better we are than them, we’ve forgotten the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus invited Levi to re-claim his own life. The good news is all about mercy, and welcome. And when somebody turns their life around, it’s time for a party.

Jesus never told Levi that what he’d been doing before was all right. Jesus knew, Levi knew, that this was only the first step. I imagine that for Levi, getting free was complicated. He and Jesus probably had a lot of long talks together. But unlike a lot of people, Levi took a deep breath and he took that first step, and he kept on taking steps and more steps. That’s why we call it walking with Christ.

Everybody else looked at Levi, and they saw a bad person, someone who could never be forgiven, someone who could never be welcome. Jesus looked at Levi, and he saw there was something good in him, a spark that could be helped.

Jesus didn’t talk to Levi about what was wrong inside him. Jesus talked to that spark of God’s goodness that Jesus knew was there. He talked to that of God in Levi.

We all love Jesus for different reasons. Some people love Jesus because he heals us. Some people love Jesus because he unties the knots and chains that bind us. Some people love Jesus because he lifts our burdens or gives us peace. We’ve all got different reasons. And I think that a living church includes people with all of these reasons.

But for the rest of his life, Levi’s reason was that Jesus made Levi his friend. Jesus looked past all the reasons why Levi did what he did, and all the reasons other people hated and despised Levi. Jesus said, “Let’s walk together.” And he made Levi his trusted friend.

Jesus helped Levi find his soul again. He called Levi back to God’s promise to him – to be a minister, to be a messenger, to be a priest who carried God’s gifts in prayer for the whole church.

You’ve heard me say that I don’t know what God’s plan is for Springfield. There are so many things we can do, so many needs to serve.

But I do know, that if we want to be a living church, we need to listen to this morning’s gospel. We need to be a place that could welcome somebody like Levi, and walk with them. It might make us uncomfortable. It might mean that we need to change, too.

But if we want to be a living church of Jesus’ friends, we can’t shut people like Levi out. We need to take a few risks, and try to do what Jesus did.

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