Scripture, Luke 5:27-32, can be found here.
The one who has been called “the Great Physician” is reclining at table with tax collectors.
This is a great banquet, and a lot of people are there. Also, a lot of people are watching.
In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were thought of as Great Sinners.
Here is why:
They were people who had betrayed their own communities.
They were in the pocket of the Roman government.
They collected heavy taxes that funneled all wealth upward, to the Roman aristocracy.
Taxes were also used, of course, to create the roads, which allowed the consolidation of Roman power;
and to build the astonishing aqueducts, which made fresh water available to cities throughout the Empire.
Taxes were used to fund the powerful Roman armies.
Taxes were used to continue to oppress the people whose lands they occupied.
But those oppressed people were the tax collectors’ neighbors.
The tax collectors were allowed to take their little cut,
which made them wealthier than their neighbors.
People like King Herod were allowed to take a larger cut,
which kept them looking kingly.
But the tax system was instrumental in keeping the poorest poor,
by denying them any chance to get ahead.
Fishermen would never own their own boats.
Farmers would never own their own fields.
They would all remain the working poor,
while they watched their neighbors,
who they saw as collaborators,
Tax collectors were not beloved by their fellow countrymen.
So when the Great Physician said to the tax collector, Levi, “Follow me,”
and Levi left everything to follow him…
It caused interest.
It sparked questions.
It provoked grumbling.
Why, the religious gatekeepers wanted to know, does Jesus eat and drink with sinners? Especially, it seems, large groups of them?
I can’t help feeling Jesus’ answer is just a little tongue-in-cheek:
Those who are well don’t need a physician. I came to call sinners to repentance. I came for their healing.
And who shows more evidence of turning his life around—because that’s what repentance means, literally, turning around—who in this story is a better example than Levi?
Levi left everything and followed Jesus.
Like Peter and Andrew and John and James, who left their nets,
Levi left his tax collecting. Left his very lucrative profession.
And that might be the end of the story—Levi repented, so, no problem—but it doesn’t really account for the presence of all the other tax collectors and so-called “sinners,” gathered around that table, enjoying Levi’s fine dining experience, does it?
Jesus is reclining at table with a lot of people,
and he hasn’t walled himself off from one of them.
One thing that occurs to me about this scene?
Jesus isn’t making anyone feel like they are unworthy to be in his presence.
In fact, Jesus never,
in any gospel story,
seeks to distance himself from anyone.
For any reason.
Jesus doesn’t seem to have an interest in judging people.
Don’t get me wrong—he will speak out against the religious gatekeepers,
when he feels their gatekeeping causes harm.
Which may be when the gatekeeping,
instead of drawing people to God,
causes them to just give up,
and assume that God doesn’t want them.
Jesus seems, instead, to have a strong interest in being in relationship with people.
We see it time and again.
He never says, “No,” to an invitation to dinner.
(Though he has plenty of quiet nights in the homes of close friends, too.)
He never says, “I’m too tired” when people come in need of healing.
(Though, when he is tired,
he seeks opportunities to turn to God, for prayer, and refreshment.)
He never says, “Show me evidence of your repentance!” when people come, hungry.
(Though, he is serious about the need for us all to turn our lives around—
but he never makes it a pre-condition for relationship.)
Quite the opposite.
Jesus places relationship above all.
Which is to say, he places love above all.
Come, you who are worried that you might not be good enough
to sit at table with Jesus.
Come, you to whom the religious gatekeepers have said,
“You are not quite good enough,” or,
“You don’t think like us,” or,
“You don’t live like us.”
Come, you who just aren’t sure about this whole thing,
but who are still kind of interested anyway.
Come, you who have always known that Jesus loves you
and who are thrilled to be in his presence.
Come, because nothing Jesus has ever said or done
has indicated he’d like a fence around this table.
Come, because all are welcome.
Thanks be to God. Amen.