A Seat At His Table
In the 18th Century, the Church of England had become so elitist and inhospitable to common people, every day people, that in 1739 John Wesley had to take to graveyards and fields to preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. In the days before microphones and speakers he preached to 30,000 coal miners at dawn in the fields, and tears streaming down hardened, coal-darkened faces was evidence of the saving power of the gospel. Now, John Wesley didn’t want to be divisive, but because there was no room in the established church for the common people, he reluctantly founded the Methodist-Episcopal Church so that these common people would have a place to worship. Tragically, just 100 years later a Methodist Christian named William Booth noticed that the poorest people, the dirtiest people, and the most degraded were never in church.
One day in 1846, the Broad Street Methodist congregation experienced something they would never forget: the gas lamps dancing on whitewashed walls, the Minister, the Rev. Samuel Dunn, seated comfortably on his red plush chair, the voices of the people swelling into the evening’s fourth hymn:
Foul I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
The chapel’s outer door suddenly opened and in came a shuffling shabby contingent of men and women, trembling, wilting nervously under the stony stares of mill-managers, shop-keepers and their well-dressed wives. These people knew they weren’t welcome here. Behind them marched “Willful Will” Booth, blocking the efforts of the more reluctant people to turn back. To his dismay the Rev. Dunn saw that young Booth was actually ushering his charges, none of whose clothes would have raised five cents in his own pawnshop, into the very best seats; pewholders’ seats, facing the pulpit.
This wasn’t normal because the poor, if they came to chapel, entered by another door, segregated on benches without backs or cushions, behind a partition which screened them off the pulpit.
Oblivious of the mounting atmosphere, Booth joined will full voice in the service – even, he later admitted, hoping this devotion to duty might rate special commendation. All too soon he learned the unfortunate truth: since Wesley’s day, the Methodist church had become “respectable.” This experience, followed by many similar rejections by the “good people” in the church, led to William and Catherine Booth being removed from the Methodist Church and 14 years of poverty before they founded the Salvation Army.
The people of God are called to be a counter-cultural movement. Within the culture, but in so many ways living and running counter to the direction of our culture. In Luke 5, we find, as he typically does, wreaking havoc with people’s perceptions of what, and who, is appropriate in his presence. Look at Vv. 1-11. First, he calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John, four fishermen; course, uneducated seamen as his first disciples. And Jesus found them on the sea shore, working with their fathers, learning the family trade. That’s what you did when you went as far as you could in the Jewish educational system and eventually failed. You weren’t among the best, or the best of the best, intellectually speaking, so you went home to learn your father’s trade. Only the best of the best, a select few, made it to the top of the educational system and went on to become the disciples of the great rabbis of the day, learning to teach as they taught.
So here comes Jesus, at the moment the hottest rabbi around, a man who taught and lived with a power none of the other rabbis had, and who performed unheard of miracles, and he looked at these young fishermen mending their nets, and he told them, “I want you to follow me, to become my disciples.” That ship had sailed for them. They weren’t good enough, smart enough, to do that. But here was this powerful, amazing rabbi Jesus, asking them to follow him. That’s like Lebron James coming up to you and saying, “Come here. I want to teach you how to do what I do. You can learn to play basketball like me.” Yeah, right, whatever.
Then, and I don’t want you to lose the significance of this, Jesus TOUCHES a leper and heals him. Look at Vv. 12-13. It’s important to understand what happens there. Imagine someone living in the 1st Century, with 1st Century medical knowledge. Imagine someone from the 1st Century living with a deadly AND highly infectious disease. Everyone in the community knows he has it. His body is full of it. For years he has had to live outside of the town. His family leaves food out for him but stays well away when he comes to get it. If he must come into town, he must cover himself, cover his face, and yell “unclean, unclean” over and over again so that no one comes near him. Even touching the hem of his garment can render you ritually unclean, and will likely give you his disease as well. He’s gone for years without ANY human contact. No tender caresses. No pats on the back. No hugs. Nothing. No contact, period.
Psychologists tell us that the need for human touch is one of the most significant needs we have, and this leper had been deprived of that for years. No touch at all. Think about the role of touch in your life. Think about the human contact you and I experience every day. Hugs, handshakes, embraces, a kiss, a light touch on the arm. A lot of our communication takes place in gestures like that. For the first time in years, maybe decades; for the first time since he had been declared unclean, this man experiences human contact. Jesus reaches out and touches him, and he is healed. Jesus could have healed him without touching him. But he didn’t. He knew what the man needed. He needed healing. But he needed more than that. He needed restoration. He needed acceptance. He needed human contact. So Jesus reached out and touched him.
Now, look at Vv. 27-32. Jesus then walks by the booth of a tax collector named Levi. Tax collectors were often lumped in with lepers and others considered unclean. Tax collectors have never been liked. No one likes paying taxes. Never have, probably never will. But in 1st Century Palestine, the hatred of tax collectors went far beyond our everyday dislike of taxes. Tax collectors were lumped together with robbers, evildoers, and adulterers (Luke 18:11), with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), and with the unbelieving gentiles (Matthew 18:17). So for the Jews, cheaters, prostitutes, and IRS agents were all kind of lumped in together. They were considered beyond the grasp of God’s grace, unreachable, hopeless cases destined for hell. If a tax collector entered a house, that house was considered unclean, just as if a leper had entered that house.
So if Jesus were playing by the rules, he would have avoided people like Levi at all costs. No one would have batted an eye if he had crossed to the other side of the street to avoid coming to close. But that isn’t what Jesus did. Luke tells us that “he went out and SAW a tax collector named Levi.” The English word “saw” there doesn’t really capture what Jesus did when he caught sight of Levi. He didn’t just catch sight of Levi in passing. The sense of the word translated here as “saw” is of “careful and deliberate vision which interprets its object.” Jesus isn’t just looking at Levi or noticing him. He’s sizing Levi up with a gaze that makes the person receiving it wonder, “What does this guy want with me?” That in itself is more attention than Levi, having resigned himself to a life of being despised, was used to receiving. For not only was Levi a despised person, he was sitting at his tax collection booth. He was engaged in the very activity for which he was despised. And Jesus stops and takes a good hard look.
And then Jesus says to Levi, “Follow me.” Now, look at what happens next. Now Jesus enjoys a meal with Levi and his friends and acquaintances. And who would have dared be a friend to Levi? Other tax collectors and other hopeless, rejected souls. And this wasn’t just any old meal. Luke tells us this was a “great feast.” It was a big party. The kind of party that drew a lot of attention. Lots of people SAW Jesus eating and hanging out and partying with the wrong crowd.
Just eating any meal with someone like Levi and his friends was in itself a significant act. You see, Jesus didn’t just feed people. He ate with them, and there’s a big difference. You see, if I volunteer for Community Meal and serve the down and out of our town, I can do that from a position of superiority. I’m better than you. I’ve got my life together, and so I’m able to help you. If you could just be like me, you could serve instead of needing to be served too. Look at how generous I am, how good I’m being, serving people with my time and providing a meal. It’s big and powerful and got it all together me serving the losers, right? But that isn’t what Jesus did, is it. He didn’t just serve a meal. He ate with people, and he didn’t care who saw him.
When I serve, I’m better than you. But when I eat with you, you and I are in the same boat. So when someone drives by, and we’re eating outside, and they see me standing in line for the meal, what’s the difference between me and the other guests in their eyes? Nothing. When I sit down and chat with you over a meal about your life and your day, and share my life and my day, what’s the difference between you and I? Absolutely nothing. We are called to serve, to help. But we are called to do so from a position of shared humanity rather than superiority. Because the truth is, I am no more valuable, no better, than you. And when I eat WITH you, I am saying, you and I are on the same team. We’re pretty much alike, you and I. And we’re all in this mess together.
That’s how Jesus Christ came, isn’t it? If anyone had the right to walk into the world and say, “Wow, you’ve really messed up your life and this world. Now I’m here as Superman to fix it for you,” it would be him. After all, it’s his world. He made it. But that isn’t how he came, is it? St. Paul says that instead, he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). And what does that mean for us as followers of Jesus? Paul tells us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, (and that includes serving others, helping others) but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Having experienced grace, share grace.
Now look at what the Pharisees do. They go to his disciples, at this point that would have been Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were probably just as confused and angry as the Pharisees. I mean, I get that I’m just a Galilean fisherman, but really Jesus? A TAX COLLECTOR? These fishermen didn’t want to be disciples with a tax collector. Now, I would guess that at this early point in his ministry, Jesus’ other disciples couldn’t answer the question all that well themselves. This was new to them too. So Jesus answers “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus had come to call those who knew they were sinners, not those who thought they were righteous.
Nowhere can Jesus be accused of tolerating sin. He knew very well how corrupt and evil the Roman tax collection system was. He knew exactly what Levi and his friends were doing. The call of Christ wasn’t a call to cheap grace. It wasn’t a call to join Jesus with no change in life. Look at Levi’s response. “Leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” First, Levi left everything. He shut down his enterprise. Fishermen might have been rough and rough around the edges, but there was nothing inherently sinful about their work. Peter, James, and John could always go back to being fishermen if this following Jesus thing didn’t work out. But not Levi. He couldn’t go back to being a tax collector. Talk about a step of faith from the kind of person not known for such a thing. He shut down his unethical practice, left it behind, to follow Jesus.
The word translated as “followed him” is in a verb tense that indicates that Levi began to follow Christ. The participle here is in a tense that points to a decisive break with his past. And the verb is in a tense that indicates a continuous pattern of life. The point here is that Levi re-orients his life toward Christ and begins an adventure of following Jesus. And that is something he would never turn back from, for Levi is also known by another name, the Apostle Matthew, one of the Gospel writers. This TAX COLLECTOR who got to be a disciple of Jesus is also the man who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. He became one of the Biblical writers.
To respond to the call of Christ to “follow me” is to experience an embracing, welcoming acceptance and restoration unlike any we have received before. And it requires a repentance and change of direction unlike any we have made before. Levi isn’t making “New Years’ resolutions” hoping to do better this year than last. He’s making a decisive break with his past. The orientation of his life has changed, from being oriented toward dishonest gain and the accumulation of wealth to an orientation toward Christ and consistent repentance to the point where the best description of their actions is that of “following Jesus.”
The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus captures well just how upside-down the Kingdom of God is—and just how confusing that can seem to unbelievers. In an attack on followers of Christ, he writes: Those who summon people to the other mysteries [i.e. other religions] make this preliminary proclamation: “Whosoever has pure hands and a wise tongue.” And again, others say, “Whosoever is pure from all defilement, and whose soul knows nothing of evil, and who has lived well and righteously.” Such are the preliminary exhortations of those who promise purification from sins. But let us hear what folk these Christians call. “Whosoever is a sinner,” they say. “Whosoever is unwise, whosoever is a child, and, in a word, whosoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him.” Do you not say that a sinner is he who is dishonest, a thief, a burglar, a poisoner, a sacrilegious fellow, and a grave-robber? What others would a robber invite and call? Why on earth this preference for sinners?
And that is what Jesus invites each one of us to do … to realize that we too, because of grace, get a VIP invitation to Christ’s party, get a seat at his table. And beware. If you find yourself saying “Of course I get an invitation to the party, look at my life,” you’re in danger of making the same mistake the Pharisees made, of assuming that somehow, on your own, you’re living a good enough life to be acceptable to God. To understand grace, you have to be willing to say, “I know that I am a sinner. I don’t belong here, but here I am.” That’s grace.