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Monday, July 19, 2010

Come to Call Sinners (Luke 5.23-32)

July 18, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we are continuing in a series looking at all of Jesus’ “follow me” sayings. Last week, we looked at the call of the four fisherman-disciples. Jesus was living in Capernaum by the sea and went down to where they worked and invited them to “follow me.”

Today we look at the call of another disciple, Levi (aka Matthew). He was a tax collector, one of the despised class of Jews who had sold out to the Roman Empire to collect (and almost always extort) money from his own people. Because of the job and taking advantage of other Jews, tax collectors were seen as traitors and sinners – a bad combination!

I want to look with you at a couple things in this passage. The first is to ask why Levi would drop everything and follow Jesus. The second is to look at what Levi did after he began following Jesus. And finally, I want to look at an application of this passage that you may not have considered before.

Why Give Up a Good Thing?

So, the first question I want to ponder with you is why Matthew would drop everything to follow Jesus. You may think, well, if being a tax collector was so bad – being a traitor and sinner and all – who wouldn’t want to give that up? I don’t want to oversimplify, for it’s not like changing professions then is any easier than doing so now, but being a tax collector was a lucrative job. And it got you in good with the people in power. And there’s the question of getting out. Even if you were a tax collector who somehow got a conscience and wanted out – you’d still have to deal with the stigma of being a traitor and sinner. It’s kind of like I imagine it would be to be an ex-con. Once people check out your past, they might not want to hire you, despite having turned over a new leaf. I’m also not sure, but I imagine there might have been some implications with Rome for a Jewish tax collector to just walk away.

All that feeds into my question of motivation: why did Levi follow Jesus? As with last week, this may just be speculation. In the case of the fishermen and Levi, the simple answer may be that the Holy Spirit moved them and they responded, case closed. Yet, we are given details of the surrounding context, so it is at least worth pondering. Often, God’s Spirit does move, but does so in and with human means. God doesn’t usually speak from a burning bush, but more often speaks through a friend’s wise counsel or through the words of Scripture. So, let’s at least look at the surrounding context.

That’s why I backed up before the section heading in our Bibles. What happened prior to this scene, in every Gospel account, is the healing of the paralytic. It’s the story of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof in order for Jesus to heal him. And Jesus did. And in each gospel, the verse before the calling of Levi/Matthew is this: Jesus tells a paralyzed man to get up and walk and then (v. 26) “they were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’”

At the least, I think the story had gotten around and reached Levi’s ears. The two stories are consecutive, because v. 27 begins, “After that Jesus went out…” Jesus was not just a random stranger wandering by who said, “Follow me.” He was the miracle worker, drawing crowds, and speaking of God’s forgiveness and displaying God’s power. And here’s what may be me over-speculating. Could it be that Matthew felt paralyzed in his job, stuck between the hatred of his people, good money, and the thumb of his Roman “boss?” Could the story of new life after paralysis have moved him in a special way, giving him courage to walk away? Maybe – it’s not necessary to the story, but it’s interesting to ponder. Or maybe it was simply the authority or winsomeness in Jesus’ voice. Or maybe God’s Spirit whispering to his spirit. Or maybe all of the above.

What we know is that a man hated in his community, with a lucrative job, working for Rome, left everything behind and got up and began to follow Jesus. (v. 28)

Mini-app #1: What does Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me” mean in your life and context? What would he have you walk away from and what would he have you walk toward?

What Was He Thinking?

What did Levi do next? What came after “follow me?” He threw a party – a “big reception for Jesus in his house” (v. 29).

And who came? There was a “great crowd of tax collectors and others” (v. 29). It’s hard to tell whether some of the Pharisees were also present to comment or if their grumbling was hearsay outside or after the fact, but what’s clear is that they were not pleased with the sort of people with whom Jesus was socializing.

Now at this point typically one of two points is made from this passage. And by typically, I include my own interpretation. We either focus on Jesus or we focus on the Pharisees, and the crowd is the message. And rightly so. We get to the end of this passage and find the Pharisees grumbling in judgment over the perceived compromise of associating with “sinners.” And we read Jesus’ response to them that he did not come for anyone who was “righteous” but indeed for sinners. Indeed, that is the main point from this passage, and one I’ve made before. Jesus did not come to hole up with church folks, but to be the Light of the World that shines in darkness. He came to seek out the lost and lonely and hurt and broken and sinful. And if we are really insightful, we realize that the Pharisees, in their judgment, were actually among the sinners, but they were (mostly) deaf to his words. And if we are really, really insightful, we realize that we inside the church are neither perfect nor righteous apart from Jesus, and are among the sinners for whom Jesus came.

All that is what is most important in this passage. And recognizing all that is necessary to see the point I want to focus on with you this morning, and that is Levi’s part in this story. It’s his call and his response to Jesus’ “follow me” that I want to focus on with you.

We usually jump right on past Levi and the seeming simplicity of “Jesus called and he went” and get to the relatively juicy part about the houseful of sinners and the indignant judgment of the Pharisees. But having been there, let me rewind and slow down and revisit Levi.

Levi was sitting in his tax booth – at work, not unlike the fisherman from last week. And Jesus “noticed” him. And as he did with the fishermen, Jesus said, “Follow me.” We’ve noted what had happened in town – the healing of a paralyzed man. We’ve pondered what may have prompted Levi to get up and go. Verse 28 tells us that Levi “left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.” Presumably that meant his tax booth and his job and his past. In my mind, I pictured that as an instant vow of poverty and getting in single-file line behind Jesus with nothing but the clothes on his back.

And I believe Levi did leave his booth and job behind. But look at the implications of the next scene. He doesn’t walk away from friends and home; he invites Jesus to his house and throws him a party with all of his tax collector colleagues. Following Jesus doesn’t mean shutting yourself off from the world or your friends or neighbors. But it reframes them. Levi wanted to introduce his colleagues to Jesus, and perhaps to tell about the significant change in his own life and perhaps explain why he was leaving the tax business.

Said another way, and I’d want to offer some qualifications on this, he didn’t leave his world for Jesus, he invited Jesus into his world. Certainly, there were things he had to walk away from. He left the criminal extortion of his job, and in his case that probably meant leaving his job altogether. As seen with another tax collector turned follower, he may have been led like Zaccheus to pay back some of the extreme taxes he had collected. But he also didn’t isolate himself from the world, probably because Jesus didn’t live that way. And so he used his connections and relationships and home to try to introduce others to the one who had so affected his life.

That’s the significant story within the story here. Yes, the big point is recognizing that Jesus came for all people, not just the religious crowd. But we see that the story isn’t just about Jesus, but about those who would follow him.

What Kind of Church?

And that’s the point of application for us. I trust that you have been and continue to come to grips with Jesus’ claim that he came to “seek and save the lost.” Where I want to press today is to ask, “How can we follow Him in that?” How can we follow in his steps in the way that Levi did? And to be very, very specific, I’d ask, “What would it look like to throw a Levi party?”

I’m not talking about welcoming people to church who look or talk a little different. We MUST do that and I believe God is growing us in that area.

I’m not talking about venturing out into our neighborhood and meeting our neighbors where they are and loving them in Jesus’ name. We MUST do that as the very essence of the Gospel and I believe God is growing us in that area as well.

I’m wondering if there are any of you who saw yourself in the story today, who heard about Jesus healing a paralyzed man, literally and perhaps figuratively with Levi, and you thought, “I once was paralyzed and God has set me free!”

I’m wondering if there are any of you who have heard Jesus say, “Follow me!” or are hearing that call even now, and you understand what it meant for Levi to leave everything behind and begin to follow Jesus.

I’m wondering specifically if there is anyone who might just walk alongside Levi in following Jesus and consider inviting some of your colleagues, neighbors, peers, or friends over to your house to share stories with them and perhaps even tell them in a gentle, winsome, and humble way about what is most important in your own life.

Is God stirring anybody in that way? Would you consider it?

What kind of church would that be?!



Billy Howell e-mailed me Sunday afternoon to tell me that he had written a song in response to the sermon.  With his permission, I'd like to share it here.

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