Jesus Among an Undesirable Crowd

Matthew 9:9–17; Mark 2:13–22; Luke 5:27–39

When we think about apostles, we envision holy men. Yet, we often forget their humanity and the “before” of their story. Relating to ordinary people, even some that society considers undesirable are disregarded as we think of them in the position given to them by Jesus. Jesus, however, chose unwanted, ordinary people. 

This story begins with Jesus calling a certain disciple, Levi. In other passages, he’s identified as Matthew—the writer of the Gospel that bears his name (Matt. 9:9–13; Mark 2:14). Matthew, or Levi, was a tax collector. They were crooked, greedy, and usually men of wealth and influence. They would contract with their city or district and gather taxes to be sent to Rome. They had little authority, but they were in cahoots with the authorities. Sometimes they served as informants and bore false witness to get extra money when someone might have already paid their taxes (cf. Luke 19:8). Whatever they collected above what was required was often pocketed as a commission (cf. Luke 3:13). What made tax collectors so hated was that they were Jews who worked for the Roman government. To the Jewish people, who were prideful of their heritage and disdainful of foreign rule and occupation, the tax collectors were seen as traitors. Israel had been an independent state for about 100 years until Rome brought them under subjugation, and Herod was installed as king in AD 6. Before, Israel and Rome were allies. After being made a Roman province, Israel often had uprisings in attempts to expel the Romans from their homeland. Those tax collectors were natives working for the occupiers, placing them in a hated category. This was why the religious leaders were astounded by Jesus’ associations. However, it was because Levi was spiritually sick that Jesus sought him. 

Table meals in the ancient East were more significant than we might deem them. Sharing a meal with someone implied accepting them, and in this case, added to that was forgiveness. Our Lord’s Supper is based mainly on the same premise. Sharing the meal from the Lord’s Table in the assembly communicates our acceptance and forgiveness towards one another. The religious leaders believed obedience to religious law was a precondition for God’s kingdom’s arrival. Jesus, however, communicates by this that God’s kingdom will arrive even to sinful Israel by God’s grace—the very thing Jesus is giving the sinners and tax collectors. The same still stands: we don’t make ourselves ready to be accepted. God offers grace through which, in our unpreparedness and sin, we can go to him as we are, and he makes us something far more significant. Then the work begins. 

Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy [steadfast love] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The statement isn’t meant to call one away from sacrifices (worship) but to the knowledge of God. When we understand God’s heart, we’ll live with integrity under his covenant rather than engage in rituals and shows of piety to earn his love. Have affection for God and mercy for others. They had missed the whole point. Jesus was going to heal spiritual sickness, but they were enslaved to trivial issues of purity. The opposite of mercy, in this case, is a religious triviality wed to traditions and regulations. 

The banquet at Levi’s home concerned the Pharisees because they, and John’s disciples, were disciplined in fasting and prayer, while to them, it appeared that Jesus’ disciples partied. However, what Jesus seemed to relay to the Pharisees was a matter of compatibility. As a new garment patch was incompatible with an old garment, and as new wine in old wineskins was incompatible, so it was that fasting in the presence of the bridegroom was incompatible. This isn’t to say that fasting isn’t needed. Just that the occasion for it was untimely.   

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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