A meal with Jesus: Levi
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
The talk is based on Luke 5:27–32
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I’m going to read the passage of scripture that Paul’s going to come and preach on, and then he’ll be coming out to speak to us. Then after that, Ishbel will come and lead us in our time of sharing of bread and wine. Paul is speaking from Luke 5:27-32, and it is on the notice sheet if you do want to follow it as I read it.
After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
Father God, as Paul speaks to us, open our hearts, open our minds, may we hear from You, Lord, what You want each one of us individually to hear. Thank you for the time that Paul has spent preparing, and thank you for his words which will bless us I know, in Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Thank you Gill, I will continue to pray for you and Gareth as you visit your friends this afternoon. Have we got the picture of my beardy friend? If you’re on Facebook, you would have seen a picture on Facebook this weekend just advertising that – I was having a picture of my friend with the beard. Last Wednesday, I had a very enjoyable day with my friend Sam. This is Sam, he told me not to share this picture with anybody. I’ll tell you why. Sam is a lot more adventurous than I am. For example, he’s travelled the world a lot more extensively than I have.
His life experiences have been more varied than my own. While I’m quite introvert, Sam’s personality is naturally outgoing and bubbly. It wasn’t a huge surprise when Sam, who is a vegetarian, told me that he would like to try the ostrich at the African restaurant where we were dining. I reminded him that ostrich was meat. To which his reply was, “Yes, but it’s ostrich, who wouldn’t want to eat it?” In my head I thought, “Most vegetarians wouldn’t want to eat it.” As for me, I opted for the chicken as there was no zebra that night.
We enjoyed our meal very much, and more importantly, food at a table enabled us to talk, to share and to enjoy one another’s company. That’s enough for Sam for now, thank you. Jesus spends a lot of time eating in Luke’s gospel. During July, we are going to see how Jesus uses meeting around a table and food as an opportunity to offer the grace and hope to those he ate with. It seems to me that meals are quite an integral part of our worship, our fellowship and the way that we do things here at Main Street. We eat and drink quite a lot here. I’m sure that that suits my spiritual gifts really quite well.
This is where we find Jesus in our message today. Jesus has for his own reasons invited a man called Levi to follow Him. Now, there could be a whole bible study on just these few words because Levi, I assume by his name was a Jew. Levi, Leviticus I’m assuming. He was also a tax collector who would have been employed by the Romans, who had conquered the land that the Jewish people had claimed God had promised to them. Levi, a Jew on the side of the Romans, was not a good person to know. He sided according to most people on the side of the enemy.
Let’s face it, who likes the taxman at the best of times. Perhaps, Levi doubly hated by his own people, once for siding with the enemy, and once for collecting the taxes on the enemy’s behalf. Also, to add insult to injury, we know from the story of Zacchaeus, that not all tax collectors were the most honest of people. Yet, Jesus invites the outcast to follow Him. Jesus goes directly to the one who is much maligned. The response from Levi is quite breathtaking. Levi invites Jesus to a banquet at his house. Not only that, he invites all his other tax collector friends as well.
It’s interesting that we see the other guests are mainly tax collectors. One can guess that as unpopular as tax collectors were, they would also because of their job be mixing with gentiles as well. According to Jewish law, they would be ceremonially and ritually unclean, and certainly not allowed to mix or at least mix well with polite society. It seems that by default, Levi has to mix with those he works with because the religious system says he is unable to mix with people of his own background due to his uncleanness. Levi is an outcast.
If he mixed with thieving tax collectors, then he would almost certainly have a reputation of being a money grabber as well. Being disliked and distrusted, he would have been shunned by most people until Jesus, until Jesus accepts an invitation to spend a meal with the right dodgy crew. I think I’ve generally always been a good judge of character. That said, when I was growing up, there probably would have been the odd occasion when my parents might raise their eyebrows at one or two of the school friends that I kept. By and large, I think I had mates who were good for me.
I hope I was good for them as well. Similarly, back in the time of Jesus, religious teachers would keep themselves pure in all sorts of ways in order to protect themselves from being with the riff-raff. The problem with that was that it would develop into a bit of a class system. The religious hierarchy would not be with those beneath them for fear of some form of contamination. By following the letter of the law, religious teachers were put on such high pedestals whilst the low life such as tax collectors and sinners would be unable to reach such heights of religious goodness and Godness.
For rabbi Jesus to be eating and drinking with dodgy people was well beyond the pale for the Pharisees who grumbled and complained and asked themselves, “Why on earth is this man eating and drinking with such people?” Of course, we know why, because doctors can’t do their job without being amongst the sick, because Jesus had to surround himself with outcasts, so that he could share the kingdom of God with those who are unwelcomed by the religious people. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s pause for a moment.
Tim Chester writes this book, A Meal with Jesus. He makes the case that there are three times in the gospels where it says the “Son of Man came.” In Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to serve but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” Luke 19:10, talks about the Son of Man coming to seek and to save the lost. Luke 7:34, says the Son of Man came eating and drinking. Tim Chester explains the first two are statements of why Jesus came. He came to serve. He came to give His life. He came to seek and save the lost. The third is a statement of method, how did Jesus come?
Jesus came eating and drinking. Jesus was seriously into eating and drinking: so much so that his enemies accused Him of doing it too excess. It seems that Jesus’ mission strategy was a long meal with lots of food, possibly even ostrich, I don’t know, but often in dodgy company. Just think as we were thinking earlier, who would you have round for dinner? Most likely, it would be people that you like. People who enjoy the same stuff as you might. Perhaps long-term friends or family. That’s precisely the point that Jesus is making here at Levi’s banquet.
He is eating with his friends. His friends are tax collectors. His friends are sinners. Jesus actually likes tax collectors. Jesus actually likes spending time with sinners. Much as parents don’t always like the bad influences that other children might have on their own kids. Perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. Perhaps the good egg can rub off on the dodgy ones. Perhaps one bad apple doesn’t always upset the apple cart.
In the face of the onlooking Pharisees, Jesus makes the famous remark, “It’s not the well that need a doctor but the sick.” The Pharisees’ objection isn’t the meal or the party, it’s who’s around the table. The Pharisees, like good parents, were trying to keep the bad children away from their own. They were trying to keep separate the religious goodness from all the potential pollution the bad, naughty, irreligious people might do to contaminate the good ones. But with Jesus, it doesn’t work like that.
Jesus brings a new perception of holiness to the world, which meant doing away with the tried and attested. It meant including everyone. That did not mean leaving out the tax collectors and the sinners, which left the Pharisees a little surprised, to say the least. The Pharisees had forgotten the banquet passage in Isaiah 25:6-8, which mentions all nations and all faces, all the Earth, all people. All things, nothing left out.
Gosh, that’s a different way of looking at things, isn’t it? What? Even the Godless? All people. What? Even the ones that had sinned and were sick? All faces. What? You mean those who aren’t God’s chosen people? All nations. What? The ones who are messing up the Earth’s resources and creating climate change? All the Earth. Jesus’ way of inviting and involving all things meant using the broken things of this world. Jesus was involving his very self into the recreation of all things.
The Pharisees expect Jesus to behave like a doctor who avoids sick people, but Jesus himself points out that he cannot be effective unless he is with the sinful, outcast, hated, oppressed, vile, sick people. Having an antidote to an infection cannot do anything unless it’s given to the one with the infection, which involves getting in there. It involves taking a risk of becoming contaminated oneself.
When Jesus reclines at a table, coming eating and drinking, He does it with a long and an open table. There is food for everyone and anyone. This includes those He disagrees with, even the enemy, the Pharisees are not exempt. This includes those who are excluded from the rest of society. This includes everyone who agrees or disagrees with the next person. This inclusion reflects the parties that Luke talked about in chapter 15, where there’s a little collection of three parables. The lady who finds her little lost coin celebrates with her neighbours over finding something small but very precious.
There is rejoicing when the shepherd leaves 99 of his sheep to find the one that has gone off on its own way. Stupidity, in one sense, as the other 99 may well be open to wolves or other dangers, but, yet, the importance of the one was worth celebrating when it was found. Of course, who can forget the massive knees-up that occurs the moment the lost son comes home. On each occasion, there is room for the lost one. There is a celebration for the run-away. There is space at the party for those who don’t feel that they have been invited.
Last week, our communion table really became an open table. Everyone who was here was welcomed to sit around it, and we took the elements of bread and wine together. I believe that every single person who shared those elements, who took part, sensed something of that inclusion that we are talking about today. That sense of inclusion that Jesus offers here in this story at Levi’s banquet. Last week around this table there was something very special. A moment where Heaven touched Earth.
In that moment, there was peace. There was music, there were tears because Jesus was at the centre of all that was taking place. Here’s the interesting thing that gets me about this passage of Jesus at Levi’s party. Jesus doesn’t preach, yet people listen. Jesus does not have a list of what they must believe to be in with Him, and yet people are challenged. Jesus, the Son of Man, came eating and drinking. That was the way that He connected with people.
As we will see over the next few weeks, Jesus sitting around over a meal involves Him being with people that were in, with people that were out, and with people who were literally shaking it all about. The Church has, for too long, been about keeping the rules, wherein actually, Jesus didn’t say that He came to keep the rules. In a sermon on the mount, He said He came to fulfil the law. I wonder whether it is that the Church has done it’s best over centuries to fulfil the letter of the law, or has interpreted the Bible to suit its own need to keep people in or out, when all God ever wanted was to show love to his whole creation.
As one commentator has said, “Unlike many theologians, Jesus didn’t come preaching an ideology, promoting ideas or religious maxims. He came teaching about the feast of the kingdom. He came feasting in the kingdom. Jesus did not go around merely talking about eating and drinking. He went around eating and drinking a lot.” It’s scandalous that Jesus invites every single person who has ever lived to come to His table, to eat and to drink with Him.
It’s scandalous that God welcomes everyone, righteous and unrighteous without discrimination. When Jesus eats with Levi, the message is clear. Jesus has come for losers. Jesus has come for people on the margins. Jesus has come for people who have made a mess of their lives. Jesus has come for people who are ordinary. Jesus welcomes not just the people at the margins, but He welcomes the Pharisees, too. He welcomes the enemy. This really does not make sense to the Pharisees, unless God is doing something new. Something so new that it doesn’t fit the old way of doing things, and that is a scary prospect.
Let’s take a very quick thing about what’s happening around this meal in Luke 5. In Luke 5:12-17, Jesus touches a leper. Lepers were highly infectious. If you touched them, you would be unclean and contagious for the condition. See what happens, instead of Jesus becoming unclean, the leper becomes clean, the leper is cured. Once more, God’s grace transforms the outcasts. Suddenly, it’s not the uncleanness that is contagious, that’s the old Levitical code. It seems that with Jesus, it’s His holiness that is His contagion. Next up in verses 17 to 26, Jesus not only heals a paralysed man, but forgives His sin. At the time, only priests at the temple were able to do that.
Yet Jesus forgives sin with the spoken word, without reference to the temple at all. After this meal in verse 33 to 35, the Pharisees asked why Jesus and His followers do not fast. Jews fasted to call upon God, to come in mercy in order to liberate their nation. What if God’s Messiah, full of mercy, is here in the present now, what happens then if He is sitting with the tax collectors and the sinners around this table? Finally, in verses 36 to 39 of Luke 5, Jesus makes the point explicitly clear. Something new is happening.
Jesus says that you can’t put new wine into old wine skins, you can’t patch up the old, it has to be new. This is the new system, and it’s called grace, it’s radically different, it’s radically new. It’s about grace, rather than being religious or holier than thou. It’s inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s welcoming, rather than unwelcoming. Jesus, the Saviour, cannot do His work unless He is with sinful people. For the Pharisees, the way of salvation worked by personal purity. Those like tax collectors and sinners and disabled people and the poor, well, they could never measure up.
For Jesus, however, it was never about status in life or about riches. It’s not even about righteousness, it’s about calling sinners to repentance. Repentance means to turn again, to turn back, to turn to God again. This time, it’s not towards a God whose plan it is to burn with anger, but to show goodness, and grace, and forgiveness, and mercy. This grace stuff is scandalous. It doesn’t seem to fit with the way that many people saw faith, and that’s precisely Jesus’ point here. Jesus’ way of doing things is set around a table.
It’s a place of safety and a place of welcome. It’s a place of forgiveness and a place of celebration. It’s a place where His friends can gather. It’s a place where His friends must become our friends because that’s how grace works. If God is big enough to forgive even the largest sin, then as reflectors of Jesus, it is our responsibility to let go even the smallest grudge. As we gather around the table today, let us receive God’s good grace. The exact meaning of the word Eucharist means good grace. In this moment, may we all receive God’s good grace.
I’m going to invite Ishbel to come and lead us in our Eucharist meal, in our time around the table together.
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Scripture quotations marked NRSVA on this page and in the talk are fro the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.