Jesus hung out at parties, seeming to be glad enough to be there—rather a promising opening gambit for evangelism. At least, that type of evangelism sounds a lot more comforting than strange-looking folks carrying signs announcing coming doom; earnest, tidy-looking teens passing out tracts on street corners; or folks assaulting trapped airplane seat companions. I mean, would you not think it rather nice to be invited to a party, even if you do not particularly think of yourself as the party type?
The type your parents warned you about
At least, it would be nice if there were not such awkward problems. For one thing, Luke 5:27–32, to take a particular example, depicts events near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when Jesus, between miracles, seemed to be awfully busy getting into trouble, most especially with the serious and dedicated members of the religious establishment. And you have to admit they had some points on their side. In particular, the people Jesus spent time with were those your parents warned you not to hang out with. You know what happens when you get influenced by bad company, right? This Jesus associated with all the “wrong” people, those everybody knew were the wrong people, especially in the eyes of the Pharisees and rulers—the “right” people. He was providing a perfectly terrible example.
And then, to add insult to injury, Jesus said that was exactly what He meant to do. Snubbing those who always lived by the rules, Jesus said outright that He was not even aiming to deal with the righteous, who did not need Him any more than a well person needs a doctor. He was not blind to the character of those He was associating with but frankly labeled them as sinners. We cannot excuse Him as well-intentioned but ignorant. Jesus directly intended to share table fellowship—an intimate activity, in that culture—specifically with sinners.
The odd Physician
Take another look at the invitation: Would you want to come to this party? What about your reputation? Is this type of meal worth it? Or even, since He implies He is a physician of sorts, can this self-designated doctor relieve you of any malady you actually want to be cured of? It’s important to be honest about that latter point: another time, Jesus asked someone directly whether he wanted to be made well (John 5:6). The answer to that question is not always as obvious as it seems.
Might there be a chance, given our culture and what it values, and given all we have been taught about how important it is that we think positively of ourselves, that we often (maybe even unconsciously) want Jesus, if we want Him at all, sort of as an insurance policy that reassures us everything will go well in this world? That all necessary steps have been taken, and we will be well taken care of? Or, maybe, to make us look better to ourselves and others? Because, you see, if that’s why we want Him, we do not actually want Him at all.
Jesus, after all, is a pretty odd sort of physician. Consider His initiative in this account. He’s the one who started the whole thing. How many doctors do you know who would walk up to a corrupt guy who was more or less minding his own business and simply command him to follow Him?
Why would he do it?
This guy Levi was just sitting at his tollbooth, as he always did, carefully considering what the traffic would bear, pursuing any opportunity for gain. Of course, his business entailed taking advantage of people, and maybe those at the bottom of the economic ladder really suffered from his extortion; but he did not have to think about that too much. After all, your first responsibility is to yourself and yours, right? If people cannot take care of themselves, there’s not a lot you can do about it. And if people hate you, that’s just the cost of doing business.
Jesus saw him. The mild translation does not do the verb justice. It is more that He looked at him intently, as if seeing his character, perhaps even with pleasure: it’s a rare and strong word, and weakly translating it does not quite capture that intensity of the gaze. He knew he was a crook. But there was no arrest made, which might be a dishonest agent’s first fear. Just the peremptory, “Follow Me.” We do not expect real physicians to make that sort of approach uninvited, and we might not trust one who did.
Still, give the tax collector a break and assume he was no more a fool than you are or I am. Suppose he was not naïve. Even so, he not only got up and followed Jesus but also explicitly left everything to do so—something very few of us, perhaps, have actually done. Why would he do any such thing? Was it Jesus’ charismatic personality? Was it something he had seen or heard of Jesus’ miracles? Perhaps these could have been factors, but would they be enough to make a reasonable person like a first-century tax collector give up his whole way of life? If you have spent a lifetime consulting your personal advantage at the express disadvantage of the welfare of others (since the only way you got rich was by taking more than you were strictly entitled to), you would think twice about just walking away from it all. But Levi didn’t.
Something about Him
Something about coming face-to-face with Jesus must have made Levi see himself as he was, sick with a malady no ordinary physician could touch. Surely, being called out by Jesus, Levi must have seen beyond all possible doubt who he was, what he had become. Jesus did not have to tell him. He knew.
Once you know, really know, not knowing is no longer one of the options. Everything has changed. Either you embrace evil head-on, like Milton’s Satan saying, “Evil, be thou my Good,”1 or you turn definitively away. As Lowell’s old hymn puts it, “Once to ev’ry man and nation / Comes the moment to decide / In the strife of truth and falsehood / For the good or evil side.”2 Man or woman, that one choice will define your life. There will be no going back—not because you theoretically could not, not because Jesus would reject you if you tried, but because you have already decided.
Levi decided. He left everything and followed Jesus.
He was not looking for a cosmetic fix; he was not just testing things out to make sure he was OK. Possibilities like those were not on the table at all. No matter what he might have looked like to someone taking a charitable view, he was not OK in the most fundamental possible way. There was no escaping it. He was a sinner, as are we all, even if some of our sins are less obvious. No excuses, no patches. Something radical had to be done. Half-measures would not suffice.
Something must change
Physician Jesus did not make it easier, certainly did not caution moderation in dealing with the situation. He promises no easy path, no matter whom He might be found partying with. He calls sinners, says verse 32, to repentance. Something has to change. If you want fancy theological language, being saved is not just a matter of being justified, made right with God, by what Jesus has done for you, with everything then going on as it always has. Real steps of sanctification, reformation of life, must follow if the reality of one’s experience of salvation is not rightly to be called into question. A real change in one’s direction and aspirations, a change in one’s heart changes what one does, however imperfectly. That means some sacrifices and losses of familiar habits and behaviors. Surely no one can read the New Testament seriously and expect discipleship to be easy! There is no biblical teaching that all you need to do is follow Jesus and you may be confident that health, wealth, and endless easy days will follow you.
Bad news? Note that Levi did not seem to think so. He did not build a sad little monument to his rapidly fading prosperity or see if there weren’t some little remnants of his past he could squirrel away for a rainy day. No, Levi gave a feast, threw a party, for Jesus and a bunch of other sinners like himself. Somehow, being free of the wretchedness of one’s wicked self is the best news in the world. Really good news—good in the fully moral and spiritual sense that does not involve self-interestedness or one-upmanship, but something that is open to all—demands to be shared.
Suddenly there was hope for something radically new, new from the inside out, but that certainly could not be kept merely inside. Levi could not possibly have known that. According to the tradition we have, Levi the tax collector would be known as Matthew the apostle, writer of the Gospel that is most clearly directed at a specifically Jewish audience, full of scribes and Pharisees who needed Jesus’ steady gaze and radical healing touch just as much as anyone else. No, he could not have known then what the future would hold, could not have known that his banquet would figure in a little article some two thousand years later. But he was open to whatever that future might be, and we know that this decision of a moment radically changed his life. He stood up, left everything of his doubtful past behind, followed Jesus, and threw a party for the sheer joy of it.
So, where does that leave us? Look to your right. Look to your left. Do those folks look to you like pretty good upstanding Christians, upright, law-abiding citizens, just as far as you can tell? Well then, are you coming to the party? You are invited, you know.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, book 4 (London, UK: Penguin Books, 2000), 76.
- James Russell Lowell, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” 1845.