Luke 5: 27-32
27And after that He went out, and noticed a tax-gatherer named Levi, sitting in the tax office (“tollhouse” in one translation) and He said to him, “Follow Me.”28 And he left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him. 29 And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gathers and sinners?”31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” 32 “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
First a little on the city of Jerusalem in the region locally known as Judea, and known to the Roman Empire as Palestine. Jerusalem was the city of the great Temple…the center of the world to the Jews of the region and the Diaspora. Jerusalem was not a trade city, but a religious center. The entire city existed on and for the Temple. According to James Dunn’s book Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) he writes, “Apart from the royal palaces and garrison, more or less all trade and commerce would be directly or indirectly dependent on the Temple.” (p.175) So we need to understand that this is a city filled with those who 1.worked for the Temple, and 2.those called to travel there by Torah, and finally 3.those who made a living directly from the influx of travelers…How about envisioning Vatican City in Rome? Or another extreme would be Washington DC (on the secular end of the scale). Those who came to Jerusalem came to worship or make money…or both…and I think an educated guess would be that being a Pharisee, teacher of the Law, or a scribe within the Temple must have been a pretty good living!
Now how about tax collectors within the region of Palestine? A note first on being Jewish in the Roman Empire; Judaism was a ‘protected’ religion in the Roman Empire. More than that, Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army…but they could bid on local tax-collection jobs within Palestine…especially the lucrative “tourist” routs in and around Jerusalem. I found this quote in Gundry’s Survey of the New Testament (2003) where he writes of tax-collectors:
Among the Jews, tax collectors—traditionally called “publicans”—became special objects of class hatred. They collected poll taxes, property taxes, road use taxes, and sales taxes. Other Jews despised the tax collectors because they handled currency with blasphemous pagan inscriptions and iconography and cooperated with Roman overlords. These overlords auctioned the job of collection taxes to the lowest bidder, that is, to the one who bid the lowest rate of commission for a contract. A collector would gather not only the tax and his commission, but also what ever he could pocket illegally. Bribery of tax collectors by the rich increased the financial burden of those who were barely scraping by. As a result, the masses deeply resented the collectors. (p 33)So you see, it is really is true that Jewish tax collectors were thought to be traitors to the Jewish people and down right crooks! But I’m sure they liked to think of themselves as merely good businessmen. Yet as Jews, did they long to be forgiven or to be accepted within the walls of the great Temple by the priests? I’m sure they knew full-good-and-well they were considered “un-clean” and looked at with contempt “…or even like this tax-gatherer…” (Luke 18:11) the Pharisee said in another parable.
But remember now, that one had to make a living, and if the only major industry is religion and the religious travel industry (hotel, restaurant, souvenirs, and suppliers of sacrificial animals, and of course, money changers)…what else could you do for a living? (other than to be a beggar...and there were LOTS of them)
And one more point I’d like to share to ‘color’ the background, if you will; and that is being called by a Rabbi. If I understand clearly, both from reading and conversations; Rabbi’s generally chose children to train. And being “chosen”, or “called” was a great, great honor. Adults were rarely ever called by a rabbi…imagine being asked by the President of the United States to head a cabinet position…I’m thinking you’d jump at the chance! (depending on the administration…?)
Now, the lead-in to this lesson; Jesus is now known in the region for being a teacher/preacher/healer in “…the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:44) So in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus has a following of those wanting to learn, or to see what he would do next; Luke 5:15 says “But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses.” It is clear that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were trying to establish what was going on; what kind of rabbi was this Jesus. At this time Jesus heals the paralyzed man, and shows his authority as the “Son of Man” (the common term for the Messiah); and the whole crowd “…were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying “We have seen remarkable things today.” (Luke 5:26)
Now how mind-blowing for the following crowd to see Jesus on a walk to the next stop on his preaching tour of the area, come up to a “tollhouse” and instead of paying a road tax; “call” the man responsible for the collection of Roman tax and the local “hustler” of the masses! Now can you understand why someone like Levi, would throw a shindig at his place for all his fellow “tax-collectors!” You understand in the company of thieves, there is not so much friendship but comradeship of a shared profession…no-one else would spend time with them. But here, one of their compadres now, unbelievably, has been chosen by this famous rabbi, to be one of his followers. He now gets a chance at a totally new life! To learn scripture! A full and rich education! Can you see his utter joy! He gets the chance to be no-longer hated by his fellow Jews! Levi is now a “disciple.”
But the Pharisees following, now on the out-side looking in; gripe to the other disciples of Jesus “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” How outraged they must have been…couldn’t have this rabbi picked a more “appropriate” student? This is more than just a ritual purity or someone not committed to Pharisaic rules. According to John Nolland (1989) in Word Biblical Commentary, the Pharisee’s use of the term “sinner” here is more broad condemnation. He writes:
The term [sinner] should be understood sociologically as identifying those publicly known to be unsavory types who lived beyond the edge of respectable society…Pharisaism had strong separatist tendencies, and because of the prominence in Pharisaic piety of food and ritual cleanliness rules, Pharisees would only accept hospitality from one another. But analogy with the avoiding of communicable ritual uncleanness, the Pharisees considered it necessary also to avoid contamination from contact with the morally suspect elements for Jewish society (and Gentiles). (p.246)
And the final shot from Jesus himself, is a reminder that he is reaching out to the “sick” to make them well…to call sinners…those outside not only ‘polite’ society, but outside the teaching of the Temple…the house of God! Darrell Bock (1994) reminds us that “Jesus’ reply makes it clear that recovery, not quarantine, is the message of his ministry.” And that “…the unrighteous are aware of their need, whereas the unrighteous “righteous” are not.” (p. 108)
More next time.
Darrell Bock (1994) Luke. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Robert Gundry (2003) A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
James D.G. Dunn (2009) Beginning From Jerusalem. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
John Nolland (1989) Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35A, Luke 1-9:20. Dallas, TX: Word Books Publisher.