Pastor Drew Williams
There are two types of people: those who keep a safe distance, and those who do not.
Now, you might be thinking you are one or the other, but it usually depends on the situation, doesn’t it?
If you see a big dog approaching you, you might be the kind of person who keeps their distance. Or you might be the one that gets down to their level to give big cuddles and start talking in that voice reserved for only the cutest of animals.
What if you’re on a hike, and you’re at a beautiful cliff vista at a viewpoint over a valley? Do you stand BACK and view the panorama from a safe distance? Or are you the kind of person who gets down on your belly and sticks your head over the edge?
Or perhaps it changes when you’re by a campfire. Maybe you’re the type of person who likes to sit about 16 feet back from the fire, safe in your chair with your drink of choice, keeping away from the flames and the smoke. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who goes and finds sticks to burn and you spend the rest of the evening singeing the hair on your arm as you experience the mesmerizing wonder of combustion.
In many cases, caution is prudent and wise. But what if I told you that keeping a safe distance in certain situations means that you’re missing out on the life that Jesus is inviting you into?
Today, we’re going to look at a Jesus story that shows the situations where Jesus himself chooses to get in close, and we’ll also see the type of people who choose to keep a safe distance instead. Let’s read together Luke chapter 5, verses 27 through 32.
Our scene opens with Jesus going out into the streets of the town where he and his disciples had been ministering to people, and he sees a tax collector. Now, this tax collector was not really used to being looked at the way Jesus was looking at him. No, most Jews who passed him on the street wouldn’t so much SEE him as they would “eye” him.
He was a despised person, after all. Tax collectors were people who were normally associated with dishonesty and abuse of authority. Most Jews viewed tax collectors the same as we would view moles, informants, traitors.
They were Jews who were collaborators with Rome. They worked for the enemy. Faithful Jews were looking forward to God’s Kingdom to come. And that meant getting RID of Rome and restoring Israel back to its place as God’s chosen nation.
So, it wasn’t just that Jews were against Rome. God was against Rome. Rome was the oppressive evil that was keeping Israel in subjugation. And tax collectors had sided with the enemy.
That made them God’s enemies. Which explains the way most Jews saw tax collectors.
Now, if I’m honest, THIS type of “seeing” is something I myself am guilty of from time to time. You know what I mean. Where I’m “just keeping an eye” on that “weird looking guy” or the “suspicious person.”
But that’s NOT how Jesus is looking at Levi. The Greek word that is used at the beginning of our text doesn’t mean to eye with suspicion, it means “to look at intently and purposely.” Jesus was looking at, even INTO, a real person with a NAME, Levi.
Then Jesus speaks, “Follow me.” And Levi left everything.
Two words from Jesus. That’s all it took. There must have been something about the way that he said it, because he didn’t need to say anything else. And Levi “leaves everything.” In other words, he reoriented his life to follow Jesus in that moment. Perhaps he even “left” the tax trade altogether.
Now, we know he doesn’t get rid of all of his money and possessions, because we see him throw a dinner party in the next verse. And this banquet is actually thrown FOR Jesus, the guest of honor. And Levi invites a large crowd of his fellow tax collectors and others.
“But the Pharisees…” yeah, get used to hearing THAT phrase over and over again!
But the Pharisees complained to Jesus’ disciples, they murmured their resistance, muttering their displeasure, “why do YOU eat and drink with tax collectors and SINNERS?”
Okay, let’s pause real quick and break this down for a second. We’ve got to orient our minds around the scene. In first century Palestine, people lived in these communal apartment building-style homes. Each family had one or two rooms, and all the different units opened onto this shared courtyard in the center. So when different members of the community gathered for a big meeting or meal, it was out in the open, in public. And anyone walking by could see what was going on. Often there would be people walking through the courtyard itself, either to get to their home or to pass through on their way somewhere else.
And you’d notice, “oh, wow, the fishing guild is having a meeting tonight.” Because someone from the fishing guild lived there, and they “reserved” the courtyard area for their dinner party and meeting that night. And if you weren’t part of the fishing guild, you would notice and then just keep walking. Those aren’t my people, I’m not welcome there.
So you can imagine the Pharisees either just walking through, or maybe they even heard the rumor of what was going on, so they walk by AS IF they are just going about their business and sure enough, the tax collectors are all gathered for dinner.
But wait, double take, was that JESUS?! Right there in the seat of honor next to the host? So they complain to the disciples, who are probably on the edge of the group. But why didn’t they say this to Jesus directly?
Maybe it’s because Jesus is at the center of the party, and they are refusing to be a part of these festivities. They’re condemning it from the outside.
Or, they could be targeting the disciples to undermine their loyalty to Jesus, or they are shaming the disciples as a way of showing how that reflects on their master.
And you just KNOW that the Pharisees probably weren’t saying this quietly, right? So all the guests could overhear them as they practically spit on everyone in attendance, making a clear distinction of tax collectors in their own category apart from the rest of the generic “sinners” who would associate with folks such as this.
And why are they so surprised and mad to find Jesus and his disciples there? Well, because in the Mediterranean, shared meals symbolized shared lives.
It showed intimacy, kinship, unity.
So the Pharisees’ problem isn’t with the party. Parties like that were normal. The Pharisees themselves would regularly hold gatherings like that. Jesus would actually end up attending many of them, hosted by various Pharisees and other religious leaders. In fact, the Pharisees were probably even aware that much of the prophetic literature in their scriptures described the Kingdom of God as a big feast.
No, their problem wasn’t with the party. Their problem was with the guest list. How could someone like Jesus be partying with people like THIS?!
Now, this shows that they apparently viewed Jesus and his disciples as being in the “right” crowd, the “righteous,” at least compared to the rest of those attending.
So how could this Jesus, who claimed to be sent from God, who was able to do amazing miracles, who might even be the Messiah that God promised and that they were longing for…how could he be uniting himself with the unclean? With the enemies of God? With the people who weren’t following God’s laws in the way that the Pharisees held to?
Why wasn’t he keeping a safe distance from these…these…sinners?!
Jesus ends up noticing the commotion and overhearing them and decides to give his response directly, rather than sending a message through some disciples. “Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick ones do. I didn’t come to call the “righteous,” but sinners to repentance.”
This answer is so short and simple, but it is also amazingly deep and multi-layered. In Jewish literature, especially in the Jewish scriptures, healing is always in reference to the restoration of the relationship between Yahweh and his people. In other words, when the OT talks about healing, it’s referring to a return to wholeness, to shalom. It’s referring to forgiveness.
Jesus is laying out his whole purpose again. Not to stay in insulated groups of “fellow believers.” Not to rub elbows with people who already think they have it together, but to go out and pursue those who feel like they aren’t invited, and then call them to be included in the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus doesn’t just offer a placebo of “acceptance” and “polite conversation”. He doesn’t just prescribe trying to be “nice” to people. He’s calling them to REPENT.
Jesus knows that seeking out sinners means going to people who recognize they are not all they are meant to be and then calling them to turn their lives away from what is hurting them and towards the grace and forgiveness of the Kingdom of God so that they can begin to learn how to live in the light, one step at a time.
The Pharisees view themselves as righteous. And Jesus knows they view all the dinner guests as too far gone to be included in the Kingdom of God. In fact, “THEY are probably the ones that God needs to come get rid of in order to make Israel pure again.”
But with his statement here at the end of our text, Jesus is saying “those who you thought were OUTSIDE the boundaries of belonging and companionship are actually the very ones that I’ve been sent to seek out and save.”
And that’s where we stop today. We’ll have to wait until Pastor Chris’s meditation on Ash Wednesday to see how they respond and what comes next at the party. But even though this is such a quick little story, there is so much in here that teaches us about Jesus.
Something that really stuck out to me when I was reading this is that Jesus never seems to avoid people. Any people. Instead, he ACTIVELY looks for ways to interact with people, especially those far from him, those far from God.
And Levi is a perfect candidate as a disciple of Jesus because he is open to Jesus and is willing to follow him. Not only that, but he’s also the doorway to the tax collector community. Jesus wasn’t going to get to know any of them through his time teaching in the synagogue. They probably weren’t welcome. But Levi knew them all. Jesus’ intentional pursuit of diverse disciples enabled his connections with diverse communities.
I wonder if I would have responded like Levi. He had such a “simple” call, right? No prerequisites. No rules to memorize first. Just “Follow Me.”
Simple call. But not easy. If you think about it, it’s actually EASIER to stay in our seat and study our Bibles and learn ABOUT Jesus.
But getting up and FOLLOWING him? That’s hard. That’s dangerous to my status quo. It’s more comfortable to keep a safe distance. Maybe I don’t have to accept this invitation…
You know, another thing this story teaches us about Jesus is that he accepted invitations.
I don’t have anything impactful to say other than that. Jesus walked through the doors that the Holy Spirit opened to him. But he didn’t just connect with people to make more friends. No, Jesus connected with people in order to call them to repentance. In order to point them to the full life graciously offered in the kingdom of God.
He didn’t act fake in order to connect with people. He didn’t do any bait-and-switches.
In his statement here at the end of our text, he doesn’t even shy away from the word sinner. Did you notice that? He is clear about his call to repentance. But since these people are AWARE of their need, they happily accept Jesus’ friendship as well as his call to repentance because it’s offered in grace.
Condemning sin from a distance, like the Pharisees were doing, is just called legalism. But Jesus came alongside. He entered into relationship, proclaiming and demonstrating the transforming GRACE of God.
So how do we model our life after Jesus from this? I mean, that IS our point of studying Jesus, right? We want to try and let him transform our lives to look more and more like his. So what do we GET to try as we practice following Jesus?
First, we can rub shoulders with people outside the church. Think about it, if all of our time is spent with friends from church, or doing social things with just our family, or with other Christians, then we’re missing out on opportunities of joining Jesus on mission.
We can’t do our work of pointing sinners to the Savior unless we spend time with them! Jesus knew this. But unlike Jesus, we’ve got to remember that WE’RE sinners too! So all we’re doing is learning how to follow Jesus ourselves while also pointing others to him, and then journeying together.
One of the best ways to do this is to invite people into your life and accept invitations into theirs. Do you already have a breakfast spot that you love to go to every week? Invite someone to come with you.
Do you already have a show that you watch every week? Watch it TOGETHER with someone. And as you build relationships with people, they’ll probably invite you into their life. A lot of the time, that’s probably the Holy Spirit opening a door for you.
And when we ARE invited into their world, we get to be a LIGHT in their world. This doesn’t just mean we invite them back to church with us, though that is absolutely one of the options. But when we are invited into someone else’s world, it’s an opportunity to stay there with them and just be a light in that place.
Being a light means always pointing back to the good news of Jesus’ grace that gives freedom of life. This ISN’T being annoying with throwing Jesus’ name into every sentence. But it IS about pointing to where Jesus has shown YOU grace in your own life when asked, being a witness like we talked about a few weeks ago.
We’ve got to change our mental image of what it looks like to do a Jesus gathering though. When we read the gospels, connections with Jesus rarely look like a dour devotional, shared with serious faces and furrowed brows.
It rarely looks like dutiful mission, where we are going out because we “have to” in order to be a good Christian. Signing up to serve enough times at the soup kitchen, or helping at the church program, doing however minimum number of times I need to “get the job done.”
Whenever I read the gospels and see what happens when people connect with Jesus, it usually is full of joy and laughter and generosity and connection.
It looks a lot like a PARTY.
That’s probably because many times, it IS a party! Because followers of Jesus are party people.
Do you know WHY followers of Jesus are party people? Because the most natural response that someone can have after receiving grace is JOY and PRAISE. That’s why it’s so good for us to regularly remind each other of the GRACE that is ours in Jesus. That even though we are constantly being distracted and drawn away from him by the things going on around us, even though our hearts are full of fear or greed, Jesus never stops pursuing us and offering us the grace to turn back to him and follow him again each day.
That’s a reminder we need every day. It’s a reminder I need every day. Because when we remember that and truly receive it, what other response is there than a party?!
What? Even though I keep focusing on my own desires and control, Jesus still invites me to lay that down and follow him? YES!
You mean that even though I keep slipping back into anger and judgment, Jesus forgives me and is working to transform my heart? All I have to do is accept and practice following him? YES! Doesn’t that make you want to praise him joyfully?!
But if we’re honest, throwing parties that invite and welcome people far from God isn’t exactly what we are always known for, is it? Why is that? What are the things that are holding us back from being party people like Jesus?
Well, author and pastor Tim Chester offers three excuses that keep us from showing hospitality like Jesus. The first is this: it’s too SCARY!
Being vulnerable with people, inviting them into my life, that’s scary. What if they say no? What if they don’t like my house? What if, what if, what if…
This is just the fear of man at work again, isn’t it? Where we are more concerned with what others think of us. We’re striving for the approval of others, or we’re scared of the rejection of others, so we just…don’t act. We hold ourselves back.
But we don’t need to prove ourselves. We’re justified by the finished work of Christ. All the proving has been done by him! So that means that we GET to serve out of FREEDOM. It’s not a “have to,” it’s a “get to.” If you’re feeling like hospitality is a burden, that’s a pretty good clue that you might be driven to prove yourself and impress others.
The second excuse we give for not showing hospitality is that it’s too COSTLY.
Food costs money. Hospitality takes time, doesn’t it? Things can get broken. There are RISKS.
And these might all be reasons that we’ve been giving ourselves in order to justify staying back in our comfortable life, ignoring the invitation from Jesus to go out and share his joy and grace.
But our meals don’t have to be elaborate. The house doesn’t have to be spotless! Honestly, if you were to ask most people, they would say that they PREFER the casual belonging that you can experience in a simple shared meal and conversation.
When Jesus threw parties, he didn’t try and model it after some baking competition TV show, he just tried to invite people into his life so that they could experience a connection in a family with God as the head.
The third excuse that was suggested as why we don’t offer hospitality was the one that hit me the hardest…we’re too BUSY.
Yeah, I’d LOVE to do this. I’m listening and it’s totally making me WANT to live this way! But…when? Between my family commitments, the regular routines we already have, the kids sports, the grandkids visits, the trips we have planned, the appointments I already have scheduled…I just don’t have the TIME to fit something else in right now.
And, like I said, I find this one the most close to home for me right now. But the truth is that I already make time for things that matter to me. It just takes PLANNING.
And I have to remind myself that hospitality in the way of Jesus can be SIMPLE. And when people come over and offer to HELP I can let them, and then they feel even more like family!
And finally, God might actually be inviting me to stop something in order to make space for learning how to be a party person in the way of Jesus.
Now, I don’t know what you might be feeling at this point. But if we want to continue on this journey of learning how to follow Jesus every day, if we want to keep practicing putting our faith into action, then we need to hear the invitation from Jesus. And then we find that he is also inviting others as well, others who might not be the normal type of people we associate with. People we might judge. People we might dismiss.
But we aren’t really that different, are we?
Jesus has come to you, while you were a SINNER, and called you to follow him. He’s offered his grace to enable you to repent. He’s taken your shame and called you “friend,” he’s called you his “beloved.” He’s canceled your debt and given you HIS righteousness. He’s pursued you and claimed you and promised that you’ll NEVER be alone because not only will HE never leave you but he’s also adopted you into his ever-growing family of recovering and reconciled rebels.
AND IN THIS FAMILY, WE PARTY!
So go party! Accept invitations. Be hosted and receive grace.
Go throw a party and invite people who aren’t always at your house already.
Go out somewhere and let the restaurant host you and your guests. And then tip well because we GET to share the generous blessings that God gives us each and every day!
We GET to be party people because we follow the ONE who has defeated death and given us HOPE worth sharing about the coming kingdom of God and the healing of all things in need of wholeness.
We GET to be party people because it’s a simple way we can practice living life like Jesus, making new friends along the way and pointing always to the sufficient work of Jesus to welcome ALL OF US to the table of grace.
Isn’t that good news?