March 3 – Luke 5:27-32


Main Focus: Matthew the tax collector encounters an inviting Jesus, after which Matthew invites his sinner friends to meet the friend of sinners.

Last week we saw Jesus’s encounter with Peter; this week we’ll turn to another apostle, Matthew. As we’ll see in Luke 5:27-32, Matthew’s origin story speaks to the remarkable character of Jesus, who despite his holiness (or arguably, because of it) spent his time not with apparently-righteous people but with blatant sinners. That’ll give us every confidence in the world that yes, Jesus welcomes us too, and yes, Jesus calls us to do the same.

Luke 5:27 introduces us to a tax collector named Levi, but based on Matthew 9:9-17 we know that Levi was also known as Matthew (and also wrote the Gospel by the same name). As is quite clear in the story, tax collectors were not the most popular folks, particularly among the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine at the time. That’s because they collected taxes for the Roman Empire, rubbing salt in the wound of Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland, and they often collected more than was required, skimming off the top to line their own pockets. Worse still were Jewish tax collectors like Matthew here, who many Jews regarded as traitors to their people.

All of this went into the Pharisees’s grumbling response to Jesus’s reception of Matthew and his friends. Also at work, most likely, was the way in which this undermined the way the Pharisees elevated themselves over tax collectors and their ilk. They, in their own eyes, were no traitors, no accomplice of Gentiles or sinners, but the true and faithful people of God. For Jesus, an up-and-coming religious leader, to interact with the likes of Matthew was to call into question their religious authority and the self-justification games they were playing.

So in many respects it would’ve been hard for Jesus to find someone more odious and ill-fitting to talk to than Matthew. But in this encounter Jesus did the utterly unexpected: he invited Matthew to be one of his disciples. Notice the immediacy with which Matthew responded; it reads as though he leapt out of his little tax booth to follow Jesus. And Matthew’s joy didn’t stop there—he gathered his friends, a group including more tax collectors and other deplorables of Jewish society, for a party to celebrate Jesus. Just imagine the scene! There would’ve been folks of varying degrees of sleaziness, loose men and loose women, wine flowing, and more, and there in the middle of it all was Jesus.

This is where we need to ask ourselves, what does this tell us about Jesus and his priorities? Did Jesus care about wanton sinfulness around him? If so, what does his presence at this party tell us? It told the Pharisees and their scribes that Jesus was no better than his company—in two chapters they’ll accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). But his response to them is both masterful and heartwarming: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” What Jesus tells us is exactly the assurance Paul gives Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

This helps us reflect on this holy Son of God. His holiness wasn’t articulated the same way as the Pharisees, through distance and disgust, but through proximity and mercy. Jesus describes himself as a physician, and he sees sin as the lethal disease it is. Rather than holding sinners at arm’s length in order to justify himself, Jesus brings them close so that, by placing their faith in him, he might justify them.

In discussion we’ll also reflect on how this helps us see how Jesus welcomes us. We’re invited in this story to most closely associate ourselves with Matthew and his crowd, to remember and realize afresh that Jesus really had no business welcoming us as disciples. We’re not the healthy, we’re the sick; we are the sinners that desperately need the attention of the Great Physician. This story is not primarily about how we can be like Jesus, the friend of sinners, but about our need for Jesus’s friendship. That being said, like Matthew we too are called to follow Jesus, so we’ll end discussion touching on how Jesus’s priorities can become our own.

Remembering our experience of mercy from Jesus will help us do this and will help us see through the self-justification games we tend to play that would keep us from associating with the kind of people Jesus did.

Discussion questions

– Could someone read Luke 5:27-32 for us?

– What stood out to you from the passage?

– Why do you think the Pharisees were “grumbling” about this?

– What can this passage tell us about Jesus’s priorities?

– How can this passage help you see how Jesus relates to you?

– What do you think it looks like for us to live according to Jesus’s same priorities?