Again Jesus' attention turns to a social outcast, in this case Levi the tax collector. Luke has already discussed tax collectors when he described the ministry of John the Baptist (see 3:10-14). Jesus initiates relationships with outcasts, even though pious people in Israel challenge such associations (7:36-50; 15:1-2; 19:1-10). As the earlier account with Peter showed (5:1-11), Jesus calls sinners to righteousness and to share in mission with him. Jesus does not merely forgive sinners, he openly associates with them.
But why? Why does Jesus associate with sinners when so many righteous people do not want to have anything to do with them? Many people think one must choose absolute separation if one is to remain pure, but for Jesus this is a false choice. Jesus views people in terms of what God could make them into, rather than pigeonholing them into who they currently are. There is no compromise with holiness in his relationships with sinners, because one of the very characteristics of God's holiness is the way he reaches out in mercy to those in need (1:46-53). God graciously takes the sinner who is responsive to him and begins the work of transformation.
The story in this passage proceeds simply. Jesus observes the tax collector Levi at work and calls him to follow (9:23, 59; 18:22). Levi's response is total—he got up, left everything and followed him. The instantaneous and comprehensive nature of the decision to join Jesus shows both the reputation Jesus has and the quality of an exemplary response to Jesus. Levi has put Jesus first. To follow him is a priority.
In fact, Levi wishes to celebrate by introducing Jesus to his friends. Such is often the case with recent converts to Jesus. Unchurched friends are often the first to hear about the new discovery. So it should be. The tragedy is that after people have been in the church for a time, they find it hard to relate to outsiders. Jesus does not suffer from this problem; he consciously makes an effort to associate with those outside his community. He does not run or hide from the world in need, but engages with it realistically so its real needs can be addressed. Often what wins an outsider to God is a genuine friendship. Despite Levi's low social status, he feels free to associate with Jesus. Jesus' invitation has made that clear.
A contrasting attitude emerges in the grumbling among Jewish leaders. Their commitment to purity, their sense of what God requires of them and their fear of risking exposure to the world cause them to shun outsiders and criticize those who try to relate in a healthy and engaging way to sinners. Table fellowship in the ancient world meant mutual acceptance. So at stake in the Pharisees and scribes' response is a worldview question. Should we really get close to the socially objectionable, to people like tax collectors and sinners? The Greek word used for their complaint, egongyzon, is significant because it is the term Numbers 14:26-35 LXX uses to describe the nation's grumbling to God in the wilderness. This word sounds like its meaning; we can almost hear the harsh tone of voice as we read the words (7:34 repeats the complaint).
Jesus' reply makes it clear that recovery, not quarantine, is the message of his ministry. Jesus pictures himself as a doctor who treats the sick, not the strong. The remark takes the Pharisees' perspective, though it does not endorse their righteousness. Jesus' point is that those who know they need help will respond to the Physician. Often the unrighteous are aware of their need, whereas the unrighteous "righteous" are not. The unrighteous need a breath of potential acceptance and a whiff of God's grace to open up to his work. The appeal to physician imagery is common in Judaism (Is 3:7; Jer 8:22; esp. Sirach 38:1-15; Bovon 1989:259, n. 24).
Jesus' second point is a mission statement that explains why he seeks the outsider. This is one of several such mission statements in Luke (7:34; 12:49, 51; 18:8; 19:10). Jesus has come to minister to those who have need of repentance. He calls to them to repent. Repentance is a major Lukan theme, and only Luke mentions it in this scene (3:3, 8; 13:1-5; 15:7-10; 16:30; 17:3-4; 24:47). Here Jesus offers a picture of true repentance: it is like going to a doctor for help. The "cure," if it is to come, must come from outside of oneself. A repentant heart is open to God and to his administering the necessary medicine for life. God graciously gives this medicine to those who seek forgiveness through him. Jesus sees opportunity for restoration for sinners and works to achieve relationship with them so they can experience the healing they need. When tax collectors and sinners come to the table in the clinic, Jesus, the Great Physician, is not about to turn them away. As in the other events chronicled in Luke 4:31—5:32, Jesus reaches out to all types of needy people. All can benefit from the power of his healing presence.
Some are still uncomfortable with such an open ministry, but this is evangelism in its most authentic form. Jesus' ministry is about compassion and grace. When Jesus proclaims God's love, the outsider knows Jesus means it. Both his words and his actions show it. In his openness Jesus risks criticism and ridicule. But given that Jesus pursues such contacts with gusto, can his disciples do otherwise?
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.