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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series. Previous post.

What is wrong with the world? On television, talking heads debate this question endlessly. Normally, whatever their political persuasion, they define the problem in terms of other people. We are no different. Many times in the course of my ministry, I have found myself sitting across the desk from a couple in crisis. Their marriage is unravelling quickly. In my almost twenty years of ordained pastoral ministry, I don’t think I have ever heard a spouse sincerely say, “It’s all my fault!” when I have inquired into the reasons for the couple’s trouble. They might admit part of the fault, but each spouse secretly believes the other is mostly to blame. The Pharisees were little different in Jesus’ day. If asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” they would have answered: “People like Levi, the tax collector. Sinners and tax collectors, they are the problem; we’d be so much better off without them.”

In this, the last of Luke’s three cameo portraits, each illustrating the heart of Jesus Christ for the lost, we see His grace toward Levi, the outcast—a traitorous, disgusting wretch. If we are to recover the lost art of man-fishing, we will need to learn to view the lost through the same lens and with the same compassion as Jesus. Notice a number of details from Luke’s account of their meeting.

Jesus Calls Him with Power 

Jesus and His disciples were walking down a road beside the sea of Galilee. Over at the side of the road sat Levi counting his money. His mother called him Matthew, meaning “gift of God.” That’s what she thought the day he was born: “God has given me a son.” But in recent years, Matthew had given his mother nothing but shame. 

Nobody likes paying taxes. This was particularly true when the taxing authority was the Roman invader. Levi helped them fleece God’s flock, and the Jews hated him for it. Worse still, he had to pay handsomely for the privilege. To increase their revenues, the Romans turned a blind eye as taxmen loaded each transaction with various fees and commissions. When the poor couldn’t find the money, the taxmen would lend the cash at exorbitant interest rates, trapping the poor in horrible bondage. As a result, when the Pharisees wanted to describe the very worst kinds of people in society, they would lump them together under the rubric of “tax collectors and sinners.”

So there was Levi counting his money, “Nine shekels for Rome, and one shekel for me . . .” I wonder if he even bothered to look up as Jesus stood before him. I imagine the Pharisees wondering: “What’s Jesus going to do? We just saw Him touch a leper, but surely even He’s got some standards.” 

Then, Jesus with a word reached down into the bottomless pit of human degradation. “Follow me!” He said. In an instant, something happened deep in Matthew’s soul. For years, the only master he followed was the almighty shekel. But now, for the first time in his whole life, new thoughts and new affections flooded his soul. Matthew got up, left his money, and walked away from all the things he owned—or rather all the things that owned him, and he began to follow Jesus.

Here is the power of the voice of God in Christ, and it explains why preaching must always be the church’s main business. Christians can endeavor to help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and reconcile the races, but our main preoccupation must always be to unleash the power of God’s Word in verbal proclamation. It is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16ff). It is the power to make dead sinners live (Eph. 2:1–10). It is the power of God’s new creation breaking into the here and now (Heb. 6:5). It is the power of God’s abundant mercy overflowing into the lives of the last, the lost, and the least (1 Peter 1:3–5). Have you felt this power in your soul? Have you been born again?

Christians can endeavor to help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and reconcile the races, but our main preoccupation must always be to unleash the power of God’s Word in verbal proclamation.
Jesus Treats Him as a Friend

“And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled.” 

In those days, table fellowship made a powerful statement: “These are my people. I am one with them and they are one with me. We are friends!” Tables were places where covenants were sealed and friendships were celebrated. Therefore, the Pharisee would not even entertain the possibility of eating with the likes of Matthew—he wouldn’t risk putting his hands to his mouth after brushing up against a “sinner” in the marketplace. Even accidental contact brought defilement. Thus the endless series of washings in Pharisaical Judaism. You can perhaps imagine the shock when Jesus sat down to eat with such rabble.

Table fellowship with the Lord: here is God’s picture of the gospel. What we eat, the bread and the wine becomes part of us. There is a total sharing, a total communion. His body becomes ours. His blood becomes ours. And in those realties, His life becomes our life, and His death becomes our death. This union explains the legality of imputation. This union makes our sin belong to Jesus, and by the same logic it makes His righteousness ours forever.

What Jesus did for Matthew and His friends, He offers now to every sinner: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). What appalled the Pharisees should delight us: this man eats and drinks with sinners.

Jesus Heals Him Deep Inside 

The Pharisees were amazed: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them: “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.”

Sin has wounded us all. Our souls are scarred with guilt, shame, and uncleanness. Most of the time this is hidden beneath the carefully groomed veneer of niceness. But every so often, the mask slips, and people catch a glimpse of who we really are: a husband points out how perpetually messy his wife’s minivan is—three years’ worth of semi-digested Goldfish, french fries, and candy bar wrappers lie beneath the seats. She likes to forget; then he reminds her. She in turn points out all the weeds growing up in the flower beds on the way up to the front door, and the numerous DIY projects he never finds time to begin. These little “failures” point to a deeper inadequacy and form a thousand little reminders of what we really are. It is not just that our behavior is disappointing; we feel that we are disappointments. What can be done?

Over the course of a lifetime, we develop a thousand strategies of self-justification—strategies to medicate this nagging sense of inadequacy. I stumbled across a startling illustration of this kind of thing recently in the life of Alex Honnold, the young lad who was the first to climb El Capitan without ropes—3,200 feet of polished granite—at times with almost nothing on which to hold, but just a few bumps on the face of the cliff. And he did it without ropes! A professional climber watching Alex climb commented: “Imagine a four-hour-long Olympic gymnastics routine that had to be perfect. One tiny mistake, and you’re dead!”

What on earth drives him to attempt such madness? In the course of the film documenting this amazing accomplishment, we discover part of the truth. Apparently, Alex grew up under the watchful gaze of a merciless, perfectionistic mother. She used words as goads. One of her favorite phrases was: “If it’s just good enough, it’s not!” She never praised Alex. Ever. 

After completing his ropeless climb to the top, Alex stood admiring the view and exclaimed, “Just once in my life it is wonderful to feel perfect—even if it is only for a few hours!” Then it dawned on me. Alex climbs to justify himself. Sin doth make climbers of us all.

The problem, of course, is that we need much more than four hours’ worth of perfection. If we are to have any hope of standing in God’s presence, we need a lifetime of perfection. This is why we need Jesus: He alone has the perfection we need, and He is willing to give it to us as a gift. When a sinner believes in Him, an outcast of earth becomes a friend of God, forever welcome at the Father’s table in heaven.

No one is beyond such mercy. Should that not change the way we view and treat outcasts on earth? We should be aggressively merciful with those whose sins tempt us to cast them out. Like God, we should always be “ready to forgive” (Ps. 86:5, NASB). We should open wide the doors of our churches to society’s exiles. We should intentionally invite them to come, warmly welcoming them when they do. For our God is the God of the outcast: hallelujah, He still eats and drinks with sinners.

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