The Call of Levi (Luke 5:27-32)

The Call of Levi

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.”

28 And leaving everything behind,* he got up and followed him.

29n Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were at table with them.

30 The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

31 Jesus said to them in reply, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.

32 I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”


Spiritual – I can only repent if I first see myself as a sinner

Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” (Verse 32)  Clearly, the Pharisees would have seen themselves as righteous and see no need for repentance.  In fact, the Greek word translated as “repentance” is metanoia which implies a radical change in heart.  Why would a man that sees himself as righteous want to make a radical change?  It is clear then, that only by first recognizing our sinfulness that we can be open to a change of heart.  It’s only by first recognizing our sinfulness that we can desire true conversion.  Jesus’ call of repentance falls on deaf ears to anyone who doesn’t first identify himself as a sinner.

Spiritual – Authentically seek the truth

To the Scribes and Pharisees holy men associated with holy men and sinners associated with sinners.  That’s all there was to it.  Their belief may have come from their sense of self-superiority or it might have been because they were taught to behave that way; most likely both explanations are true.  Nevertheless, the Scribes and Pharisees could not have imagined a reasonable explanation for Jesus to associate with tax collectors and sinners if he was in fact a holy man.

Thus, for the Scribes and Pharisees, The guest list at Levi’s banquet would have highlighted a great contradiction.  Having seen Jesus perform miracles, and having heard Him preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, they would have regarded Him as a holy man devoted to God’s law.  Seeing Jesus and His disciples feast with tax collectors and sinners would have marked them as participants in a life of impiety.

I would like to believe that when they asked “why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” the Scribes and Pharisees were earnestly seeking an answer.  However, two points make the case that perhaps they weren’t really looking for an answer.  First, they didn’t ask, they complained (see verse 30).  In fact, the Greek word translated as “complained”, egongyzon, is more commonly translated as “grumbled” and implies a smoldering discontent.  Secondly, they didn’t “ask” Jesus; they asked his disciples.  If these learned men really wanted to know the answer, then why would they ask His followers and not ask the Teacher himself.  In my estimation, they didn’t want to know, they just wanted to object.

For us, the Pharisees are nearly a perfect counter-example; they show us what not to do.  That is, in our own lives we will eventually encounter a Christian teaching that we wish just wasn’t so.  (Perhaps we already have.)  It might rub our politics the wrong way, or it might go against a “truth” that we’ve held as long as we can remember.  It might concern issues of social justice, or perhaps it may touch upon our marriage, or it may call us to a forgiveness we feel justified in withholding.  I don’t know what it will be, but invariably, we will encounter a time when the Church teaches one thing and we’re just not in full agreement.  When this happens we have to remember the Scribes and Pharisees and be nothing like them.  It’s ok to question a teaching we don’t understand, but when we question, we have to authentically seek the truth; we have to be willing to accept, and live by, the authoritative answer.  This will probably require a lot of prayer on our part.

In response to this matter we should pray for the grace to always remember that God is working to sanctify us.  We have to pray for the grace to remember that we can’t remain the same if He’s going to change us.  We have to pray for a docile heart and an openness to His teachings – especially the ones that are hard to accept.

Cultural – Why were the tax collectors hated so much?

When Rome occupied a foreign nation, they didn’t trouble themselves with figuring out how to find the wealth in order to extract taxes.  Instead, in any given province, they auctioned the tax rights to the highest bidder.  Various tax collectors would bid and the one that paid the most money then had the right to collect the taxes.  So, in this way, the tax collectors were very offensive to their countrymen – they knew where the money was; they knew who could pay. While collecting taxes, they also had the strength of Rome behind them.  The tax collector would show up at your door and say “you owe such and such amount.”  If you objected, said you didn’t have that much, or otherwise resisted paying, then the Roman guards (that were standing right behind the tax collector) found a forceful way to change your mind and get what you owed.  The tax collectors were very effective at collecting more money than they had bid.  They got to keep for themselves the difference, and it made them very wealthy.

Still, there was another way in which the tax collectors were offensive to their countrymen.  That is, they had to work very closely with the Romans.  The point being, they had to work very closely with men who didn’t keep kosher; they didn’t obey the ritual cleanliness laws of the Jews.  This left the tax collector in a perpetual state of being ritually impure.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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