This week, I came across a book entitled The Seven Deadly Virtues.105 The author of the book, Gerald Mann, is a Baptist preacher. Early in his book Mann tells of an experience in a small country Baptist church which kept him from church for a number of years. Mann writes:
The first time I met a Baptist preacher, he asked me about three questions, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jerry, you’re lost, and that’s all they are to that!”
I started attending church regularly. I didn’t know what “lost” meant, but he said it with such gravity that I was certain I was whatever he said I was.
By the spring of my thirteenth year, the Baptists were “hard in prayer for my soul,” as they frequently informed me. An evangelist was coming to town to lead revival services, and according to them, it could well be my last chance to be saved. Such ominous warnings didn’t frighten me. What little I had had to do with God told me that he was not that kind at all.
However, I attended the revival anyway, because the evangelist was a former teen-age gang-leader who had once tried to stab my older brother. I was curious to hear and see a person who claimed to have been converted from the seamy side of life.
The ex-hoodlum-turned-Bible-thumper was something to behold! He was dressed in white and red—white suit with red cuffs and lapels, red and white shoes. Even his Bible was red and white!
His sermon was a blow-by-blow account of his former life on the “wild side.” Graphically, he portrayed scenes of gang fights, heroin sales, and sexual liaisons with wanton sirens. Considering that the wildest thing in our town was playing dominoes at the pool parlor, one can imagine how captivated we teenagers were. This was genuine Mickey Spillane stuff! And in the flesh! We didn’t miss a word.
Then he told us of how Jesus had reached into the midst of all that muck and plucked him out of it. I am certain he didn’t intend to, but he made it sound as if Jesus had spoiled a rather exciting life! His message had the import of one of those True Confession magazine stories: “I immersed myself in a world of booze and dope and sex. And boy, was it fun! But I tell you my story only to keep you from making the same fun-filled mistakes!”
The story was so gripping that I was sorry he had been converted so soon. I wanted to hear a little more!
Then the evangelist took the microphone and started down the aisle, while the song leader fed out the cord. In a flash, I realized he was heading straight for me. (Later, I learned that someone had “fingered” me as a potential convert.)
He stopped in front of me and said in a booming voice, “Do you want to go to Hell!” The audience was silent. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and angry and confused. I bolted from the pew, dashed outside, and ran two blocks before I looked back.106
Gerald Mann describes and attitude toward sin and sinners which is very frequently found among Christians, and which is often the pretext for the rejection of the gospel by unbelievers. There is a very common perception that while unbelievers are having their fun now, their time of suffering—and our time of blessing, of course—will come. We therefore find ourselves frequently citing the beer commercial in a critical way. Since you only go around once, you’d better grab all the gusto you can get. The “King James” version of this is: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
When it comes to the matter of eating, drinking, and being merry, it is generally held that the Bible in general, and Jesus, in particular, condemned the thought. If this is your opinion, you are in for a rather distressing study, for the issue of eating, drinking, and being merry is precisely that which the Pharisees raise with Jesus and His disciples. The disturbing fact is that Jesus is the one who is eating, drinking, and being merry, and the Pharisees are miffed because of it. How is it that Jesus can be for eating, drinking, and being merry, when many Christians are against it? Hopefully this “tension in the text” will hold your interest long enough for you to learn some vital lessons from our text.
(1) Verses 27-28 — Levi’s resignation
(2) Verses 29-32 — Levi’s reception: Look who’s coming to dinner!
(3) Verses 33-39 — Feasting or fasting: Why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast?
The public ministry of our Lord has commenced in chapter 4. That ministry “started out with a bang,” with Jesus’ message and miraculous power welcomed, but that did not last long. The first instance of Jesus’ public teaching recorded by Luke (albeit a year into His public ministry) is at the Synagogue in Nazareth, where Jesus had grown up. Reading from Isaiah chapter 61, Jesus indicated that His coming was a fulfillment of this prophecy. People were delighted to hear this, until Jesus pointed out that His coming meant blessing for the Gentiles, too, something which brought about a murderous response from the people. Elsewhere, however, Jesus was welcomed and sought after by the multitudes.
Luke is already preparing his readers for the rejection of Jesus by the leadership of the nation. If the multitudes welcome Jesus, the Pharisees and teachers of the law quickly begin to be suspicious, and then critical, and then become outright opponents, who seek occasion to accuse Him and also a means of destroying Him.
The Pharisees were first introduced in chapter 5, at the healing of the paralytic, who was lowered through the roof of the house, in which Jesus was teaching (vv. 16-26). When Jesus informed the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, the Pharisees reacted, reasoning (rightly) that only God can forgive sins. They cannot deny the healing of the paralytic, but they are unwilling to receive Jesus as God. The calling of Matthew and the banquet at which Jesus and “sinners” intermingled was another incident in which the gap between Jesus and the Pharisees widens significantly. This section of Luke’s gospel, which reports the reaction of the Pharisees to the “eating and drinking” of Jesus and His disciples, informs us of one of the fundamental issues which put Him and the religious leaders of Israel at odds.
Our approach in this lesson will be to carefully consider the actions and associations of our Lord. We will also attempt to understand the questions raised by the Pharisees, in response to our Lord’s actions and associations. Then we will carefully consider our Lord’s response to these questions. Finally, we shall seek to learn if there are any 20th century parallels to the thinking of the Pharisees, as well as to identify any principles which should guide and govern us in our spiritual lives.
Levi, known here and in Mark (2:14) by this name, but elsewhere referred to as Matthew (cf. Matt. 9:9; 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), was a tax-collector. We know from the New Testament108 that anyone who was a tax-collector was a very unpopular person, synonymous with “sinner” and on a social par with gluttons, drunkards, and harlots. This was the bottom rung of the Jewish social ladder. One could sink no lower.
There was more than one type of tax-collector in those days, as Shepherd informs us:
Levi was a custom-house official. The Talmud distinguishes between the tax collector and the custom house official. The Gabbai collected the regular real estate and income taxes on the poll tax; the Mockhes, the duty on imports, exports, toll on roads, bridges, the harbour, the town tax, and a great multiplicity of other variable taxes on an unlimited variety of things, admitting of much abuse and graft. The very word Mockhes was associated with the idea of oppression and injustice. The taxes in Judea were levied by publicans, who were Jews, and therefore hated the more as direct officials of the heathen Roman power. Levi occupied the detestable position of a publican of the worst type—a little Mockhes, who himself stood in the Roman custom-house on the highway connecting Damascus and Ptolemais, and by the sea where all boats plied between the domains of Antipas and Philip. The name “publican,” which applied to these officials, is derived from the Latin word publicanus—a man who did public duty. The Jews detested these publicans not only on account of their frequent abuses and tyrannical spirit, but because the very taxes they were forced to collect by the Roman government were a badge of servitude and a constant reminder that God had forsaken His people and land in spite of the Messianic hope, founded on many promises of the ancient prophets. The publicans were classed by the people with harlots, usurers, gamblers, thieves, and dishonest herdsmen, who lived hard, lawless lives. They were just “licensed robbers” and “beasts in human shape.”
According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a man like Levi. He was excluded from all religious fellowship. His money was considered tainted and defiled anyone who accepted it. He could not serve as a witness. The Rabbis had no word of help for the publican, because they expected him by external conformity to the law to be justified before God.109
Luke was the more hated kind of tax-collector, who assessed taxes for commerce. One can see how his tax office could be stationed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum.110 One can also imagine that Levi may have frequently heard Jesus teach, and was likely well known to our Lord, just as the disciples Peter, James, and John were known to Him.
We know that the position of tax-collector, like most jobs, affords certain kinds of evil. Luke has already informed his reader of one of the evils of which many tax-collectors were guilty when he wrote of John the Baptist’s words to the tax-collectors who came to him for baptism:
And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (Luke 3:12-13).
Thus, we know that many tax-collectors were guilty of abusing their position by using the power of the state to charge excessive taxes and keep the profits of their evil deeds. Luke himself will later inform us of one instance in which a sinful tax-collector repents and makes restitution for his misconduct (Zaccheus, cf. Luke 19:1-10). The question is, “Was Matthew one such crooked tax-collector?” I see absolutely no evidence which suggests that he was. Matthew, on following Jesus, makes no gestures of restitution, as does Zaccheus. I believe the reason is that Matthew was an honest tax-collector. Jesus did not call a crook to follow Him, hoping that discipleship would mend his ways. Jesus’ look at Matthew is a discerning one, suggesting an appraisal and approval of his character.111 The assumption of the Pharisees, that all tax-collectors were crooked, “sinners,” was wrong, and I believe Matthew to be one example of their error.
It is my opinion that tax-collectors were hated, not just because they misused their authority, but because of what they represented. Tax-collectors were a painful reminder of the fact that Israel was not a free nation, but was subject to Roman rule and authority. If the Pharisees had thought this matter through, they would have realized that the very presence of tax-collectors was a reminder of Israel’s sin, for foreign domination was, under the Mosaic Covenant, one of the consequences for disobeying the Law of Moses. This would surely be an indictment against the “teachers of the law,” who were so opposed to tax-collectors. The Old Testament prophets frequently identified the leadership of Israel for making a significant contribution to the sin of the nation.
And so it was that Jesus passed by the tax office of Levi and invited him to follow as a disciple. Luke alone tells us that Levi, much like the fishermen (Peter and Andrew, James and John) at the beginning of the chapter, left everything and followed the Master. The brevity of the account serves to underscore the dramatic change which seems to happen so quickly and yet so decisively.
Luke alone informs us that the dinner which Jesus attended was a celebration banquet put on by Levi. Having left all, one would think that Levi would have held a wake, rather than a reception. From all appearances, it was a lavish affair, held in what would probably have been a very large and lovely home. No doubt Levi was a well-to-do man, even without practicing the evils of some of his colleagues.
I can imagine one of Levi’s colleagues arriving home after a hard day at work, asking his wife if there was anything interesting in the day’s mail. As a matter of fact, there was, his wife informs him. She shows him an invitation to a banquet at the house of Levi. The invitation explains that the reception is in celebration of his leaving his work in order to follow Jesus of Nazareth. The invitation also indicates that Jesus will be at the banquet as well.
Our Lord is not only present at the celebration, He was the central personality, the major attraction and focus of attention. Every indication is that Jesus was very much a part of the celebration. It is my personal opinion that this celebration included wine, like the wedding at Cana. It is also my viewpoint that Jesus was holding a cup of wine and was drinking from it just like the others.
“Eating and drinking” is in our text, the central issue. “Drinking,” here, as elsewhere, has the connotation of drinking wine, not just drinking water or grape juice. Jesus said,
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gathers and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-34).
John obviously ate, but a rather unusual diet of desert foods (locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). John drank as well, but not wine (cf. Luke 1:15). It is quite plain, then, that what John did not drink, namely wine, Jesus did, and thus He was accused of being a “drunkard.” Jesus and the “sinners” were there, mingling happily, joyfully, at Levi’s celebration.
No so with the Pharisees! In contrast to the rejoicing of the rest, the Pharisees, Luke alone tells us they were grumbling (v. 30). Some think that the Pharisees crashed this dinner party. I do not. Jesus was not one to exclude anyone, and I doubt that Levi was either. Several times in Luke’s gospel Jesus is described as eating in the home of a Pharisee (7:36; 11:37; 14:1). The Pharisees were there by invitation, I believe, but they never entered into the festivities. As I read the gospel accounts of this reception I envision them standing off to one side, with sour looks on their faces, turning down all food and drink, watching critically, waiting for the chance to find fault.
The guests at this banquet are the source of great consternation for the Pharisees. Luke tells us that the guests were “tax-gatherers and other people” (v. 29). This is different from Matthew and Mark, who identify the guests as “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10; Mark 2:15). The fact that tax-collectors would be invited by Levi, a tax-collector, seems self-explanatory. After all, who would Levi invite but his peers, his social equals, and his colleagues in the work world? Undoubtedly this explains much, but Mark includes the very significant comment that many of the tax-collectors and sinners at this celebration were followers of Jesus (Mark 2:15). This would mean that while Levi may have invited some who had not yet met Jesus (a somewhat evangelistic dinner), many whom he invited were very familiar with him, and thus could easily enter into Levi’s joy at following the Master.
The scribes of the Pharisee party (not all scribes were Pharisees) were greatly distressed by the fact that Jesus was associating with undesirables. Eating and drinking was something a “proper Jew” did with “proper people” and never with “sinners.”112
The Talmudical tractate Berakoth (43) expressly states that the disciples of the scribes may have no table communion (W. Manson, in loc.) with the ‘Am-ha-’arets (“the people of the land,” those who do not know or observe the Law).113
Luke has carefully avoided calling the guests at this reception “sinners,” but the Pharisees do not hesitate to use this label. There is a curling of the lips as the word “sinners” is spoken by the Pharisees.
Why? The issue hinges on the definition of the terms “sinner” and “righteous.” These terms have very different definitions in our text, the first the definition of the Pharisees, the second, the definition of Jesus.
The distinction between the pharisaic definition of these terms and that of our Lord can best be seen from the story which our Lord told later on in Luke’s gospel:115
And He also told this parable to certain one trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I think Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
To the Pharisee the “righteous” were to be distinguished from “sinners” by human assessment. The “righteous” held the right social and racial positions, sinners did not. The “righteous” were better than “sinners,” according to the Pharisaic view. The “righteous” were holy because they followed the rules, they did the right things, they kept the Law of Moses, as they interpreted it. The “righteous” were also justified in disdaining the “sinner” and in keeping separate from him.
The one “claim to fame” of the Pharisees was their “separation” from sin and “sinners.” They saw themselves as holy because of what they would not do, where they would not go, and with whom they did not associate. What a blow to their system it must have been to have Jesus come onto the scene, doing virtually the opposite of all they did, and claiming to be God at the same time. What a humbling thing it must have been for the Pharisees to be present at the reception which Levi put on. They were undoubtedly present only because they were afraid to let Jesus go unsupervised, unchallenged, unchecked.
Jesus’ answer reflects the difference between the heart of God and the heart of Pharisaism: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call righteous men but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31b-32).
Jesus had made it clear from the beginning that He had come to help those in need. His message of repentance, like that of John, was aimed at sinners. After all, do the “righteous” need to repent?
There are two very important principles underlying our Lord’s words, principles which we very much need to grasp and to apply.
PRINCIPLE ONE: TO BE LIKE GOD, MEN MUST BE MERCIFUL, AND TO BE MERCIFUL MEN MUST HAVE COMPASSION ON SINNERS, RATHER THAN SIMPLY TO CONDEMN THEM.
It is Matthew who includes these words to the self-righteous Pharisees, who are condemning the guests at Matthew’s house as “sinners”:
“But go and learn what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mtt. 9:13).
The Pharisees thought of righteousness only in terms of rituals, of ceremonies, of self-righteous “sacrifices” (such as fasting). Jesus, citing Hosea 6:6, reminds these “righteous” Pharisees that the essence of true religion is not ceremony, but compassion. The compassion which God calls for is that which has concern for the well-being of one’s neighbor, including “sinners” and Gentiles. This was something which Pharisees would not do, and in the name of holiness. Jesus came to call sinners because He was compassionate rather than condemning.
PRINCIPLE TWO: IN ORDER TO CALL SINNERS, ONE MUST HAVE CONTACT WITH THEM.
The Pharisees thought that holiness required them to remain separate from sinners, to refuse to have contact with them. Jesus was holiness incarnate, and yet His holiness was not diminished by His contact with sinners. In order for God to call sinners to repentance, God found it necessary to have contact with them, which is the reason for our Lord’s incarnation—of His taking on human flesh, living among men, touching and being touched by them. Jesus was not only comfortable among sinners, they were comfortable with Him.
The lesson which Jesus was trying to communicate to the Pharisees is vitally important to Christians today. These two fundamental principles are the key to evangelism, to penetration into our society with the saving grace of God. If we have compassion, we will not spend all of our time and energy condemning sinners, but will rather call them to repentance. If we would obey our Lord by calling them to repentance (the essence of the great commission), then we must learn to have contact with sinners in such a way as to be comfortable with them and they with us, without conforming to their ungodly ways. This is what our Lord did, and this is what our Lord calls us to do. We, in the name of separation from sin, are often sinning by not showing compassion to sinners and by not having contact with them so as to be able to share the gospel. This is no new error. The apostle Paul had to correct similar misconceptions in the church at Corinth:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
How well Paul’s words apply to the Pharisees, especially the self-righteous Pharisee of Luke 18. How well they also apply to many Christians today, who think that holiness requires them to avoid associating with sinners. Let us listen to and learn from the Savior, who came to seek and to save sinners, like us.
Both of the questions of the Pharisees involved eating and drinking. The first question, asked and answered above, concerned those with whom Jesus ate and drank. The second question presses even further, as to why Jesus’ disciples are eating and drinking at all, since both the disciples of John and those of the Pharisees were practicing fasting. Why were Jesus’ disciples feasting when the rest were fasting?
And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers; the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same; but Yours eat and drink” (Luke 5:33).
The question is evident, Jesus’ disciples, unlike the disciples of the Pharisees and even of John, feast, while the others fast.116 The real issue is not stated, but it is there: “Why are your disciples able the enjoy life, while we merely endure it?” Note the contrast in the attitude of the Pharisees with that of the “sinners.” The sinners are celebrating; the Pharisees are grumbling. The sinners are happy; the Pharisees are sad. The sinners are enjoying life; the Pharisees only endure it. The sinners are “grabbing for gusto,” the Pharisees are griping to Jesus.
Jesus gives a very extensive answer to this question, because a number of factors are involved. His first answer deals with the immediate question, the obvious issue, the fasting question. Fasting was a sign of repentance, a strangely inappropriate action for the Pharisees, who thought themselves righteous, and thus did not feel obligated to repent:
And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism [of repentance] of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John (Luke 7:29-30, comment mine).
John the Baptist had referred to himself as the friend of the bridegroom, and the Messiah as the bridegroom (John 3:29). Jesus picked up this imagery and pointed out the fact that the friends of the bridegroom do not fast while he is present with them, but only fast in his absence. Jesus, the bridegroom, is present with His friends and followers, and thus it is only appropriate for them to rejoice. John was in prison. His disciples were right to fast. For Jesus’ disciples to fast while He was present would have been for them to act inappropriately. There would be a time, Jesus indicated, when He would not be present, a time when fasting would be proper for His disciples. This time, as I understand it, would be the time from His arrest and death, to the time of His resurrection, or perhaps the descent of the Holy Spirit.
There is a very simple, but crucial principle underlying our Lord’s explanation:
REJOICING IS APPROPRIATE FOR ALL THOSE WHO DELIGHT IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN THEIR MIDST, AND IN THE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM THAT THIS AFFORDS
Centuries before, David had written, “In Thy presence is fulness of joy; In Thy right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).
Of course those who were followers of Jesus found pleasure in the reception which Levi put on, because they were with Jesus. They were sinners, but they were forgiven. There was no greater joy than that of fellowship with God. For the Pharisees, who knew not God, being in His presence was agony, not ecstasy. Those who do not know God find His presence “hellish” agony.
Here is the key to understanding the parable of the prodigal son. The great tragedy of the prodigal was not being poor, or even being poorly fed, it was being separated from his father. Thus, the great rejoicing at his return. But for the old brother, being at home with the father was no reward in itself. The older brother was angry because of the “joy” of this feast his father had ordered at the return of this sinner. The older brother was angry because he had suffered at home, with the father, and not experienced all the pleasure of the other. How much a Pharisee the older brother is.
There is a principle which is vitally important to Christians which underlies the explanation of our Lord. It is this,
THE ONE WHO HAS BEEN FORGIVEN, WHO IS IN GOD’S PRESENCE, SHOULD BE CHARACTERIZED BY JOY.
Joy, not sorrow, not sadness, should be the dominant characteristic of the Christian. The Christian life includes sorrow and suffering and sacrifice, but these are not the melody line of our life, or they should not be. These are the harmony line. Suffering and sacrifice are means, but they should not be the end. Joy is the goal, it is the climax, it is the reward of forgiveness and fellowship with God.
Why is it that there are so many “dill pickle” Christians around, who are more like the Pharisees than those who attended Levi’s reception? It is because Satan has warped our conception of the Christian life. I have recently read an excellent book which is devoted to the subject of the pleasure, the joy of knowing and serving God. It is by John Piper, entitled, “Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.”117 I cannot recommend it too highly. It is the joy of knowing and serving God which should be our strength and our goal. It is also the joy of the saint which should draw others to Christ as well.
Jesus went on to deal with a deeper issue, that being the contrast and contest between “old” and “new.” The Pharisees represented and defended the “old order” or so they thought. They were the promoters and preservers of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law and to institute a new covenant. Thus, underlying the struggle between Jesus and the Pharisees was a contest between old and new. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to adopt the old, or at least to adapt the old. Jesus could not do this. He came to fulfill the law by living in perfect obedience to it, and by dying to its demands. But He also came to institute the new covenant (celebrated, incidentally by eating and drinking).
Thus, by means of a parable, Jesus explained why the new could not adopt or adapt to the old. To put a new patch on an old garment would be foolish. You would have to cut it out of the new garment, destroying it, and then it would not match the old garment on which it was patched anyway (Luke 5:36). In a similar way, you cannot put new wine into old wineskins, for the old skins would burst (be ruined) and the wine would be lost (ruined). There was no way to use the new to salvage the old.
The “new wine” must be put into new wineskins (Luke 5:38). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices. Pharisaism, which was committed to preserving the old way, could not accept this. The reason for this Jesus explained in last verse of chapter 5:
“And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough’” (Luke 5:39).
Jesus is explaining, in this statement, the mindset of the conservative, for Pharisees were conservatism incarnate. Having tasted the old and finding it good, the conservative does not wish to try the new, even though it might be better. And the reason is simply this:
CONSERVATISM TENDS TO VIEW THE OLD AS BETTER BECAUSE IT IS OLD, AND THE NEW SUSPECT BECAUSE IT IS NEW.
I had better say it now. I am generally quite conservative. But conservatism is not automatically right; neither is liberalism automatically wrong. Contemporary Christianity has over-simplistically been linked with conservative economics and politics. Right wing politicians have become “bed-fellows” with fundamental, evangelical Christians. This could be a very unhealthy relationship, even though close ties can be found.
There are various types of conservatism. There is economic and social conservatism, where the “have’s” attempt to keep what they have (money, standing, power), which leaves the “have-not’s” without. This kind of conservatism is not Christian, for the “have’s” are to give of their wealth to the “have-not’s” (cf. 1 Timothy 6). There is also social conservatism, which is simply stubborn resistance to change, any change. This helps to explain why old people tend to be more conservative, as a group. Let’s face it, the older I get, the less energy (foolishness) I have to try something new, especially if the old and proven works. Biblical conservatism seeks to defend the faith, to hold fast to the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, and this is good, but all too often much more than the fundamental truths gets thrown into the “save” basket.
The conservatism of the Pharisees had “gone to seed.” It had become a kind of “preservatism” which attempted to save their way of life, but which was found to have rejected the God they claimed to serve. Let us beware of letting our conservatism get out of hand. Nothing is to be viewed as better only because it is old. Likewise, nothing should be automatically viewed as better simply because it is new.
I have sought to make application to the principles of this passage as we have gone through the text itself. But let me not conclude without saying something very pointed to any who may not yet have come to faith in Jesus Christ, who have not found His presence a comfort and a joy. First, do not allow “dill-pickle” Christians to convince you that you must sacrifice all pleasure and joy to serve and follow Christ. The opposite is true. The only lasting and ultimate joy is found in being forgiven by Him, and being in fellowship with Him. Second, do not think of God as distant, uncaring, and unpleasant. Our Lord Jesus demonstrated that God cares, that God has come, and that God finds pleasure in the fellowship of forgiven men and women. Third, do not suppose that being a sinner must keep you from God. Recognizing that you are a sinner is the first step toward God. Jesus came to call sinners. It is only the self-righteous who shunned Jesus, for Jesus came to forgive sinners and to have fellowship with them. You cannot be too sinful for God to save, only to holy to need His salvation. Finally, recognize that proof that you are forgiven, a child of God, is by the comfortableness and joy you find in being in the presence of God and His people. If you have never trusted in Him, do it now. No joy will ever match that which you find in Him.
Matthew: This is of his own calling. Uses the name Matthew (9:9), rather than Levi (Mark & Luke).
Alone quotes Jesus as saying, “Learn what this means: “Desire mercy and not sacrifice’” (Hos. 6:6). John’s disciples ask about fasting.
Mark: There were many tax-gatherers and sinners who followed Jesus (2:15). Both John’s disciples and Pharisees ask about fasting.
Luke: Levi forsook all and followed. Levi put on the feast (Matt. & Luke simply have Jesus eating a meal in a house).
Matthew & Mark say “tax collectors and sinners”—Luke says, “tax collectors and others.” Pharisees grumbled about Jesus & sinners (they were offended, not just inquisitive).
Matthew and Mark ask disciples why Jesus ate with sinners, Luke has them asking “you” (the disciples) why they ate with sinners.
Luke emphasizes damage to new garment, which is ruined to repair the old. Luke only speaks of men who have tasted old finding it better than the new (like “old time religion”).
109 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), pp. 142-143. Edersheim also writes, “It is of importance to notice, that the Talmud distinguishes two classes of ‘publicans’: the tax-gatherer in general (Gabbai), and the Mokhes, or Mokhsa, who was specially the douanier or custom-house official. Although both classes fall under the Rabbinic ban, the douanier—such as Matthew was—is the object of chief execration. And this, because his exactions were more vexatious, and gave more scope to rapacity. The Gabbai, or tax-gatherer, collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground-, income-, and poll-tax. The ground-tax amounted to one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown; partly paid in kind, and partly commuted into money. The income-tax amounted to 1 per cent.; while the head-money, or poll-tax, was levied on all persons, bond and free, in the case of men from the age of fourteen, in that of women from the age of twelve, up to that of sixty-five.
If this offered many opportunities for vexatious exactions and capacious injustice, the Mokhes might inflict much greater hardship upon the poor people. There was tax and duty upon all imports and exports; on all that was bought and sold; bridge-money, road-money, harbour-dues, town-dues, &c. The classical reader knows the ingenuity which could invent a tax, and find a name for every kind of exaction, such as on axles, wheels, pack-animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses, in short, on such a variety of objects, that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names. On goods the ad valorem duty amounted to from 2 1/2 to 5, and on articles of luxury to even 12 1/2 per cent. But even this was as nothing, compared to the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack-animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about, private letters opened, and the Mokhes ruled supreme in his insolence and rapacity.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, pp. 515-516.
110 “Capernaum, being located on the Via Maris and being a busy populous center, had a large custom-house with a correspondingly large number of tax-gatherers. It was located at the landing-place for the ships which traversed the lake to various towns on the other shore. The flow of commerce along the highway was also great. From the midst of this group of men engaged in a lawful occupation but likely unlawful abuse, Jesus would win some to eternal life. He was accustomed to pass by that way and doubtless made use of His opportunities to evangelize them. Levi, may have heard Jesus preach by the seaside. He would not feel free to enter the synagogue. The great Teacher frequently taught the humble fisher-folk and others in the open air by the sea and so reached many in this way with His message who would be inaccessible in the synagogues. The sudden response to the call of Jesus that Levi had heard Him preach. Perhaps he had pondered long, as he sat at the receipt of custom recording the import and export duties, the words of some message on the Kingdom, and had secretly decided in his heart that he would be some day a disciple of the new prophet. He was strangely drawn to Jesus, recognizing in Him the helper of all men, even sinners.” Shepard, pp. 145-146.
“‘Looked attentively at, contemplated, a tax-collector,’ as if reading his character. The verb often implies enjoyment in beholding (vii. 24;Jn. i. 14, 32, 38; I Jn. i.1).” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), pp. 158-159.
112 “Thus, in one and another respect, Rabbinic teaching about the need of repentance runs close to that of the Bible. But the vital difference between Rabbinism and the Gospel lies in this: that whereas Jesus Christ freely invited all sinners, whatever their past, assuring them of welcome and grace, the last word of Rabbinism is only despair, and a kind of Pessimism. For, it is expressly and repeatedly declared in the case of certain sins, and, characteristically, of heresy, that, even if a man genuinely and truly repented, he must expect immediately to die—indeed, his death would be the evidence that his repentance was genuine, since, though such a sinner might turn from his evil, it would be impossible for him, if he lived, to lay hold on the good, and to do it.” Edersheim, I, p. 513.
113 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 193, footnote, 3.
“They directed their expressions of criticism to the disciples of Jesus, perhaps because they were afraid to risk themselves in debate with the Teacher who had bested them in that recent encounter. Perhaps they thought, as Chrysostom suggests, that they might instill disloyalty in the disciples, and discredit Jesus before them.” Shepard, pp. 145-146.
115 The Gospel of Luke reveals a very interesting development of the definition of a sinner:
The Pharisaic View of a Sinner: (1) Jesus associates with sinners Luke 5:31-32. (2) Jesus is a “friend” of sinners Luke 7:34. (3) Jesus “welcomes” sinners Luke 15:2. (4) Jesus is a “sinner,” worthy of death Luke 22:70-71 (cf. John 9:16, 24). Jesus’ Definition of a Sinner: (1) Sinners not defined Luke 5:32; 6:32-34. (2) Sinners not restricted to sufferers Luke 13:15. (3) Sinners include the self-righteous Luke 18:10-14. (4) Sinners are those who condemn Christ(cf. Matt. 26:45; Mark 14:41).
116 “In the Old Testament fasting is ordered only on the Great Day of Atonement as a definite institution (Lev. xvi. 29, where “afflict your souls” also includes “fasting”). But fasting was also practised voluntarily as a sign of mourning (2 Sam. i. 12), at times of disaster and national calamities (Neh. i.4), as a sign of repentance for sin (I Kings xxi. 27), and the like. Thus originally it bore a rich religious significance. During the Babylonian exile, as a result of the lack of the sacrificial services, the opinion arose more and more that fasting was a meritorious work that would be rewarded by God. Thus the practice of fasting assumed an increasingly outward and formal character and lost much of its religious value. For this reason the prophets during and after the exile took such drastic action against it. True fasting, they proclaimed, consisted not in abstaining from food and drink but in renouncing sin (Zech. vii. 5 ff.). Still the degeneration grew apace, so that in the time of Jesus it had become a fixed practice with the Pharisees and many other Jews to fast regularly twice a week (Luke xviii. 12) with much outward display and hypocrisy (Matt. vi. 16, ix. 14).
Jesus’ attitude towards fasting briefly amounts to this, that He rejects it as a religiously meritorious ceremony bearing a compulsory, ceremonial character; but He practised it Himself at times and permits it as a voluntary form of spiritual discipline (Matt. iv. 2, vi. 16-18).
It was such a voluntary religious practice that the first Christians observed fasting (Acts ix. 9, xiii. 2, 3, xiv. 23). But after the third century it degenerated in many cases to an obligatory and supposedly meritorious formality as it is still to be met with today among Roman Catholics, Jews and Mohammedans. Geldenhuys, p. 198.