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Bible oldContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 5:27-32

Jesus Calls Levi

 27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

 29And 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. 30And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”


This account parallels Mark’s, which I covered a little over a year ago. That post also explains tax collecting in Jesus’s time in the Roman Empire. Sunday School teachers might find the detail useful.

Matthew’s account of his call by Jesus also ties in with these Mark’s and Luke’s. Furthermore, all three passages are preceded by His healing the paralytic. It is possible that Matthew’s calling happened shortly afterward, with the Pharisees following Jesus from the house where the paralytic was healed. This is Matthew 9:9-13 (emphases mine):

Jesus Calls Matthew

 9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

 10And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The first part of verse 13 is the only difference between Matthew’s and that of the other two Gospels. It is a good verse to use with atheists who ask with nauseating regularity why Christians don’t sacrifice animals according to the Old Testament. Surely, this is but another example whereby they should be asking Jews that question. The answer is that the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD put paid to the sacrifice system in Mosaic law.

However, there is a more important point here to impress upon our atheist friends. Jesus cites the Old Testament — Hosea 6:6:

6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Jesus came to bring us all to faithful love and knowledge of God, hence His association with people who were on the margins of society. Another point is that, even in the Old Testament, the love and knowledge of God surpassed any penitential or ritual sacrifice. Later, our Lord’s death on the Cross was the ultimate, sufficient and efficacious sacrifice for all sin.

It’s interesting that Dawkins always speaks of the God of the Old Testament who was preparing His chosen for Christ. Dawkins rarely discusses the Gospels, consequently, neither do his disciples. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Now onto Luke’s account. In verse 27, Matthew is referred to by his original name, Levi. It is unclear whether he changed his name after becoming an Apostle or if he already had that name. John MacArthur says:

This is Matthew and Matthew in his gospel calls himself Matthew. Matthew means “gift of Jehovah,” it’s a nice name and he chooses to call himself by that name. Many people in ancient times as they do today have more than one name, two names. It was common. Thomas was called Didymus, Bartholomew was also called Nathanael so it’s somewhat common. And he had two names. His names were Matthew and Levi. He is best known to us obviously because of the gospel of Matthew by that name.

Jesus said simply, ‘Follow me’, and Matthew just left his post (verse 28). What happened there? Recall that Jesus in His divinity knew people’s hearts. He told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, knowing that the state of his soul preyed upon his mind. To us, that would be puzzling. Surely, Jesus would have healed the man physically, then spiritually. However, Jesus knew that sin was paramount in the man’s mind. If he had been forgiven of sin, he probably would have been content to continue in his infirmity. His physical condition was secondary to him; his priority was to get right with God. May we learn from his example.

As for Levi/Matthew, perhaps our Lord sensed that he, too, felt the burden of sin in collecting various taxes. Matthew — as he refers to himself in his own account — was not one of the Inland Revenue or IRS men. Their ancient equivalent would have been closer to that of the gabbai. The gabbai collected the big taxes, e.g. on property and crop yields. MacArthur says that Zacchaeus — the man who climbed up a tree to better see Jesus — was a gabbai. Matthew was a mokhe. Mokhes collected tax on anything that moved. They bought tax franchises from the Romans which allowed them to do this. Sometimes one mokhe was in charge of a team of junior mokhes who worked directly for him.

We read of ‘publicans’ in the New Testament. Essentially:

Tax collectors were known as publicans during this time — no relationship to the later meaning of the word referring to a person who runs a pub. They belonged to the Roman class of equites, which is also referred to as the equestrian order, an elite group of high-ranking men, mostly military, but also independent businessmen who held tax franchises, or tax farms. This development came about around 218 BC, when Roman law ruled that too much commercial activity on the part of senators and their sons was unbefitting of their status.

Because mokhes were somewhat independent agents acting for the state via these tax farms / franchises, they might charge their friends and business associates less tax than they would a stranger or someone they did not like. The Romans didn’t bother with them too much, leaving the mokhes’ system open to corruption. It was easy to skim off the top and line one’s own pockets. So, some were extortionists. Furthermore, a mokhe could get the debt collectors out after anyone who owed him money. One palm greased another. It was a lucrative, crooked career to have. It was also unlikely that a mokhe became a gabbai.

Jewish society considered mokhes to be racketteers. They were not allowed into the temple because the priests and the people considered them morally unclean.

If moral sin was preying on Matthew’s mind, then it was no wonder he just left his station and followed our Lord. Sin preyed on the paralytic’s mind. And, earlier in Luke 5, Peter had a severe realisation of his own sin in the fishing boat at the abundance of their catch (Luke 5:8):

8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It is interesting that Matthew threw a dinner party after meeting Jesus (verse 29). One wonders if he somehow felt some sense of relief at having been asked to follow Him. Perhaps subconsciously, this was a last hurrah for him; he had left his gainful — and lucrative — employment. He would not be encountering his dinner guests again, at least not in such circumstances. He was turning his back on that old life of immorality.

With all the conviction of sin in Luke 5, there stood the Pharisees in their self-righteousness (verse 30). What a contrast. And like the self-righteous, they wasted no time in finger-pointing at Jesus’s association with the tax collectors and other social pariahs. Jesus responded (verse 31), perhaps with a sense of irony that He came not for the righteous — a poke at the Pharisees, knowing well that they were full of sin — but for the sick. Note Peter’s and Matthew’s responses to Him as well as the paralytic’s. Set that against the Pharisees’ response.

Today, we have largely consigned talking about sin to the dustbin of life, not because we have forsaken iniquity but rather because we embrace it so tightly. Sin is our 21st-century friend. However, Jesus did not see things that way. He does not love our attachment to it. Verse 32:

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

Matthew Henry reminds us of Jesus’s grace and mercy in those words:

Here is a wonder of grace indeed, that Christ undertakes to be the Physician of souls distempered by sin, and ready to die of the distemper (he is a Healer by office, v. 31)-that he has a particular regard to the sick, to sinners as his patients, convinced awakened sinners, that see their need of the Physician-that he came to call sinners, the worst of sinners, to repentance, and to assure them of pardon, upon repentance, v. 32. These are glad tidings of great joy indeed.

Luke 5 describes the wonder and awe the Galileans felt towards Jesus’s public ministry. It was a honeymoon period for Him, with the exception of the Pharisees and His fellow Nazarenes. What better time to begin choosing His Twelve. Throughout His time with them He was careful to shield them from the confrontations the Pharisees engineered. Henry offers this analysis:

It was a wonder of his grace that Christ reserved the trials of his disciples for their latter times, when by his grace they were in some good measure better prepared and fitted for them than they were at first. Now they were as the children of the bride-chamber, when the bridegroom is with them, when they have plenty and joy, and every day is a festival. Christ was welcomed wherever he came, and they for his sake, and as yet they met with little or no opposition; but this will not last always. The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, v. 35 …

More on that next week.

Next time: Luke 5:33-39

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