Scripture: Luke 5:27-39
In college I took a class on Luke-Acts, these two New Testament books that are written (probably) by the physician Luke who traveled with the apostle Paul. I learned to love Luke because of his emphasis on justice – while in all the gospels Jesus’ interesting the poor and outcast is apparent, Luke seems especially keen on relating Jesus’ relationship or stories about the least of these, including women, tax collectors, foreigners, lepers. And he continues this questionable behavior in the face of mounting conflict with the Jewish authorities.
Often, Jesus’ relation to said questionable persons is around food or at a meal – sometimes simple bread and wine, loaves and fish. Sometimes a great feast or banquet. In this story, Jesus is at a banquet. Jesus is in the home of Levi, the tax collector. But it doesn’t just begin at the feast. The story begins when Jesus encounters Levi at his toll booth and says, “Follow me.”
What a simple but profound directive. This “Follow me,” comes almost immediately after another calling: the story of Jesus’ call to the fishers on Galilee. But unlike that story, Jesus hasn’t done any signs to prove his stature to Levi, he simply says, ‘Follow me.’ And Levi does! I like the picture on the front of the communicator: Jesus is taking Levi by the hand and Levi is leaving the table stacked with money. Naomi does this thing now, where she will grab my hand and say ‘Come on’ and start walking. She makes an assumption that whatever I’m doing is not nearly as important was what she needs to lead me to. Liam and Craig know what I’m talking about – I saw her doing this to them as Sr High Snow camp: “Boy, come on.” She never did bother to learn their names.
Jesus’ request is much the same. Whatever Levi is doing is not nearly as important as what Jesus is calling him to. And unlike I often do with Naomi, (wait just a minute, let me finish what I’m doing, go get daddy instead) Levi leaves what he’s doing – the money still on the table – and follows.
There is also an echo in this story of the scene immediately prior – the man who is lowered from the roof to be healed. First Jesus (to the horror of the authorities) forgives him of his sins and then healed him, saying, ‘What is easier, to forgive someone of their sins, or to cause this man to walk?’ The man ‘immediately stood up.’ When he is called, Levi also ‘stood up’ from his booth. The same word. And in both cases a profound change. To recognize this big change in his life, Levi throws a dinner party with Jesus as the guest of honor.
And as will happen again in Luke, it is at this banquet that Jesus provokes controversy. (We will hear Marilyn talk about another such controversial table next week.) Here Jesus is eating and making merry with tax collectors. Men who make their living by paying the Roman government for the right to toll their fellow citizens. Often dishonest, and referred to unfavorably in the gospel stories, tax collectors were a scourge – living well at others’ expense. And there is Jesus, reclining among them.
So why would Jesus do such a thing? That is exactly the questions that those grumbling Pharisees have. Now the Pharisees’ role is to uphold the civic and religious (although they were really one in the same) law. They want to protect and preserve convention, keep people safe and clean and holy. They get a bit of a bad rap and Jesus is clearly often in conflict with them, but they are also his foils in teaching. They likewise consider him a worthy conversation partner – even from the time he was an adolescent in the temple. So they see Jesus eating with tax collectors and the begin asking questions.
I do find it interesting that although Jesus was clearly approachable, they do not confront Jesus directly – at least not right away. Instead they ask the disciples. I’m given to understand that banquets like this one would have been public affairs – in the open so that even those who may not have been invited (the Pharisees?) could well have been hanging around. It would have been easy for the curious or interested to be around ask questions, interrupt. Not like a private dinner party where only those who rsvp can come in the door.
Jesus, however, never one to back away from conflict, responds to the question directly. I talked last week about Jesus eschewing back-room behavior and sneakiness. Well here’s a good example of him going straight to the source. “Those who are well,” he says, “have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance.” In some ways, the Pharisees are the purveyors of preventive medicine and there is a long list of things they would prevent people from doing, some of which are truly unhealthy and harmful (predatorily collecting taxes), some which might start the slippery slope to unhealthy and harmful. Jesus, however was working with those who are already sick – he’s in the ER looking around for the worst cases and going to them first.
This week and in the past several weeks we have been celebrating with the folks from Lake City who are transitioning from living outside to living at McDermot Place. For a long time at SMC we’ve talked about a long term goal of creating our own long term supportive housing opportunity. I know that the conversation is being renewed again around program planning. We are operating under a ‘housing first’ model, with the understanding that when people are housed and away from the ongoing trauma of living outside, there will be opportunities, with support, to work on things like illness and addiction that sometimes accompany the experience of homelessness.
I see a close parallel in this model to Jesus’ teaching about the physician coming for the sick. Please understand that I am not saying people experiencing homelessness are ill. I am saying that eating together with folks (or offering homes to folks) who have been pushed to the margins and to the streets, creates opportunity for conversation and relationship that would not be present if we left well enough alone. Our own ‘housing first’ house on 33rd saw tragedy but also success, as two of its occupants have moved onto permanent housing options.
At the meal, Jesus has acknowledged that a) that the grumbling Pharisees don’t really need his attention, and b) he’s doing the common work of calling people to repentance. But the Pharisees don’t buy it. After all, they are at a feast! What kind of repentance is that? The question of the Pharisees is, not only is Jesus eating with these near-do-wells, but why is they eating at all. Jesus is a religious teacher, calling for significant changes, repentant behavior from the unholy. Should he not be following the religiously law-abiding habit of fasting, which, along with alms giving and prayer, was one of the three good deeds of Judaism. Even the wild man of the dessert John and his disciples practice fasting and prayer. But nope, Jesus is at the table with these new friends and clearly not abstaining from what it has to offer.
It’s true that although we see that Levi left everything behind, he has not make any vows of poverty nor has offered, like Zaccheus will do later in the Gospel, to give back everything he has collected. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is to say “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them and they will fast in those days.”
It is a special occasion, and not one for asceticism. Jesus does not disparage the practice of fasting, but he reminds the Pharisees that now is not the time. Anyone who has tried to lose weight safely and healthily knows that although we make choices for wholesome and lower calorie foods much of the time, there are still appropriate occasions to celebrate around an abundant and calorie rich table. (Jonathan’s pumpkin cheesecake being an awesome example!) There is a balance and a timing to eating and living in a holistic way.
Jesus the bridegroom will not always be present. This is foreshadowing, but also a straightforward, ‘all in good time.’ Repentance does not happen overnight. If anything is to come of relationship begun at this table, an immediate call to asceticism may well end all conversation immediately. I was thinking of the Rob Bell Nooma video about the guy on the corner with the bull horn yelling at people to repent and change their ways. He didn’t get too many takers. Conversation over a good meal In other words, to quote another well known proverb, “for everything there is a season.”
In fact looking to the proverbs and the writings of the Hebrew Bible is not a bad place to find reference to call and to feast. I have long loved the image from Proverbs 9 of Wisdom building her house, setting her table and calling all who can hear to feast with her. There is a long tradition of Jesus as Word and Wisdom of God. Jesus himself recalls Wisdom/Sophia later in response to similar accusations. “34 the Son of [Humanity] has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”(Luke 7:34-35) Those who answer the call in this new season and who follow, feasting, will live out of the wisdom of God.
This is a new season and a new time. There are two final short parables that Jesus tells the Pharisees about what is new. The new patch on old cloth and new wine in old wineskins. Not a good match, either of them. I had a friend in college who literally did cut a piece about this big out of a shirt to patch a pair of pants. It was so weird…he walked around with a big hole in his shirt and a grey and orange patch on his jeans that didn’t really match. It didn’t fit.
This new season of God’s reign that Jesus has inaugurated calls for new ways of acting and interacting, new customs and practices according to Jesus’ mission of releasing the captives, recovering sight, freeing the oppressed. The Pharisees are tasting the old wine and saying ‘The old is good’—or at least good enough for me!” The old does have value but it is a new time and a new season.
In this season, there is feasting and celebration. It’s tempting to stick with the old, safe and predictable. In Luke’s community too, that are those who are tempted, as the new quickly becomes not so new any more, to restrict the gospel and make it more orderly. It’s time to leave that behind. New wine for new wineskins. New practices for a the new feast to which Jesus invites us.
The saying about Wisdom being vindicated as related by Matthew says, ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” A much different thing than what Luke’s saying gets at. Wisdom is vindicated by her children (or disciples, ones who follow). In Luke, Jesus/Wisdom is justified as followers take up the call. We are likewise being called. In this story, Levi throws the feast, but it is Jesus-Sophia who ultimately says, “Come eat my bread. Come drink my wine.” He calls from the highest hilltop, Wisdom with her table set. The time for the feast is now.