You know how it is if you’re not with the “right” people, the “in” group. They look at you funny, if they look at you. You’re ignored, forgotten, overlooked. Levi was one of the “wrong” people – a tax collector who collaborated with Rome. Jesus looked at him and saw a man who could help change the world – and he did. He began by throwing a party, inviting all of his tax collector friends and others ignored by the religious elite, and Jesus noticed and cared for them. Then, Jesus dealt with the Pharisees who seemed to thrive on letting Jesus best them in their debates. May God speak to you in His word.
14. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.
The NIV includes this as part of a story beginning with verse 13. I see it as the beginning of the next story. I think that because I don’t imagine a tax booth out on the beach – not enough people to tax, at least back in those days. Whatever the situation, as Jesus is walking along, He saw Levi sitting at a place where he collected taxes. If you asked most of the “righteous” Jews at that time who the worst people in the world were, tax collectors would be in the top three along with gentiles and Samaritans. Again, that’s my opinion and it’s possible, if not probable, that I’m wrong. Jesus looked at this tax collector and saw not a traitor, working with Rome, but a man who had suffered the rejection of his fellow Jews who could be redeemed by God’s love and become a redeeming force to those who needed God’s love. He invited Levi to follow Him and Levi left his tax collecting gig and followed Jesus. By the way, if something about how Jesus saw Levi speaks to you about how we should see others in these difficult times, good.
15. And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. 16. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? 17. When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
While Levi followed Jesus, the next thing we see is that Jesus is eating at Levi’s house. I’m guessing Levi led the way there, so, while in his spirit he was following Jesus, physically, he led Jesus to his house. While it’s a small distinction, I think great leaders understand when to let others take point in the work to be done. So Jesus sat down to eat at Levi’s house and oh! what a party it was! Tax collectors and other sinners were all invited. I’m guessing tax collectors, in general, had money to throw around, so it was probably a little wild. As to the word “sinners,” that generally meant anyone who wasn’t part of the religious elite: scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc. Jesus and the disciples – about five now if my memory is correct – were eating with all of Levi’s friends. I have no doubt that Jesus taught as He ate and that He showed everyone of them God’s love. You know who shows up when there’s a party, though. In Israel, those people were the scribes and the Pharisees who sought to put a wet blanket on anything Jesus did. They hated what He was doing there and let Him know in no uncertain terms that any good righteous man would never eat with people like that. Tax collectors (publicans) and sinners were anathema to real Jewishness and didn’t deserve anyone’s time, especially that of a teacher like Jesus. Their attempts to shame Jesus boomeranged, though and Jesus threw it back in their face when He said that because they were whole, they didn’t need a physician, but these who were sick needed one. Jesus noted that anyone who was righteous didn’t need to hear His call, only those who were sinners. And I’ll be honest with you. I have no doubt that Jesus’s words were loaded with sarcasm. Yet, in all that, we can note that Jesus stayed focused on His mission.
18. And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? 19. And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
Not content with losing in round one, the scribes and Pharisees resorted to Plan B: asking about fasting in the middle of a dinner party. In some versions, John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting at that time. In the King James the discussion about fasting seems to relate to an ongoing, regular practice. To paraphrase the question, they asked Jesus, “If you’re so in tune with the Almighty, why is it that your disciples don’t fast while John’s disciples and the Pharisees do fast?” Isn’t it interesting that those of us who seem to be leaders in a religious setting seem to think that we all have to do things the same way. We want that “Old Time Religion” that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” not only as a guideline for our own lives, but also for the lives of others even if they have no knowledge of God. I have a friend who is not a Christian after some hurtful things happened to her from “church” people very early in her life. She’s a writer and now some religious people are reinforcing her rejection of Christianity by attacking her for the things she writes and letting her know that she’s going to hell because of what she writes. That’s old time religion seeking to impose their values on others. The truth of the matter is anyone who would make the claim that someone is going to hell because of something they write, the way they sing, the way they dress, the way they dance – I could go on – would fit right in with these Pharisees. Our hope of heaven is NOT found in how we act! Our hope of heaven is found in the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for all my sins on the cross. Going back to my friend, if she changed how she wrote and all of her books had amazing themes of Christian living and all of her current critics were to feel comfortable buying them and reading them to her children, it would not change her eternal destiny. The only way to heaven is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who forgives all of our sins.
Jesus was blunt in saying that fasting wasn’t the key indicator of a relationship with God and noted that His disciples were spending time with Him. Fasting was a sign of mourning and His disciples would have no cause to mourn until He was taken away. Of course, that makes things interesting for us today. For the disciples, Jesus died and was buried. There were two days when He wasn’t with them. Then, He came back and stayed with them for forty days. (Acts 1:3) Then He ascended into heaven whereupon ten days later, the Holy Spirit came and dwelt among them and He still dwells among us. So, if Jesus is with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit, do we as Christians need to fast today? While I think fasting is a great spiritual discipline designed to help us focus on our relationship with God, I see the act of fasting as a decision a person makes with God. Old Time Religion would have us live with their rules and attitudes; our relationship with Christ should have us seeking His presence and guidance in our lives each day. We should always be showing His love and grace to others.
21. No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. 22. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.
Jesus didn’t seem enamored by the idea of “old time religion” either. He was letting the scribes and the Pharisees in on a major secret. Those who followed Him would be doing something new. It would be so new that the old containers of religion wouldn’t be able to coexist with this new thing. They didn’t get it. To be fair, the disciples didn’t get it until after Paul began teaching and living it. Jesus used the example of mending a garment. If you sewed a new piece of cloth over the hole in the old garment, eventually, that new piece would shrink and tear an even bigger hole in the garment. If you had new wine, you wouldn’t pour it into old bottles because eventually the new wine would cause the old bottles to explode. Why? New wine would begin to ferment and the gasses would expand. The old wineskins would have lost their elasticity. As a result, as the wine fermented and bubbled, the gasses would stretch the wineskins to the breaking point and destroy them. The point that Jesus was making was that it was impossible to fit His followers into the old religious mold of the Pharisees, or the scribes, or even the Sadducees. Instead of a life of following rules and living in fear that God was going to zap people for breaking the least of these rules, righteousness became a product of our relationship with God as He extended grace and forgiveness to all who would believe.
23. And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. 24. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?
The Pharisees were worried about Jesus and His influence. In this next story, Jesus and the Disciples were walking on the Sabbath. We see in verse 24 that not only were the Pharisees there, they were watching the goings on very carefully and they weren’t happy. Perhaps the first task of the Pharisees was to make sure that Jesus and His followers didn’t walk too far and thus, violate the rules against travel on the Sabbath. Then, they caught the disciples in an egregious sin. They were picking the grain from the field they were walking through and thus, performing work on the Sabbath. Traveling on the Sabbath might be a gray area, but working on the Sabbath like that, harvesting the grain was straight out of the “go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go, do not collect 200 drachmas” playbook. The Pharisees were livid. They wanted to know why Jesus didn’t control His disciples. Let’s face it, He must not be that good of a teacher if His disciples are deliberately breaking the rules.
25. And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? 26. How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?
There’s an old saying that you should never bring a knife to a gunfight. I think of that every time I read about the Pharisees trying to attack Jesus, only they weren’t that well armed. It’s like they brought a spitball shooter to a nuclear conflict when they try to confront and ridicule Jesus. Jesus didn’t need to ridicule or belittle His critics, although I think He may have used sarcasm. “Have you not read…” Of course they had read that story. These were the pious Jews who knew their Bible stories because they studied all of God’s word intensely. The example Jesus gave was when David first ran from Saul and he ended up searching for bread as well as looking for Goliath’s sword, which Ahimelek gave to him. He and his men ate the consecrated bread reserved for the priests. The law said that it was just for the priests, but Ahimelek realized that the need was so great, he should pass the bread to David. In the ensuing slaughter, Abiathar escaped from Saul and joined David’s forces. The point Jesus was making, as will be seen from the verses to follow, is that human needs come before human interpretations of God’s law.
27. And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: 28. Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
One of the reasons the Jews of Jesus’s day had so many rules for the Sabbath was that when the Jews were conquered by Babylon and sent into exile, the fall of Judah was attributed to their lax attitude toward the Sabbath. The Pharisees were formed after the return of the Jews from exile and they were determined to never let anything like that happen again. So, they studied the Law and they looked at different aspects of the Sabbath and developed an oral law designed to keep Jews from breaking the written law. They lived as if they were made to follow the laws of Sabbath. There’s a certain nobility about that concept, but Jesus tore that practice down when He changed the emphasis and focus of the Sabbath. Instead of the Sabbath being the source of laws designed to burden the people of Israel down as they sought to keep it perfectly, the Sabbath was to be observed as a gift to all mankind. It was to be a day of rest, of rejuvenation. While the Pharisees had focused on the Law and upholding the Law, they had forgotten that the reason behind worshiping on the Sabbath was that God Himself rested on that that day. Some would still keep Saturday as their Sabbath. Many Christians do so on Sundays. Others choose other days to observe their Sabbath, but the principle is not, set Saturday aside, the principle is for us to take time to be with God during our Sabbath as we take advantage of the opportunity God gives us to rest.