Jesus Calls Levi (Matthew)
13 Then Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to him. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector's booth. "Follow me and be my disciple," Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.
15 Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus' followers.) 16 But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does he eat with such scum?"
17 When Jesus heard this, he told them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor - sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."
As was common with rabbis, Jesus teaches as he walks. He calls a despised tax collector named Levi (Matthew) to be his disciple. Completely forsaking his lucrative position, Levi obeys Jesus' call and then throws a party in his honor. Jesus' banqueting with so many sinners upsets the religious leaders, who are more interested in rules than in people. Jesus teaches that a person must first realize he or she is ill before they'll be willing to seek out the person who can help them.
Tax collector's booth (Mark 2:14)
Levi (= Matthew) was a tax collector, and was at his "tax collector's booth" when Jesus called him. This was "a place where taxes or revenue was collected from those entering a town to sell produce ... In the ancient world taxes were primarily of two types: (1) a head tax on each individual (which was relatively small) and (2) revenue or tribute paid for goods and produce brought into an area for sale. The latter was essentially a kind of 'sales tax,' but paid by the seller who obviously increased the prices of goods accordingly."156 Tax collectors were despised for several reasons:
They charged more than what was required by the government, pocketing the excess as profit.
Their mere presence reminded the Jews that they were not a free people.
Part of the money they collected went toward the upkeep of pagan religious temples.
They associated with people who were ceremonially unclean, thus making themselves likewise.157
As one source makes clear, the prevailing attitude among the Jews of Jesus' day was that tax collectors were nothing short of evil scum:
A Jew entering the customs service cut himself off from decent society. He was disqualified from being a judge or even a witness in court, and excommunicated from the synagogue. The members of his family were considered to be equally tarnished. Because of their exactions and extortions, customs officials were in the same legal category as murderers and robbers ... Money handled by tax collectors was tainted and could not be used, even for charity, for to touch the wealth of a man who obtains it unlawfully is to share his guilt.
The prevailing method of tax collection afforded collectors many opportunities to exercise greed and unfairness. For centuries force and fraud had been constantly associated with the revenue system of Palestine. Hence [tax collectors] were hated and despised as a class. Strict Jews were further offended by the fact that the tax collector was rendered unclean through continual contact with Gentiles, and because his work involved breaking the sabbath. Contemporary public opinion is accurately reflected in the disagreeable associations expressed in the NT: [tax collectors] are linked with sinners (Matthew 9:10), heathen Gentiles (Matthew 18:17), harlots (Matthew 21:31), and extortioners, imposters, and adulterers (Luke 18:11).158
Pharisees (Mark 2:16)
For their part, the Pharisees believed their religious scruples made them right with God, or "righteous." They supposed themselves to be the "healthy" - "strong, robust"159 - ones in Jesus' illustration. While everyone is a sinner, it is only those who accept that fact, repent of their sins, and believe in Christ who can/will be saved.160 The religious leaders were doubly guilty: 1) they were unwilling to admit their sinful condition and come to Christ for relief, and 2) they looked down their proverbial noses at the "sinners" who did.
Eating with ... sinners (Mark 2:16)
It is vital to note that Jesus did not take sin or sinners lightly. As he himself said, he came to call sinners to repentance. As one source notes: "[Jesus] never told people, 'Do you have a sense of guilt? Forget about it.' On the contrary, he regarded sin as inexcusable departure from God's holy law (Mark 12:29-30), as having a soul-choking effect (Mark 4:19; cf. John 8:34), and as being a matter of the heart and not only of the outward deed (Mark 7:6-7, 15-23). But he also offered the only true solution."161 Jesus' analogy regarding a doctor and his sick patients was commonly used to illustrate not only the need of the ill to be made well, but also the fact that a doctor routinely treats an ill patient without contracting the disease himself.162 Jesus could "seek out sinners and eat with them, without himself becoming impure."163
The story is told of a little dog that had been struck by a car and was lying by the side of the road.
A doctor happened to be driving by, saw the dog, and took him home. As it turned out, the dog was only stunned, and he had a few cuts and bruises. The doctor revived the dog, cleaned the wounds, and was carrying him to his garage when suddenly the dog jumped out of his arms and ran away. The doctor commented to himself that that sure was an ungrateful little dog.
The doctor gave it no more thought until the following evening when he heard a scratching noise at his door. When he opened the door, there was the little dog he had helped, and beside him was another hurt dog.164
Doubtless Levi invited his friends to meet Jesus because he wanted them to experience the same marvelous change Jesus had wrought in Levi's life.
??? Did Jesus go to Matthew's house to "hang out" and have a good time? What was his purpose? What can Jesus' example teach us about associating with crowds of unsaved people in a social setting?