At the Table with Jesus: Levi and the Tax Collectors
(artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary)
(artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary)
There’s a genre of movies that are all about life in high school, and although the plotlines might differ, there are often some common elements. One of them: cafeteria scenes, with an emphasis on the angst of who sits where. In many of the movies, great pains are taken to show that students sit with other students who are like them, usually grouped by some broad stereotypes, and that there’s not much social mobility - no moving between tables - until, of course, the hero or heroine of the movie somehow shakes things up. So “nerdy” types sit with each other, and the popular kids, football players and cheerleaders, all sit together, and the band kids sit at another table, and so on. I don’t know what your high school experience was like, but even though the movie-versions of the cafeteria take things to extremes, it wasn’t that far off. I certainly remember that almost everyone sat at the same tables every day. There were very few people who moved from place to place. What kind of table did you sit at in high school? Did you have a regular group? Did you move from place to place?
We don’t exactly lose our penchant for habit when we get older. Those rhythms we learn in our school days stick with us, and when it comes to mealtimes, we’re mostly creatures of habit. We tend to sit in the same places and eat with the same people. Not all of us, of course, and not all of the time. But most of us, most of the time. And even when we do eat in different places with different people, we’re often still sitting down to the table with people who share a lot in common with us. Economic class, for example. There are not very many situations where the poor and the rich are dining at the same table.
Jesus’s eating habits in the gospels, then, are striking for the way they step outside of our norms. Apparently nothing much has changed in 2000 years, because the religious leaders in Jesus’ day just couldn’t get over how many customs Jesus was always breaking when he sat down to eat with folks. What Jesus says at meals and who he eats with, and what others say about his choice of meal companions, and about what he teaches at the table - that’s our focus this Lent. Each week, we’ll look at another story from the gospel of Luke, and see what we can learn about Jesus and his habits at the table.
Today we start with a scene from Luke 5. We’re still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry here. Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert happen in the two chapters before this one, and after the time of fasting in the wilderness to prepare for all that was before him, Jesus begins in Chapter 5 calling some disciples to follow him, to be part of his ministry. First he calls Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and then he calls Levi, a tax collector. We have no idea what makes Jesus choose Levi, or any of the disciples, really. Jesus had just finished healing someone, and then he goes out and sees Levi sitting at a tax booth. He says to Levi, “Follow me.” And Levi does - he leaves everything, and follows Jesus.
And then Levi throws a banquet for Jesus at his house. In Jesus’s day, it was common to have “symposiums” - a banquet matched with a time of community learning. And so it isn’t surprising that the meal includes both eating and teaching. But what seems to be surprising, at least for some, is the guest list. Levi, naturally, has invited a large crowd of tax collectors. He’s been a tax collector until just a few verses ago. His friends are tax collectors. And he invites them to hear Jesus. But there are also some scribes and Pharisees - interpreters of the law of Moses - in attendance too. How they all end up at one gathering, I’m not sure. But the religious leaders don’t think the tax collectors should be there. They complain to Jesus’s newly named disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinner?” And Jesus answers in his way, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
In the midst of tax season, we chuckle. Who likes tax collectors? Just ask our own Dede Scozzafava about the kinds of jokes she hears as a Tax Commissioner in New York State. But the role of tax collectors in the gospels is a bit different, and the reaction to them is thus more intense. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They were collaborating with the enemy. They were Jewish people who were collecting taxes for Rome, the hated oppressive government, able to take some financial gain for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. They had to collect a certain amount for Rome, but they could collect anything beyond that they wanted and pocket it for themselves. So - they were seen as working for the enemy, getting rich, making extra money by hurting poor neighbors with whom they shared faith and ethnicity. They were really disliked. They were considered ritually unclean. Their practices went against interpretations of Jewish law. Traitors to the faith, the people of God. Who even compares in our society today? Who is someone we feel is akin to a traitor to our nation.? A cheat, a swindler, a traitor?
It is a person like this - a traitor - that Jesus sees in our text for today. He sees Levi - clearly a tax collector - he’s sitting at a tax booth, no mistaking his profession - and what does Jesus do? He says, “Follow me.” And then he goes to dinner not just at Levi’s home, but with a bunch of other tax collectors too. And sinners - a term used in the gospel to describe folks who showed “blatant disregard for God's law.” Jesus sits at the table and shares a meal with these folks. When was the last time you shared a meal with a group of people almost everyone thought of as an enemy of the people?
When the religious leaders criticize Jesus, Jesus responds that it only makes sense for him to spend time with the folks that need him most. A doctor attends to the sick. And Jesus calls those to repent who are going in the wrong direction - sinners. If you are so well, so righteous that you don’t need anything from Jesus, then his focus will not be on you. I wonder - when we think about it like this, are we bold enough to include ourselves among the righteous - those who can claim we are set right in all our relationships with God and one another? Or might we be in need of a physician? Might we need Jesus to call us to repentance?
Jesus’s call to repentance, to turn our lives around and head toward God instead of chasing after whatever else we’ve been following - his call to us doesn’t come in the form of judgment, though. If Jesus spends time at the meal telling the sinners and tax collectors to change their ways, to give up their professions, to behave, we don’t hear it. In the text we have, he never once says, “Don’t do that anymore.” He never once says, “What you are doing is wrong.” What Jesus does with these folks is sit down and get to know them. He sees them. That’s what it says about Jesus calling Levi - “Jess went out and saw Levi.” He invites Levi to follow him. He shares a meal with Levi and friends. He builds a relationship with them. Whose words and actions do you think leads to folks drawing closer to God? Jesus, or the Pharisees?
Jesus knows what he says and how he lives and how he calls us to do likewise is a challenge - to the scribes and Pharisees, and to us too. He compares himself to new fabric that we try to sew onto old clothing, or new wine, that we want to pour into old wineskins. That doesn’t work so well. Instead, Jesus calls us to be made completely new in him - new clothing, new wineskins, new lives, redeemed by God’s love and grace.
Jesus comes calling sinners to follow him. Friends - that’s you and me. Some of us don’t realize we are the sick, in need of a doctor, because we have decided we’re “righteous,” at least more righteous than those other people over there. We’re not tax collectors, after all. We’re not traitors. We’re not enemies of the people. Compared to them, we’re pretty righteous, right? But if we’re not sinners, Jesus can’t help us. Jesus can’t get close to us, because we’re not really inviting Jesus to our table. But people who know they need healing? Jesus wants to pull up a seat at our tables.
When we’ve committed our lives to discipleship, to following in the ways of Jesus, we need to model ourselves after Jesus. Who does our society count as traitors, enemies, sinners? How are we building relationships with the very people who have never been invited to the cool-kids-table at the cafeteria? With the very people we barely even want in the same cafeteria as us? We have a bad habit of trying to “fix” people, happily pointing out all the faults we find in them. We’d prefer to fix them rather than be with them. But people aren’t dumb - they know whether we’re looking at them as a project or as a person. They know whether or not we see them. Jesus transformed lives by loving and caring and compassion, not by judging and chastising. Usually, he saves his chastising for the religious leaders. If we want to be at the table with Jesus, we better be sure to remember that he’s set a lot of seats, and invited a lot of friends to join him already. If we want to be in the company of Jesus, we better start taking a good look at the company he keeps.
Jesus sees you, friends. He’s asking you to follow. He’s got a seat waiting for you - new garments to wear, a new wineskin from which to offer you life everlasting. And got some people for you to meet, who like us, are longing for healing. Won’t you come take a seat?