A beautiful story—but in its essence is quite a challenge to the religiosity of our (and any) age. Jesus calls Levi to follow him. So far, so familiar—except for the rapidity of Levi’s response (and that, with him leaving everything to follow Jesus); little about this initially surprises us. We have seen Jesus call disciples before.
But this disciple is a “tax collector.” The task of collecting taxes has been an unpopular one ever since political civil society decided that in order for us to experience the benefits of being governed we would need to pay for it. Roads cost money to build; wars cost money to fight. Citizens of a country are therefore—since time immemorial—expected to pay for such privileges by means of a “tax.” That is, a portion of what they earn is collected by the government officials and goes into the government coffers for us in what is meant to be the “public” benefit. Of course, such a necessary system (we are commanded to pay taxes) is also ripe for abuse. Too much taxes could be collected. The burden of government can become too big a financial burden for the governed. Those who collect taxes can skim off the proceeds for themselves.
All this means that tax collection has been a source of ill will, even revolutionary fever, in almost every country that ever there was. The agents of tax collection, especially if there is a direct connection between the “tax collector” and the citizen, are unlikely to be popular therefore.
But in Israel at the time, more was going on than simply this typical distrust of and distaste for tax collectors. Because Israel was under foreign occupation by the Roman Empire, to be a “tax collector” was not only to collect taxes—unpleasant, but necessary—it was to be an agent of a foreign occupying force. You were a traitor. It was more like being an agent of the Vichy Regime in France during the Nazi occupation.
So for Jesus to call a traitor who is a tax collector to follow him is extraordinary. Levi, in celebration, then has a great feast for Jesus at his house. Other tax collectors and “sinners”—that is not just those who are morally reprehensible by the system at the time, but those who are impure and not able to keep up with the externally demanding purifying system of the Pharisees—were all there together with Jesus too.
Understandably, then, the religious leaders at the time (the Pharisees and the tax collectors) complain to Jesus’ disciples and ask them what on earth is going.
Here comes the punch line of the story.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
In other words, Jesus—fully aware that the disciples are as much, if not more, sinners than the tax collectors—is saying that he has come for those who are aware that they are in need of spiritual healing. A physician cannot heal someone if that person does not even think they are sick, and Jesus has not come to save people who do not think they need saving.
So the greatest danger that we are in spiritually is when we do not think that we are in danger. The greatest friend of pride is when we do not think we have a problem with pride. The one who is furthest from heaven, and closest to hell, is the one who does not think he needs any help to get to heaven—the one who does not think he is a sinner.
How our society needs a fresh conviction of sin! How our churches need the boldness to preach sin! May God grant us the grace today to repent of our sin, turn to Jesus, and be saved!
To receive God Centered Bible devotionals directly in your inbox, sign up here.