Our response to God. 2:13-22
Our passage for study covers three incidents: the call of Levi the tax collector, 2:13-14, Jesus' eating with sinners, 2:15-17, and the question over fasting, 2:18-22.
v13. After the success of the healing of the paralytic, 2:1-12, Jesus again confronts the powers of darkness in the wilderness ("beside the lake" = desert). As usual, he does this through a word ("he began to teach them").
v14. Levi, called Matthew in the gospel of Matthew, is a tax collector working for the Roman government and as such was a hated member of Jewish society, a total outcast. His tax office in Capernaum was on the road from Decapolis. He obviously knew of Jesus and his teachings and so when invited to follow Jesus as a disciple he jumps at the chance.
v15. As an expression of joy, Levi throws a dinner party for Jesus, the disciples and his outcast friends. The actual phrase "publicans and sinners" means publicly known outcasts and despised peoples. They were Jews, classed by the Pharisees as ritually unclean.
v16. For the Pharisees, the purity of table fellowship was easily stained in the presence of a "sinner" and they were less than impressed by Jesus' failure to remain separate from the unclean.
v17. The form of this incident is quite common in the gospels. Jesus performs a significant act, it is challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus counters with a truth that they may well agree with, but he interprets it radically such that they are silenced. In this episode, the meal represents the messianic feast where forgiven sinners, outcasts, share in God's promised blessings. In the face of his critics, Jesus makes the point that it is the sinner who needs forgiveness, not the righteous, and therefore, it is proper for him to work with those who need forgiveness. The Pharisees may well nod in agreement with Jesus' argument, but they fail to recognize that they too are sinners and are in need of forgiveness.
v18. The question over fasting serves to challenge Jesus' audience and so provide another opportunity for radical teaching. The Day of Atonement was the only designated fast day, but the Pharisees had developed a pattern of regular fasting, one also followed by the Baptist and his disciples.
v19-20. These words are usually interpreted in light of the coming kingdom of God in the person of Jesus. The messianic age has dawned, a day of celebration, not a day of mourning. Of course, there will still be days of mourning, particularly the day when the "bridegroom" is crucified.
v21-22. Jesus, in typical fashion, uses two short parables to draw out the truth that the kingdom of God has dawned with a newness that cannot be contained within the structures of a fading world. The messianic banquet is now and it would be totally inappropriate to fast in sad reflection as if the day is yet to come. The day is now, and to fail to see the day can only bring ruin.
Disarming the self-righteous
A colleague of mine recently spoke of a meeting he chaired for the purchase of new carpet in his church. Anyone who has ever attended a church management meeting know only too well how such an issue can stir passionate debate. One youthful member demanded that Bible texts be woven into the carpet, therefore justifying the expense of such an extravagance. In the heat of the moment my friend didn't know what to say. The following day, as is always the case, he thought of a wonderful line he could have used. At least he gave me the benefit of is afterthought. "I would consider writing the scripture on my door post, even on my forehead, but on the ground, to be trampled underfoot, never!"
Jesus' capacity to lay bare the conviction of human self-worth is a joy to behold. He disarms us before the grace of God. He acts provocatively, defends Biblically and contends radically. If you like, he pokes the cocky, heads for the moral high ground, and throws water on the slippery slope of self-worth below. Having disarmed his critics, it is then that they may come to see that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works.
As the sick need healing, so sinners need forgiveness. Jesus comes to proclaim forgiveness, a word of joy, not sadness, a word that cannot be contained. Yet, there is always the danger that our churchmanship, piety, habits even, will stand against the truth of the gospel. None of us would even think of opposing this truth, but somehow it's easy to oppose. The high moral ground is often quite unrelated to the substance of grace. Forgiveness transcends the political and religious correctness of our age, demolishing all human ideals and aspirations that would contain it.
May we all be disarmed before the sovereign grace of God.
1. Good people don't get to heaven, only bad people. Discuss.
2. How does Jesus disarm the self-righteous?
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