Interventions: Feasting with Tyrants and Tax Collectors (Luke 5:27-39)

Here is the text I preached from on Sunday 8.2.2009. The reflection is on Luke 5:27-39. You can also subscribe to or download the audio version of the sermon from iTunes (or our Church’s blog).

AIG

This morning our text raises questions around newness of God’s work in Jesus, who will follow that new work and who will be reject it in favor of the old.

When  I first started reflecting on this passage, I kept seeing it largely within an older framework of my own. Always hearing it to be a conversion story, I saw Levi as the main character, and his response was the main action.  (Sometimes I find it hard to shake off old readings of the text.)

And this certainly is important to our narrative, but I hope that we can get a fresh look at this story by shifting our focus just a little.

In fact, if we start at the end of the passage 5:36-38, Jesus’ explanation and commentary on what he is doing, then we can start to bring the rest of the passage into focus.

At first this passage about the new garment and the old wineskins may seem a little confusing, but the main gist is that the new ways, new teachings and practices of Jesus just don’t fit into the old.

I think what Jesus says about the cloth is that it is a waste to both the new garment as well as the old if we tear one up to sew the other. One reading of this is that Jesus’ challengers here should not expect to tear up what he’s doing to try and make it fit the Pharisees or John’s work, it doesn’t fit, it won’t match.
They are based on the old, his is based on the new.
The same goes for this stuff about the wineskins. Jesus effectively says that a disruption is happening, the wineskins are bursting. By trying to force Jesus’ categories into older wineskins they are missing a very serious point.

NT Wright points out that this last line about drinking old wine, is a warning, that many will not appreciate the shift in allegiance that Jesus is calling for. In fact, many will reject it, fearing the new, and decide to stick with the Old. (cf. Wright 65).

Many of us are familiar with Facebook today, in fact, aren’t many of you on facebook? I know some of you are holding out, for what I don’t know, but there are a number of you who have accounts and use it to varying degrees. But how many of you remember Friendster? It was a social network setup in 2002, which feels like a really long time ago when it comes to the Internet. I remember joining Friendster and using it a little here and there, but now it seems like a thing of the past. It doesn’t have the innovation, or the newness, that networks like facebook and twitter have.

Often, the new things just don’t fit into the old, even when the old are precursors to the new.

And Jesus is saying, the reason this doesn’t make sense to you is because it’s new.  Have you ever read a book, or used a program or a tool, that was so new you couldn’t understand it at all?  Maybe you needed someone to explain it to you, or maybe you needed to look at it completely differently before you could figure out what was going on.

That’s what is happening here.
The New Ways and the New World
However, unlike facebook, twitter and other technological advances that will continue to get outdated by newer innovations, God’s work in Jesus was “new once and for all, and would never again be outdated” (Wright, Everyday 63).

And this passage, with Levi, and his buddies, who I’ve caricatured as  the “tyrants and tax collectors,” something like an Indie Rock band name, is a picture, a glimpse, of “Jesus putting into effect the new world God is bringing about” (Ibid).

These old ways no longer fit the new world, as NT Wright says:

“They are obsolete, not because they were bad in themselves but because God’s new age has new power, new possibilities and new hope that simply weren’t there before. Novelty is deeply threatening especially when people have built their lives around the old way.”

Remember how it was when CD’s first came out? Actually, some of you probably remember when Cassettes first came out, but I’ll stick with CD’s since most of my memories only goes back to the late 70’s and 80s.

For me, to see these new CDs was equally exciting and frustrating. Here’s this new technology that offers better quality sound, a longer life, and new possibilities about how music can be experienced. But at the same time what am I going to do with all these cassettes!?

They are no loner useful, they’re practically obsolete.Jesus was inaugurating a new way of thinking about, as well as a new way of actually being the people of God. Something far less trivial than what medium we listen to music on. His movement was announcing a change in who could be included in this new world, the new ethics of the people of God, a new way of relating to God (through himself).
But if this is so threatening to those invested in the old way, who would respond to this movement he was inaugurating?
Tyrants and Tax Collectors

Jesus ‘calls‘, an important word in Luke appearing 40x, a tax collector named Levi.

This raised eyebrows then, and really, it should raise eyebrows now. Why on Earth would Jesus  select a Tax Collector, people who were known to be extortionists?! Not only were they employed by the Roman government to collect cripplingly high taxes, but they were in constant contact with gentiles, making them unclean and unfit to participate in Jewish worship.Let’s put it this way, Levi was most likely someone with about the amount of popularity among mass public as an executive from AIG.

You can see why Levi’s fellow Jews might be a tad bit scandelized by one of their own doing such dirty work.

But by now, you’ve certainly caught on to the fact that Levi isn’t the first questionable person invited to be a part of this new world Jesus is putting into effect. In Chapt. 4, he heals people possesed with evil spirits. Then in chap. 5 we see that it is three fishermen, Simon, James and John, who first leave everything and follow him. Then he’s with a lepar, then the paralytic, and then a tax collector. This is not to mention the four elderly people, and the young teenage virgin who appear in the first two chapters of our narrative.

I love that Jesus calls Levi and then heads over to his house for a celebratory dinner. A Feast with Tyrants and Tax Collectors. He meets Levi’s friends, who, unsurprisingly, are in the same line of work as he is. (This is more than likely because no one wanted to associate with these kinds of folks other than more of these kinds of folks.)

But as an aside, if we’re thinking about the mission theology Jesus is operating under, I think it’s important to realize that unlike many churches today where if you want to join us, then you’ve got to come to us, you’ve got to come onto our turf, play by our rules,  Jesus, does the exact opposite.  He heads over to Levi’s house.

He makes himself vulnerable to people who have really bad reputations, he opens himself up to the criticism of others who see him with these folks, and he allows there to be questions of perception and have his reputation challenged.

Here’s the thing, If you want to have a nice and neat group, where everybody is the same, every doctrine and theology is tidy, every possible misinterpretation is guarded against, every possible stumbling block is guarded against, then Jesus has a really bad outreach strategy.He’s not going to be the clerk of the outreach committee. He’s not the professor you want to take for mission theology. He’s not the Sunday School teacher you’ll be joining for that class on “God’s mission in the Bible.”

But, if we’re operating under the rule and reign of God, the reality that God’s movement is often an intrusion into our neatly defined categories. If we’re working with this new world, these new hopes, and new way of being the being of God then we will seek Gospel Order. If we’re open to the inventions, as well as the short-circuits of God, then I think we might just start to get what Jesus is up to.

Forgiveness Is For Everyone

In conclusion, I want to mention two things that make up this new movement Jesus creates in our narrative today.

First, God’s people are not determined by the nice and neat social boundaries and classifications that were set up by the political, cultural and religious powers of their day.  That is one thing I love about this church. Last week we talked about who the poor were, those who had low social status, or those who had no or very little honor depending on their education, their family heritage, their gender, their physical makeup. This week we see just who some of the people are that Jesus really had in mind when he read Isa. 61.

It isn’t about who is in and who is out, don’t we all experience a little bit of being in and being out (Carolyn)? Don’t we all desire to be with some in crowd, or to at least be accepted by others?

In Lk 5, Jesus cuts through all these barriers, boundaries, classifications, and rules and regulations and says:

“There are no longer two uncrossable chasms of people: those who have God’s favor and those who don’t. Now everyone can have forgiveness. Anyone willing to repent, and remember repent means more than a mental change, it means taking the very risky step of changing your allegiances, can have it right now and become a part of the new world coming.”

The new covenant is rooted in an open-ended forgiveness for everyone, Jew and Gentile, Tyrant and Tax-Collector, Barren and Virgin, the Sick and the lame, the clean and the unclean.

Forgiveness is now here for everyone, it is for all of us.

It was offered by a man who people are whispering behind his back saying, “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:34).

If you want to say you’re open and offering forgiveness to people, then you have to be willing to get dirty in the process. It won’t be on our terms.

Fasting or Feasting

Finally, Another thing going on in this passage is that it happens over dinner, actually, it happens at a celebration.

Pay attention to food, discussions around the table and celebrations in Luke’s Gospel. A sign of the new age is that God is throwing a party and everyone is invited. For Jews, the image of a banquet one often used to describe the messianic age. It is a symbol of what heaven looks like.

This whole passage is about the new reality God is bringing about. It moves from Jesus’ calling new people, like tax-collectors, into his movement to a feast, a celebration with even more unwelcome characters who end up giving Jesus a bad name.

And you’ll notice that the last portion of our passage is a number of sayings about this new kingdom movement.

Jesus is asked: “Why don’t you’re disciples fast like John’s disciples do, or better yet, like the Pharisees do?”  If they can’t trap Jesus because of the people he’s associating with, maybe they can appeal to theology to trap him.

Fasting in the Jewish religion was about waiting for the messiah, it was about remembering the individual and collective sins, remembering all of her troubles in the past, and praying for God’s mercy so that the messianic age would come.

But the messianic age had come, Jesus was inaugurating it with his life – thus it is no longer appropriate to be fasting, now it is time to be feasting.

The wedding-banquet image is a standard Jewish picture of God’s new age. And it’s really important to look at who is following and who is feasting, who is at the table of the celebration.

It’s much easier to draw lines around the fast than it the feast. Fasting is a discipline, a marker, that sets people a part, while feasting is open, everyone is invited, it is an invitation to celebrate the new covenant, the new hope, and the forgiveness of God’s new world in Jesus.

It is practicing now what we believe eternity will be like.
And these are just some of the new things that those invested in the old didn’t get.Queries:
Are we willing to engage God’s mission, and follow the example of Jesus, even to the point of raising eyebrows in the process?

How do we respond to the new work of Jesus?

Are we offering forgiveness to everyone who desires it?

How can we operate out of a celebratory faith? Where in our lives are we fasting when we should be feasting?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.