Luke 5:27-39, Following Jesus into a New Beginning

[May 26, 2013] Trinity Sunday: Today we celebrate the Tri-unity of God. I do not intend here to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, as I did last year and on numerous other occasions, but instead to pick up on the assertion in Matthew 28:19, that we are baptized into the Name of the Trinity. Baptism is the end of the former associations in the world and the beginning of our Christian life. By it we are pronounced dead to the world and alive to God in Christ. In Christ we are participants in the dynamic of the personal relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for in the incarnation of the Son all three are embodied, for they eternally co-inhere (mutually dwell in each other), and are—each in their peculiar way—eternally in dynamic relation to each other.

After the church is anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit (immersed in the Spirit), it makes disciples of Jesus and baptizes them into the Triune Name. Trinity Sunday thus follows Pentecost. For the remainder of the church year, that is, until Advent, each week is marked by how it follows Trinity Sunday, for our discipleship to Christ and in Him is always built upon this beginning, this foundation. Trinity Sunday thus marks our baptism, the ending of our former associations in the world and our new beginning in Christ, in the fellowship of His new people, His messianic qahal (or kahal, the church). To illustrate this I thought a good passage to consider in Luke’s gospel would be the call of Levi and the related teaching that follows it.

In Jesus’ apostolic circuit of Galilee in which He was illustrating by signs the significance of the Jubilee (the “Favorable Year of the Lord”), thus giving notice (kēryssō) of its coming, He liberated first a busy Peter, then an “unclean” leper, then an incapacitated paralytic, and then Levi, a tax collector. Peter leaves everything and follows Jesus, like Levi (5:11, 28). The leper is an unclean outcast whom Jesus cleanses and reconnects to the community (5:12-14); Levi is unclean because he handles idolatrous coins for the Romans. The paralytic is healed by his sins being forgiven (5:20, 24); Levi was a notorious sinner and incapacitated by his involvement with sin; but Jesus calls him to repentance (5:32) and liberates him. What follows are two incidents that illustrate how Jesus’ work of liberation (of Jubilee) fulfills the Sabbath-rest associated with the blessing of God upon the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 27-30; Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:7—4:13). Compare this to the beatitudes that follow in Luke 6:20-26!

This circuit is framed by Jesus’ speech in Nazareth and setting up in Capernaum on the one side and His sermon on the plain and healing of the centurion’s slave on the other side. In Nazareth He announced the coming messianic Jubilee, the great liberation that, He said, was beginning in their hearing. Then when He warned of how God would turn to the gentiles, they opposed Him. He then set up the base of His liberating work in Capernaum, and went on an apostolic tour of Galilee (which I just described). At the end of this tour He gathered His new disciples and described to them how blessed they are and what it looks like to be His disciple—who those are who are liberated—how they are to be like the Father in their compassion but are to leave all judgment of others in God’s hands (and instead attend to themselves). When He returns to His base in Capernaum, a gentile soldier comes to Him. Jesus recognizes that the man has greater faith than Jesus has found in Israel, and Jesus heals the man’s slave in His absence, through the power of His word. Thus, with an enacted-parable of the future church (a foreshadowing of what happens in the Acts of the Apostles), Jesus fulfills the words He had said in Nazareth.

The Call of a Sinner (Luke 5:27-28)

Mark tells us that Levi is a “son of Alphaeus” (Mark 2:14), and therefore he might be related to “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:15 and Mark 3:18), one of the Twelve, also known as “James the Less.” Alphaeus and Cleopas may be two different Greek spellings of the Aramaic name Hilfai (possibly Hilfi in Hebrew), it being common to drop the “H” in translation or alternately to render it as “K.” The early community’s memory has it that Alphaeus (or Cleopas) was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Alphaeus’ wife is similarly named Mary, and they had another son Joses (Matthew 27:56, 61; Luke 24:10; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; John 19:25). Of course, Levi’s father might have just had the same name and not be the same person.

Unlike James, Levi probably did not become one of the Twelve, for it is not likely that he and Matthew (6:15) are the same person. Otherwise, he would have had two Hebrew names (when a person had two names, one was Hebrew and the other usually Greek or Latin). In the second century Heracleon (according to Clement of Alexandria) and Origen did not think they were the same person. Matthew was one of the Twelve and the author of the first gospel. Probably the name Levi was changed to Matthew in Matthew 9:9 to conform to Matthew 10:3 and the author of the gospel, since both individuals were tax collectors. Mark’s gospel also reports his name as Levi (2:14). Though Matthew himself of course did not make this change to his own gospel, it must have been made early, for I am not aware of there being any manuscript evidence.

Levi’s “tax booth” may have been no more than a roadside table.

Just as Peter, and James and John his fishing partners, left everything (katalipōn panta) to follow Jesus, so does Levi in 5:28. Levi, Luke tells us, left everything behind and then got up and followed Jesus, which is not the physical order in which his actions would have taken place. The implication is that his leaving everything behind was a decision before it was an action. What he left behind was his work. Just as Peter did, he left one occupation behind to take up another. Literally he “followed” Jesus, that is, he walked behind Him. The verb, “began to follow” is in the imperfect tense and therefore stresses the continuous nature of his act: he “was following Him,” he “kept following Him.” Of course, it means that Levi became a disciple of Jesus, even if he was not one of the chosen Twelve.

Eating and Drinking with Sinners (5:29-32)

Levi held a great banquet for Jesus. In Matthew 9:10 it is not clear whether Jesus invited Levi or Levi invited Jesus, but this obscurity is cleared up in Luke. Jesus did not decline Levi’s invitation. We can compare this to Luke 19:5, where Jesus invites Himself to the house of Zaccheus (also a tax collector) to dine.

Levi was a rich man and he gave a sumptuous feast to honor Jesus in his own house. This is interesting, for he just gave up his occupation, the very occupation which would allow him to throw such a banquet. It seems to me that he was throwing away his wealth and at the same time celebrating his entrance into a new way of life; like Zaccheus he was not taking his wealth with him. Perhaps this was because it was ill-gotten, or perhaps it was because of the evangelical counsel to live without possessions. (Or I am reading this into the text; Levi could well afford such a party and did not give away more of his wealth.) In any case, when Levi threw a feast in the past, it was to celebrate his wealth, that is, what his money had gotten him or enabled him to do and have. This time it was different. Levi’s throwing a feast in honor of Jesus and everyone’s eating to fullness speak of Levi’s satisfaction and happiness with Jesus. Whatever money meant to him before, Jesus was what satisfied him now.

Levi invited other tax collectors and “other” people (unlike Matthew, Luke does not directly identify these others as “sinners,” though this identification is made in verse 30 and 32). Tax collectors are associated with sinners in Luke 7:34; 15:1 and 19:7. Of course, who else would “hang out” with them?

In Luke we frequently find Jesus at meals. Peter’s mother-in-law, after Jesus healed her, “served them” a meal (4:39). Peter was not catching fish (food) when by Jesus’ word he did (5:4-7; compare this to the temptation, 4:2-3). The debate about the Sabbath in 6:1-5 centered around eating: the disciples rubbing the fallen grain in their hands that they might eat it, and David eating the bread of the Presence and giving it to his men to eat. We also find Jesus frequently teaching at meals: Luke 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 14:1-24; 22:4-38; 24:29-32, 41-43. Whether or not Jesus taught at Levi’s meal, we do not know, but it is significant that He was eating with whom He was eating—Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Fellowship around meals—in the home—continues to be important in the life of the church; and the weekly Lord’s Table gathering of remembrance obviously centers round a meal.

It is unlikely that Levi would have invited the “Pharisees and their scribes” to his banquet, or that they would have come, so the discussion in verses 30-32 must have taken place afterwards. The scribes could have been no more than copyists who worked for the Pharisees or they may have been Pharisees who were copyists or legal scholars. In any case, in 15:2 Luke mentions the “Pharisees and the scribes” were again grumbling, remembering that “this Man receives sinners and eats with them,” because “tax collectors and sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.” When Jesus invites Himself to the home of the chief tax collector Zaccheus, the people of Jericho grumble that “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

When the scribes and Pharisees grumbled at the disciples in verse 30, it is doubtful that Levi was physically among them, but there is some irony in the fact that Levi was already one of those disciples: “Why do you [all] eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

It is interesting that in Matthew 9:11 it is Jesus who is accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners but in Luke 5:30 it is the disciples who are accused of doing so, though in verses 31-32 Jesus answers them as if the accusation was leveled at Him. Luke 5:30 anticipates the church in the Acts of the Apostles. Not only did Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners, but we continue to do so still.

For some reason readers associate “sinners” with prostitutes (tax collectors and prostitutes are associated in Matthew 21:32), but actually the word “sinner” just mean a non-practicing Jew. Levi was a non-practicing Jew but he also handled coins with the graven image of the emperor on them (see 20:24 and who else is handling such coins!), associated with gentiles (a tax collector was a lessee of the right to collect the Roman taxes from his fellow Jews), and was suspected of overcharging (defrauding) his fellow Jews for his own profit (cf. 3:13; 19:8; perhaps 18:11). Levi not only was a deeply alienated man, but he also chose this profession. The reader probably assumes that tax collectors did what they did out of avarice (greed for money). It is the very thing that drives modern economies, but once it was considered sinful (I say this sarcastically—obviously, from a Christian point of view avarice must still be considered sinful). A “sinner” was not as far out there as a gentile, but a tax collector was, and by his own choice (see Matthew 18:17), perhaps making him even worse (in the eyes of his community) than a gentile, a traitor in a way.

The rabbis (Berakoth 43b) considered sharing a meal with those who did not observe the Torah as among the “things that shame a pupil of the scribes” (New York, Abingdon Press: The Interpreters Bible, Volume VIII, 1952; page 109).

Jesus compares sinners to the sick and the righteous to those who are well. But His meaning may be veiled in sarcasm. The “righteous,” i.e, the Pharisees and scribes, are not actually righteous but they are those who think they are well and that they have no need of a physician. The “sinners” are outcasts who recognize that they are sick and unhealthy. (The condition and need is in view here, not whether sinners are the “victims” of ill-health and the righteous are those privileged with good health.)

In 5:32 Jesus says, “I have come”; in 7:34 He says, “The Son of Man has come”; and in 19:10 He says, “The Son of Man has come.” These all speak of His having come and imply that His apostolate (His mission) is in progress. In 18:8 He speaks of “when the Son of Man comes.” This refers to when He comes in glory (to assize). This is just to point out that Jesus sometimes uses the same expression to speak of His coming. “The Son of Man” is the glorious figure of Daniel 7:13. To use this expression to speak of His coming in glory is what we expect; to use it to speak of His coming in humiliation gives us pause. He who comes in humility and submits to the cross is the One who comes in glory; in humility, His true identity is hidden. But this is an aside.

Levi leaving everything behind and becoming a disciple of Jesus is repentance, both in the Hebrew sense of turning around and in the Greek sense of changing the mindset. Levi does not become a follower of Jesus without repentance. Beginning with John the Baptist (Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24), repentance is an essential theme of Christian preaching, for by it Jews and gentiles enter into life. It is the irreplaceable beginning of the new life (see Luke 15:7; 24:47; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20). It is repentance that we proclaim to unbelievers (and need to maintain daily in ourselves).

Being Attendants on the Bridegroom (5:33-35)

“They” in verse 33 must be “the Pharisees and their scribes” since no one else is mentioned, but in Matthew 9:14 the question is posed by the disciples of John the Baptist. John the Baptist had his own disciples (see Luke 7:18-19; Matthew 14:12), and their persistence as a group can still be seen as far away as Ephesus in Acts 18:25-26 and possibly 19:1-4. John 3:25-26 and 4:1-2 make it seem as though some rivalry existed between John’s disciples and Jesus’. When they say that the disciples of John “offer prayers” (deēseis poiountai) it seems to mean that John had taught his disciples certain forms of prayer (see 11:1).

According to Luke 7:33-34 John the Baptist fasted but Jesus came eating and drinking, and people associated His eating and drinking with being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” which connects 5:33-35 with 5:29-30 (the fact of His eating and drinking with who He ate and drank with). The question they posed to Jesus was meant as criticism.

Fasting took different forms, sometimes abstaining from water as well as food (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9) and sometimes it was accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes (for example, Daniel 9:3). Prophets inveighed against it when it was a form of self-righteousness (see Jeremiah 14:12 and Isaiah 58:3-9).

Matthew 6:16-18 assumes that Jesus’ disciples will fast. The Didache, probably a Syrian document written toward the end of the first century, indicates that Christians fasted (and should do so in fact on Wednesday and Fridays!). Apparently, the disciples did not fast before the crucifixion.

The “attendants of the bridegroom” is literally the “sons of the bridal-chamber,” the bridal-chamber being the place where the wedding (or possibly the consummation) takes place. The expression “son of” signifies the role they play in attending the groom at the wedding. Jesus identifies Himself as the bridegroom, and these His disciples are His attendants.

Jesus’ answer implies that fasting has to do with sorrow and gloom (in Matthew 9:15 Jesus says “mourning” where Luke has “fasting”), since it is out of place in the presence of the Bridegroom whose joy is about to be fulfilled. What is the wedding to which Jesus looks forward? The New Testament associates the wedding of the Lamb with His coming in glory, when He will be united with His bride. However, in this case, He speaks of being taken away from them. It seems to me that He will be taken away from them on two occasions: when He goes to the cross and after His ascension forty days after the resurrection. The wedding to which He refers therefore seems to be His resurrection. The Gospel according to John also associates Jesus’ resurrection with nuptial imagery; in fact, it is a major theme (or this association is one of the basic ways in which it approaches its theme of our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit).

These two weddings correspond to the fact that Christ’s coming again in glory is just a universal manifestation of the revelation—and the reality—of what took place on Easter Sunday and that was (and is still) manifested only to a select few. There is also this correspondence: Easter took place on the offering of the first-fruits of the barley harvest and the outpouring of the Spirit on the church took place on the offering of the harvest (Pentecost), in a way, as the beginning and end of the same event, harvest of grain; what is yet to come is the final harvest from the fields and orchards, the fruit harvest, and the offering of the first-fruits of wine and oil, at the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). The Feast of the First Fruits takes place in the first month and the Feast of Booths takes place in the seventh. Jesus is resurrected on Easter, but the universal manifestation of this reality and its beginning to take place in the creation still awaits us.

Levi’s banquet becomes, in this light, a celebration of Christ as the bridegroom, in anticipation of His wedding. Levi and the disciples banqueting together with tax collectors and sinners become the attendants of the bridegroom. The implication is that “days will come” when tax collectors and sinners are going to benefit from the bridegroom’s special day.

In the light of this, the asceticism of John the Baptist (his mourning and weeping) has already become old (see 7:28).

The New and the Old (5:36-39)

Something new is definitely afoot. Luke stresses the incompatibility of mixing the old with the new.

In Matthew 9:16 the problem is that sewing a patch of new cloth to an old garment will ruin the old garment because it will shrink and tear the old garment, leaving a bigger hole than before. In Luke 6:5 the problem is ruining a new garment in order to patch an old garment with a patch that will not even match it. In Luke the concern is entirely with the new.

New wine is unfermented. Old wineskins are hard and dry and will burst when fermentation occurs. New wine needs compatible skins that can stretch and not break.

Usually commentators say that what is old is Judaism itself. That is not what I see. The first thing that is old is Levi’s former life. Levi needs to leave all that behind and jump with both feet into his new life as a disciple of Jesus. In this way the old is what we leave behind when we are baptized into Christ. What is also old is the way of John the Baptist. The Bridegroom has arrived. Remaining in a state of remorse and sorrow for the past is not enough; we need to wake up to the fact that the Messiah has come and has defeated the power of sin. What is also old, the third thing, is the righteousness of verse 32, the self-righteousness of these scribes and Pharisees who condemn Jesus. There is a righteousness that comes as a gift, and is given to tax collectors and sinners who have not merited it, an “alien” righteousness that Jesus gives Himself, a righteousness that leaves us astonished, and humbled and in love.

Christianity itself has become old and full of self-righteousness. It has lost sight of Jesus and strives hard to have a righteousness of its own, whether a social-justice kind or an individual moral kind. It has rendered itself irrelevant because it has become part of the world and functions by the world’s own dynamics. It poses as society’s conscience, and once in a while it still functions that way, but the world has come of age in its independence from God and increasingly gives it no heed. However we may look at it, Christianity has become this old garment, this old wineskin. What then is the new? It is still Jesus Himself. He is always new, always fresh, even when there seems to be no wineskins to contain Him.

There is always life in the revelation of Jesus the Christ. It is always the world that is old, with a pretention of life.

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