[February 15, 2009] Luke shows us Jesus as Savior. When Jesus was first anointed by the Holy Spirit to begin His public ministry, He went to His place of beginning, where He grew up, in the hill country of Galilee, the town of Nazareth. There He inaugurated His ministry by announcing His mission. The metaphor that He used was the Year of Jubilee, an institution in ancient Israel by which after every seven sets of seven years, that is, on the fiftieth year, all debts were to be canceled, all slaves freed, and all lands restored to their original owners. Every seventh year was a Sabbatical year, in which the land itself was allowed to rest, recover and rejuvenate from its labor. The Jubilee was a Sabbath of Sabbaths. This is the metaphor that Jesus used for the new thing that He was bringing into being.
Themes of Opposition
The other theme that was established there was that of rejection. When that which is old and familiar does not accept the truly new thing that Jesus was bringing into being, it does not merely walk away. It feels threatened by it and opposes it. After the rejection in Nazareth, Jesus is rejected by the demon in the synagogue in Capernaum. After the synagogue is cleansed of its demon, the opposition by the Pharisees begins to dog Him.
Prejudice comes from generalizing, and we can generalize about the Pharisees and then about the Jews. Before we know it, we are anti-Semitic, and we start to hold beliefs about the religion of the Old Testament that are contradictory to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament. These beliefs, which easily cross over into Marcionism, are a terrible heresy. They are anti-Christian. Polycarp called Marcion, “the first-born of Satan.” Polycarp was a disciple of John, the author of the fourth gospel.
So let us be clear that the Pharisees who oppose Jesus were also opposed by other Pharisees, including Hillel and his student Gamaliel (and his student, Saul of Tarsus, after his conversion). Judaism, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD, followed the teachings of Hillel and rejected the teachings of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. The Pharisees who opposed Jesus were fanatics about purity and did not want Jews to have anything to do with Gentiles, including the Romans, or with “sinners,” the non-religious Jews. They favored violence and the use of force (“zeal”) and later on even murdered their fellow rabbis. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, they dogged the church’s mission to the Gentiles.
Themes of Liberation (5:27-28)
After Nazareth, Jesus went to Capernaum where He was received and He established a sort of base there, possibly in the home of Simon Peter. He may have had a house or apartment of His own, perhaps even sharing a courtyard with Peter who lived across the street from the synagogue (according to archaeological finds). Capernaum is on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, which the gospels call a “Sea,” making a metaphorical connection to the Mediterranean. Palestine faced the Mediterranean which symbolized the Gentile world of the apostolic journeys in Acts.
From Capernaum Jesus went on an “apostolic” tour of Galilee to gather His first disciples and to appoint “apostles” from among them (4:42—7:1). Jubilee is named for the “joy” of liberation, restoration and rejuvenation. According to this theme, Jesus begins to liberate people from whatever it is that holds them captive.
First, Jesus liberates Peter from his preoccupation (and blindness). Then He liberates the leper from his uncleanness (and the taint of sin). Then He liberates the paralytic by forgiving his sins (and releasing him from the paralysis that seems related to it).
Today Jesus liberates Levi, the tax-collector. After Peter, the fisherman, Levi is the second person whom Jesus calls to be a disciple. Like Peter, he “left all and followed him.” Unlike Peter, however, Levi was a notorious sinner, despised by his neighbors. He was a sinner because he was a nonobservant Jew who worked closely with Gentiles, who handled graven images (printed on Roman money), and who robbed his fellow Jews to make himself rich. Being so despised, he had to associate and make friends with people who were similarly despised or outcast, people who did not care about religious scruples, whatever beliefs they may have held about God. Probably, at least publicly, Levi did not care about God and felt that God despised him too, and that God had already condemned him.
Yet, unlike Peter, he needed no special proof aside from hearing about Jesus and perhaps seeing how Jesus treated others. When Jesus called him, he simply dropped what he was doing and followed. Sometimes non-committed religious people—hard working responsible people like Peter—are harder to reach than those who seem furthest away. The words, “Follow me,” imply the cleansing (from sin) that the leper experienced, the forgiveness of sin that the paralytic experienced, and the experience of purpose that Peter discovered. Levi was revolutionized: from someone who assumed that God despised him like all the “good” people did, to someone utterly convinced that God unconditionally loved him.
What made this difference? Jesus’ personal presence and word did. Have we felt Jesus’ personal attention? God, whose face is in Jesus of Nazareth, whose word comes to us through the Scriptures, calls each of us personally with the same liberating power. If we but “look up” as Levi did on that day, we would see for ourselves— instead of what we always heard second hand—that God sees us, accepts us where and just as we are, forgives us, and loves us unconditionally.
Themes of Household and Food (5:29-35)
Levi immediately throws a feast. This is like the reception that Peter’s mother-in-law gave to Jesus in that it is also a meal served in the home, but it is also very different. This is a feast—Levi spent money on it—and the guests were the most unpopular people in town, sinners with whom “good” people did not associate. Yet Jesus and His disciples are there, enjoying it.
One theme that keeps showing up in Luke’s writings is the household. Whether Levi was a family man or not, we do not know. He had a house where he entertained his friends. Jesus first went to His own home in Nazareth, then He went to Peter’s home in Capernaum, then He was in a house when He healed the paralytic, and now He is in Levi’s house. When He sent the apostles out, and later the seventy, He sent them into people’s homes. We see the same pattern in Acts, where they broke bread “from house to house” and Paul taught “from house to house” (Acts 2:46; 20:20).
Traditionally we think we need to bring people to “church” to carry out the mission of the Gospel, or to build agencies of social service (like hospitals). These things are good, but the primary place where the work of evangelism takes place is in our own and our neighbors’ homes. The setting of the home is personal. People are comfortable there. It is where face-to-face fellowship can take place.
And fellowship often takes place around food. Food is another major theme in Luke’s writings. Peter’s mother-in-law cooks for Jesus. Jesus fills Peter and his partners’ boats with food (fish), and now Levi prepares a feast for Jesus. Next, the disciples are eating grain on the Sabbath. This theme is just getting started. Food symbolizes fellowship—because people normally do not eat alone. Maybe now they do, but normally meals are shared. But food also symbolizes satisfaction. It is the answer to hunger—we usually never experience hunger, but much of the world does. Jesus satisfies and fills people with food. He compares Himself with food because He satisfies the hunger of our souls and the longing of our hearts. Fasting has to do with lack. We deprive ourselves of food when we are mourning, when we are praying for something someone needs, or for self-discipline—to purge our minds of its cravings. But when we first discover Jesus we cannot fast. Instead, it is time to celebrate. When Jesus offers Himself to us in the Gospel, it is time to eat. Worship in the Old Testament usually takes the form of feasting. We should satisfy ourselves on Jesus, enjoy Him. To enjoy Him is worship. Christianity is not the grueling task of moral conformity. It is feasting on Jesus, the food of satisfaction that God gives us.
Something New (5:27-39)
Jesus brings in the Messianic Age, the “Year of Jubilee.” It fulfills all that the Old Testament longs so earnestly for. But it is so over-the-top, so incredible and amazing, that it spills over whatever container that the Old Testament provided for it. It spills over even onto sinners and pagan Gentiles. It knows no bounds. Judaism is a marvelous privilege for the Jews, but it takes on a typological significance that overflows the privilege of their practices and becomes the meaning of life even for non-practicing pagans. Levi is not a pagan, but the Gospel of Luke prepares us for them. What Christ, the Savior, brings to the world cannot be forced into old boxes but must find a new container in the church. The gospel cannot accept any ethnic, racial, gender, class, cultural or health boundaries or restrictions. If it is to live and not spoil it must be open. The church needs a loose structure that is open to everyone.
Enjoying the Sabbath (6:1-11)
We have here two stories having to do with the Sabbath. According to mainline Pharisees, Jesus and His disciples did nothing wrong. So these stories do not represent a rejection of Judaism or the practice of the Sabbath. The Pharisees in the stories are the ones who distort the meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is for rest and restoration and rejuvenation in the presence of God, while enjoying with satisfaction—not modifying for better use—God’s creation.
The Jubilee that Jesus proclaims is a super Sabbath. The theme of food comes up again in verses 1-5 and healing in 6-11. Satisfaction of hunger (those who gleaned the corners of the field were the poor) and the restoration of health both have to do with the true meaning of the Sabbath. They are NOT examples of Jesus breaking the law of the Sabbath. Indeed, in verse 5 Jesus calls Himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” (just as in 10:2 He calls God the “Lord of the Harvest”).
Jesus compares Himself to David in verses 3-5. David had been anointed as king by Samuel and was running away from Saul, the king sitting on the throne of Israel whom God rejected. Before the resurrection, Jesus was like David, the anointed King rejected by those in authority. The bread that David ate, the bread of the Presence, was always baked on the Sabbath (Leviticus 24:5). So the priests not only gave David bread that was set apart for God, holy bread, but they did it on the Sabbath. The priests themselves were working on the Sabbath (their duties in the tabernacle took precedent to Sabbath regulations), and the preservation of life is how the rabbis understood David’s need to eat—also took precedent over Sabbath regulations.
As Lord of the Sabbath (and the Jubilee), Jesus could act both as the priests did—on God’s behalf—and as David did, to do what is necessary to preserve life, while still preserving and observing the true of the meaning of the Sabbath. (By the way, Gentiles are not bound by the literal meaning of the fourth commandment. As Christians, however, we do observe the Lord’s Day on Sunday.)