When some people think of Jesus, they may assume that he spent his time with the most reputable and righteous people of his day. A careful reading of the Gospels might change our thinking and introduce us to the real Jesus, the one who is constantly found associating with “sinners.”
Jesus had previously met Levi, a tax collector, at Levi’s tax booth. When Jesus invited Levi to become one of his followers, Levi responded affirmatively.
“Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners?'” (Lk 5:29-30)
Luke also reports that a multitude of Levi’s employees attended, as well as others whose identities are not given.
Also present were Pharisees and teachers of the law. Obviously, these religious leaders were uncomfortable in the presence of those they deemed less worthy of access to Jesus. They complained and accused Jesus and his disciples of associating too closely with notorious sinners.
This story reminds believers that, if taken seriously, the Gospel is both radical and risky. Neither Jesus nor his followers are commissioned to fulfill the expectations of the religious status quo. Rather than recruiting followers from among the religious elite, Jesus recruited most of his followers from the marketplace, from the lake and from the craft shops.
Jesus regularly visited the temple, but he spent most of his time in the community circulating among ordinary people, particularly those with questionable reputations. It seems that Jesus intentionally targeted as potential disciples those whom religious groups had shunned or excluded.
This new movement spread quickly as individuals communicated their newfound faith to family, friends and colleagues. Levi’s home was an ideal place for Levi to introduce his friends to Jesus.
This story also confirms for us that Jesus had a different agenda than the Pharisees. Pharisees wanted to preserve their forefathers’ traditions, keep the law and rebuke others whose efforts to do so were not as successful. Perhaps Jesus is more radical than we have previously recognized. Some depict Jesus as a staunch legalist and a preserver of religious traditionalism.
However, that is not the truth of this story. Here, Jesus rejects any attempt to establish a kind of religious apartheid that segregates sinners by typology. Jesus sits at the table with all kinds of sinners. In fact, the most unpleasant dinner guests are not those who know they are “sinners,” but those who don’t.
These hard-shell religious legalists were never satisfied with how Jesus conducted his ministry. They asked Jesus and his disciples why they insisted on eating and drinking with sinners.
But the answer was simple: These sinners were the people Jesus chose to be his most effective disciples—sinners saved by grace.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.