As a tax collector for the Romans, Levi routinely stole from his people in Israel. Yet Jesus singled out this hated man and called him to be a disciple. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke and considers how the grace of the gospel is displayed in the calling of Levi.
We are going to continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I’ll be reading Luke 5:27–32:
After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So, he left all, rose up, and followed Him.
Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
In this text, Luke gives us another example of Jesus reaching out to an individual. This immediately follows the healing of the paralytic, where Jesus declared that, as the Son of Man, He had the authority to forgive sins on the earth. What follows immediately in Luke’s account is the manifestation of that authority to forgive sinners. This narrative comes to us from the superintendence of the Holy Ghost and by His inspiration, and it is the very Word of God. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, again we seek Your help to understand the significance of the things recorded in this portion of your holy Word. We wait on You to descend in truth and power in the Holy Spirit, that He would illumine, for our instruction and edification, the meaning of this text we have heard. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Hatred in the Netherlands
In 1964, I was walking by myself down a street called the van der Helstlaan in the ancient walled city of Naarden in the Netherlands. I was returning to the house where we had rented rooms from our landlady during our graduate studies in Holland. Just as I approached our house, I saw an elderly lady coming from the other direction.
The lady was carrying a bag of groceries, and I smiled to her and greeted her. She stopped suddenly, her face lit up like a light bulb, and she spoke to me. It was like she wanted to hold on to me and not let me go, so I spoke to her for about five minutes and then bade her goodbye. She went on her way, and I went into the house where we were lodging.
As I walked in the door, I was met by our landlady, who was livid with fury. She was screaming at me, asking me how I could possibly speak to this terrible woman that I had met on the street. I didn’t understand what was behind this intense fury. She explained to me that during the war, which had only ended nineteen years prior, this woman had been a collaborator. She was a traitor to her own people. She gave comfort and help to the occupying Nazis in the town.
Our landlady told the story of how the Germans were taking young men from the village and shipping them back to Germany, putting them to work in slave labor camps to help the military production effort. With her next-door neighbor, our landlady conspired to dig a safe place under her living room floor, where they put a bed, a fan, water, food, and some flashlights, so if the Germans came near, they could hide each of their sons under the floor.
She told the story of how one day the Gestapo came into her house carrying machine guns and asked the woman, “Do you have any sons?” She said, “No.” They ran to the bedroom, felt the bed, and looked in the closet for any evidence of young men. Then, to fulfill their examination, they came back to the living room, and the leader pointed his gun at the floor and started to shoot into where the two young men were in hiding.
While they were shooting into the floor, they were watching the woman to see what her reaction would be. When they were finished and satisfied that there were no young men there, the Germans left. This woman just about had a heart attack during this encounter. She rushed over to the trapdoor that had been concealed, went down into this cubbyhole they had dug out, and discovered to her delight that neither of the young men had been shot.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine hiding your own son in your house and having somebody come in with a gun and start shooting at the floorboards? That’s the kind of scene you see in movies, and it’s difficult to imagine it actually happening. When I heard that story, I could understand the intensity of her hatred toward the other woman, which had lasted nineteen years. The woman I had talked to in the street had divulged the names of those in hiding, the same sort of thing that happened to Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam during those years.
I tell that story for a reason. The kind of hatred our landlady had for the traitor, the collaborator, was how the Jewish people felt about tax collectors. In Israel, the terms sinner and publican were virtually synonymous, because the people felt that the worst sin was the sin of collaboration with the Romans who so severely oppressed the Jewish people.
Perhaps the most miserable way the Romans oppressed the Jews was with taxation. The burden of taxes that the Roman government imposed upon captive Israel was incredible. The Romans were able to discover a tax for just about everything: wheat, olives, grapes, wine, and so on.
Levi was a Jewish man working for the Romans, sitting at his table along the shores of the Sea of Galilee on the trade route from Syria to Egypt, collecting a toll tax or a tariff of some sort, and keeping a percentage of what he collected for himself. The pious Jews, who prayed for their deliverance from the Romans every day, couldn’t stand to look at Levi, who was lining his own pockets by means of the oppressive, confiscatory taxes levied by the Roman government.
When you look in the Old Testament and see how God structures a nation, there was a distinction between the priests and the kings, between what we would call the civil government and the religious establishment. God imposed a tax, as it were, upon His church in Israel. It was called a tithe, and every Jew was required to bring of his first fruits ten percent of his yield, ten percent of his gross income.
In addition to the tithes and offerings that the people brought to support the priests and Levites, the religious and educational life of the people, God also imposed a head tax to support the civil government.
The same principle is given implicitly to governments throughout the world, and we are told as Christians that we are to pay our taxes to whom taxes are due. Yet, at the same time, God holds governments responsible to only raise taxes that are legitimate in God’s sight, chiefly through the imposition of a head tax where everybody pays the same. There is no progressive tax. There is no class warfare. There is no politicization of the economy in God’s order of things. Government is established by God and is responsible to God to seek the welfare of the people and do its diligence concerning righteousness, safety, peace, and justice.
Governments Obsessed with Power
What happened historically was that, as in Greece, Rome, Babylon, and all the nations that became large, governments became, as it were, too big for their britches. Instead of being satisfied with what they were ordained to do by Almighty God, governments became obsessed with becoming world powers, having global influence, and colonial domination. Every one of them used the tax system to bleed their people and subjects out of every dime they could to sustain a larger central government.
For seventy years in this country, the policies of the founding fathers, represented chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, prevailed, but not without dispute or debate. The followers of Alexander Hamilton, men like Henry Clay and the party of the Whigs, sought yearly to construct a huge, national federal government, and they failed for the first seventy years.
In 1860, you could take all the federal buildings in Washington and put them on the property shared between Saint Andrew’s and Reformation Bible College across the lake. However, like Greece, like Rome, like Russia, we have become obsessed with being huge and global in our power, and so we put taxes on everything we can conceivably tax.
We read in the paper that only 49% of employed Americans pay taxes. That’s not true. Only 49% percent pay income taxes. Their fair share of income taxes is zero, but they’re paying taxes on bread, on watermelons, on gasoline, and on a host of other things. You can’t escape the federal government’s reach of taxation in this country.
Thrift and Generosity
Recently, I listened to a lecture from a man named Jack Templeton, son of John Templeton, perhaps the most famous philanthropist on earth and founder of the Templeton Foundation. Jack Templeton lectured on thrift and generosity as biblical virtues. He talked about the connection between thrift and generosity. He said, “You won’t have anything to be generous with, if you’re not first thrifty.”
As I listened to his lecture, I had an epiphany, because he went on to say that in 2007, right before the Great Recession, the average savings of working people in the United States was -3%. I heard that and thought, “No wonder we collapsed.” The average person in America was living 3% beyond their means. That is, they were spending, on average, 3% more than they were taking in. That is a recipe for economic disaster. It’s not only foolish, but also sinful.
I have struggled and wondered how it could be that a church as vibrant as Saint Andrew’s could have so many members who don’t tithe, who simply disobey the law of God and are guilty, as the Lord says, of stealing from God and committing what the Bible calls a sacrilege against God. I just don’t understand that. How can you be a Christian and do that? What can be simpler than to know that everything we have belongs to God and comes from His hand, every good and perfect gift we get from Him? Yes, the government takes too much of it, and yes, we’re overtaxed, but we’re not doing our basic fiscal moral responsibility. Why? Because we don’t have the money. We owe the credit card companies.
When a person says to me, “I can’t tithe,” I hear what they say. I translate that as: “I cannot live the lifestyle I’m living today and tithe 10% of my income to God. It just doesn’t work. I can’t tithe and pay my government taxes. I can’t tithe and pay off my credit cards.” I hear you. You have no thriftiness.
There is a historical connection: when the people of God rob God, God gets them nationally. He hit the Jews because they were not tithing, so here came the Romans to take so much more out of Jewish pockets than the Jews ever imagined. The Jews were one of the most heavily taxed people on the face of the earth at the time Jesus went up to Levi and said, “Get away from this table, stop this nonsense, and follow Me.”
Levi was a wealthy man, and you know he wasn’t tithing. But when Jesus came to him, a man who routinely stole from God and his own people, Jesus called him to be His disciple. Jesus called him to write the first of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Levi’s other name was Matthew, and he wrote the Gospel According to Matthew. He said, “Leave this, and follow Me.” You know what Levi did? He packed up his ledger, threw away his account books, knocked down the table, and said, “Yes, Lord, I’m going with you.”
Not only did he follow Jesus, but he threw a party for Jesus. He opened his house, and it was a big one. Levi’s house wasn’t like the one we talked about last week where they were lowering that poor fellow down through the roof. This was a grand house. This was a mansion. This was a tax collector’s house. He had a party, and he invited all his friends who were also tax collectors. They were the only kind of friends he could have. He invited all his tax collector friends over for this party, and they reclined and enjoyed a feast.
Of course, this was all known by the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were like the woman in Naarden whom I mentioned earlier, saying, “How can Jesus go to a party with tax collectors?” The Pharisees believed in salvation by segregation, by separating themselves from the am ha’aretz, the people of the land, or it could be translated as the people of the dirt, the dirty people, the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors. If you wanted to be saved, you had to stay a safe distance from these people, because if you came close to them, you would become like them and become contaminated.
When the Pharisees saw Jesus going to this party with tax collectors, it was more than they could stomach. They heard Him say, “I do this that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” but wasn’t He pushing the envelope? Wasn’t He going too far with forgiving sins by eating and drinking with tax collectors? Jesus responded to them with very simple wisdom. He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Jesus Came for Sick Sinners
I know sometimes we go to the doctor when we’re not sick for things like annual check-ups, but for the most part, we hold off until we need the doctor. Then when we need the doctor, we really need the doctor, and we can’t wait to see the doctor. We do that when we’re sick, but people who are well don’t need a doctor. If everybody continued to be well, doctors would be out of business.
Sometimes I think that when we get to heaven, some of you in our congregation are not going to have a job, because they don’t need any doctors in heaven. Guess what? I’m not going to have one either, because they don’t need theologians or preachers in heaven. Here on earth, however, we need both of those occupations. We need those who care for our physical bodies, and we need those who care for our souls.
Jesus was making this very simple point to the Pharisees: “Who do you expect Me to spend time with? You don’t know who I am or why I’m here. I’m the Son of Man, and I’ve come to seek and save the lost. I found one of those lost people at that table, sitting along the toll road by the Sea of Galilee. I asked him to join My group, and he left everything to follow Me. I came for Matthew. I came for tax collectors. I came for prostitutes. I came for the people of the land, the dirty people. They are My people. I’m going to shed My blood for those people, for collaborators, for your enemies. Mr. Pharisee and Mr. Scribe, I didn’t come to save the righteous or to call the righteous to repentance, but to call sinners to repentance. Maybe you don’t think you need to hear my message, Mr. Pharisee. Maybe you don’t need My ministry because you’re righteous, and I’ve only come to call sinners to repentance. So, Mr. Pharisee, in your sinless condition, you have nothing to fear from Me.”
That is what the Pharisees were thinking: “At least the man recognizes who is righteous and who isn’t, who needs to repent and who doesn’t.” How foolish. There was nobody in that neighborhood the night of that banquet who needed repentance more than the scribes and the Pharisees.
Nobody needs a physician more than somebody who is fatally ill but doesn’t know it. So it was with the Pharisees, and so it was with the scribes, and so it is with all of us who think for a minute that we don’t need the ministrations of the Son of God to cover our sins, to forgive us, and to redeem us. Beloved, this is our Savior, who calls tax collectors to join Him, who calls tithe evaders to be His, who wants His people to be made whole, to delight in the things that He delights in, and to delight in the law of God. Let’s pray.
Our Father and our God, we thank You for this example of the compassion of Jesus on sinners, who forgives us even when we steal from Him. Lord, not only do we ask that You pardon us, but we also ask that You cleanse us and make us whole. For our sakes, for Your sake, and for the sake of Your kingdom, we ask it. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.