“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 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?’
31 Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ ” (Luke 5: 27-32)
As Eugene Peterson put it: Jesus hasn’t come to coddle insiders but to call outsiders.
I wonder if you have the experience of being an outsider. If you live in a foreign country, you may well do so. I’m an Englishman living in Ireland, and every now and then something crops up to remind me of the fact. Once a barber, brandishing a cut-throat razor in the near vicinity of my jugular, informed me that he hated the English. I gurgled inaudibly and then loudly admired the decor.
But it would be worse if you didn’t speak the language, or had a different skin-colour, or felt bullied, condescended to, treated as second-class in any of a hundred ways.
Prejudice has a myriad of forms.
When Jesus reached out to Levi, he was crossing a divide. It was like one of those American High School movies where Mr Popular sits at the Table of Geeks and everyone wonders what’s going on.
But Jesus never did things the easy way. He did things the grace-way.
And Levi responded immediately, with a massive surge of generous gratitude. We know this because of what happened next: “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.”
Jesus could easily have defused the situation, quietly telling Levi not to make such a fuss about things, encouraging him to be gentle and thoughtful…. but He doesn’t! In contrast, Jesus endorses the situation and even revels in it. His participation led to one of the most amazing of the anti-Jesus statements of the gospels, that “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!'” (Luke 7:34)
What a statement! It is the very heart of the Gospel appeal. There’s a familiar Charles Wesley hymn which begins
“Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesu’s guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.”
It’s an appeal based on Jesus’s many references to parties. The bulk of Luke 14-15, after all, is set within the context or has the theme of parties:
- Lessons at a dinner party – 14:1-14
- Parable of the party – 14:15-24
- Party over finding one lost sheep – 15:1-7
- Party at finding one lost coin – 15:8-10
- Party at the return of a son – 15:11-32
Someone described this section of Luke as lessons on “party etiquette.” The question isn’t if Christians should party. Jesus assumes partying. It’s how we party that matters.
And so Jesus talks about being a good party guest – one who doesn’t make excuses, or take the limelight, or get bitter when others seem to be having more fun. To be a good guest means just being at the party is good enough. Party attendance is a gift, not a right. The best party, according to Jesus’ “party etiquette,” is the gathering of the humble, or undeserving.
Charles Wesley wrote many more verses on the theme. And (strangely enough!), some seldom get sung these days. Heres how it ends:
“Sinners my gracious Lord receives—
Harlots, and publicans, and thieves,
Drunkards, and all ye hellish crew,
I have a message now to you:
“The worst unto My supper press,
Monsters of daring wickedness;
Tell them My grace for all is free;
They cannot be too bad for Me.” “
Jesus talked about being a good party host. Parties aren’t for developing, maintaining, or improving one’s social status (sorry housewife reality TV shows!). Even Jesus knew the traps of social competition (e.g. “I did this for you, now you have to do this for me”). Jesus redefined a good party. Who is there still matters, but who is there is not who we’d expect. Hosts are to invite the stranger, the outcast, the poor, the sick, the lost.
Being a good party host is more than being the life of the party – it’s about throwing a party that offers life.
So what’s your “party etiquette”?
And it is this generous attitude that creates an offence. “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?’”
It’s a criticism that was often directed at Jesus. Surely we should be circumspect about who we associate with? Doesn’t the Bible say “Come out and be seperate”? But it also says “Go into all the world...” So which is it?
The paradox is only superficial. We are called to be salt and light; to penetrate every part of the world and bring good news. Just as Jesus was bringing here to Levi and his friends. But we do not thereby endorse what “the world” does or how it lives. In this sense, “friendship with the world is emnity with God.” We are “in the world but not of it.”
And it is wonderful that Jesus stayed completely true to Himself and to His own calling and yet stayed centre-stage, the life and soul of a joyous “worldly” party. His rationale?
“Tell them My grace for all is free;
They cannot be too bad for Me.”