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, and 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'?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” LUKE 5:27-31
If Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, then it seems more than likely that if his church is on message we will not gather too many righteous people either, but mostly sinners.
Frankly, I prefer the righteous.
Their morality is much more productive. They require less attention. They are not likely to ask difficult questions, like: "How do I battle the sin of covetousness?"
In this context, of course, the righteous are the visibly and notably good people. They are the kind of people who are doing everything right before our eyes. Boy oh boy, wouldn't they be great additions to our church? Just imagine how disciplined they would be in giving and serving. Just imagine how morally tidy and predictable their kids would be. Just imagine how little we would have to counsel them and pray for them. Just imagine how cool it would be if they told their righteous friends about our church. We could be a well-oiled machine. We could be as clean as "whited sepulchres" (Matt. 23:27, KJV).
But then there is Levi.
Levi (also known as Matthew) sticks out like a sore thumb. His sudden and irrevocable acceptance by Jesus throws a wrench into all our grand imaginings.
Levi has a name, a face, a house, a party, and, well, interesting friends. But these Pharisees, the so-called 'righteous,' they are no-names. They are a group with a cause and that’s about it. Their most important relationship is with the moral code not with the Savior of the sin-sick. Though they look ripe, their insides are rotten, sour and worm-infested.
Levi, on the other hand, a wretched and shunned tax collector, is so thrilled with Jesus that he blows a wad of ill-gained funds on a party for the Savior. I can see Levi’s wine-stained goblet raised in a toast to Jesus, signifying the giving over of his life’s blood to his Redeemer. The Pharisees, they raise something too. Objections. “Jesus, don't you have any sense of decency? You're associating with losers. Levi's house is no place for the righteous!"
How boring, blind, and wrong.
Surprisingly, Jesus gets Levi’s attention in a way the Pharisees never did. Why? Is Jesus so much like sinners that Levi is happy to have found a new religious leader who allows Levi to keep sinning with gobs of forgiveness thrown in? No. The text tells us that Levi left everything behind - the job, the cheating, the strong-arming and the lucrative retirement such evil would have provided.
So what is it about Jesus that captured and conquered Levi? It was the call: “Follow me.” A sheep heard his Shepherd's voice. A sinner heard his Savior call, the Savior who wanted him, who would receive him, who would forgive him, who would sanctify him, who would lay down His life for him.
But what has become of Levi a few months or years down the road when He has stopped cheating, stopped cooking the books, stopped strong-arming taxpayers? Has he not just become another one of those smug righteous people who are satisfied with their own moral performance and so find the ministry of Jesus embarrassing or worse?
Not at all. To be sure there is a righteousness about Levi now but it is of a different kind than that of a Pharisee. Levi is fragrant with a righteousness that not only does right but it also loves right. He loves mercy. He loves it because he has received much of it from Christ.
"Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9:13