Luke 5:27-32

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[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]


Jesus continues to show His followers what it looks like to be fishers of men, and how He is fulfilling His mission statement from Luke 4:17-19. So far, Jesus has brought freedom to a demoniac, a leper, a paralytic, and in this section, an outcast tax collector (EBC 8:883). Sometimes Jesus shows love to the poor and sick who are outcast; other times He reaches out with love to the rich and famous who are also outcast in their own way. But Jesus is never constrained by cultural stigmas. In Luke 5:27-32, Jesus goes against cultural stigmas and invites a man a man to follow Him who, although he was rich, was viewed as a traitor. He had gained his riches by betraying his Jewish people, heritage, and religion.

5:27. The man was a tax collector.

At that time, there were two kinds of tax collectors, the Gabbai and the Mokhes (cf. Arnold 2002:355; Barclay 1965:64; Edersheim 1988:515; Ford 1984:65; Malina 2003:415; Pentecost 1981:154; Shepard 1939:142). The Gabbai were general tax collectors. They collected property, income, and poll taxes. Property taxes, or ground taxes, were based on whether you owned property and grew crops on it. It consisted of one-tenth of all grain grown, and one-fifth of all oil and wine. This could be paid with the actual grain, oil, and wine, or with an equivalent amount of money. The income tax was set at one percent, and was assessed on all other sorts of income. Finally, there was a poll tax. It was collected from everyone in the Roman Empire whether you owned land or not, had income or not, worked or not. These were the general taxes collected by the Gabbai. They were set by official assessments, and there was not much room for the Gabbai to take advantage of the system and cheat people out of more than what was due (see TNDT VIII:88-105).

The Mokhes, however, collected a duty on imports and exports. There were two kinds of Mokhes—theGreat Mokhes and the Little Mokhes. A Great Mokhes was an overseer, and hired others—the Little Mokhes—to collect the taxes for him. The rights to collect taxes in a particular location could be bought and sold (it was called “tax-farming”) and the Great Mokhes were individuals who had bought the tax rights to multiple regions, and then hired Little Mokhes to collect the taxes (cf. TDNT VIII:93f). Zaccheus was probably a Great Mokhes because Luke 19:2 calls him a chief tax collector.

To collect taxes on imports and exports, the Mokhes would set up toll booths on roads, harbor docks, and bridges, or almost anywhere that people were gathering for a festival or moving along the road. A farmer could be taking his produce to market on a road he has used for ten years, and one day, a tax collector sets up a booth on the road and starts charging people for using it. They would charge more for horses and donkeys, and even more for carts of produce and wares.

Of the various tax collectors, the Mokhes were despised the most—especially the Little Mokhes, since they were the ones who legally cheated and stole from the people. If a person became angry at how much he was being taxed, the Little Mokhes could confiscate everything and throw the man in prison.

The Roman government had a curious way of paying their tax collectors. They told the tax collectors how much money to send in to the government. Anything that the tax collector could get above and beyond that amount could be kept for himself (Ford 1984:66). It was not uncommon for tax collectors to burn villages or have someone murdered in order to exact taxes (Ford 1984:66). Due to this, tax collectors were universally hated, and were often killed. So many tax collectors hired personal body guards for protection. A proverb from the time period states that “Bears and lions might be the fiercest wilds beasts in the forests, but publicans (tax collectors) and informers were the worst in the cities” (Geikie 1888:367).

So tax collectors in the Roman Empire became rich, but at the expense of being hated and viewed as traitors by their own people. This hatred was amplified among the Jewish people, since the Roman government occupied the lands God had promised to Israel, and the Roman Emperor had proclaimed himself to be the son of God. Paying taxes was not only a reminder that the Jews were under foreign rule, but was viewed by some as a form of idolatry (cf. Luke 20:22). This was reinforced by the fact that Roman coins often had the image of the Caesar or some other Roman deity engraved on the face of the coin (Ford 1984:68). For a Jewish person to collect these taxes—sometimes with the help of Roman soldiers—was viewed as a betrayal not only of their fellow Jews, but of God Himself.

Among Jews, therefore, tax collectors were on par with harlots, gamblers, thieves, and robbers (Geikie 1888:367). Jews taught that if a tax collector entered a house, the house became unclean (Ford 1984:66; Malina 2003:416). As a result, tax collectors were excluded from the synagogue, could not tithe to the temple, and would not be called on as a witness in a trial (Shepard 1939:143). No help would be offered to such men, and they were often viewed as beyond the help of God as well.

The tax collector that Jesus encounters in Luke 5:27 is a man named Levi. With the name Levi, he is probably from the tribe of Levi, the tribe set apart for service in the temple. As a tax collector, Levi would not be allowed to serve in such a role. Following this account, he is never again called Levi, but instead, Matthew (cf. Matt 9:9). Levi means “joined” whereas Matthew means “gift of God.” Matthew eventually writes the Gospel of Matthew, which tells the story of Jesus for a Jewish audience. It is unknown when, how, or why he changed his name, but maybe he changed it to reflect his new identity as a result of what happens in this text.

When Jesus encounters Levi he is sitting in the tax office, which is not a constructed building, but rather a movable booth set up at various locations to tax the people traveling along a road or gathering in a particular location.

When Jesus saw Levi collecting taxes at his tax booth, He said to him, “Follow Me.” The request by Jesus for Levi to follow is a request for Levi to leave everything behind, and break all other ties. The fact that Jesus was making such a request to one who was outside the bounds of the worshipping community reveals that in Jesus, God has broken through the barriers which “had been considered insurmountable. It is precisely the unclean, the disobedient, the sinner who is called in this case” (Schweizer 1986:13).

Alfred Edersheim, a Biblical scholar and historian, believes that Levi followed Jesus about and taxed the crowds that came to hear Jesus teach (Edersheim 1988:519). Since Jesus gathered crowds wherever He went and tax collectors would set up their booth wherever people moved along a road or gathered, placing a tax booth wherever Jesus went would have been quite profitable for Levi. If Edersheim is right, Levi was already following Jesus around, and taxing the people who gathered to hear Him teach. Jesus Himself was probably taxed on various occasions as well.

Of course, as Levi taxed the people who gathered, he would have seen the miracles Jesus performed, and heard what Jesus taught. Tax collectors were not allowed to attend the synagogue for the teaching of Scripture, but if Levi had been following Jesus for some time, he would have heard on multiple occasions the truths Jesus taught about the love of God, forgiveness, and eternal life.

Jesus probably noticed that the presence of a tax collector bothered his disciples and many of the others who gathered to hear Him teach. And yet, rather than ask Levi to stop following Him around, Jesus does the opposite, and actually invites Levi to officially become one of His followers! Jesus doesn’t care that society hates Levi. Jesus doesn’t care that Levi is a wretched sinner. He just wants Levi to follow Him.

In Jewish culture, it was normal for Rabbis to gather followers around them. But as seen here, Jesus did it in an entirely unusual way. Stephen Jones explains:

John 1:36 describes how disciples typically sought out their teachers and presented themselves for the learning relationship. Only after careful examination did the rabbi extend an invitation. The caliber of the disciples reflected greatly upon the reputation of the rabbi. Only the brightest and best were accepted.

The more familiar pattern for Jesus was his recruiting disciples, seeking them out and calling them to follow him. This would no doubt seem a desperate approach for a rabbi, as if no deserving students would approach him. Unlike others, Jesus called his disciples to come and follow him (Jones 1997:24).

And even in selecting His disciples, Jesus did not choose the best and the brightest, but rather the outcast, despised, and rejected. Levi certainly fit the bill. The attitude of Jesus toward Levi was in complete contrast to the other religious people of His day. Those whom they rejected, He accepted. Those whom they despised, He loved. Those whom they avoided, Jesus sought. In the calling of Levi by Jesus, grace has become an event. The question of whether or not Levi’s sins have been forgiven is irrelevant. The calling of Levi proves that through Jesus, forgiveness of sins has been granted to all, even to the worst of sinners (cf. Schweizer 1986:14).

5:28. In response to the invitation of Jesus, Levi left all, rose up, and followed Him. This is nearly identical to the response of Peter, James, and John when Jesus called them to be fishers of men in Luke 5:11. They left their boats, nets, and record catch of fish to follow Jesus. Levi does the same thing. Levi recognized a good opportunity when he saw it. The cost of leaving everything behind to follow Jesus was well worth it.

Once Levi left his booth, it was like turning in his resignation. Very likely, the tax gathering booth did not stay empty for long. The position was probably filled within a day. Although being a tax gatherer cost you your friends and family and the respect of your neighbors, it gave you great wealth, and there are always people who will do almost anything for money. In that society, just like in ours, there were men who were willing to be seen as a traitor if they could just become rich. Though tax collectors were hated, there were always people ready and waiting to become a tax collector.

Luke says nothing here about the issue of Levi’s eternal destiny. The text does not indicate one way or the other that Levi has believed in Jesus for eternal life.

5:29. Though Levi had left his tax booth behind, he still was able to invite Jesus to a great feast in his own house. Though he had left his job, he had not given up his house or all his money. He had simply stopped working as a tax collector. And one of the first things he does is host a party for Jesus. This is the first of many parties in Luke’s gospel, and as with all parties, is a sign of the new era being initiated by Jesus (Wright 2004:64).

Also at this party were a great number of tax collectors and others. Being socially outcast, tax collectors and others like them were the only type of people Levi knew. He didn’t know any upright and socially acceptable people, as they would not want him for a friend. Levi and his companions are not the “moral upper crust of society” (Bock 1994:495).

In Jewish thinking, tax collectors were on the same level as prostitutes (Matt. 21:32). The religious people and the upright citizens didn’t want to have anything to do with either, but Jesus loves both and shows compassion toward both. Here we see Him sharing a meal with tax collectors. Being religious outcasts as they were, it is unlikely that the food was ceremonially pure according to the Pharisaical standards. Jesus, however, appears to not be overly concerned about the religious purity of the food He ate (Evans 2003:192; Green 1997:243).

5:30. As a result of Jesus eating a meal with tax collectors, the scribes and Pharisees complained.The word complained (Gk. gogguzein) could also be translated “grumbled.” While it is a rare word in the New Testament (only here and in Matt 20:11), it is used frequently in the Septuagint when the Israelites grumbled against God and Moses while wandering in the wilderness (Beale 2007:293; Evans 2003:193).

Here, they grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors. Jewish religious leaders went to great pains to avoid sin or even the appearance of sin. They felt that sharing a meal with sinful people gave the impression that they were condoning the sin. But their separation went beyond just sharing meals. They did business as much as possible only with other Pharisees. When they traveled, they stayed with other Pharisees. Talking with a sinner or touching a sinner was bad enough. But sitting down and sharing a meal with them was off limits. Sitting and eating with a sinner was the same thing as endorsing the sin (Bock 1994:495 n13).

Furthermore, while even the most observant Jew could eat with a Gentile in the Jewish home, no observant Jewish person would eat in the home of a Gentile or a sinning Jewish person, since it was impossible to know if the home was ritually pure or if the food was prepared according to kosher standards (Ford 1984:70).

So when the Pharisees see Jesus eating at the house of Levi, they were concerned. He was not behaving as a Rabbi should. Furthermore, they had heard some of His teaching about the Kingdom of God, and were concerned that Jesus was including all the wrong people in it (Wright 1996:273). And so they complain to Jesus and His disciples. This indicates that the disciples had also gone with Jesus to this meal. The Pharisees may have approached the disciples rather than Jesus because they had recently been bested by Him in such dialogue before. Another possibility, suggested by Chrysostom, is that they were trying to instill doubt and disloyalty in the hearts of the disciples (cf. Shepard 1939:146).

The criticism of the religious leaders was that Jesus and the disciples ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. Whoever the “others” (5:29) at the feast were, the scribes and Pharisees viewed them assinners. The term (Gk. hamartōlōn) refers anyone who recognizes their sin, and not just to the worst of sinners (Bock 1994:496). The term is not overly critical or harsh, but the Pharisees still went to great lengths to separate themselves and their disciples from such people. Jesus was going against all normal methods of training His followers. He not only attends parties with sinners but invites them to be His disciples. Isolation from sinners is not what Jesus expects from those who follow Him (Bock 1994:492).

5:31. Though the Pharisees complained to the disciples, Jesus must have heard their criticism, and so it is He who responds. His answer is a parabolic summary of His initial mission statement in 4:17-19. There, His stated mission was to liberate those who in bondage and set captives free (cf. Green 1997:247). Here, He states that people who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. He draws an analogy between the sick and sinners. When one is sick, they seek help from a doctor. The doctor diagnoses the problem, then prescribes medicine or diet and lifestyle changes to overcome the sickness and improve health. When a person is not sick, they don’t go to a doctor. Only the sick go to a doctor.

5:32. Similarly, Jesus states that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.Just as healthy people don’t need doctors, righteous people don’t need repentance. In speaking of therighteous does Jesus mean those who are truly righteous in God’s sight, or those who are self-righteous in their own eyes? Most believe He is referring to people who are self-righteous (cf. Pentecost 1981:156), but either way, the statement is still true (cf. EBC 8:884).

Repentance is a turning away from sin toward obedience. As with the call to follow Jesus, repentance is not the same as believing in Jesus for eternal life. During His life, some people followed Jesus who did not believe in Him for eternal life, and some who believed in Him, did not follow Him. So also with repentance. Repentance is for all men, and even non-believers can turn from their sin toward obedience to God, but this does not give them eternal life. And believers, even though they have eternal life, must continue to repent as the Spirit convicts them of patterns of sin in their lives. And it is people who have patterns and habits of sin in their lives who are the sick. Those who recognize their sickness seek out a doctor.

Finally, it must be noted that during His ministry, Jesus did not spend a lot of time trying to convince people of their sin. He does this occasionally, but it is not His main focus of his ministry or evangelistic efforts. Most of His time is spent helping those who already know they need His help, while showing love, mercy, and unconditional forgiveness to everyone else.

This is what He is teaching His disciples. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of their sin (John 16:8). Jesus, and those who follow Him, should spend time with those who have been convicted of their sin, teaching them from the Scriptures about the love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. Fishers of men cast their nets where the fish are most hungry. Those who were considered to be outside the boundaries of God’s love and concern are the very ones to whom Jesus has been sent (Green 1997:248).