As we said last time, in regard to the exchange between Jesus and the teachers of the law in the previous paragraph, this series of short paragraphs in chapter 2 record successive incidents that reveal a growing rift between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership and the reasons for it. His claiming to have the authority to forgive sins offended them and now, as we will read, so did his association with people they regarded as unworthy and unclean and so did his disregard for the practice of their conventional pieties.
- We have already read of the call of four of the Lord’s twelve disciples in 1:16-20; now Levi, whose other name was Matthew, is added. This is the last of the disciples whose calling by Jesus is recorded in the four Gospels. We are left to assume that the others came to be part of the Twelve in similar ways.
The location is still Capernaum, a town that sat on the boundary between the tetrarchies of Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, and so was a natural place for a tax collector to have a booth, no doubt near the lake so that he could have access to travelers both by boat and by the road that ran along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Mishnah describes tax collectors either making their rounds collecting taxes or sitting at tax stands with account books open and pen in hand. [m. Avot 3:17; Edwards, 82]
In that day as now taxes were collected on many things and at various levels. The Romans collected some taxes directly but farmed others out, and local authorities collected a variety of taxes for both imperial and local uses, including customs duties on transported goods, which may have been Matthew’s principle interest. Tax collectors were independent businessmen, tax farmers they were called. In Galilee, most of these would have been Jews, but not observant, devout Jews, who would not be expected to transact business with Gentiles. These men bid in advance to collect a certain amount of taxes in a given area. Their own profit came from what they collected over and above their bid. The entire system depended upon graft and the use of heavy-handed means and it attracted enterprising individuals who were not averse to using such means. [Edwards, 82; OCD, 597] Matthew was such a man and, in the nature of the case, he would have been despised by almost everyone. In that time, a Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge and as a witness in court; he was expelled from the synagogue and was a disgrace to his family. To touch a tax-collector rendered a Jew’s house unclean! The contempt for them ran so deep that the Mishnah records a ruling that Jews could lie to tax collectors with impunity in the same way they could lie to murderers and robbers. [m. Ned. 3:4]
Christ’s welcoming such a tax collector would be psychologically tantamount to someone in the 20th century warmly welcoming into his home a member of the Gestapo or treating as a friend a known enforcer for some mob family. In other words, we won’t appreciate the meaning of the Lord’s calling of Matthew if we don’t understand the reaction of the Pharisees, the depth of their animosity toward tax-collectors, and the reasons for it.
- Far from being sensitive to the popular hatred of tax-collectors, Jesus went to a dinner at Levi’s house to which he had invited a number of his friends, people who would have been, in the eyes of the Jews, as thoroughly disreputable as Levi was himself. This was company no respectable Jewish rabbi would have kept. “Sinners,” of course, refers to the view of these people entertained by the Jews. The guest list of this meal was not what the Jews expected; it represented a violation of their religious convictions and of their patriotic feelings.
Now, the narrative is compressed – the interest here is in Jesus not Levi – but we are surely to understand that Levi responded to Jesus’ summons as Zacchaeus, another tax collector, did later, with faith and true repentance. He knew himself immediately a sinner and believed in Jesus. Only in that way could he have become one of the twelve disciples.
- The teachers of the law, or scribes, were men supremely concerned with the exact observance of the law and, in their view, Jesus was trampling the law underfoot in his disregard for moral and ceremonial purity. It is important to remember, however, that the Law of Moses never forbad such associations. The religious viewpoint of the Pharisees and the scribes went beyond and so distorted the true teaching of the Torah.
- Some groups in the Judaism of that day, the Pharisees among them, had gone beyond the Law of Moses and were practicing regular fasts twice each week. They noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not follow their regimen.
- In other words, one doesn’t fast when something surpassingly wonderful is taking place: what is more wonderful than a wedding? A feast is not the time for a fast!
The bridegroom was not, so far as is known, a generally accepted metaphor for the Messiah, but as any reader of the Bible knows, in the OT Israel’s husband and lover was God himself. In Mark already Jesus has been described as the Son of God and has taken to himself the prerogatives of God, for example, the authority to forgive sins. To use this image, therefore, is another still somewhat veiled instance of the Lord’s identification of himself with Yahweh. [Edwards, 90]
- The sense of the Lord’s remark is that Jesus’ radical message is incompatible with the principles and practices of the Judaism of his day. Two competing principles have collided. Those who are comfortable with the traditional viewpoint are unlikely to welcome Jesus’ new message, the biting new wine. That wine simply cannot be contained in the old skins. It is important to remember that Jesus is not talking about the OT as rightly understand or the religion of Moses as practiced by a true believer. He is talking about the Judaism of his day, a religious viewpoint that had departed in fundamental ways from Moses and the evangelical faith of Abraham. As the Lord will say in many different ways in the Gospels, Moses’ teaching and his teaching were the same, but the Jews of his time had deserted Moses and betrayed the faith of Abraham.
We all want to live happily, we all want to be healthy, we all want to laugh, to love, to eat and drink to satisfaction; we all want our desires for peace and joy and meaning to be fulfilled. We have as human beings a set of shared longings and we crave their fulfillment. We have interests and we want them to be served; we have fears and we want them to be allayed. These human desires – inescapable and terribly powerful – are what make the world go round. They produce every marriage and every war. These cravings explain the success of one company and the ruin of another, the faithfulness of one spouse and the philandering of another, one person’s hard work and another’s laziness, one person’s drink and another’s sobriety. They lie beneath all triumph and all tragedy in human life. Men cannot help but seek happiness, wholeness, and fulfillment. They have been made for it and never stop looking for it.
These universal desires pose the fundamental question of human existence: how are these longings, these desires to be realized? Can they be realized and, if so, how? The religions and the philosophies of mankind propose to answer these questions and the answers differ, though not as much as you might think. Call it salvation or call it the good life that is what religions and philosophies are all about. They purport to tell us how to find what we are all looking for, if in fact it can be found.
Most of them, however different the details, assert that the good life – good in both senses, morally good and existentially or experientially good – will be obtained by right behavior. If you live as you should – and, of course, the life you should live is different for a Muslim than, say, a modern American secularist – you will find the good life, at least as much as may be possible. The secularist, to be sure, must face the depressing fact that multitudes of people in this world are stuck in deeply disappointing circumstances and no amount of good behavior on their part can alter those circumstances. Nevertheless, this concentration on right behavior as the recipe for the good life is the conviction both of those who believe in life after death and those who do not. The Muslim believes that the way to Paradise in the world to come is proper behavior in this world, especially the observance of the five pillars. The secularist or humanist may not believe in continuing existence after death, but he still believes that the right sort of behavior is the way to obtain the good life, at least such as it may be obtained in this world. We might describe this as the moral option; or, perhaps, the normal option, insofar as this is the way most people think, indeed seem instinctively to think. Live right and you will get the best possible life in this world and, for the religiously inclined, if there should be such a thing as a life to come, you will get a much better life there as well.
I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein. Einstein was not an atheist, but his concept of God was decidedly impersonal. He believed that the great universe in all of its glory and mystery required us to believe in something behind it all, something beautiful and sublime that is beyond our power to grasp. But he did not believe in free will and did not believe in life after death. He did not believe in a personal God who exercised influence in the world or who would judge his creatures. He did not believe in a God, he said, “who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”  He expressly condemned the idea of a personal God who took personal interest in human beings. He was a determinist of a very decided stripe. “Human beings in their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions.” You are, he thought, very like a billiard ball, set in motion by causes over which you have no control and moving across the table along an entirely predetermined path. Moral and individual responsibility are appearances, not real things.  It is important to say that Einstein didn’t get this conclusion from his scientific researches, but from various philosophers he read. His attitude at this point appalled some of his closest friends and confidants, but Einstein’s viewpoint never changed. Free will, he thought was a useful idea for a civilized society because it made people take responsibility for their actions. Acting as if they were responsible agents made people behave better than otherwise they would. “I am compelled to act as if free will existed,” he explained, “because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”  “I know,” he once said, “that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.”
Nevertheless, however inconsistently – and Einstein is by no means the only major modern figure who confidently proclaimed views he couldn’t himself live with – he had a developed moral sense and spoke often of the importance of acting rightly. “The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions,” he once said. “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”  Which is to say, for Einstein too, morality – no matter that it was a mirage, a chimera – was the way to salvation, such as it is.
So would say the Buddhist, really an atheist who has no real view of God or life after death; so would say the Hindu who has a very different view of life after death; so would say the Muslim, who has a very definite hope of a personal Paradise, and so would say vast multitudes of people who call themselves Bible-believers, whether Jew or Christian. Being good, living well is the way to salvation, whatever they conceive salvation to be, whether only in this life or also in the next.
And this most definitely was the viewpoint of the lion’s share of Jews in the first century. There has been a great effort made recently in Biblical scholarship to repair the reputation of the scribes and Pharisees. We are told that they really did believe in divine grace – and no doubt they did in a certain way and to a certain degree – but there can be no doubt that their religion – so far as it was a way of salvation – rested all on one’s personal behavior. There have been, in fact, some major studies published recently by Jewish scholars that admit that the Gospel portrait of Pharisaism, such as has been for so long a staple of Christian preaching and teaching, is true to the historical facts and doesn’t result, as has been alleged by some, from anti-Jewish prejudice or from reading back into the New Testament Martin Luther’s own personal experience of salvation. [Edwards, 88] The simple fact is that the Judaism of the first century had entirely lost the expectation of a redeemer who would die for his people’s sins. They were counting on themselves doing the right things and God approving them as a result. The number of straightforward statements to this effect in their writings is very large.
That should not be hard for anyone to believe. The same collapse of evangelical faith in God’s grace into a legalistic or ritualistic theory of salvation by personal performance had occurred before a number of times in Israel’s history, as the prophets testify, and, for that matter, has happened many more times in the history of Christianity ever since. It is the most natural, the most inevitable tendency in the life of mankind, that he will think of his relationship with God or with the good life in terms of his behavior, of how he lives, how well he does, whether he does enough of the things that God or the gods require. It would be more surprising, alas, if that had not been the Jews’ viewpoint when Jesus came among them!
I remember not so long ago watching a videotape of interviews concerning the way of salvation conducted with people leaving a worship service at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City. Of the twenty-five interviewed on the tape, only one gave anything resembling a Christian answer to the question of how a person can be saved and go to heaven. Most of them didn’t even give faithful Roman Catholic answers. They said nothing about baptism or the mass. The gist of almost all the replies was: be good and live well and you’ll get in. And the same would no doubt be true if the people interviewed were just leaving services at a host of Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian churches.
What I am saying is that it doesn’t make much difference whether a person is religious or not, believes in life after death or not, calls himself a Christian or not. Most people rest their hopes of whatever they mean by salvation on their own behavior: what they imagine to be their goodness. But Christ will have nothing of that. The fact that people so naturally, seemingly so inevitably think this way, that people of every religious and philosophical stripe embrace this viewpoint, is perhaps the surest demonstration of man’s fallenness: of the darkness of his mind, of his pride, and of his hopeless bondage to himself. If man has fallen, if his thinking has become corrupted, if he has become a rebel against God, then surely the one thing he won’t understand correctly is his relationship with God or the way of salvation, and so it is. There are two equally fatal problems with this salvation-by-behavior outlook.
- The first is that man’s behavior is bad, not good, and displeasing to God, and the more religious the behavior the worse it is.
This is the sub-text of the account of the Lord’s calling of Levi the tax-collector. He reached out to and accepted someone the typical Jew thought unclean and unworthy and, in explanation, said that he had not come to call the righteous but sinners. The righteous, of course, in the Lord’s statement are not people whose behavior is pleasing to God, but people who imagine that it is and who, therefore, don’t imagine that they need anything more than they already have. In context the Lord is obviously speaking of the Pharisees who have just criticized him. They are “the righteous” who think they don’t need Jesus. Jesus later speaks, you remember, of another tax collector, who at prayer in the temple cried out for forgiveness and contrasted that tax collector with a Pharisee who thought only to be grateful that he was better than that tax collector because he fasted and gave money at the temple. I wonder if Jesus had Levi and these Pharisees in mind when he told that story.
The tax-collector, Levi or Matthew, stands here for those who will be saved, because he is a sinner who needs to be forgiven and knows it. This conviction did not lie at the bottom of the Pharisee’s heart – his pride, his judgment of others was proof enough of that – just as it does not lie at the bottom of most human hearts. The tax-collector had lost his self-confidence; the Pharisee had not. Here is where Jesus found the cancer eating at the heart of his countrymen. It wasn’t their view of the Bible or the seriousness with which they thought to obey the Word of God. He actually commended them for that! Their problem was their view of sin. They didn’t take sin, their own sin, nearly seriously enough! This Jesus said was the basis of their spiritual danger. They made sin innocuous in their minds. They did this first by viewing it in isolation, as simply the individual transgression of one of the 613 commandments of the law, not as the fundamental spirit of rebellion against God that lies in the heart. They not only isolated sin but made it manageable by codifying gradations of sins, conscious or unconscious, greater or lesser. The important thing became not consciously to commit the greater sins. Then, additionally, they set over against sin the counter-weight of human merit. Merits were thought to compensate for our sins. You could pile up enough merits to balance your sins. In this way sin became manageable, not the deadly poison and the uncontrollable power in the human heart that the Bible everywhere says it is. Remember, sin is what blights and darkens and corrupts human life; sin is what destroys human beings in the world to come. And every honest man or woman knows very well that there is a world of this sin inside him or her and shot through his or her life.
The Pharisees did not deny the reality of sin. Not at all. But they certainly did not regard it as an insurmountable problem. It was, in fact, something that they thought they knew how to manage quite well. And in that they were like most people then and now. They did not see themselves as, by nature, enemies of God, and because of their thoughts, their words, and their deeds, in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. Their religion did not major on God’s free grace, on the reality of forgiveness to the utterly undeserving, or on salvation as entirely God’s intervention on behalf of the helpless. Search their writings and try to find that emphasis if you can!
All of this lies behind the Pharisees’ declaration that Levi was a sinner and behind the offense they took that Jesus associated with him. People who see sin for what it really is see themselves as terrible sinners and don’t call other people “sinners” as if they themselves were not. Instead, even when confronted with a truly bad man, they say “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” And this is especially true among the pious, the religious. For, knowing the Bible as they do, knowing God’s majesty as they do, understanding the breadth and depth of their own sin as they do, they are the most acutely aware of their failures to be good, honest, faithful, reverent, loving, selfless, and pure. It is precisely the piety of the Pharisees, their religious zeal, that made their pride so horrible. They, of all people, with Bible in hand, should have known better!
This sense of one’s own wrong, our unworthiness, the depth of our problem before God, the hopelessness of our solving it ourselves: this is what separates mankind into two classes and what divides the saved from the lost. It isn’t our sin. It is not as if Christians think others are sinners and we are not. We are all sinners. I don’t say that becoming a Christian doesn’t change a person’s behavior for the better in many and important ways, it certainly does. But as the Bible says and Christian experience universally confirms, becoming and being a Christian doesn’t make as much of a difference in our behavior as we wish it did – not in this life, not in this world. Our behavior remains more like the unbelievers than Christ’s, more like the unbelievers than it will be in heaven. No, the great difference lies not being rid of our sin but in our admission of it, of the viciousness of it, of the inexcusable ugliness of our hearts in our selfishness and pride, of the depth of our rebellion against God, of our anti-God state of mind and heart: it is the honest admission of it, the confession of it, the acceptance that all depends upon God’s willingness to forgive us – that forgiveness is everything – that is what makes a Christian. No other religion brings this message. No other faith or philosophy begins with the declaration that you are lost and that only God can save you if only he will.
That, then, is the first fatal problem with the normal or moral outlook on salvation or the good life that most people have. It completely mistakes the measure of man’s problem with sin. Remember: sin is what sends men to hell. Sin is what destroys them forever. That is how bad a thing sin is! Sin is not a cosmetic blemish; it is a cancer, a terminal disease that has taken control of the entire inner life of a human being spreading its poison from there in to the thoughts, words, and deeds. Before God man stands utterly condemned and, absent an honest admission of his plight, such as Levi made, man remains arrogant, proud, and disdainful of the holy and righteous God. Sin’s worst effect is that it blinds people to itself. It makes people proud who ought to be desperately ashamed. Salvation, Christ taught us, is for sinners and until you see yourself as such a sinner – a tax collector in a time when everyone despised tax collectors – you are not among those who will ever really hear the good news of salvation. The second fatal problem with the moral theory of salvation is related to the first.
- God has met man’s great need by sending his Son to suffer and die for our sins and so to ignore this is to ignore and to despise the incomparably great thing that God has done for man.
The Pharisees weren’t looking for a savior from sin and death because they didn’t think they needed one. Most people today aren’t looking for a redeemer because they don’t think they are in bondage and need to be delivered. Most people imagine that whatever needs to be done to be saved, to find the good life, they can and must do themselves. These men were teachers and thought that what men needed was to be told what to do and how to live. They did not think that what man needed was a mighty friend who would come to save him.
Think what you will, if God interposed at horrible cost to himself to deliver man from sin and guilt, and men still go on merrily as if nothing important had happened, as if nothing significant had been done for them, as if they were perfectly capable of solving their problem themselves, then it is perfectly obvious not only that they have terribly misjudged matters, but that that they are despising God’s indescribably great gift. The greatest crime a human being can commit is to make nothing of Jesus Christ when God has made him everything to the welfare and happiness of mankind. God has spoken in both his Word and in history. The weight of man’s sin is too great for him to carry. It has to be carried by another and no one was capable of carrying it except God himself, now made man in Jesus.
This is the mighty implication of the Lord’s words about the bridegroom. The world had received a visitor from heaven. Remarkable things were occurring and would occur until the bridegroom was taken from the world again. There was a great love abroad in the world. A wedding was being prepared. The salvation of man is not natural, it is not normal; it is not a predictable calculation of merits versus demerits. It is a mysterious, wonderful, beautiful, heart-stirring, overwhelming event, an interruption in human history, a terrible and magnificent thirty-some years in the life of the incarnate God the Son. It concerns a bridegroom laying down his life to win life and freedom for his bride. It concerns a mighty love acting at great sacrifice to secure the eternal life of a people he loves. Salvation is something that happened in the world, at the cross and in the empty tomb. The salvation of a sinner is a tremendous thing and cost nothing less than the crucifixion of the Son of God. Contrary to Einstein and to countless more religious people, God not only does,he has involved himself in the cares of mankind. He came among them so that he might offer himself a sacrifice to perfect justice to win life for them when they were dead in their sins.
All of this is implied in the Lord’s remarks about the bridegroom being with his disciples and about their not fasting while the bridegroom is with them. All of this is what is meant when the Lord says that you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. The fact of the incarnation of God the son, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, you cannot reconcile this with any pedestrian notion of doing good, or being good and so getting to heaven or finding the good life. These are two absolutely antithetical principles: the grace and the love and the titanic action of God for man’s salvation, on the one hand, and man toting up his supposed merits on the other. One natural, the other supernatural. One normal, the other entirely transcending the normal. The one simple and straightforward, the other complicated beyond belief. In the one man achieves; in the other God loves and suffers so as to forgive. In one the man comes to God head up and upon his feet; in the other he comes to God on his knees and with tears in his eyes and shame and love together in his heart. In the one man’s pride is not broken; in the other it is shattered and yet he rejoices to find it in ruins! In the one it is “do this and do that…” in the other it is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that those who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Read the Bible and observe the world and what you will find from beginning to end is a contest between these two principles, these two viewpoints, these two understandings of man and salvation. This is the great divide that separates mankind into two communities, the only truly and eternally important difference between human beings. Race, nationality, language, socio-economic status, politics, all of those are mere bagatelles compared to whether one looks to God for grace or aspires to ascend to heaven himself or herself.
The Pharisees understanding is and has always been most popular. Man’s pride makes it and keeps it so. Its fatal flaws are that it is utterly dishonest about the human condition and arrogantly ignores the great thing that God did in Christ to deliver us. If you ask why I am sure that the scribes and Pharisees were wrong and Jesus was right. I say, among other things, I know very well that I belong with the tax collectors and that the Pharisees could never solve my problem with sin. And that is as true of you as it is of me. And I also say, I have met the bridegroom and know, in that transcendent way one knows when he has come face to face with luminous truth, that he and he alone can do and has done what must be done for you and me.