Conflict and change - Luke 5:27-39
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Let me tell you about the FFC- the ‘Fabulous Farmers Club’. It is quite a unique and exclusive club in many ways. The members have the most attractive farm buildings. The fences are always in mint condition, the machines well maintained, the soils regularly overturned and properly watered. The farmers in this exclusive club love to meet together just to talk. They are in their element as they discuss the theory of farming and mull over matters of best practice- endlessly discussing questions such as: ‘Is it best to fertilise before or after the rain?’ ‘Do you allow a field to lay fallow after every other year or third year?’ ‘Is it best to wear overalls or jeans, boots or Wellingtons?’ But the odd thing about this exclusive club is the belief that seed sowing isn’t necessary to grow crops. For this group the important thing is the externals of farming- the farm- not the point of farming- the fruit. That is a perfect picture of the exclusive club Jesus had to contend with the club of the Pharisees. For you see, the Pharisee is the legalist. The legalist prepares the soil, but forgets the seed. And so they were nonplussed when they came across someone who didn’t think that white painted fences mattered too much, or that you should spend an inordinate amount of time discussing fertilizer, and yet who produced the most amazing fruit- the Galilean- Jesus. He seemed to have produced more spiritual fruit in a week than these guys had seen in a lifetime. Of course they couldn’t understand it. What is more they didn’t particularly like it. And so they decided to gang up and deal with Jesus by ignoring his fruit and attacking his methods. And that is exactly what we see in the passage before us tonight in Luke 5:27-39- which I want us to look at under two headings.
First a cause for celebration- 27-29. Now, notice how Luke begins this section-v 27 ‘After this, Jesus went out…’ After what? Well, what has just gone before and the healing of the paralytic in which in v24 he declares to forgive the man’s sins, and so giving the religious leaders- the Pharisees- apoplexy for only God can forgive sins- yet Jesus does it and the results are there for all to see- v26, ‘Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. The crowd was filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today…"’ You bet! Jesus is in the sin forgiving-God restoring business. And the people had never seen anything quite like it. Well, now they were going to be seeing more of the same with a man called Levi and his friends.
V 27-29; ‘ 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, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. 29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them’. Levi is better known by his other name- Matthew, who wrote the first of our four Gospels. Now it is obvious that Levi is loaded that is why he is able to have a great banquet. If anyone knew how to throw a party it was Levi, and his friends just piled in. And the reason why Levi was able to do this was because of his profession- being a tax collector. He was a customs man, duty collection was big business- tax farming was lucrative and it was taken for granted, as sadly it is in many Third World countries today, that corruption and the creaming off of extras was part of the deal. And the fact that a ‘large crowd’ turned up for the festivities explodes the notion that these custom men were rather pathetic and lonely individuals, ostracised by the rest of society and so Jesus was draw to them our of sympathy because of their social isolation. Sure, as we shall see in a minute, the Pharisees considered them to be moral dirt, but if it was a choice between having a good time with your tax gathering mates and attending the ‘po faced’ religious dirges of the Pharisees which would you opt for? So no love lost there. They had their own circle of friends and plenty of dosh to ease their plight and were quite happy in their own way. They were categorised with the put down title ‘sinners’ by the religious elite because it was thought that their business dealings brought them into too much contact with the non- Jews- Gentiles and so causing them to become spiritually contaminated-guilt by association.
Now do you not find it striking that the result of Levi encountering Jesus, was leaving his place of double dealing, and throwing a party and invite friends around? Levi’s has the zeal of a convert. He is not ashamed of Jesus or embarrassed to be seen with him- on the contrary, he wants as many of his friends as possible to meet him. And notice he doesn’t organise a religious service either, he puts on a five course slap up meal. Quite appropriate really, for two reasons. First, banquets are celebrations, and there is no greater cause for celebration than meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, meals were a sign and a means of social acceptance. Jesus was the guest of honour and by accepting the invitation it was a given that Jesus accepted the company. So here is a thought for those of you in Mark 2 or TNT or the new medics or students- who like parties and meals- do you think there would be any mileage in organising a good meal, with good music and good atmosphere, and at the same time use it as an occasion for your friends to hear about the good news of Jesus? You don’t have to wait for the clergy to organise it or approve, though we would love to help- why not just get on and do it? After all you couldn’t stop Levi!
But neither could you stop the critics- hence the counter to criticism -v30; ‘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'?" The Pharisees didn’t so much lodge a complaint against Jesus, the actual word used is ‘mumbled’ they were chuntering away at the disciples. Notice they don’t have the courage to tackle Jesus directly, they try to undermine the confidence of his followers, ‘Why do you’ – not ‘he’ ‘eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.’ The critics of Jesus will always target the most vulnerable to make them feel guilty and inadequate. But notice how Jesus comes to the rescue, v31-32, ‘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."
Can you imagine a doctor who sees his job solely in terms of berating his patients for getting sick? Who does nothing but issue medical bulletins on the importance of personal hygiene whilst leaving the diseased coughing and wheezing on the floor? That in effect is the Pharisees way, but not Jesus’ way. The human condition is a serious one and a universal one- there is a spiritual malady which inflicts us all- called sin-but the so called ‘righteous’ religious person does not see it applying to himself. Jesus comes as the great doctor. His practice is to mix with the diseased to bring about the purity which they naturally lack- one which happens as we become properly related to him- follow him- as did Levi, and so being brought back into contact with God. The prophets in the OT foresaw a time when God would deal with our most fundamental problem, the removal of the spiritual contagion which afflicts us and offends God- our moral deformity- Zechariah 13:1, ‘On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from their sin and impurity.’ Well, that day has now come with Jesus and tragically the Pharisees couldn’t see it. I would imagine that when someone comes home from hospital after a life threatening illness which has been cured, a party would be in order- wouldn’t you? Maybe the child has been sick for months, years even, and then the all clear is given and so the family and friends deck out the home with balloons and garlands, put on some music, and anxious faces are replaced with smiling faces. Of course! And that is the Bible’s picture of what it is like when someone comes to Christ. God and his angels throw a party. And here we see it taking place within the life of Jesus. And who are the party poopers? The self-made, self-satisfied, religious elite. And so they press their attack further-vv 33-39- there is no stopping the Pharisee-v33 ‘They said to him, "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking."
Not only are they uncomfortable with the company Jesus keeps, they are bewildered by the practices the disciples don’t keep. Why aren’t they fasting and praying like everyone else who is religious, but instead are stuffing themselves and drinking? Well, Jesus tells them why.
First, it is the wrong timing-v 34- ‘Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast." Fasting is associated with mourning. If you become bereaved you grieve and in your grief you don’t eat. Similarly it is linked with grieving over sin- as did King David when he was exposed for adultery and the baby conceived from the liaison looked like he was going to die. David went right of his food and prayed and prayed as you would. But is this a time for that sort of thing? Hardly. Instead of people dying they are being given life. Instead of a country going to rack and ruin under enemy occupation this is liberation time- the King has come to reclaim his own. This is not a funeral taking place but a wedding- the bridegroom has arrived. Now that is a very astonishing thing Jesus has just said. For listen to this- God is talking to the Jews exiled in Babylon several hundred years earlier: ‘As a young man marries a maiden so will your sons marry you; as bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will God rejoice over you.’ (Is 62:5). Remember how we saw the other week that Jesus read out Isaiah 61 in his home synagogue and said the prophecy had been fulfilled in him? Well, here is continuation of that prophecy. God has come to his people, the bridegroom for his bride and that bridegroom is Jesus. God has returned to marry his people not condemn them. This is the new age of the Kingdom and God is inviting people to personally accept the royal invitation.
But there will come a time when his followers will stop eating when Jesus goes to the gallows- of course they will. That is the time they will mourn because the one they love will be taken from them for a while, and the darkest day known on earth will descend as our sins pin him to a tree. Even here there may be a reference to Isaiah’s prophecy, for in the Greek translation of Isaiah 53:8, the suffering servant is described as being ‘taken away’- the same phrase used here.
And so secondly, the religious are engaging in the wrong practice 36 ‘He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.'" You see, to expect Jesus and his followers to conform to first century Jewish practices is as dumb as cutting up a brand new pair of trousers in order to patch up some tatty old ones! Why ruin a new pair? What is more they don’t match anyhow.Jesus has not come to patch up the old religion; he has come to transform it. Similarly with the parable of the new wine in old wineskins. Jesus produces a new ferment of joy in his follower’s hearts. The old traditional Jewish forms for the expression of religious life have grown hard and unpliable- too restricting, unable to contain the new wine Jesus brings, they would simply burst. The Old Testament prophets again saw this-depicted the coming new age of God’s kingly rule as being like a harvest festival with plenty of wine being made available for rejoicing- ‘I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine’ says Amos (9:14) - that is now a reality with the coming of Jesus. Jesus is not reforming Judaism; he is renewing it, fulfilling it in his person and ministry. And yet there will still be those who will say, ‘no the old is better’ vv39 and try and constrain Christianity. And it happens. When a church tries to introduce the dead hand of ritual- dressing men up and parading them as ‘priests’ who form a bridge to God; when there is the move away from plain and clear public worship into one shrouded in mystery with incense, bells and candles; when the Lord’s table is transformed from a table which is a celebratory meal into an altar offering an atoning sacrifice- then that is when the new wine of the Gospel is being poured into old wineskins and the two cannot mix- the skins burst and the wine empties, but we still persist with the skins, we cling on to the old garments for the sake of ‘religion’. It is the natural human tendency. And we are not to make the mistake of thinking that there are only ‘high church’ expressions of this- ‘low church’ even evangelical churches can have their equivalents of restricting people, squeezing them into an unbiblical mould- insisting on what you wear, how you sing, what form of baptism you must have. It is called legalism- and that is the defining mark of the Pharisee.
Legalism, you see, is rigid, uniform and mechanical-you don’t even have to think about it, just disengage the mind and go through the motions. But the real problem with the legalist of course, is that he or she thinks that they don’t need God- hence Jesus saying he has not come to call the ‘righteous’ –they don’t hear the call because they don’t think it applies to them. Legalism is the search for innocence, not forgiveness. ‘I must be alright’ says the legalist, ‘for I have kept all the rules.’ And so at the end of the day, legalism is all about self- explaining self, justifying self, exalting self, asserting self. The legalist is quite literally self-obsessed.
Just think of what happens with legalism. First, legalism turns my opinion into your burden. They are really saying the disciples must pray and fast like they do. Secondly, legalism turns my opinion into your boundary. Your opposing opinion not only makes me question your right to have fellowship with me but your salvation. The disciples must be beyond the pale because they were not part of their group and are mixing with the wrong type. But thirdly legalism turns my opinion into your obligation. ‘You had better toe the party line or you are out –hence them becoming more and more hostile with Jesus. That is legalism. If you want to keep in with the group then just do, don’t ask. But Jesus did ask and question and that is what made him uncomfortable. And it has to be said that the suffocating curse of legalism with its fear-induced conformity is very much alive and kicking today and is no respecter of churchmanship. And so the questions are raised which turn opinions into burdens, boundaries and obligations: Adult baptism or infant baptism- for or against? The answer you give to that will determine your inclusion or exclusion in some circles. Ordination by bishops or non-bishops-for or against? That certainly will be a measure of whether your ministry is kosher or not with some people. That is the way of legalism.
But it is not the way of Christ. The legalist restricts- Jesus liberates. Like the farmers in our make believe club, the legalist is concerned with outward show- how the farmer looks, rather than inward reality- what fruit the farmer produces. And what fruit Jesus produces! This greedy, self-centred individual, who used his literary talents to swindle- Levi, was eventually to use his writing skills to convert.
And so you may have been a Christian for some time now- what is that beginning to look like? Is the new wine still bubbling or has there been that steady withdrawal into a comfortable, hard cased old wineskin- hedging you life with safe and predictable religious routine so avoiding any challenge to change? Is that what is happening?
Or perhaps you are a relatively new Christian. You like the idea of the joy Jesus brings but what of the transformation? What skills are you employing to serve him-like Levi- did? Is the new wine overflowing so that others see the difference in your attitudes, demeanour, lifestyle- so you are seen as a Jesus first type of person?
Or perhaps you are still at the point of standing on the outside looking in? Can you honestly imagine that you are going to come across anyone more attractive, more personable, more life changing than Jesus? I can tell you now you won’t find such a person. You see, the new age of God’s free gift of rescue and new life has come with Jesus the King and he is the one who is telling you to turn around and follow him.
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