Fitness-tracking wristbands that use smart data to track a person’s record toward meeting fitness goals are the workout rage today. One recent product takes it a step further. It is called aptly, “Pavlok”. To motivate users toward their fitness goals, this wristband shocks them when they fail to meet their goals for the day. It follows the belief that like Pavlov’s dogs, you can be trained on a subconscious level with stimuli.
Fortunately for us, Jesus does not want to simply change our behavior. He desires and has the power to transform our hearts, knowing consistent behavior change will follow. He transforms from the inside out. Jesus does so, in part, by choosing to extend grace rather than judgment. As Jesus meets a man named Levi in this brief story from Luke chapter 5, notice the stark contrast between Jesus’ perspective and approach to people versus the perspective and approach of the Pharisees.
Jesus’s Expression of Grace (vv. 27-29)
The writer, Luke, points out that Levi was a “tax collector” (v. 27a). Such a profession in Jesus’ day was overrun with corruption, to the extent that the Roman government eventually did away with the system. First, a Jew would collect taxes from fellow Jews on behalf of their common enemy who occupied Israel — the Romans. That was enough to make you an outcast in the Jewish culture. But it was far worse than that. Various Jews would bid for the right to be a tax collector because it was a very lucrative business. Rome gave tax collectors quotas to meet, but also allowed them to collect as much beyond the quota as they wanted for themselves. On top of that, often wealthy Jews would bribe tax collectors to charge them less. In turn, the tax collector would make up the difference on the backs of the working class and poor Jewish citizens. Abusing their own people with the authority of the Roman government for personal gain, they were hated by their fellow Jews and not even allowed to attend a synagogue. They were considered to be bottom feeders, pariah (outcast) within the Jewish culture.
When so many viewed Levi as a pariah, in walks Jesus and offers him grace. Jesus said, “Follow me”. With those two words, Jesus offered Levi an opportunity to take a life-changing journey with Him and build a transformative relationship with Jesus on that journey. Grace toward one such as Levi the “tax collector” was shocking and unheard of by most.
Without such grace, however, Levi would have remained an outsider in relation to God and others. Jesus did not see a bottom-feeder when He looked at Levi. He saw a future disciple who would impact people’s lives eternally and write the Gospel of Matthew. What do you see when you look at others? It depends on if you look through the eyes of grace or through the warped perspective of self-righteous judgment.
The Pharisees’ Expression of Self-Righteous Judgment (vv. 30-32)
Levi left behind everything to follow Jesus, and in turn was being transformed. Deeply impacted, he wanted his friends to get to know Jesus like he had. So, Levi throws a party. The Pharisees show up and miss what Jesus sees — they only see a party full of “tax collectors and ‘sinners’” (v.30). They could not see past their well-honed, smug, self-righteousness long enough to see what Christ-inspired grace has the power to do — truly transform people from the inside out.
Neither could they see that they too were “sinners” in need of the grace Jesus was offering. They were too busy being offended by others’ failures while blinded to their own (vv. 31-32).
When you get to know and follow the actual Jesus — not the symbol of Jesus, but the personal and powerful Jesus — you will be transformed like Levi. One sure sign of transformation is when your norm is to extend grace to others who need it, rather than serve out self-righteous judgment. Are you following the actual Jesus or a “lesser than” version of Jesus?
“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.’”