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27 Afterward, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
28 Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him. 29 Then Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus in his home. A large number of tax collectors and others sat down to eat with them. 30 The Pharisees and their legal experts grumbled against his disciples. They said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 32 I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”
9 Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
As we study Jesus’ message of repentance, the great spiritual hazard is the idea (conscious or subconscious) that “those bad people need to repent, but I don’t—I’m a good person.” As today’s readings show, Jesus never encouraged or accepted any version of that idea. It probably shocked many of his hearers to think that that awful tax collector (who worked corruptly with the Romans) went home right with God, and the Pharisee (“I’m not like everyone else”) didn’t.
Lord Jesus, this isn’t abstract, but personal. I put my person, my “self,” on the line as a sinner who chooses to be your repentant follower. Thank you for calling me as you did Levi the tax collector. Amen.
The word repentance makes me prickly. It might have something to do with my experience with judge-y signs and bad theology from picketers. But repentance or metanoia in Greek is far more than what it has been reduced to as cleaning up your act or behavior. Instead, repentance means changing your mind, direction, and heart. And the cool thing is that in Greek, it implies a continual action, not something that happens just once, and then you’re good.
And, even more, there is no upper limit to the times we can return to God by changing our minds, hearts, or direction. It’s different from the three tries you have to remember your password before the system locks you out. God doesn’t lock you out of grace. As Jesus says, it’s here for all. The floodgates of repentance are always available and closer than the beating of our hearts or the breath in our lungs. That’s the good news!
The not-so-great news is that we often get so caught up in other people’s repentance that we forget about our own, or that our repentance is the only repentance on which we should be focused. To put it lightly, this part is challenging for me. Perhaps you don’t struggle with this, but it sure is easy to see what others need to have a change of heart on while keeping a blind eye to my own. I have several reasons why I can stay the same. I should repent of my spiteful words, but the other person deserved it with their actions. I could change my attitude towards this group of people who believe differently than me, but it makes me feel good to point out all their faults so I can feel better about mine. We are quick to point fingers at those we see as needing repentance, but we have 99 reasons and more to validate why our heart and mind don’t need changing.
Until the day it does. The moment we realize the God of the universe has shown us mounds and mounds of grace and mercy to fill up a lifetime. When I feel God whispering to me for a change of heart on something, it comes with implementation. That transformative change of heart and mind often happens when I start implementing an outward change. It usually occurs when I realize that whatever I need to repent or let go of and cut off from my mind or daily routine is not life-giving. Jesus reminds me, as he does so perfectly in these parables, that “healthy people don’t need doctors, but sick people do.” Like medicine, repentance and God’s grace working through our repentance is life-giving and restorative. It’s a change of mind and a return to who we are meant to be, who we are created to be in Christ Jesus.
As the hymn goes, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me…Come home, come home, Ye who are weary, come home, Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling. Calling, ‘Oh, sinner, come home.'”
Let’s go home. Let’s return to the authentic version of ourselves God has created us to be. No more prickly perceptions of repentance. It’s a renewal, a redirection, a return to our home in Jesus.
* Richard B. Vinson, study notes on Luke 5:30-32 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 117 NT.