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The calling of Levi
Luke chapter 5, verses 27-32
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.”
The association of Jesus with sinners continues in this story of the call of Levi to become a disciple. Matthew chapter 9, verse 9 gives the name of this man as “Matthew,” which suggests that either he originally had two names or perhaps his name was changed by Jesus.
Levi is a tax collector. The Latin translation uses the term “publicanus,” a revenue agent, from which comes the familiar “publican” of the King James Version. It might be more accurate to designate Levi’s occupation as that of “toll collector,” one engaged in the collection of indirect taxes such as tolls, tariffs, and customs. Such persons were generally looked down on by the Jews because they were working for the heathen Romans and had a reputation for dishonesty by overcharging.
At the call of Jesus, Levi, like Peter, left everything and followed. To celebrate his new life, Levi held a great banquet for Jesus, inviting a large crowd of his old friends in the toll collecting business. The Pharisees and scribes were offended, making their complaint to the disciples of Jesus. The Pharisees strictly observed the law of Leviticus chapter 10, verse 10, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” Jesus was obviously not following this biblical precept.
Jesus answers the charge of guilt by association by comparing himself to a doctor. The doctor’s work calls for him to associate with the sick; they are the ones who require his skilled care. Likewise with Jesus: he needs to be with sinners in order to bring them to repentance. With their self-righteous attitude, the Pharisees did not understand this loving concern that Jesus had for sinners.
Jesus questioned about fasting
Luke chapter 5, verses 33-39
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.”
Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast. 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.And 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. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’”
The word “they” that begins this section might seem to refer to the Pharisees from the previous story. Comparing Matthew chapter 9, verse 14 and Mark chapter 2, verse 18 makes it clear that the reference is to the people and the disciples of John. They are the ones who question Jesus about the custom of fasting. However, the answer of Jesus is directed not only to the questioners but also to the Pharisees who found the teaching of Jesus concerning the practice of fasting very deficient.
Fasting means to abstain from food and at times even from drinking water. Religious people would choose to fast for various reasons: to concentrate on prayer and meditation, as a form of self-punishment for some sin committed, or to evidence a disdain for the body and its needs. Luke chapter 7, verse 33 suggests that John was recognized as one who practiced fasting and who taught the same to his disciples. So did the Pharisees. How different Jesus and his disciples were! Many times we are told that Jesus attended banquets; many of his parables compare the kingdom of God to a banquet. The question put to Jesus is a valid one.
Jesus answers with a question of his own plus a parable. The question compares the time of the earthly presence of Jesus to that of the groom at the wedding banquet. Obviously, the guests don’t do any fasting while they are all together for this joyous meal. But once the groom is gone, then they may fast. Jesus is saying that there will come a time when his disciples will fast—after his ascension into heaven. Jesus neither forbids nor commands his disciples to fast but simply states that they will do it. There may be good reasons why believers today will fast. But they dare not look down on others who refuse to fast.
The parable that Jesus tells illustrates a general truth about his teaching. Using the examples of mending a garment and putting wine in skins for storage, Jesus contrasts the old with the new. Jesus is a minister of the new covenant. This is the covenant of forgiveness. The new life in the Spirit breaks loose from the old mentality, which thrives on fault finding and concentration on meritorious observance of the law. The new cannot be patched onto the old; the new cannot be poured into the old. Applying this parable to the specific question about fasting, Jesus seems to indicate that fasting is included among those old practices that can’t very well be patched with the new life of faith in the Spirit.
The closing comment made by Jesus in verse 39 reflects a fact so often observed: people like to keep the old and familiar. The old wine is better than the new. The new that Jesus brings is fiercely opposed by those who cling to the old. It is a truth also observed in the lives of Christians: the old self fights against the new self. But make no mistake—Jesus is on the side of the new.
Lord of the Sabbath
Luke chapter 6, verses 1-11
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest was one of the fundamental laws of the Jews. From the holy mountain of Sinai, Israel had heard the Lord God say, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus chapter 20, verses 8 and 11). In Exodus chapter 34, verse 21 this prohibition of labor is applied specifically: “Even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” The Saturday rest was meant to remind the believing Israelite of God’s gracious and wondrous creation of the world and everything in it.
Over the years the priests and teachers of the law had worked out a very elaborate set of rules to help the people determine what could and could not be done on the Sabbath, what activities were within the law and which were forbidden. Jesus and his disciples are caught doing two of those forbidden activities: harvesting grain and giving aid to someone whose life was not in danger.
To answer the first charge, Jesus refers to the story in 1st Samuel chapter 21, verses 1-6 that relates how David ate of the consecrated bread in the tent of God at Nob. This was bread that only the priests were to eat, but it was the chief priest who gave the bread to David and his companions. The law was broken to satisfy human hunger. Moreover, Jesus claims an authority even greater than judicial precedent for what the disciples had done: Jesus had permitted his disciples to harvest the grain because “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
After this claim of lordship over the Sabbath, it is no wonder that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were on the watch to discover other violations. On another Sabbath, while they were with Jesus in the synagogue, they got what they were looking for. Jesus healed a man whose hand was shriveled. The help Jesus gave might just as well have waited till a day other than the Sabbath. But Jesus showed that one should not wait to do good.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law are furious; the Greek says, “they were filled with madness.” One is reminded of the people in the synagogue at Nazareth who attempted to kill Jesus by pushing him over the cliff (chapter 4, verses 28 and 29). Discussions among the enemies of Jesus now centered upon this topic: What are we going to do about Jesus? You will notice the cross always looms in the background as Jesus identifies more and more with the sinner and the hurting.
Before leaving this story, an additional comment is necessary about the keeping of the Third Commandment. This is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament by Jesus or his apostles as binding on Christians. Rather, Paul writes to the Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (chapter 2, verse 16). Nor should we regard Sunday as a kind of New Testament Sabbath. Sunday is the first day of the new week and celebrates not the old creation but the new life initiated by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
The twelve apostles
Luke chapter 6, verses 12-16
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
With this section Luke turns our attention away from the conflicts with the Pharisees and teachers of the law to report on the training of the twelve apostles. The enemies of Jesus were intent on getting rid of him. By choosing the twelve apostles, Jesus guaranteed that even after his service on this earth was completed, the mission of carrying the gospel into all the world would go on.
The choice of the apostles came after Jesus had spent a night in the hills praying to God. As there were 12 tribes in Israel, so Jesus selects 12 men from the larger number of his disciples to be leaders of the new Israel, the holy Christian church.
The word disciple means “one who learns.” The word apostle means “one who is sent out, a missionary.” The list of names as given by Luke differs only slightly from those in Mark chapter 3, verses 16-19. Judas son of James is given the name Thaddaeus by Mark. Perhaps this alternate name is to distinguish him from the traitor Judas.
Blessings and woes
Luke chapter 6, verses 17-26
He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
Having chosen the twelve apostles, Jesus now begins to give them intensive training. First of all, he introduces them to the masses in need of their ministry. After coming down from the hills where they had been (chapter 6, verse 12), Jesus and the Twelve stand on a level place to receive the multitudes. Not only does a large crowd of disciples gather; a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon come to hear and to be healed. This is Luke’s first mention of Tyre and Sidon, cities located along the Mediterranean Sea, largely inhabited by gentile people. The narrow confines of the Jewish synagogue are left behind as Jesus faces this throng of people from all over. Those troubled by evil spirits are cured; all with illnesses press around him seeking only to touch him that they might be healed. This is truly an awesome experience for the apostles (much like Peter’s great catch of fish).
It is in this context that Luke records words of Jesus which must have been spoken by him on a number of occasions. Very similar words are found in Matthew chapters 5 to 7, the Sermon on the Mount. The teaching is addressed specifically to his disciples who are addressed with the personal pronoun “you.” These are words for the apostles to hear for themselves; these words also serve as a model for apostolic preaching in the future.
The teaching begins with contrasting blessings and woes. Each of the eight statements is a paradox, an assertion that is contrary to what people generally think. The world hardly regards the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated as being blessed. But that is the declaration Jesus makes. The world does not think of the rich, the well-fed, those who laugh, and those whom all speak well of as being unfortunate. Yet that is the woe pronounced by Jesus.
The term beatitude is used to describe the sentences that begin “blessed are . . .” This is a very familiar form in the Bible. Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the man who . . .” Proverbs chapter 3, verse 13 says, “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding.” Seven beatitudes are found in Revelation, including these words: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (chapter 19, verse 9). Beatitudes may describe the happiness one enjoys in this life or in the life to come.
Jesus is speaking about the happiness his disciples will enjoy in heaven. In this life they may be poor and hungry and sad and hated. Yet when days like that come, he urges them to rejoice and leap for joy because “great is your reward in heaven.” Before teaching them anything about how they are to conduct themselves in this world, Jesus sets the ultimate goal before the disciples.
Each of these four beatitudes is matched with that striking word of warning: “woe.” Luke chapter 11, verses 42-52 has a series of woes pronounced against the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus. But in this section of Luke, the woes are meant as warnings for the disciples. They are warned against taking comfort in riches, good food and entertainment, and a reputation gained by avoiding genuine commitment to Christ. Earthly pleasures can so easily replace striving for true blessedness. Jesus warns his disciples so that they will be on guard.
Each section of beatitudes and woes closes out with a reference to the way in which “their fathers” treated the prophets, both those true and false. By “their fathers” Jesus means Old Testament Israel, who often listened to false prophets but rejected the warnings of the true prophets. Preaching before the Jewish Sanhedrin, Stephen shouted, “You stiff-necked people . . . ! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts chapter 7, verse 51). Jesus was preparing his disciples for the persecution that was coming, often from fellow countrymen of the house of Israel. How important for the followers of Jesus always to keep the ultimate goal in mind—the blessedness of life in the kingdom of God.
Love for enemies
Luke chapter 6, verses 27-36
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
In the fourth of the previous beatitudes, Jesus alerted his disciples to the fact that they would be hated, excluded, and insulted (chapter 6, verse 22). A person who experiences such treatment might be tempted to respond in a similar manner. Jesus, however, commands an altogether different kind of behavior, one totally unexpected in this world. He says to his listeners: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
A Greek writer living some years before the birth of Jesus expresses what was the common sentiment: “I considered it established that one should do harm to one’s enemies and be of service to one’s friends.” How very different is the advice Jesus gives! Jesus cites three cases, or situations, and describes a loving response for each: what to do when someone hits you on the cheek, what to do when someone takes your cloak, what to do when someone takes what belongs to you.
Is Jesus being serious? Can a person live this way in the real world? Isn’t this kind of idealism impossible to carry out? Obviously, Jesus is much in touch with the real world. He knows the way people generally react in the situations described. What he is saying, in a way which shocks us, is that disciples need to act differently from the world. A loving person will not automatically respond in the usual manner. The specific command of Jesus is not so much a rule of behavior to be followed mechanically as it is a stimulus for the mind to draw out the implications for life in general. As disciples of Jesus, we need to think lovingly in our dealings with people, even with our enemies.
The three situations described by Jesus are followed by three questions all concluding with the same words: “What credit is that to you?” To love those who love you, to do good to those who do good to you, to lend to those from whom you expect repayment—these are all things which even “sinners” (non-disciples) do. Jesus is looking for a higher standard of behavior. He teaches his disciples to break the pattern of reciprocity, the pattern of doing either bad or good based on what others do to us. He is saying, “Don’t do bad because you are treated badly; don’t just do good to those who treat you well.”
Two motives are cited for this kind of behavior. The first is the so-called Golden Rule. One who experiences totally undeserved love knows how wonderful it is and treats others in just that way. The second motive is the manner in which the heavenly Father treats people: he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful as he is.
Jesus promises a great reward for those who act in this manner. He used the same word in chapter 6, verse 23 (“reward in heaven”). This mention of reward does not at all imply that we are saved by our good works, by our love. Rather, this is a reward that Jesus promises freely and graciously to console his hated and persecuted disciples. It is a reward that comes to them totally unexpectedly, not a reward for which they consciously work.
Luke chapter 6, verses 37-42
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
He also told them this parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Love and generosity go together. It takes a very generous person to love an enemy, a loving person to give without expecting any return. The opposite of such a person is one who is constantly finding fault with others and condemning their actions.
The temptation to judge and condemn others is very real for the disciple of Jesus. The person who truly seeks to practice love may become more conscious of how others fail to love. Hence the warning: “Do not judge. . . . Do not condemn.” Jesus links this prohibition with the promise “You will not be judged. . . . You will not be condemned.” This could perhaps refer to human judgment: those critical of others will themselves often experience much criticism. Or the reference might be to God’s final judgment.
The negatives are balanced by a double positive: forgive and give. Jesus uses a figure of speech drawn from the commerical world. The merchant first pours grain into a measuring jar, presses it down, shakes it together, and lets it overflow; then he empties the jar into the customer’s “lap,” into the loose-fitting garment that serves as the sack to carry the grain home. Such is the generosity enjoyed by the disciple who is generous. Here is another application of the Golden Rule (chapter 6, verse 31).
The teaching of Jesus here concludes with four parables (chapter 6, verses 39-49), four illustrations from life. The first concerns the importance of being able to see before presuming to lead others. Those who are blind don’t make good guides. The disciple who is not himself enlightened should not dare to take on the responsibility of being a teacher. In verse 40 one senses that perhaps Jesus is directing some words against students of his who imagined they knew more than the teacher. No student of Jesus should ever dare to correct the teacher but must continually seek to be like the teacher.
The second parable is very familiar and often quoted. It is directed against the disciple who is oblivious to his own failings but eagerly takes on the role of inspecting the lives of other disciples for defects. The extreme contrasting terms used by Jesus—speck of sawdust versus plank—provoke a chuckle. But the term “hypocrite” being applied to such a person shows how serious Jesus is when he warns against fault-finding. As used by Jesus, this word has a more general meaning than just one who pretends to be what he is not. It is a strong term of condemnation often applied to Pharisees; here it is directed to one claiming to be a disciple of Jesus. Any disciple who desires to be a teacher of others must see very clearly before daring to correct the lives of others. The blind can’t lead the blind.