In our last essay we studied Luke 5:1-16. In which we saw we saw the call of the first disciples (vv.1-11), and the cleansing of a leper (vv. 12-16). In this essay we study Luke 5:17-32 in which we find a story of Jesus’ healing of a paralytic, which Jesus used to teach about forgiveness of sins (vv. 17:26) and an account of Jesus’ call of Levi (vv. 27-32). In verse 17 notice the presence of “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” That some of these Pharisees were from Jerusalem suggests that an official delegation had been sent from Jerusalem to check out the young man who was creating such a stir in Galilee. The Pharisees were a group committed to the Mosaic Law. They believed in legalistically keeping the law. And the scribes, who are mentioned in verse 21, usually were Pharisees who also were professional lawyers. The Pharisees were, along with the Sadducees, a political as well as a religious power in Israel. Therefore they were very interested in anyone who may be making messianic claims.
The men who brought the paralytic couldn’t get him through the crowd into the house, so they went up the outside stairway to the roof, took tiles off the roof, and lowered the paralytic’s bed down through the hole they had made (vv. 18-19). Jesus rightly interpreted their determination as evidence of their faith. They believed that Jesus could heal their friend. Interestingly, instead of simply healing the man’s body, Jesus pronounced his sins forgiven (v. 20).
In verse 21 we see the response of the scribes and Pharisees. They immediately accuse Jesus of blasphemy, because he was claiming to forgive sins, something that only God could do. This is the beginning, in Luke, of Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish religious establishment.
Then in verses 22-26 we see Jesus’ response to their accusation. Jesus challenges the Pharisees and scribes with a question of his own: “Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say ‘Stand up and walk?’” The implication of this question was that it takes the power of God to do either one. Of course one could claim to forgive sins without the necessity of proving that it had been accomplished. So Jesus continued, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’” And the man got up, took up his bed, and went home. Of course everyone was amazed, and they glorified God.
Scholars like to discuss the use of the expression “Son of Man” by Jesus. We are not going to go into all of that, but let me give my opinion about Jesus’ use of the term. As we saw in the previous chapter, Jesus did not strictly hide the fact that he was the Messiah (4:16-21). But he didn’t really want to be identified that way by the public, and the reason was simple. The ideas current in Jewish society about the Messiah were different from what Jesus, in his first coming, had come to do. The Jews thought of the Messiah as a human kingly ruler like David who would deliver Israel from oppression by the Romans. Jesus, in his first coming, had not come to overthrow the Romans. He had come to teach about the Kingdom of God and to die for humanity’s sins. So in order to avoid confusion, Jesus identified himself by this different messianic title, “Son of Man” (from the Book of Daniel, chapter seven.)
Turning to application, this story illustrates the cleansing from sin that we saw suggested by the story about the leper. Two things are evident. First, not everyone is able to come to Jesus on his or her own. Like the paralytic, they need help from their friends. How can we help people come to Jesus? We can help others by witnessing. And we can help others by providing a physical means, or whatever other type of help is needed, to get them to Jesus.
Second, the Lord Jesus clearly has the power to heal both bodies and souls. But as we saw in this story, the spiritual is the more important. Jesus concerned himself first with the spiritual. In this case, the miracle of healing as wonderful as it was, was done by Jesus simply to prove that he had the power to forgive sins.
Next, in verses 27-32, Luke tells us about the call of Levi. The Gospel of Matthew, in its parallel, tells us that Levi was another name for Matthew. So Matthew and Levi are two names for the same person, a tax collector whom Jesus called to discipleship.
the general Jewish population despised Tax collectors, because they resented paying taxes, just like many Americans. Thus they resented bitterly those who collected the taxes, just like many Americans resent the IRS. Since Levi is depicted as collecting taxes at a “tax booth,” he probably was collecting customs taxes on goods arriving in Herod’s kingdom rather than personal taxes. At any rate, Jesus invites Levi to become a disciple, and Levi doesn’t hesitate to accept the invitation (v. 28). He left everything and followed Jesus. There is no indication that Levi knew Jesus prior to his call to discipleship. But by this time, everyone in that part of Galilee at least knew about him. Indeed, if Levi was collecting taxes at or near Capernaum, he might have heard Jesus preach on one or more occasions prior to his call.
After Levi becomes a believer, he sets up a banquet in his house for Jesus and invites all of his friends, tax collectors and others (v. 29). This is a natural reaction. Levi wanted his friends to know Jesus, as he had come to know him. And he joyfully asked them to share a meal with Jesus. Of course eating together was a sign of rather close intimacy. Thus to eat with people who were considered sinners went beyond Jewish decorum. Therefore the Pharisees, who undoubtedly thought that Jesus was way out of bounds to eat with tax collectors and sinners, complained to Jesus’ disciples. The disciples apparently told Jesus about the complaint; and he responded by saying that it is the sick who need a physician, not those who are well, and that he had come to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous. And that explained why he ate with sinners.
Interestingly, what Jesus said suggested that the Pharisees were righteous. No doubt some of them were, and all of them thought they were. But either way, Jesus’ point was clear. He calls sinners, not the righteous, to repentance.
How should we apply this story of the call of Levi, or Matthew, to our lives? I can suggest two things. First, we must not think of ourselves as righteous in a superior way, and try to avoid contact with those we consider “sinners,” as the Pharisees did. We are to be in ministry with Jesus, and he wants everyone to hear the “good news” about salvation. Since it is the sinners who are spiritually “sick,” and who need to repent and believe, we must not avoid sinners who need the Lord. Rather we should be bringing them to Jesus, as the paralytic’s friends and Levi did.
Second, we not only must not avoid sinners, we must be willing to go where they are in order to introduce them to Jesus. Jesus went to Levi’s house to eat with the tax collectors and sinners. And we must be willing to do the same. If anything has been proven over the centuries of the Church’s existence, it is that very few sinners will come to Jesus by coming into our church buildings. We have to get out of the building to share with them where they are. We can find opportunities to share with them in work environments. We can accept invitations into their homes, as Jesus did with Levi. Or we can invite them into our homes. But we cannot expect them to come to church services on their own.
There is a pattern in these first four stories in chapter five (the call of the first disciples, the cleansing of the leper, the healing of the paralytic, and the call of Levi), which I want to point out. All four stories have both physical and spiritual elements, and the spiritual is the key in every instance. In the story about the call of the first disciples, there was a miraculous, physical catch of fish that made the fishermen a considerable amount of money that day; but it was Peter’s spiritual repentance and call to discipleship that was the key thing that happened.
In the case of the cleansing of the leper, the leper was physically healed. But we noted that cleansing from leprosy made a great analogy for cleansing from sin, a powerful spiritual matter.
Then when Jesus healed the paralytic, also a physical need, Jesus used the healing to illustrate forgiveness from sin. By beginning with the paralytic’s spiritual need for forgiveness instead of his need for physical healing, Jesus made it clear that spiritual needs are more important than physical needs.
Finally the account of the call of Levi ends with a pronouncement by Jesus that he had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Thus once again the spiritual needs of humanity are at the forefront of Jesus’ thinking and of Luke’s as well. This is particularly interesting coming from the pen of Luke who was a physician. He may have been dedicated to healing the bodies of people, but he understood that spiritual healing is much more important from God’s point of view.