After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:27-32 [ESV]
My parents had friends who were from Germany. He served in the German army and it shaped him for life. My parents witnessed to them, but he would not believe. He said he had seen and experienced things so evil that he could not believe in God. I know little about the specifics, so I can only imagine. And I wonder whether he perhaps participated in some things he believed he could never be forgiven of.
On another occasion I was standing in the gap for some members of the church I was serving. They were being visited by non-Christian “missionaries” and were considering abandoning the faith centered in Jesus Christ, and his gracious promise of forgiveness and salvation by grace through faith. There had been a particularly gruesome murder recently in the news and we spoke about how awful that was. Then it became clear that they believed the murderer would never be forgiven. No matter what. That was a powerful moment of clarity.
If forgiveness is anything it must be given. Freely. Trust must be earned. Reconciliation must be worked out. But forgiveness is the foundation of both. And unless it is truly and freely given, there is no foundation for the others.
But forgiveness is freely given at a great price to the giver. Some people believe that to forgive is to say, “It was nothing.” In fact, however, forgiveness is to say, “That was wrong. I was hurt. But I let go of my judgement against you. I do not hold that against you.” That is costly. That is difficult. But even here the foundation of that is Jesus’ forgiveness of us. And his forgiveness is costly to him beyond measure.
The Pharisees and their scribes may well have been sincerely worried that Jesus was usurping the place of God. They may have been afraid that people were being led astray by this Galilean preacher. They may also have been afraid of the sinners and tax collectors; fearful because they didn’t know how to relate to them other than by judging them. They needed to recognize their own sinfulness and learn how grace actually works.
But the same grace that Jesus was affording the sinners and tax collectors was available to the Pharisees and their scribes. It’s a shame they didn’t think they needed it. They did. More than they knew. But Jesus is now reaching out to the ones who were at the other end of the spectrum. It’s likely they were ones who would think there was no hope of God’s mercy for them because their sin was so bad. But just as there is no one who does not need God’s forgiveness and grace, there is also no one who repents of their sin whom Jesus will not receive. We all need God’s grace. God’s grace is available to all.
Jesus’ first sermon testifies to this truth: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” That’s the kind of strong medicine we all need.