This passage is a very simple but powerful story of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Jesus is once again on his way to who-knows-where and he sees Levi sitting at his tax booth. Levi is a tax collector. That means he is hired out by Rome to collect taxes and then take a little more for himself from those from whom he’s collecting. Tax collectors were among the most despised people in the region. They were seen as traitors since they were working for the oppressor (Rome), and they also used that power to exploit people. And they were seen as religiously unclean as well. These were not people with whom the faithful associated . But Jesus not only associates with them, he calls them. Jesus says, “come follow me”, and Levi does.
When the Pharisees (part of the religious elite) ask “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners”, Jesus interjects with a very simple, but sneaky response. He says, “those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”. On the surface this is a nice statement that we all like, because it means that there’s hope for us who feel we don’t measure up. And this is an important part of the Gospel, but there’s more to this statement than that. When I look at the life of Christ, I see a man initiating a Kingdom of radical inclusion. We know this about Jesus, right? He is constantly going out to the margins of society and bringing in those who are out, and including those who are excluded. The image we often get is a “come one, come all” kind of a call. And that is the kingdom Jesus is initiating. But here we see the caveat to this radical inclusion: If you think you don’t need a “physician”, then this is not the place for you. Furthermore, if thinking you have it all figured out means that you will not associate with those of us who don’t, then this really isn’t the place for you. Jesus is a radically inclusive Messiah, but he seems to have no tolerance for those who set themselves apart as the worthy ones.
But let’s also pause here for a moment: In my past I’ve been really harsh on the Pharisees, viewing them in one dimensional ways, almost as straw men to hold up my views. I have recently come to realize the antisemitism that can crop out of this view. Jesus is certainly in an ongoing feud with the them, but let’s remember that the Pharisees are Torah observant Jews, seeking to live out the Torah as they understand it and as it is has been passed down to them. Their question here is fair one. That said, Jesus’ work necessarily will confound those who are hung up on the letter of the law at the expense of the Spirit of law. So this feud is real, but let’s be careful about the way we characterize the Pharisees.
That said, The irony of what’s happening here is that Jesus’ kingdom is a wide open kingdom for all people, but the one thing that will exclude you from it is thinking you don’t need it. The paradox of God’s kingdom is that the ones who “get it” are the ones who freely confess that they don’t have it figured out; and the ones who don’t “get it” are the ones who think they do have it all figured out. You see the problematic cycle this leads us to. The overarching point I think Jesus is making here is saying to those who think they don’t need a physician or are uncomfortable with others in the physicians office, “ok. then don’t come.”
Even a physician needs another physician from time to time. The point here may be less about who needs a “physician” and more about recognizing that we all do, so let’s not exclude anyone from seeing the physician. In other words, let’s open up the healing hand of God to all humans. Even the tax collectors.
Maybe the best question out of this for us today is, “Who are your tax collectors? Who are the ones you think don’t belong? The ones that make your flesh crawl? The ones who you think are unworthy?” Honestly reflect on that. And then maybe reconsider.