Summary: Friend of Sinners, Pt. 1
EVERY SAINT HAS A PAST AND EVERY SINNER A FUTURE
Tony Campolo told how, upon arrival in Honolulu, he made his way unwittingly to a seedy part of town for a snack at 3:30 in the morning, to be surrounded by eight or nine prostitutes who had just taken the night off. He overheard the prostitute beside him saying to her girlfriend, “Tomorrow is my birthday,” but her friend rebutted, “So what do you want from me? You want me to get you a cake and sing, ’Happy Birthday?’“ The alarmed birthday girl protested, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? Why should you give me a birthday party now when I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life?”
When the prostitutes left, Campolo decided to decorate the place the next night and give the birthday girl a surprise party with the help of the bartender, who happily chipped in the cake. The next day, the stunned girl was so taken back when the whole bar sang a birthday song to her. She first refused to cut the cake, then asked if she could keep the cake a little longer and, finally, for some unknown reason, dashed home with the cake after promising to return with it later.
Campolo offered to say a prayer for the woman before the stunned crowd, and after prayer, the bartender remarked, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.” The bartender sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.” (The Kingdom of God is a Party 3-8, Tony Campolo, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990).
The story of Levi, whose other name was Matthew, was about a man who contracted with the Roman government to collect taxes from fellow Jews, pocketed the gain for himself and thereby was excluded from any form of community life, restricted to social life with peers within his profession, and often shunned and hated by countrymen, neighbors, and even relatives.
Levi’s transformation occurred when he met Jesus Christ one day. He later became an apostle and wrote the first book of the New Testament. When Levi excitedly gathered his colleagues for a feast with Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offended and scandalized by Jesus’ association with Levi and others like him and posed this question to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Will a man’s past doom him to his future? Is repentance and change possible? Is salvation a momentary experience or an abiding decision?
The Coming of Jesus Makes Conversion Possible
27 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, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (Lk 5:27-28)
Jesus set out to look for Levi. After Jesus had called Simon, James and John (Lk 5:10), he saw Levi the tax collector sitting by himself, stopped by his booth, and said two words to him: “Follow me.” In all gospels Levi’s calling was mentioned, Jesus spoke the same two forceful words: “Follow Me.”
What was amazing about Jesus’ call to Levi was that Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mt 9:9, Mk 2:14) all recorded Jesus’ two brief words to Levi in the gospels with equal passion, in the same way and at the exact length. Only Peter (John 21:19) and Philip (Jn 1:43) were given this directive, but their response was captured just once in the gospels. Nothing was special about their conversion; they were ordinary people, with normal jobs, receiving equal treatment. Remarkably, the gospels recorded, covered and highlighted Jesus’ direct invitation to the most tainted member of the apostolic band, Levi the tax-collector. It was a rare, intentional and meaningful recording. The news of Jesus’ reception of another apostle or citizen’s conversion did not quite grab the headlines or seize the imagination like that of the sinner Levi. Not like this, before this or after this. Jesus’ evangelistic target, effort and success were the toast of the gospels, the talk of town and the task of all tasks.
Jesus looked at Levi (Lk 5:27) the same way he looked at John and Andrew (Jn 1:38), the 5,000 he fed (John 6:5), or the woman the scribes and Pharisees incited the crowd to stone (Jn 8:10). Jesus did not consider him any different from others who needed salvation, forgiveness and hope. Levi was wretched, misguided and desperate, a demonized, a reviled, and an unloving, unlovable and unloved man. Jesus spotted him, sought him and saved Levi. Previously, Levi sat by himself, kept to himself and lived for himself. So Levi welcomed and appreciated the visit, the opportunity and the challenge to start all over again.