“Your sins are forgiven!” Jesus said to the man stricken with palsy (Luke 5:20), and his words were implied in the case of Levi (Luke 5:27)—and fellowship follows forgiveness. Although the scribes and Pharisees were astonished over the true meaning of forgiveness, they understood the man stricken with palsy must be forgiven (Luke 5:26), but they couldn’t see that the publican, Levi, was forgiven. How could he be forgiven of his sins, even if he left all, if he continued to associate with those who persisted in the abuse their authority over the people (Luke 5:30)?
Everyone I read who comments on this Scripture seems to want to make Levi into a righteous tax collector, but there is absolutely no evidence for that. The contrary would be implied, if we receive Luke’s account of Levi’s call in its context. Luke is contrasting how Jesus felt about sin and sinners with how the scribes and Pharisees of his day felt about the same. Jesus received sinners, but the Jewish leaders of the day rejected them and separated themselves from them, lest they be ceremonially defiled. Tax collectors were ostracized in the Jewish religious community and were barred from the synagogue. As a group, they abused their offices and demanded much more of the people than was required by the Romans. Greed drove them to take as much as they could get. Why would Matthew be any different?
It seems evident in Matthew’s immediate response to Jesus’ call (Luke 5:27-28) that he had listened to Jesus on other occasions. If he didn’t know Jesus in Nazareth, it seems quite obvious that Levi knew of Jesus at this point in his public ministry. Otherwise, why would he follow a man he had never even met? Magic or mesmerism would be out of the question and completely foreign to Luke’s narrative.
After he left his former manner of life, Matthew made a feast in honor of Jesus and invited other tax collectors and presumably businessmen who had appreciated Matthew’s patronage (cf. Luke 5:29). Jesus had no problem eating and fellowshipping with such people, but the Pharisees challenged him (Luke 5:30). They wondered why Jesus was so available to sinners. Jesus’ response takes into consideration the Pharisee’s understanding of illnesses and infirmities being the result of sin (cf. Luke 5:23). Jesus used the service of a physician toward one of his patients as the foundation for his own attitude toward sinners (Luke 5:31). Why would a healthy person require the service of a physician? Why would one who is righteous require a savior? Rather, it is sick folks who need a physician, and sinners who need a Savior (Luke 5:32).
The implication of Jesus’ words is an assault against self-righteousness and hypocrisy. With all their efforts to be clean and to avoid sin in all of its forms, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders neglected to see how their own religious mannerisms or traditions actually accentuated their rebellion against God. Although God was the Judge of the world, these leaders made themselves judges over the activities of others, yet always neglecting their own sinfulness. They placed obedience to their traditions above obedience to God (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:13). They stood in opposition to God, although they couldn’t perceive this was so. Yet, Luke’s account makes it obvious who were more apt to follow Jesus and end their rebellion against God. It was the sinners who recognized and admitted their own sin, not those who hid their sin in their hearts, while judging everyone else. Those who fashioned themselves as judges of mankind failed to see their own need of repentance. In failing to repent, they couldn’t see their need for a Savior, so they rejected Jesus.