The Two Thousand Year Old Punchline, or: Don’t Be Like the Pharisees (Luke 5:27-6:11)

Okay, friends. A brief recap so we can know where we are:

In chapter 4, Jesus declared war on the ancient dragon. He declared his intention to set the captives free, give sight to the blind, and preach good news to the poor. And he got started right away! casting out demons, healing the sick, preaching…

But as the chapter went on, Luke revealed to us that Jesus actually isn’t that excited about his miracles. Jesus believes that preaching is what really sets captives free and gives sight to the blind. Jesus believes the dragon will ultimately be defeated not through exorcisms, not through healings — but through the preaching of the Word of God.

Then, last week, Luke showed us why preaching is so important: it is through preaching — through speaking — that Jesus forgives sins and makes men clean. It is through forgiveness that the gates of God’s kingdom are opened so that the captive and the blind may enter in, and be saved from the dragon forever.

We also heard this little word “faith” for the first time. We learned that faith means simply realizing that you are unclean, but that Jesus really does have the authority to forgive you — and then seeking him out at any cost!

So, that’s as far as we’ve gotten.

Now, this week, Luke is going to show us that Jesus’ authority to forgive the sins of anyone who has faith gives rise to some unexpected implications. For instance, the implication that anyone can enter kingdom at any time without having to do a bunch of religious rituals before or after.

And I can tell you now: not everyone is going to be happy with this development. And Luke is going to explain that also.

Right! Let’s get started:

[27] After this,

— after what? After healing the paralyzed man, which proved that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins —

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.

— wah, liddat ah? So fas’ wan!

Well…no. Just like Simon at the beginning of this chapter, Levi has probably heard Jesus preach before. At the very least he has heard that Jesus is willing to forgive sins.

And apparently Levi is very, very ready to have his sins forgiven…

Perhaps I should explain: tax collectors were notoriously corrupt; they were notoriously rich because they were corrupt; and they were notoriously sinful because they were rich and could afford to be. So no doubt Levi had a very long list of very dark sins on his conscience, and he was just waiting for someone like Jesus to come along and give him a chance.

So the chance came, and he took it! Simple as that —   

Then (verse 29), Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house,

— and now someone is going to say, “hang on, I thought he left ‘everything’ to follow Jesus? So why does he still have a house then, and  enough money to throw a party?”

Well…Luke doesn’t explain that here. But if it is an important concept I think we can trust Luke to develop it and eventually make it clear.

So let’s go on — 

and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.

— now, what Luke is describing is a special kind of dinner party called a “symposium”. It was basically a seminar with food. The host would invite some kind of “expert” over, usually a philosopher, to teach his philosophy to the gathered guests.

And there were usually two categories of people at these parties: the invited guests, who had seats at the table; and the onlookers, people from the town who were allowed to stand around the walls of the banquet hall and listen quietly. They are not supposed to talk: just listen, and learn.

So that is the setting: we’ve got Levi and Jesus and all of Levi’s friends and Jesus’ disciples at the large, U-shaped table; and then a bunch of other people standing around the walls, listening to the philosophical conversation and trying to learn something —

But almost at once, someone breaks the rules (verse 30): the Pharisees and their friends — we first met these guys last week — speak up and complain to Jesus disciples, “hey, tsst, hey: hasn’t your teacher told you you’re not supposed to eat with unclean people like these tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

— now, the Pharisees are being rude on a number of levels. First, they’re obviously not at the table; which means that, as wall-standers, they are not supposed to talk. Second, it is considered a very great insult to criticize someone else’s guests. Third, these dinners are supposed to be a place of learning and friendship, not divisiveness.

But these Pharisees feel compelled to speak. Why? Because up until now, Jesus has looked like a perfectly law-abiding Jew. But law-abiding Jews just don’t eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’. Why not? Because tax collectors and ‘sinners’ — by definition — are not law-abiding Jews. They don’t prepare their food properly, which makes it non-kosher; non-halal. By eating at that table, Jesus and his disciples are defiling themselves; they are sinning. Which means Jesus can’t possibly be a law-abiding Jew. Which means he must be a hypocrite, a man pretending to be a law-abiding preacher just so he can make money or something.

And the Pharisees are not going to let him get away with it! That’s why they confront…his disciples.

But Jesus hears the Pharisees hassling his disciples, so he speak up (verse 31): “hey guys, if I was a doctor, I would have to visit sick people in order to heal them, wouldn’t I? Well, in the same way, I have to visit sinners in order to bring them to repentance.”

So then the Pharisees are like (verse 33), “oh, so you wanna fight do you? Okay, bring it on! You pretend to be a perfect law-abiding Jew, and you talk big about bringing people to repentance (which means bringing people back to obeying God’s Law), but we have to say we’re not very impressed with these disciples of yours that you have already ‘brought to repentance’. Repentant people obey God’s Law: they fast and pray a lot, like John’s disciples and our disciples. But your disciples just keep partying!”

Now, Jesus could have pointed out that “fasting and praying a lot” is not actually required in God’s Law: that is a distortion the Pharisees added later. But he knew he would get nowhere with that argument. So instead he counter-attacks from a completely unexpected direction. He says, “haven’t you realized that this is like a wedding feast, and I am the bridegroom, the guest of honor, who has been distributing gifts to all my friends? Everyone here is celebrating the fact that I have forgiven them: of course they want to party! Later on, when the bridegroom is taken from them (spoiler alert) — then my disciples will fast.”

— so, to pause and summarize what has just happened: the Pharisees are unhappy because supposedly “law-abiding” Jesus is eating dinner with non-law-abiding people, treating them like law-abiding people! Which means that Jesus is no longer law-abiding. He has defiled himself, and apparently is not interested in repenting from that! And this obviously disqualifies him from any kind of preaching career.

But the Pharisees have missed something. Remember last week how the leper fell on his face before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean”? And do you remember what Jesus did? I did not focus on it at the time because I was saving it for this week, but now is the moment: Jesus reached out and touched the leper before he said, “I am willing. Be clean.”

Now, under God’s strict Old Testament Law, when Jesus touched the unclean man, Jesus became unclean. In fact, Jesus broke God’s Law when he reached out his hand and deliberately touched the leper.

But here is the complicating factor: a moment after Jesus touched the leper, the leper was clean. And obviously it is not against God’s Law to touch a clean person.

So…did Jesus break God’s Law or not?

What Luke showed us is that Jesus’ “cleanness” is so overpoweringly “clean” that it cannot be infected by uncleanness. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Jesus’ cleanness is so powerful it infects the unclean, and makes it clean. When Jesus touches the leper, he doesn’t become unclean; the leper becomes clean.

So Jesus isn’t breaking God’s Law, he is fulfilling it! From beginning to end, God’s Old Testament Law was about making people clean: holy enough to live in God’s presence. And now Jesus is actually accomplishing what the Old Testament Law never could!

So in the same way, when Jesus sits down to eat non-halal food with non-halal people, he doesn’t become unclean; no: the tax collectors and sinners become clean.

The Pharisees are are stuck in the past: they don’t believe that once Jesus has declared someone forgiven, they are no longer unclean! No matter how unclean they used to be, now they are clean.

Therefore, Jesus can eat with them without breaking any laws —

But Jesus isn’t finished making his point:

[36] He told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. [37] And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. [38] No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. [39] And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ “

— huh?

This is an interesting parable, actually; even more interesting because it ends with a pretty funny insult. The Pharisees would have understood the parable and the insult, but we don’t because we’re not part of that culture. I’ll try to explain the joke, but that’s always risky because jokes aren’t funny if you have to explain them, right?

Still, I’ve got to try.

Okay: so in the Old Testament, a man’s garment — his clothing — symbolized his moral identity. The prophets especially talked about how “you have soaked your garments in the blood of the helpless” and things like that. Basically, your sinful lifestyle shows up as symbolic stains on your clothing.

But, also in the Old Testament, God promises again and again that one day, he is going to take away his people’s old, sin-stained garments and give them new clean garments. New garments are a metaphor for forgiveness and restoration!

And when do you think God will give his people their new garments? When the Messiah comes.

Hmmmmm! Significant, eh? Remember that part, that’s part of the set up for the joke.

Okay, now to the wine part: in the Old Testament old wine — mature wine — is an ambiguous metaphor. On the one hand, wine symbolizes joy and gladness and everything good about life. But…too much wine leads to misery, corruption, and violence. And so, in the Old Testament, old wine also symbolizes God’s judgement: “the cup of God’s wrath”. Old wine symbolizes God’s blessing, but it can also represent God’s curse.

However, new wine, in the Old Testament, is always a blessing. In the books of Moses, new wine symbolizes God’s promise of a new land where his people will live in peace and safety and holiness. Then, in the later prophets, new wine symbolizes God’s promise of a new earth, where his people will live in peace and safety and holiness. New wine is also a metaphor for forgiveness and perfect restoration!

And when, do you think, God promised he would give his people this new wine? That’s right: when the Messiah comes.

So with this parable Jesus is saying, “now is the time! I am giving out new garments right now! I am passing around cups of new wine! But you Pharisees, you think you can cut a patch from God’s new redemptive garment, and stick it on your old stained garments and then call yourselves forgiven — but it doesn’t work that way! You guys think you can take God’s new redemptive wine and pour it into your crusty old theocratic wineskins and then call yourselves holy — but it doesn’t work that way!”

And now it’s time for Jesus’ insulting punchline:

[39] “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ “ In essence: “No one who thinks they are forgiven under the Old Testament Law, wants the new Messiah to come and offer forgiveness to everybody else, for he says, ‘The old way was better. It was more restrictive. It kept the unqualified people out.’”

Get it? Funny, right?

No? Well, I guess you just had to be there…because I can tell you that for Levi and his friends, this would have been hilarious. Jesus has just said that the Pharisees think they’re so good they’re actually failing to recognize and accept God’s kingdom!

And the Pharisees would have been insulted. They would have said, “no! We’ve spent our whole lives trying to be clean — so that we can be qualified to join God’s kingdom!”

And that mindset just shows how badly they are missing the point. Jesus didn’t come to save those who think they are already clean. He came to save those who know they are unclean: people like Levi and his friends — who now have every reason to party! After all, up until now, with the Pharisees as the gate-keepers to God’s kingdom, they had no way to join the Messiah. Now, Jesus has swung wide the gates of the kingdom and ushered them right in, no religious rituals required! — and suggested that the Pharisees might not get in themselves.

Right. Next episode (and kids, if you are following along in your bulletin, you can turn to page four, that’s where we are now in the sermon):

[1] One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. [2] Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

— unlawful? What are these guys talking about?

Well, remember, God’s Law said, “on the Sabbath Day, take a break. Get together for worship. Relax. Don’t do any work; don’t travel for work.”

And remember how the dragon’s servants had taken this gift of rest and turned it into a curse, forbidding people from carrying their sick friends to Jesus on the Sabbath? Well here, too, the Pharisees have taken God’s good Law and made it a burden: picking grain? That’s harvesting, also known as “work”: can’t do that on the Sabbath. Rubbing the grains between your hands? That’s threshing, AKA “work”: can’t do that on the Sabbath!

Essentially, the Pharisees are making the same complaint they made before about Levi’s table; they’re saying, “uh, Jesus, we’re not very impressed with the quality of your ‘repentant’ disciples here! Repentant people don’t go around breaking the law by working on the Sabbath!” —

Now, Jesus could have pointed out that picking and eating grain is not “work” according to God’s Law; that is a distortion the Pharisees added later. But again, he knew he would get nowhere with that argument. So, as before, he counter-attacks from a completely unexpected direction (verse 3). He says: “let’s pretend for a moment that you guys actually have a valid point. Have you never read about the time David and his men were fleeing from King Saul and they needed provisions? [4] He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

— so what is Jesus saying here? David broke God’s Law, so it’s okay for Jesus to break God’s Law?

Yes. But remember, we’ve discussed this already: when Jesus “breaks” God’s Law he is actually fulfilling God’s Law. It was the same with David in this example. See, David was already God’s anointed king of Israel, even though he had not yet won the right to take his throne. And as God’s anointed king, David had the Spirit of God upon him, which gave him the wisdom and the authority to know what God’s Law really meant, what it was supposed to accomplish.

So, in the case of this sacred bread, David knew it was meant to symbolize God’s kingly obligation to feed and provide for his people. In the same way, David, as God’s anointed king, had a kingly obligation to feed and provide for his people. So when David and his men ate what normally only priests are allowed to eat, he wasn’t breaking the Law: he was fulfilling the Law. He was literally acting out the reason the Law existed —

[5] Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

— and once again, this is the punchline. Jesus is saying, “just as David — God’s anointed king — had the authority to dictate how the sacred bread was used, so also I — God’s anointed king — have the authority to dictate how the Sabbath is used.”

And what Jesus has done with this punchline is pretty clever. He’s basically saying, “if you condemn me and my men for breaking this law, then you also have to condemn David and his men for breaking that law. But you can’t condemn David because you know he was God’s anointed king. You can’t condemn me either, for the same reason!”

And I can assure you, this punchline would have been even more upsetting to the Pharisees than the last one.

But Jesus isn’t finished insulting them yet: let’s move on to the next expisode (kids, if you are following along in your bulletin, you can turn to page six now for the last story of the sermon):

[6] On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. [7] The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.

— we should notice how the Pharisees have graduated. When we first met them in the paralyzed man episode, they were there to check Jesus out and make sure he was a law-abiding Jew preaching the right stuff. Now they’re convinced he is neither law-abiding nor preaching the right stuff, and they’re just looking for evidence they can take to court to prove that Jesus is not really the law-abiding Jew he claims to be, and therefore no one should listen to his preaching.

We should also notice that in the previous two episodes the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking God’s law. This time they are going straight for the source: Jesus himself. Previously, they were saying, “we’re not very impressed with how well your disciples follow God’s Law, Jesus.” Now they’re saying, “we’re not very impressed with how well you follow God’s Law, Jesus, and we’re going to prove to the world what a hypocrite you are!”

But of course we have to wonder: why do they think it would be against the law for Jesus to heal on the Sabbath?

Well, again, they’ve distorted God’s good Law, and turned it into a curse. This is how they reasoned it out: being a doctor is work. Therefore  healing must be work. Therefore healing of any kind — natural or supernatural — is forbidden on the Sabbath. Pharisaic law only allowed three exceptions: childbirth, circumcision, and if someone was about to die. And this man with the shriveled hand doesn’t qualify.

And with that, do you see how the Pharisees are at it again? Since the beginning they have been obsessed with “who qualifies” to enter God’s Kingdom. The tax collectors and “sinners” didn’t qualify as “clean” because they were…unclean. The disciples didn’t qualify as good Jews because they…ate grain on the Sabbath. And now this man doesn’t qualify to be healed because…he’s not sick enough! The tax collectors were “too bad” to deserve help; this guy with the shriveled hand is not bad enough!

Before we go on, we should also notice: the Pharisees don’t dispute the reality of Jesus’ miracles. If they could have, I’m sure they would have! But none of his enemies ever accuse Jesus of faking it; in fact, other sources outside of scripture, written by people who hated Jesus, all admit that he was an amazing miracle worker! Like the Pharisees here, all they do is try to question the legitimacy of the miracles; they don’t question whether the miracles are real, they only question whether the miracles come from God.

But anyway, Jesus — once again — knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.”

— Jesus is not going to sneak around! If he’s going to break the Law, he’s going to break the Law in public!

No, wait, I said that wrong: if Jesus is going to fulfill the Law, he’s going to fulfill the Law in public! —

So the man gets up and stands where everyone can see him. 

Then Jesus turns to the whole congregation and says, “pop quiz, everybody! What are you allowed to do on the Sabbath: good things, or evil things? Are you allowed to save someone’s life, or condemn them?”

— which is another clever jab, because here the Pharisees are trying to condemn Jesus…on the Sabbath.

And I should also point out that in Greek, the word for “save” and the word for “heal” is the same word. So Jesus is literally asking, “which one is better, to ‘heal’ someone’s life (which is what I’m trying to do) or to condemn someone’s life (which is what Pharisees are trying to do to me)?

So we see here that Jesus has changed the argument again. Just like before, he could have argued that healing is not “work” according to God’s Law; that’s a distortion the Pharisees added later. But he knows that would be a waste of time. So instead, he counter-attacks from an unexpected direction. The Pharisees want the quiz to ask, “do good? or do nothing?” But Jesus is saying, “no, the quiz is: ‘do good? or do evil?’. If you choose ‘do good’, that’s good. But if you choose ‘do nothing’, that is not a neutral choice: that is evil.”

So…the answer to this quiz is pretty obvious, right? I mean, if I asked you this question, you would all get 100 percent…wouldn’t you?

Well, this congregation doesn’t answer. Because, “the Pharisees are sitting right there, man! If we admit that healing is okay on the Sabbath, then we’re saying they’re wrong, and we don’t want to get on their bad side!” Just like the people of Capernaum, who were afraid to carry their sick to Jesus on the Sabbath, these people are afraid to speak up and say, “yes, Jesus, healing is good, and God’s Law permits us to do good on the Sabbath.”

So, having gotten the Pharisees’ ‘permission’ to do the miracle —

— because, after all, they can’t say no, and in that culture saying nothing is the same as saying ‘yes’ —

Jesus looks around at them all —

— and Luke doesn’t say it, but in the gospel of Mark we learn that Jesus was furious at this point —

Jesus looks around at them all, and then (in verse 10) he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored.

— so it turns out that God is in favor of doing good things on the Sabbath, even for people who don’t “qualify”. Who knew?

[11] But [the Pharisees] were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Right. So what did Luke just teach us over these last three episodes?

Well, we have learned that there are people in this world — the Pharisees in this case — who want to keep the gates to God’s kingdom closed. They want to say that only “qualified” individuals may enter. And by “qualified” they usually mean, “only people who follow God’s Laws exactly as we say they should”.

But we’ve also learned that Jesus wants to throw the gates wide open to anyone who feels the need for forgiveness, whether they follow God’s Law or not.

But then we’ve learned that the Pharisee types are likely to say, “Jesus, your qualifications for entry are too low: these people need to prove they can follow God’s Law before they enter God’s kingdom. In fact, we know we’re right on this one because the people you’ve already let in still aren’t following God’s Law!”

But then we learned that Jesus is the one who gets to define what following God’s Law really looks like in God’s kingdom. Which makes sense, since he is God’s anointed king!

And next week, he is going to go into detail about what following God’s Law really looks like, so…make sure to join us!

But meanwhile, in closing, we have to ask the question we ask every week: so? How is this ancient literature supposed to affect my life?

Well, Luke’s application for us is pretty simple, and he is going to come back to it several times before we finish the book. Are you ready? Here it is:

Don’t be like the Pharisees.

Don’t be one of those people who close the gates of God’s kingdom to others. Don’t set the bar of “good behaviour” so high that no one can get in, because…that’s not your job.

Your job is to be the opposite of the Pharisees. And how do we do that? By remembering that Jesus is the one who let us in the gate, and it is Jesus’ job to let others in. He gets to choose; not us. And as we’re starting to find out, Jesus often chooses the ones we least expect, the ones we might be tempted to think are least qualified.

This is why it is important for us to keep preaching that simplest yet most powerful sermon we learned last week: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” We need to keep preaching that to ourselves, and to our brothers and sisters around us. Only by remembering that once upon a time we too were unworthy, will keep us from growing arrogant and thinking that we are the gatekeepers of the kingdom. We aren’t!

So, in conclusion: don’t be like the Pharisees. How? By remembering that you entered only by the kindness of Jesus Christ; that will help keep you from judging others —

Oh, but that’s next week’s sermon. I’d better stop here.

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