Luke tells us that Jesus’ popularity had gone so far as to attract the attention of the religious rulers in “every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). If ever there were evidence of the Messiah’s arrival, certainly things were happening to get the attention of those who were intently looking for Him: the parting of the skies with a miraculous appearance of a dove and a voice of blessing from the heavens coupled with authoritative and powerful teaching, healings of all diseases, the casting out of demons and commanding them to silence, and power over nature with a miraculous catch of fish.
In Luke 5:17-6:11 Jesus’ audience expands beyond the poor, the sick and the possessed, introducing us to Pharisees and teachers of the Law who are sitting to observe as Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man who is lowered in front of Him through a hole in the roof by friends seeking healing for their friend (Luke 5:17-20). Naturally, the religious among them are skeptical because there is only one Being capable of forgiving sin and that is God, Himself. Jesus challenges their questions to observe the evidence of God’s presence by healing the paralyzed man and sending him off rejoicing, carrying his mat with him (Luke 5;22-25). Indeed, if this Jesus was not God He could correctly do neither; but, if He is God then He can do both. At the end of the event Luke tells us that ‘Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God.” In fact, “They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today”‘ (Luke 5:26), leaving the impression that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were among them. By the end of this section, we find that their mood had changed significantly because ‘they were furious’ (Luke 6:11).
In addition to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, Luke next introduces us to the tax collector named Levi who leaves everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:27-28). So, Levi invites Jesus as the guest of honor to a party at his home where he has invited a large crowd of fellow tax collectors ‘and others’ to meet his new-found friend (Luke 6:29). As defined by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, they question Jesus’ disciples about eating and drinking with “tax collectors and ‘sinners'” (Luke 5:30).
The ‘sinners’ they are referring to probably included those who did not keep the ceremonial regulations of the rabbis (Ellis, NCBC: The Gospel of Luke, p. 107). Perhaps, more broadly, ‘sinners’ could also mean those Jews who fell short of observing the Law of Moses who could repent and become reconciled to God or they could be referring to non-Jews or Gentiles (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, The Anchor Bible, p. 591). A Pharisee as “one who separates himself” would refuse to associate with those who do not comply with the ceremonial regulations of the law in order to preserve their own standing before God. Hence, Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners confronted their belief that one who is striving for holiness would not do so.
Hence, Jesus’ terse reply: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). While the Pharisees separated themselves from tax collectors and sinners until they repented, we find that Jesus associates Himself with them in order to call them to repentance.
These discussions extended further to include those who pursue holiness by fasting and praying–including John the Baptist’s disciples–in contrast to the practice of Jesus’ disciples who “go on eating and drinking. Jesus dismisses their objection because this is a time for celebration with the groom at the wedding (Luke 5:33-35). Fasting and praying will come later.
Skipping to Luke 6:1-5, Jesus addresses the religious rulers’ concern about the disciples preparing food and eating it on the Sabbath day as they pull heads of grain, rub it between their palms to remove the chaff and eat the kernels. His reference to David and his men eating the consecrated bread that only the priests were allowed to eat leads Him to announce: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:3-5). The section closes with Jesus healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in front of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law proclaiming rhetorically that it is good to do good and save life on the Sabbath, not to do evil and destroy life (Luke 6:9).
I believe the key to this entire section of Luke’s gospel account from Luke 5:17-6:11 is found in the parable He told about new and old cloth as patches and new and old wine and the wineskins within which they can be found (Luke 5:36-39). “New wine must be poured into new wineskins,” He says (Luke 5:38). In other words, the well-intentioned rules that the Pharisees had compiled as oral traditions (later codified in The Mishnah around 200 A.D.) were too restrictive for the new wine of the kingdom of God. With the advent of the bridegroom of God’s kingdom, salvation now meant associating with broken humanity instead of separating from it. The goal of bringing God’s children to repentance was the same; but, the means for doing it had changed completely.
The final observation of Jesus in Luke 5:39 tells the tale and sets the stage for understanding call of Christ for change: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.” They were comfortable with their own understanding of the necessities for a right relationship with God. It was entrenched in their lifestyle, their status before men and their seats of power. It gave them clear boundaries for understanding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. In fact, they were so convinced that their perspective was correct that even God Himself, in the flesh, standing before them, could not persuade them to rethink their premises.
This principle is both heart breaking and exciting at the same time. Heart breaking because the very people who should have recognized Jesus as God did not because of their own distortion of the will of God. Exciting because Jesus came to associate with the broken people of this world…like me…in order to lead us to God. And, He insists that we, as His disciples, must join Him in His quest. In fact, Paul said it well in Philippians 2:5-8:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Change begins in our lives when we turn our lives over to God. It is the very nature of repentance and it will mark the life of the Christian who is called to follow Christ’s lead as a disciple. May God give us the strength to turn in our own old wineskins for His wineskins the new wine of the kingdom.