The Calling of Levi (part I)
Bonnie and Clyde, peas and carrots, Smith and Wesson. Some things just go together. The phrases come out more like one word than three: peas-and-carrots. I do it to my kids, running their names together into one long, slurred, barely distinguishable word. But when they hear it, they know I’m talking to them!
Tax collectors and sinners. It’s probably not a common pairing for you, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the two were synonymous. They belonged together, and the phrase was best said with a slight sneer (something of the Snape variety, for any Harry Potter fans). If you chose to become a tax collector, you were kicked out of the synagogue, ostracized in your community, and equated with pagans. You were a traitor, and that was the worst kind of sinner.
Of Levi (a.k.a. Matthew), the tax collector-cum-apostle, we have no back story. What made him choose Rome over Jerusalem? I want the story to be a like a Dickens novel where there was some family crisis and he had no choice. But maybe he wasn’t all that religious anyway, or he was from another part of the country, so no big deal to lose his ties to the community. Maybe he was just greedy. Tax collectors could make a lot of money, especially the unscrupulous ones.
Jesus was already
looking into Levi’s heart.
While we’re asking questions to which we don’t have answers… Did Levi remember the first time Jesus walked by, tossing his coins into the basket? I imagine Jesus was alone that first time. Then the next time, a few people were with him, then more and more followers until the group got so big it clogged up the traffic flow and people in the rear started complaining. I imagine Jesus looked Levi in the eye every single time he passed. I imagine he began to smile at Levi—something no proper Jew would ever do.
Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32.
One day, Levi was working in his tax booth outside Capernaum, as usual. He didn’t witness the healing of a crippled man after some friends lowered him through the roof. He didn’t know about the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who witnessed that healing (Matthew 9:1-8). He was just minding his own business, trying to make a little money.
The crowd around Jesus was unmistakable as it approached his booth. He straightened up a little, checked his change drawer, and started plotting a way to carry all those coins home safely. As it happens, he wouldn’t carry even one coin home that day!
Jesus walked up to Levi, looked him in the eye, and said two simple words: “Follow me” (Mark 2:14). Oh, to hear the monologue in Levi’s mind at that moment! Surely, he hesitated for a second, surprised, just taking in the situation…or maybe weighing the cost of obedience.
Have you been there? Have you understood Jesus’ call and made that split-second decision that changed your life? Have you traded being an outcast for being part of His inner circle?
And then, to hear the thoughts in the mind of Peter or John, guys who never missed a Saturday at the synagogue, who grudgingly paid the tolls, and who tried to avoid anything even vaguely resembling “tax collectors and sinners.” They were among the first Jesus called, and they would have never guessed He would invite someone like Levi! That’s just not the way things were done. Were they shocked? Maybe a little embarrassed?
Jesus didn’t see the label.
Jesus saw the person.
But Jesus didn’t see the label, glued on by cultural pressure and religious obligation. Jesus saw the person. Jesus cut through all the red tape, all the layers of Pharisaical self-righteousness, all the ties to Rome. He saw a man who longed to follow Him, to be accepted, to be included. He saw a man who didn’t need someone to remind him of his failings or to supply him with a list of wrongs. He saw a man who was ready to believe.
Levi didn’t protest. He simply stood up, and he followed Jesus down the road.
What happened to the toll booth? Was there a back-up collector there to take over? Did people just plow through without paying? Neither Levi nor Jesus seemed to care, so I guess we shouldn’t either.
Labels. I couldn’t see the potatoes inside because of the big label on the bag. When I opened the bag at home, half of them were rotten!
Labels. Is it ironic to write about a guy named Levi, when Levi-Strauss is one of the most prominent clothing labels in the country?
Labels obscure so much
of who we really are.
Labels. We all wear the social kind. It seems impossible to function in our society without them. And yet, like the label on the bag of potatoes, they obscure so much of who we really are. Hopefully, that hidden part isn’t rotten, but you get my point. Jesus didn’t let labels influence his estimation of a person. It takes some major intentionality, but we’re called to do the same.
We’ll keep going on this story next week.
What label do you enjoy? What label do you hate? What label on other people blinds you to their true nature? I hope this post has given you something to think about. If you would like to leave a comment, I would appreciate it!