THE CALLING OF LEVI
Jesus is living out what he teaches: everyone is welcome to be part of him, and he is able to break down the barriers that separate people, no matter what those barriers are.
The tax collectors were generally despised by the fishermen, whom Jesus had already called to follow him, and this one, Levi, would most likely have been known by Peter, James, and John. He had most likely cheated them many times. He was known around town as a traitor: cheating his own people in the name of Rome and for the benefit of Rome. But Jesus doesn’t just teach “Peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests,” he lives it. So he takes four fishermen, a tax collector, (and later a Zealot), puts them all in his train, and has plans to make a unified, loving band out of them. It is no small task.
And in case we wonder, “Why Levi?”, there are a number of good reasons to pick a guy like this:
(1) There’s no better choice if he wants to teach his followers to love their enemies, (2) He is a bridge to an entire subgroup of people, and we see even in this text how Jesus can reach out to that group through Levi. (3) Later, this Levi (Matthew) will write an account of Jesus’ life that will appeal both to Jews and Romans. He makes the perfect choice for an individual who knows both cultures and mindsets. The choice is sheer genius.
“And Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.” This sounds like such an extreme response, and yet it probably is not as it sounds. He was most likely still able to do his work, and it doesn’t mean he left his family, assuming he had one. It means that he stood up and walked away from it that day, and that he did follow Jesus regularly. But since Jesus’ ministry was mostly local, and trips to Judea weren’t exactly uncommon, Levi could probably do his work, be with his family, and follow Jesus.
On the other hand, I think the statement is worded in such a way as to teach us another truth: ultimately and finally, Levi did end up leaving everything and following him. The Teacher, and his truth, seeped into his soul, and he ended up giving his life to this man. And who wouldn’t? Knowing what I know about him, would I leave everything to follow him? Absolutely. This man is worth giving one’s life to, and a life lived that is modeled after his would be a life well-spent.
Again we’re seeing some of the nature of faith. Jesus had been actively teaching and doing miracles in this town. Levi’s actions are based on evidence; they are not just a leap in the dark of a foolish dreamer.
So, Levi hold a party for Jesus at his house. Cool. But they were a hospitable culture, and a meal like this for a friend—especially a notable one—was common. On another level, though, Levi is doing what we now know to be the first principle of good evangelism: just bring people to Jesus and introduce them to him. He is starting with his “Jerusalem”: his friends and co-workers.
But this party was more than just meets the eye: a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. Most religious people of Jesus’ day would have been horrified to be seen with this assemblage of people. It would ruin their influence, they would lose respect, and it violated all of what they stood for. Ironically, there is nothing to indicate that Jesus wasn’t perfectly at home here. It was Jesus’ intent to do whatever was necessary and expedient to reach all people, and here he lives it out. And he reaches out especially to those despised by others.
“But the Pharisees…” (v. 30). Oh here we go again. If I can read between the lines, they thought that a truly religious person—one who wanted to be close to God—needed to separate themselves from the contamination of sin. It’s a worthy thought, but in living that out they ended up separating themselves from people who were sinners, as if the sin of those people was contagious. In a sense, it is, but in another sense, as Jesus is about to tell us, there is a difference between the sin and the people who are sinners. And this is where we get our cliché “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”
Jesus, in sheer brilliance, says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus is identifying the distinction between the disease and those who have the disease. It’s the disease that’s the problem, not the person. The person needs help; the person needs a healer. The disease needs to be killed; the disease needs to be rejected.
The principle is as solid in medicine as it is in religion.
But we’re also seeing how badly the word “Christian” has been abused and misrepresented. It’s a label that alienates people. Jesus didn’t come to establish a subculture; he came to heal the world. We simply need to let people know that they matter, that they’re not alone in their struggles, and that hope and help are real.
I just love this stuff.