The call of Levi, also known as Matthew, author of the Gospel bearing his name. We’ve already seen the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John, four fishermen who dropped their nets to become fishers of men. But while four fishermen may have been unexpected as a fishing ground of disciples for Messiah, the call of Matthew is just outrageous and very controversial. Dirty, smelly fishermen might be one thing, but at least those guys attempted to make an honest living. Then Jesus goes and does what??!!
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. First things first – what does it mean to be a tax collector here? We might picture Levi in an IRS agent suit, and man in black, working in a sterile federal building. Not only collecting taxes, but paying his fair share, just a good citizen in the position of holding the rest of us accountable. But, in these days, that’s not how it worked. In these days, a tax collector would put in a bid for a certain region. Maybe Matthew had bid 2000 denarii for his part of the region of Galilee. This would mean that, yes, he must collect and return to the Roman government 2000 denarii. He would set up shop, and backed by Roman soldiers, would collect his taxes by any means necessary to send to Rome. If he happened to collect, say 4000 denarii or 5000 denarii, well then he’s just done well for himself.
Can you see why these tax collectors were hated so much? Even our IRS agents aren’t very well liked, but at least we know what the rules are. These tax collectors were basically extortionists with the full backing of the Roman government. They were in full cooperation with the occupying Gentile force, lining their own pockets and becoming quite wealthy, all on the backs of their fellow Jews.
And this is who Jesus calls to be one of his disciples?? This is the very writer of one of the gospels we hold so dear? This is who Jesus chose? Seriously, no wonder the Pharisees were so indignant.
Second – And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. We don’t get many details here, just that Jesus called and Matthew, for whatever reason, dropped his lucrative tax business on the spot and followed. Had they encountered each other before? Had Matthew heard Jesus speak? We don’t know, just that Matthew dropped everything and followed.
Now the story gets even more controversial. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Not only does he call Levi Matthew the tax collector, now he’s in his house (probably a nice, large house), sitting at table sharing a meal, with a large gathering of other hated tax collector and sinners. We must understand what it means here to be a sinner. We know today that we are all sinners before God, but here the term is a little different than we understand, a little more specific. To be a sinner as the Pharisees use the word means that you are someone who has been formally excluded from Temple life. We would say today that they had been excommunicated, kicked out of the church. Tax collectors were always excluded from the temple, but the text here says that not only tax collectors are present with Christ at this dinner table, but others who had been kicked out of the temple as well. Which leads the Pharisees to grumble “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Seriously Jesus, why? Why does Jesus call Matthew not just to be a disciple, which we see here, but ultimately to be one of the 12 apostles, chosen specifically to walk the closest with Jesus as his closest associates and key followers? The Pharisees would have not even had a conversation with or acknowledged any of these people, but Jesus sits at the table and shares a meal with them. He invites them to be his followers. And somehow all these sinners, who don’t fit in, who aren’t even allowed in church, are good enough to be followers of Christ.
Jesus was boldly reimagining the Torah. He was reimagining what it means to be faithful to the covenant of the god of Abraham. The Torah contained the law, the law by which one could be made acceptable or unacceptable to God. There were lots of rules in the law, ways to be made right with, rituals to receive the forgiveness of God, ways to repent and be made “clean” again before God. Ways to know whether a person was on the “good” side or the “bad” side. But, as I said before, while we are still very conscious and aware of what we perceive as “good”and “bad”, Jesus was not.
Jesus pays very little attention to the categories of “good” and ‘bad”, but made much over whether you are “humble” or “proud”. The Pharisees were clearly in the “proud” side. They knew the Torah, knew all the rules, lived by the rules as far as they were ever going to let anyone know, and would have nothing to do with anyone who did not. If you were out, you were out.
Jesus, in the other hand, specifically sought out those who were on the “wrong” side of the Torah. This he explicitly tells us over and over. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”” Luke 19:10 ESV. And of course, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus, as he does here in the home of Matthew the tax collector, spent much time reclining at table (this was the custom of the time – they did not use chairs as we do today). All through the gospels, especially in Luke, it seems this is what Jesus does, move from table to table, enjoying meals with people. And never (if I’m wrong show me I’m wrong) does Jesus try to exclude anyone from a His table. He doesn’t even exclude the Pharisees, they too would be welcomed if they weren’t so busy excluding themselves. In fact, it is exactly his inclusiveness that the Pharisees could not stand. They knew the who, what, and how people could be made right with God. And everything Jesus did went straight against their systems.
And so, in their exclusionary zeal, the Pharisees excluded themselves from the kingdom of God visited upon them. They never knew the joy of sitting at the table with the Messiah they had waited so long for, because they could not get past the fact that this Messiah did not exclude all the right people. It seems this Messiah didn’t want to exclude anyone at all.
Not so with us. We, like the Pharisees, seem to have lots of people we want to exclude. I’m not going to name groups, but I’ll put this to you – who is that you look at and just know they are unsaved? What groups, what individuals, just don’t belong in church?
How about this – who would you think should not come to the communion table? Maybe you’re ok with inviting someone to church, but you know they just have no business taking communion? I mean, after all, there are rules, right? There are some people who just should not come to the table of the lord, aren’t there? Who do you know that needs to get right with God before they come to the communion table?
Well, whose table is it, anyway? Is not the communion table the table of the Lord? Who is the Lord? Jesus is Lord, amen??!! Read the gospels, who is it that Jesus excludes from his table?
Who is it that you would want to exclude?
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.””
Luke 5:1-11, 27-32 ESV