The Calling of Levi (Mark 2:13-17)
The calling of Levi is another incident that occurs as Jesus is moving (Mark 2:13-14). The passage stresses the public nature of this summons. Jesus calls Levi while teaching a crowd (Mark 2:14), and Levi is initially seen “sitting at the tax booth.” His employment would make him a figure of contempt for many of his Galilean contemporaries. There is a measure of debate over just how heavily Roman and Herodian taxation was felt in Galilee, but most think that the issue was rather sore. The actual collection of taxes was contracted out to private tax collectors. A tax collector paid the tax for his entire territory upfront, and collected the individual taxes from the populace later. To make this profitable, he had to charge the populace more than the actual tax rate and the tax collector pocketed the mark-up. The Roman authorities thereby delegated the politically sensitive work of tax collection to members of the local community, but it led to a high rate of effective tax, and it opened the doors to all sorts of corruption. It is likely that this was one of the factors contributing to land loss in Galilee, as landowners took loans to pay monetary taxes and then, if their harvests were poor, lost their properties as collateral. The fact that we initially encounter Levi in his tax booth means that he is, in effect, a living symbol of Roman occupation and a reminder of the fact that some Jews were willing collaborators with the Romans. The link made in Mark 2:16 between tax collectors and “sinners” reinforces the negative associations.
Where Luke stresses that Levi leaves everything to answer Jesus’ call (Luke 5:28), Mark simply recounts that Levi follows him. The tax collector then throws a banquet, opening his house to Jesus, his disciples, and a mixed group including other tax collectors and “sinners.” While the image is suggestive of a man seeking to share the gospel with his business colleagues, the reality is probably a little more subtle. Levi’s “community” comprises his colleagues and others who, as “sinners,” are shunned by leading figures in the community. In other words, their work made them part of a sub-community that had high-quality social relationships internally, but low-quality relationships with the communities around them. This is true for many kinds of work today. Our co-workers may be much more open to us than our neighbours are. Being a member of a work community may help us facilitate an encounter with the reality of the gospel for our co-workers. Interestingly, the hospitality of communal eating is a major part of Jesus’ ministry and suggests a concrete way by which such encounters might be hosted. The hospitality of lunch with colleagues, a jog or workout at the gym, or a shared beverage after work can build deeper relationships with our co-workers. These friendships have lasting value themselves, and through them the Holy Spirit may open the door to a kind of friendship evangelism.
This raises a question. If Christians today were to host a meal with colleagues from work, friends from their neighbourhood, and friends from their church, what would they talk about? The Christian faith has much to say about how to be a good worker and how to be a good neighbour. But do Christians know how to speak about them in a common language understandable to their colleagues and neighbours? If the conversation turned to workplace or civic topics such as a job search, customer service, property taxes or zoning, would we be able to speak meaningfully to nonbelievers about how Christian concepts apply to such issues? Do our churches equip us for these conversations? It appears that Levi — or Jesus — was able to speak meaningfully about how Jesus’ message applied to the lives of the people gathered there.
The question of taxation will recur later in the gospel and we defer until then some of our questions about Jesus’ attitude towards it.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 189-190.
The Mishnaic text m. Toharot 7:6 states that if a tax collector enters a house, then it becomes unclean.