Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. "Follow me and be my disciple," Jesus said to him.
For the religious elites surrounding Jesus, his behavior was most troubling. Last week, we watched closely as Jesus not only healed a paralyzed man, but also proclaimed that his sins were forgiven, something appropriate for God alone. Next, Jesus came upon a tax collector named Levi. Levi not only took people's money, which wouldn't have helped his popularity, but also he was in cahoots with the hated civil authorities. Chances are that Levi collected customs duties that went to Herod Antipas, who served under the ultimate authority of Rome. Levi made his own considerable living by taking for himself some of what he had collected. Thus, it should not surprise us to learn that the Jewish rabbis considered tax collectors to be robbers (Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 25b).
Rather than despising Levi, as would have been common practice among his countrymen, Jesus spoke to him positively. Even more shocking than this, Jesus called Levi to follow him as his disciple (5:27). In response, Levi got up, leaving his business behind, and followed Jesus. (Note: In this story in the Gospel of Matthew 9:9, Levi is called "Matthew." It was common for Jews in the time of Jesus to have more than one name. Many scholars believe that Levi/Matthew was the author of the written Gospel associated with his name.)
Why did Jesus call Levi to follow him? Surely, Jesus realized that this would be scandalous, not only among the Jewish elites, but also among the common people. So why did Jesus do it? In part, he must have sensed through the Spirit that Levi would be a faithful disciple. But, beyond this, the call of Levi was also a powerful symbol of the new ways of the kingdom of God. Sinners, even notorious ones, would be welcomed into the kingdom if they repented. God would open his kingdom to all who would be willing to follow Jesus.
When I reflect upon the call of Levi, I find myself identifying with this man. No, I am not a tax collector. Nor am I famous in my community for my sins, thanks be to God. But I am a sinner. I know how often I fail to please God or even choose that which displeases him. God knows this too. Yet he called me to follow Jesus as his disciple. He has included me in his kingdom, not by virtue of my goodness, but as a result of his grace. Thus, I am filled with humility and gratitude as I consider my own calling.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When you read and reflect upon the calling of Levi, how do you respond? Do you really believe that God has called you to follow Jesus as his disciple? What difference would it make in your life if you fully embraced this idea today?
PRAYER: Gracious God, as I think about the call of Levi, I am impressed by your surprising, inclusive grace. Then I think about my own call, how you, even knowing my sinful heart and seeing all the ways I would fail to honor you in my life, summoned me to be a follower of Jesus. Thank you, dear Lord, for choosing me in spite of my unworthiness.
Help me, dear Lord, to see every facet of my life through the lens of discipleship. May I learn to regard my work, my family, my relationships, my citizenship, my leisure, my worship . . . every part of life as a way to follow you.
May I live fully and truly as your disciple today! Amen.