I’m considering taking on a motto.
Levi is the man we know today as Matthew, the author of the New Testament gospel. But when Jesus arrived in Capernaum that day, that day he told the paralytic “Your sins are forgiven” and “Take up your mat and walk,” that day he outraged the teachers of the law with his presumption of forgiving sins, that day he also happened upon Levi the tax collector.
And he looked into the heart of Levi, and said “Follow me.”
Jesus had already outraged the teachers over the implication of assuming equality with God – only God could forgive sins. To punch the implication home, he healed the paralytic. And then he risked the outrage of everyone else by consorting with that most despised of all officials – the tax collector. The Jewish tax collector. The man of the priestly tribe who had bought his office and now had to squeeze the people to both pay their taxes and pay off the cost of buying the office.
Tax collectors were not loved. Think of your reaction to knowing the U.S. Internal Revenue Service made people’s lives miserable simply because of an affiliation with “Tea Party,” and now “Israel” and “Occupy.” Think of your reaction if that they had that personally to you. Your thoughts of the tax collector would not be warm ones.
And, in the eyes of the Jews, Levi the tax collector was also something else. He was a lackey of Rome. “As a tax collector,” writes Andy Stanley in The Grace of God, “he served as a financial go-between, serving an almost priestly role between the treasury of Rome and his Jewish kinsmen. In a culture that was supremely religious, where seemingly every month played host to a different festival of day of remembrance, his guilt must have followed him like a shadow.”
We tend to focus on the part of the story here Jesus goes with Levi to his home, and has a meal with him and all the other people willing to consort with Levi – likely among the most despised people in all of Capernaum.
We tend to overlook the first part. The part when Jesus first sees Levi, sitting at his table, a line of people waiting in front of him to pay taxes, waiting to be cheated and trying to figure out how little they could get away with.
Jesus says two words: “Follow me.”
You’re doing the job you’re paid to do, that you pay yourself to do, and some itinerant rabbi walks up to you and says, “Follow me.”
And you do it. You stand up, you walk away from your job, and take Jesus to your home. And from then on, you are no longer Levi the tax collector. You are Matthew the disciple, the Matthew who will one day write an account of the life of Jesus expressly for the Jewish people, the people who hated you, the Matthew who, according to tradition, will be martyred for the sake and in the name of that young rabbi.
“Follow me.” Two words, and Levi the tax collector was born again.
And that’s why I’m considering taking on a motto. “Remember Levi.”
If Jesus could love the despised tax collector, and be willing to be seen with a man considered a traitor by his own people, then he could love me, too. That’s the lesson of Matthew – there is always hope for the grace of God.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading the Grace of God. To see what others have to say on this chapter, “Accepted by Grace,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.
Painting: The Calling of St. Matthew by Arnold Houbraken (ca. 1710), Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht, Netherlands.