Sometimes I look at myself and all my faults and failures, and I don’t see how I was ever qualified to participate in expanding God’s will and his kingdom on earth; it’s just too much for me. Perhaps you feel the same way—at least sometimes.
But God does not seem overly concerned about ‘qualifications’. Today’s subject does not seem groomed and equipped by experience to be a leader in the kingdom, but Jesus chose him anyway. We should find this encouraging; we think we are poorly qualified but then Jesus still uses us.
On the other hand, the Pharisees in today’s story probably considered themselves prime candidates for leadership in God’s work. They were educated in religious practice, meticulous in their personal piety, and already on excellent terms with God.
But Jesus did not choose any Pharisees as his closest associates. He chose fishermen and this religious loser we learn about today.
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower
With his impressive teaching and his spectacular healings, Jesus’ work in Galilee continued to draw crowds. As we have discovered, even Pharisees flocked to Galilee to see what was going on.
Earlier, Jesus recruited four fishermen to help him in his work; today we learn that he specifically calls a fifth person to follow him. Since these are all the examples we have of Jesus calling particular individuals, each choosing must have been quite significant.
Luke 5 tells the story:
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
This is the only information we have on the calling of Levi, except that Matthew 9 uses another name. Mark says ‘Levi’ and Luke follows him in this, but Matthew changes the man’s name to ‘Matthew’. Otherwise the stories are essentially identical.
Perhaps the reason the book of Matthew changes the name is that this gospel seems to have developed in the Matthean community that he led, and they would have recognized that Levi was actually their own leader.
Why Would Jesus Call a Man with Such a Bad Reputation?
Jews with high reputations among other Jews did not include tax collectors. Levi, the tax collector, likely collected tariffs on goods shipped through his area of Galilee; and his station was perhaps on the outskirts of Capernaum.
He probably worked for Herod Antipas, who himself owed allegiance to Rome. This was bad enough but there were two other problems with Levi’s trade. First, tax collectors had to handle foreign coinage that often depicted pagan figures and inscriptions. Secondly, the tax system was set up so agents made their profit by charging more than the government’s share, and many agents abused this.
In fact, tax collectors in general had a reputation for taking advantage of tax payers. Remember the instruction of John the Baptist to tax collectors that they should not gouge people to line their own pockets? And remember how the tax collector, Zacchaeus, promised to pay back double any overcharges he had made?
Why would Jesus want a man like Levi?
Levi Throws a Banquet
Luke continues his story:
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
One thing about Levi: he seemed financially comfortable. After being called by Jesus, he threw him a big banquet. And Jesus never turned down a banquet.
Last time we saw that the Pharisees were upset that Jesus claimed to forgive sins. This time they are upset with his violation of proper table fellowship rules held by the (self)righteous. Out of ritual purity, the Pharisees would not eat with ‘sinners’, by which they meant those who didn’t observe their meticulous interpretations of the law. Either they went hungry that day or provided their own food, because they would not have eaten at Levi’s banquet.
Jesus didn’t care. Or, more accurately, Jesus didn’t care about their rules; but he did care for the people they called ‘sinners’.
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus uses an apt metaphor to express his priorities and then makes the application clear. But I would point out that when he called the Pharisees ‘righteous’, he did not mean they were actually righteous but that they were righteous in their own eyes. This reminds me of believers today who seem to think the same way—that they are righteous and superior in God’s eyes to those of us who are not like them.
This doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t care about Pharisees—they just weren’t ready. The Pharisees didn’t get Jesus’ message; we will see more of them later.
What was Levi’s Strategic Purpose?
When Jesus called the four fishermen, he told them he would send them out to fish for people; he didn’t say anything like that to Levi. But if he had, what do you think he would he have said? ‘I will make you a keeper of people’s spiritual accounts?’ I think not.
Jesus did not need anyone to keep people’s accounts, even though many believers today seem to think he does and spend tremendous energy going about the job. Like Pharisees, they continually harp on people for their failure to keep religious rules and for their ‘inadequate’ beliefs. They appoint themselves judges to condemn people in the name of God.
They are not the children of Levi; I don’t think he would have been interested in such accounting. Nor is Jesus. Levi is said to have ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus; I think that was his last day in the business of holding people to account.
One thing Levi might have contributed was literacy. Presumably, tax collectors must both read and calculate in order to do their jobs. This could be useful to Jesus; in fact, I wonder why Levi was not the keeper of the purse instead of Judas. I can only speculate on that.
Whatever Happened to Levi?
We don’t hear anything further about ‘Levi’ in the Bible, but we do hear about ‘Matthew’. When Jesus later selected twelve of his followers as his inner associates, Matthew was among them. There are four lists of the Twelve in the Bible: Mark 3, Matthew 10, Luke 6, and Acts 1; Matthew is in each one—and the book of Matthew identifies him as ‘the tax collector’. In addition, as mentioned before, Matthew seems to be the leader of the Matthean community which produced the gospel in his name.
Not bad for a former tax collector. What kind of ‘former’ are you?
Next we will find Jesus and his disciples feasting again, except this time they are challenged by more than the Pharisees.
Articles in this
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?