“Jesus went out again beside the sea. The whole crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. Then, passing by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the toll booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me,’ and he got up and followed him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I love a good whodunit story. It’s always fun to me to spend a movie or book trying to figure out which character committed the crime. The best of these stories manage to keep you guessing until the very end. When the final revelation comes, if it’s done well, your first reaction is shock: “I can’t believe that was the one who did it!” But then, when you’ve had a bit more time to think through the details of the story a second thought follows soon in the wake of the first: “Well, of course, that’s who did it. Nothing else makes any sense.” This next story in Mark’s Gospel isn’t a whodunit, but it does have a surprise twist to it that is just as shocking as any great whodunit has.
While Jesus did seem to have an uncanny ability to get under the skin of the Scribes and Pharisees, He also knew how far to push them at any one moment before backing off a bit to let things cool down. After the incident with the paralyzed man being both healed and forgiven, Jesus decided it was time to make another circuit around the region. He headed out toward the Sea of Galilee. The Sea was a major hub of life in the region where many people were naturally gathered. The fields there were ripe for harvest and so Jesus spent a great deal of time traveling and teaching along the shores.
On one particular day, Jesus was traveling and teaching. Suddenly, He saw someone He knew He wanted to call to be one of His followers. So He did. He called a man named Levi who was also called Matthew.
Now, on its face, this was no big deal. He called several different men to follow Him like this. Here He was simply doing again what He had done a few times before already. Except this time wasn’t really like any of the others. A bit of background will help explain why.
Rome ran a big operation. The Roman Empire stretched at one point from Great Britain all the way to modern Jordan. That’s nearly 3,000 miles. Managing an empire of that size requires a lot of money. That means taxes. But, you have to have people to collect those taxes. And, there aren’t enough pure-blooded Romans to assign to that kind of work. That means you’ve got to hire out some of the job. A lot of it in fact. So Rome did. While they would have folks they knew were loyal to the Empire serving as regional directors, backed by the authority of the Roman Legions, to oversee the tax collecting in a certain area, the actual collection duty would get farmed out to locals. These locals needed to be willing to do two things: Work in a career that was potentially incredibly lucrative; and endure the fiery scorn of their fellow countrymen.
In Palestine where the Jews were particularly unhappy about Roman rule because of the religious offense of it, individuals who were willing to work with the Romans to collect taxes were hated with a particularly brightly burning passion. They were blood traitors and blasphemers who were actively assisting in the reversal of the rule of the One True God. They were sinners of the worst kind. In fact they were so bad they were in a category unto themselves. Jesus often refers to sinners “and tax collectors” as a separate group.
The reason Levi’s calling wasn’t like any of the others was this: Levi was a tax collector. He was one of those traitorous collaborators who had sold out his own people and his God in order to enjoy a life of luxury built on blood money. Levi was exactly the kind of person whom everyone around Jesus would have expected Him to condemn and scorn. Instead, He called Him to become one of His closest followers. Luke doesn’t record the reaction of the crowds, but you can bet it wasn’t mere indifference.
Why would Jesus call him? Doesn’t He know what kind of a person he is? Is this some kind of a joke? And this is not to mention the fact that another of Jesus’ disciples was known as Simon the Zealot, likely marking him as a member of the ideologically opposite extreme of Levi. Zealots hunted down men like Levi to murder them for their crimes. Now they were part of the same group. The ideological diversity among the disciples was profound. The point here, though, is that Levi was the last person in the world anyone would have expected Jesus to call to be one of His disciples.
And then you think about it for a minute and it all makes sense. Levi wasn’t the least likely person for Jesus to call, he was exactly the kind of person Jesus would call. We just weren’t looking at it through the right lens.
Jesus explains this approach a couple of verses over from this and which we’ll look at in the next few days. His kingdom is not built on those who think they can make it on their own. His followers are not drawn from among those who are convinced they don’t need to be following anybody. His movement doesn’t ride on the efforts of those who think they have it all together without any outside assistance. Jesus’ whole approach has always been to call those people who know they are broken and in need of a Savior. And don’t miss this last part: If you’re following Jesus, that means you are one of those kinds of people too.
Anyone following Jesus is just like Levi was: the last person in the world anyone could have imagined Jesus would call. He only calls sinners to be clean. Perfect people don’t need Him. If you are following Jesus, the reason for it is that at some point in the past you willingly acknowledged your inability to do life on your own. Stay with me here: If you acknowledged that once and received His help, any success or stability you have achieved in your life hasn’t come from you. It has come from His Spirit working in and through you. It has come with His explicit help. That means you can’t start trying to do it on your own. If you forget about the foundation on which you stand, you’ll wind up sinking deep in the sand.
If you depended on Jesus once, keep depending on Him still. You’re still not enough on your own. But with Him, you’ll always have all that you need. Get comfortable being not enough. Jesus will always make you more.