Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
… he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
Levi, son of Alphaeus, was a tax collector. Levi was a Jew, and he was perceived as a traitor to the Jewish nation. The tax collectors collaborated with the Roman oppressors, whilst extorting a comfortable income for themselves through dishonest practice. The tax collectors were among the untouchables, having no place in decent, God-fearing society. The only ones who would socialize with the tax collectors were other untouchables, those whom the Jewish leaders labelled as ‘sinners’. Levi, son of Alphaeus, was beyond redemption as far as his fellow Jews were concerned. But … it was Levi, son of Alphaeus, a tax collector, who Jesus called to be one of his disciples. Having been called by Jesus, we read that Levi did not hesitate. We read that Levi (who we know as Matthew) got up and followed him. In Luke’s gospel, we are given an even more dramatic version of Levi’s response: And he got up, left everything, and followed him (Luke 5:28). Levi, the tax collector, gave up everything without a moment’s hesitation and followed Jesus. How many of us could muster such strength and courage?
Over the years I have led many bible study sessions and the call of Levi has often featured as a text for reflection and discussion. Almost without exception, those bible studies have almost run off the rails because of the insistence that what we are reading cannot possibly be the literal truth. All sorts of embellishments are added to the story: Levi must have ‘banked’ his takings first; he must have gone home and told his family where he was going; no one just gets up and walks away from their profitable employment. The very, very human explanations go on and on, and they all serve to divert our attention away from the faithful response of Levi, the tax collector, to the call of Jesus. Unfortunately for those who would like to water down the words of the gospel, there can be no doubt about the message in the account of Levi’s call. So often the original Greek of the New Testament is open to various interpretations. Not so in this case. The Greek tells us, in the most direct way, that Levi immediately got up and followed Jesus.
The first challenge in today’s reading is obvious. How do we respond to Jesus’ call? I am not asking ‘how would we respond?’, I am asking ‘how do we respond?’ Jesus is calling all of us, all of the time, to be one of his faithful disciples. Do we hear his call, or do we adopt an attitude of selective deafness when there might be a danger of his call bursting into our immediate consciousness? Jesus might not be calling us to do anything ‘big’, but he will be calling us to change the way in which we live our lives. Are we able to join Levi in getting up and following, or are we going to continue sitting on the side lines, making up excuses to justify our reluctance?
The second challenge comes into play after we have responded to Jesus’ call. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus commissions his disciples to: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. We are called to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship and we are called to pass that call on to others. Are you up for both of those challenges? Oh! Don’t bother using the ‘I’m not good enough’ excuse … just look at Levi, son of Alphaeus, the tax collector.