“And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. 15 And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.” (Mark 2:13-17)
As he sat at his booth collecting tariff on the traffic of goods passing along the international highway between Syria and Egypt, Levi was disturbed. Here he was growing richer by the minute, but also growing poorer in spirit. Many people made it quite clear to Levi as they paid their taxes, he was hated. Levi was hated and despised as a public figure and to many, for good reason.
First, for the orthodox Jew, God was the only person to whom it was right to pay tribute. To take God’s money and give it to others was odiousness. Rome was forcing the Jews to act contrary to their convictions. It was an abomination, and Levi was part of a system that gave God’s money to those who were outside the sphere of faith.
Second, Levi was hated because he was himself a Jew working for the Roman government. To the zealots of Israel this was nothing short of treason. Rome was pagan. Rome demanded the worship of Caesar. Rome had taken the place of God and Levi embraced the whole system. For what? For money!
Besides religious reasons, Levi the tax collector was hated because he belonged to a class of people that were notoriously greedy and unfair in their business transactions. Everyone knew this, and most condemned it. When a tax collector approached John the Baptist to ask what must be done in order to repent, John replied, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you.” In common thought murderers, robbers, and tax collectors went together. When Cicero spoke of occupations which a true gentleman should avoid, he chose as number one being a tax collector. William Barclay summarizes the general public hostility towards tax collectors by referring to Levi as the man whom all men despised.
There was a single important exception to the universal condemnation. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be more than willing to associate with men like Levi, and Levi sensed it. No one else knew this, but as Levi sat in the custom house going about business as usual, he had a secret. Levi had already surrendered his heart to the Master, for as Levi watched Jesus minister in Capernaum he knew. Here was a man sent from God.
The inner secret, and sovereign, work of regeneration had already taken place when Jesus walked up to the man that all men despised. The fallow ground had been broken up. Levi was willing to forsake all for the cause of the gospel. How do we know? Because when the external call came, Levi was ready to respond. He did not hesitate. He did not delay.
One day, in the Providence of God, at the appointed hour established by the eternal decree, the external call came. Jesus of Nazareth walked by. The sky was blue. The air was clean. The crowds hurried along, but suddenly time stood still for one person as a shadow passed in front of his booth. Levi looked up and found Someone Looking deep into his eyes. Jesus spoke very simply and very quietly.
Unless someone was listening they would have missed the simple words that changed a man, who then helped to change the course of civilization. “Levi, follow me,” said Jesus. Shortness of breath came to Levi as excitement set in. Was it possible? Did he hear Jesus say, “Follow me?” Indeed he did and in an instant a decision was made to follow Christ. Had Levi known the chorus he could have stood and sang,
“I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus.
I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back, no turning back.”
For Levi, to follow Jesus meant life would be different, including the change of his name.
First, Matthew’s way of doing business would change. No longer would people be objects of financial exploitation. The poor would be sought out and helped. The hungry would be fed. Instead of getting, Levi would give.
Second, for Levi, eternal values would become more real than earthly possessions. Precious souls must be saved and Levi wanted to be a soul winner. So it was that on the night of his total consecration to Christ, Matthew held a dinner party. Invited were other tax collectors and a host of sinners which might very well have included prostitutes, drunkards, and all manner of people that polite society would dismiss. The guest of honor for the evening was Jesus Christ.
During the course of the meal word reached the Pharisees that Jesus, the Holy One of Israel was fellowshipping with the publicans and sinners. Jesus was not at the house to condemn the people but to enter into sweet communion with them. There was food and laughter and joyful conversation all of which upset the religious leaders.
Had Jesus been uttering forth words of judgment and condemnation no doubt the Pharisees would not have minded for they did that so well themselves. They were spiritual perfectionist and made others to feel inferior. But Jesus was not acting according to their concept and they wanted to know why. Therefore, the Pharisees found a way to question one of the disciples who was also with Jesus.
Perhaps they found Peter. “Peter, why is your Master eating with publicans and sinners.” The question was powerful and very intimidating. It implied something ominous.
First, the question suggested that good people do not associate with those who are immoral and as a general principle that is a very wise policy to follow. The old proverb is correct: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
However, there are times when those who are enslaved to sin need a friend, not more judgment. There are times when those who are addicted to promiscuous sexual conduct, overeating, drugs, alcohol, or anger need a Saviour, not more verbal abuse. The good news is that Jesus Christ has come to receive such sinful men into His kingdom based upon gospel repentance.
Then second, the question of the Pharisees implied guilt by association. As birds of a feather flock together, so do people of a similar lifestyle. If Jesus associated with Publicans and sinners than He too must be a glutton and a drunkard. That is what the Pharisees suggested. It is possible to try and destroy someone’s reputation by implication.
Not hidden very well in the question, was a dramatic distinction between Jesus and the Pharisees. “Why does your Master eat,” the Pharisees asked, as if to say, “We have no such master who would do these things.”
As was often the case, the disciples did not know how to respond to the religious intimidation so they did the best thing possible. The disciples brought the question to Jesus. The Lord had an answer. “Go tell the Pharisees,” he said, “that they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”
The meaning of these words are easy enough to understand. There is physical sickness and there is soul sickness. The people that Jesus was associating with are spiritually sick. They need healing. They need help. They need to turn to the Great Physician.
When a person comes to Christ as the Great Physician of the soul, an amazing thing is discovered. The Lord delights in showing mercy. Mercy is one of the great words of the Bible as it reveals the way God treats His creation. Rather than blast individuals into a consuming fire, God has mercy. He feeds and clothes, gives homes and furniture, health and travel to the undeserving. Moreover, in matchless grace He provides a way to escape the pollutions of the world. God delights to show mercy unto men.
While God delights to show mercy by offering free grace, there are those who spurn mercy in an attempt to merit salvation and the gifts of life. The New Age philosophy, so prevalent in our bookstores and in our schools, teach endlessly that man is good and all the good he receives he deserves. The Self-Esteem theology teaches the same. Such a philosophy and such a theology feeds on pride and bolsters the ego, but it also robs individuals of being able to bow down and say,
“Thank you Lord,
for saving my soul,
Thank you Lord,
for making me whole.
Thank you Lord
for giving to me,
Thy great salvation
so rich and free.”
The gospel message is that Jesus wants to have mercy. The Lord has come to seek and to save that which is lost. He has come to call sinners to repentance and to announce that there can be communion between God and man once more.
All this and more was declared by the man named Matthew the night he held a dinner party for his friends. His parents called him Levi. Jesus called him Matthew, which means “the gift of God.” While others saw a greedy person, while others beheld someone who was corrupt and a traitor, Jesus saw a gift of God.
As Christians we need to see what Jesus sees in others. By being more like Christ and less like the Pharisees there can develop in our hearts what may be called a philosophy of tolerance. This does not mean Christians learn to love sin, but we can, and should learn to love those who are living in sin.
We can learn to have more compassion instead of constant condemnation in the name of righteousness. With a tender sense of tolerance for human frailty we can go forth with the good news that God will have mercy based on gospel repentance. There is no sin too great for the grace of God.
It is far too easy to be a Pharisee, condemning not only others, but Christ Himself for allowing sin and then gracing His presence with those He has come to save. That is why we need to hear afresh the old, old story of Jesus and His love. The gospel reminds us of who we are and what Christ had done in our lives. In 1866 Katherine Hankey was reminded of this concept. As she was convalescing after a long serious illness at her home in England, she wrote a poem of 50 stanzas upon the life of Christ. Only a few words of her poem are familiar, but this is what she said, in part.
“Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply,
As to a little child,
For I am weak and weary
And helpless and defiled.
Tell me the story slowly,
That I may take it in—
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin.”
Levi heard the old, old story and then he told it. With compassion and courage, let us, like Matthew, go and tell the story of Jesus and His love.