The Calling of a Tax Collector
Today, we are going to look at Jesus’ invitation to a tax collector by the name of Matthew to be a disciple. This event takes place during the first year of Jesus’ ministry, and while He was in Galilee, and shortly after the calling of Peter, James and John. This is all that we can say with confidence. No location is given, but since Jesus was around the Sea of Galilee and the text does not record Him leaving that area; it is logical to assume that He is still in that area.
Tax collectors did not have booths in small towns or villages and many of the towns in the general area were somewhat small. This would leave Capernaum as the most logical choice for the location of this event, but it is not certain by this text where Jesus is during the event. Let me read to you Luke’s account of what happened—
27 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,
28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
30 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’?"
31 Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Here we have the record of The Calling of Matthew, whose name is also Levi. We read that “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.” Jesus is continuing to call His disciples, and He is adding to the early leadership of this group. He calls a tax collector named Levi to be a part of the disciples. This is the Hebrew name for Matthew, and it means, “Gift of the Lord.” He was the only tax collector among the early disciples.
The act of calling a tax collector into His followers was seen as an act of insanity but Jesus saw the potential in Levi. Allow me to elaborate a little on the job of tax collector and you’ll see why they were disliked by the Jews. They were under the authority of the cruel king, Herod Antipas. In Jesus’ day, land and poll taxes were collected directly by Roman officials, but taxes on transported goods were contracted out to local collectors. Matthew was such a person, or else he was in the service of one. These middlemen paid an agreed-upon sum in advance to the Roman officials for the right to collect taxes in an area. Their profit came from the excess they could squeeze from the people. The Jewish people hated these tax collectors not only for their corruption, but also because they worked for and with the despised Romans. Tax collectors were ranked with murderers and robbers, and a Jew was permitted to lie to them if necessary. The attitude found in the gospels is similar. Tax collectors are lumped together with harlots, Gentiles, and, most often, sinners. They were as offensive to Jews for their economic and social practices as lepers were for their uncleanness, and both were excluded from the people of God.
So, what type of man was Matthew? He was probably corrupt and his only friends would have been other tax collectors. But when Jesus called him, Levi’s answer to Jesus was immediate. We are told in verse 28—.
28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Jesus calls this tax collector out of his booth to follow Him and Levi immediately leaves his booth and follows Jesus. Levi becomes one of the most central figures in early Christianity and one of the greatest early witnesses for Jesus Christ. His written account of the life of Jesus has been one of the cornerstones of the New Testament and he was saved from a life that would have surely destroyed him.
Jesus saw the potential for greatness and change in Levi. And Levi responded to Jesus, for choosing him, by Celebrating with a banquet. We are told, “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house.” In response, Levi throws a large banquet for Jesus in his home and invites his friends to share in this new found joy. Once again, that was probably other tax collectors. This was indeed cause for celebration and Levi knew it.
Jesus went and dined with the most hated and despised people of His time. This was a true act of grace and love. Jesus cared more about Levi, as a person; than He did about the possible bad reputation He would gain, from including him in His disciples. Jesus truly loved Levi and He showed it by calling Him and dining with him.
Let’s look at who was at this party by looking at Levi’s guest list. We read that “a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” Jesus was eating with one of the most hated groups in all of Israel, tax collectors. Remember, these people were viewed as traitors against the Jewish people and they were treated as traitors. The tax collectors had pledged service to the Romans and often raised the taxes they collected to line their pockets. These people were hated! In the house there were tax collectors and sinners. This second group, the sinners, was most likely prostitutes, thieves, and drunkards. Jesus ate with them as well and showed His love to them. I believe one thing Jesus is saying by His actions that evening is, “Those who deserve love the least need it the most!”
Next, let’s take a look at the Challenge that Jesus had to deal with.
It comes from a group of very religious people and when they bring up their complaint. We read, “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’?" Notice that the challenge that Jesus faced came in the form of a complaint.
Folks, I complain a lot. If I don’t feel good, I let people know it. That reminds me of a cute story I read. It seems that a young girl surprised her mother with a beautiful and unexpected gift that she had purchased with her allowance. The little girl said, “Mom, this is for you because you work so hard and nobody seems to appreciate it around here.” The mother tried to be modest by saying, “Well, your father works hard too.” The clever girl replied, “I know, but he doesn’t complain about it.”
In our story, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law pose a question to the Lord. This is one of the most powerful groups in all of Jewish society because they regulate the holiness of the people. This group would go and pass judgment on people without love or mercy and Jesus took them to task for it. The Pharisees and the teachers knew the Law and knew it well but they had no love to put it into action. So, they became rigid and regulated in their practice of religion. The Pharisees leveled the charge against Jesus for eating with these sinners because, they said, it would make Him unclean for the rituals of the Jewish faith. This idea of being unclean was part of the Mosaic Law and kept the people away from those who were sinners.
Jesus tears down this wall and sets a new principal, because He goes to them and shares His love. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law responded to this event with their common legalism. They acted out of selfish pride and rigid religious regulations. The traditional role and responsibility of the Pharisees was to monitor the social holiness of the people of Israel. This led them to act in a certain predictable way in Jewish society. The Pharisees had no regard and no love for the people they saw in daily life, because they believed that they were better than others. Pharisees were religious, and nothing more, because they did not share the love and mercy of God. They had all of the knowledge about God, but they did not put it into their hearts and this was their down fall.
One group of religious leaders who were also at the banquet was the scribes. They were also referred to as lawyers. It seems like you can always find something funny to say about lawyers. I found an article that I’ll share with you that I think is kind of funny. It says that the following questions were actually asked by attorneys in a court of law.
• Now doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn’t know about it until the next morning?
• The youngest son, the twenty-year-old, how old is he?
• Were you alone or by yourself?
• Was it you or your younger brother who was killed in the war?
• How far apart were the vehicles at the time of the collision?
• You were there until the time you left, is that true?
• You say these stairs went down to the basement. Did these stairs go up also?
• Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?
I don’t know if the scribes asked Jesus these types of silly questions, but they sure could criticize. But, Jesus handles criticism better than we do. I have never been able to take criticism well, and that can probably be attributed to pride. But, we find it real easy to pass out criticism to others. Isn’t it amazing how easily criticism can roll from our lips when we see the unusual behavior of another person? One woman has come up with an insightful illustration that may help us to realize that even if we don’t approve of it there may be a good reason for a person’s behavior.
Imagine a group of fish swimming together in a school. All of them are moving in the same direction with comparable style when suddenly one of them starts destroying the unity of the school. He begins to twist and swerve from side to side with rapid, shaky moves. The older fish are annoyed with the nonconformity of this young, immature fish. They show their disapproval by voicing their disgust, “We don’t swim like that around here.” Turning to their offspring, they declare, “That type of behavior is totally unacceptable.” Before they can take action against the renegade fish, his thrashing tail disappears at the surface of the lake. A hook in his mouth rather than rebellion in his heart was the cause of all his distasteful activity.
How many times have we been equally guilty of displaying our displeasure? When someone was wrestling with a hook, and needed a friend to understand their painful predicament, we said, “I’ll pray for you,” and walked away. We need to keep-in-mind that there may be a much deeper explanation for the behavior that we quickly label as “wrong.”
Finally, let’s look at how Jesus responds to the challenge.
We are told that 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 is the agent of change in the text. He is the One who makes all the difference, and it is His love and grace that reveals the true heart of the issue for the Pharisees; their lack of love and compassion. It is this fact that Jesus is attempting to change and to do that, He must tear down the walls of legalism.
Jesus responds to their accusations and sets the record straight. He states the purpose of His actions and defends the disciples. Jesus tells the Pharisees and teachers that He is on this earth to call the sinners to repentance. Jesus is not there to continue the tradition of living by rigid religious regulations, but He has come to set the people free from it. There is a clear picture of grace and mercy here that the Pharisees could not see and did not wish to see. They were more concerned with keeping their position and power in Jewish society. The Pharisees loved no one but themselves.
This seems to be an ordinary event, and there’s nothing unusual about the banquet. But Jesus takes advantage of the situation to teach the Pharisees a lesson about the love of God. He uses the calling of Levi to demonstrate the love of God in action and to reveal a little more about His purpose and His mission. This is the heart of Jesus’ personal ministry, because He shares His love on the basis of who needs it rather than who is worthy of it. And the truth is, no one is worthy of the love of God.
Now I want to end by making an Application to us today. Jesus is setting a new standard for God’s people; He wants us to share His love and mercy with others. He is breaking down the walls of tradition and prejudice, because no one deserves God’s grace, but it is a free gift for all who will accept it. Jesus wants the people to see that every person has value in the eyes of God and that they are precious to Him. Jesus is calling Levi because He sees the potential he has with the help of God’s grace and love. Jesus sets the standard very clearly and if we are to follow Him; we must show the love of God at all times to all people.
There is no one who is worthy of God and His grace, but it is a free gift given by God through Christ. We have the responsibility and the honor of sharing this great love and wondrous grace of Jesus with the world. It is a large task and a holy undertaking, but it must be done.
Jesus has set the example for us to follow and live by. It is this example that urges us farther on in the cause of Christ. Jesus is the cure for suffering in this world.