Come Along, Tax Man!

“The Calling of St. Matthew,”
Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1621.

Shortly after he calls his first four disciples, and while his popularity is very high in Galilee, Jesus does a remarkable thing: he invites a hated tax collector to join him as one of his disciples. I would encourage you to take time to read the three short reports on this event that appear in the Gospels (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32).

The context for this story is the growing popularity of Jesus, who makes Capernaum his home base and concentrates his early ministry in Galilee. According to Luke, Jesus heals a man with leprosy and then a paralytic and “everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today’” (5:26).

As the word spreads about Jesus, the rabbi who brings healing to the sick, crowds begin to follow him and, like other rabbis of his day, he teaches his followers as he walks along. But the joy and excitement of his miracles are brought to a jolting halt when Jesus sees a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting in his tax booth near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus approaches Levi and says, “Follow me,” and to everyone’s surprise at both the invitation and the response, Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28).

Levi, which is his given name, while Matthew is his apostolic name, is employed as a tax collector in Galilee under the authority of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and the governor of his region. He is not a “chief tax collector” like Zacchaeus, who Jesus will meet later, nor is it said that he is wealthy like Zacchaeus, but his position still makes him a hated man by those who do business near his toll booth. Tax collectors were viewed as agents of the repressive Roman regime and they were despised by the Jews as traitors and extortionists.

Levi’s toll booth was probably located on the road from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast that runs through Capernaum. I wonder if he knew the Jewish fishermen who were later to become fellow disciples, because their fishing businesses probably did some commerce on this important trading route.

We do not know why Levi responded to Jesus’ invitation. Had he heard Jesus teach the crowds that followed him and had he witnessed his miracles? Was he so desperate and lonely that Jesus’ offer was too hard to pass up. There was much at stake for Levi. Fishermen like Andrew, Peter, James and John could easily go back to fishing, if things did not work out with Jesus – and in fact they did after Jesus’ crucifixion — but there was no possibility for Levi to return to his position once he renounced it by walking away.

The calling of Levi precipitates the second incident in a series of five encounters with religious leaders, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Following his invitation to Levi, Jesus attends a dinner at Levi’s home – a detail that Matthew leaves out of his Gospel when he tells the story of this event in his personal life. Levi may have viewed this as a farewell party, since he is leaving his home to travel with his new rabbi; or maybe he wants his friends to meet Jesus — friends who might also want to make some changes in their lives.

Jesus loves banquets and parties – his ministry includes many dinners and celebrations. These were signs of his Kingdom. Banquets are joyful events and they hint at future Kingdom celebrations when God’s people from all over the world will attend banquets in heaven with Jesus as the host. By the way, did you notice that this party was not just for Jesus’ disciples, but also for “a large crowd of tax collectors and others [who] were eating with them” (Luke 5:29)?

You will see when you read the Gospel records of this party that this makes the Jewish religious leaders very unhappy; but instead of confronting Jesus directly, they complain to his disciples and ask why the disciples are eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” When this message is relayed to Jesus, he makes a profound statement: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32; Matthew 9:13). Jesus is not implying that the Pharisees are “righteous” and therefore don’t need his message, but rather that the gospel of grace and forgiveness is for everyone, and repentance is needed before salvation can be received. Levi had decided to change his ways, but the Pharisees who are critical of him have not. Joy and repentance are linked together in this wonderful story!

So What? 

  • There may be some readers who have wandered through life on their own, searching for meaning and significance, but only becoming more lost and confused. Perhaps this was the case with Levi. But when he accepted Jesus’ invitation, his life was changed and he threw a party to celebrate his exciting new life with Jesus. Levi, who is better known as the Apostle Matthew, went on to experience an amazing life with Jesus and in fact wrote one of the most important records of Jesus’ life in his Gospel. Is it time for you to make a similar decision to follow Jesus? 
  • Some of us have made bad decisions in our lives and we are convinced that these mistakes can never be forgiven. That’s what Satan wants us to think. But Jesus offers forgiveness to those who are willing to repent of their wrongful choices and the harmful things they have done to others, as well as themselves. That’s one of the powerful “take-aways” from this story of Levi.