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, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
-Luke 5:27-28 (NIV)
Levi, you see, had it pretty good. Oh, he was probably not winning any popularity contests — except maybe among those who wanted some of what he had — but what he had made what he didn’t have a little easier to live with. What he had, not to put too fine a point on it, was money. In a world where currency was in short supply, Levi had plenty of it. He was one of the one-percenters of his day. When everyone else was bartering with what they grew or made themselves, Levi had a full money bag. He had a life his neighbors, in many ways, could envy.
But he had paid a price for this life.
Levi made his money collecting revenue for Rome, the occupying force in his homeland. His neighbors weren’t all revolutionaries, and others of them made one kind of living or another by cooperating with the Occupation. Levi collected taxes, though. No one likes taxes. To make things worse, Levi operated as an independent contractor,.meaning the Romans didn’t pay him a salary. He might have sub-contracted for another of his countrymen, or maybe directly for the Romans, but in any case he didn’t get a salary. He made his money by charging a few points above whatever taxes Rome was levying. Caesar told Levi how much he had to give to the Empire — not how much he had to collect. However Levi might have spun it others or justified it to himself, the fact remained that he was enriching himself at the expense of his already-overtaxed countrymen. The only ones making any money were Rome and Levi himself.
No wonder his neighbors sneered at him. No wonder they lumped him and his tax-collecting brethren with the other “sinners” in their world. No wonder they assumed he was ritually “unclean” and forbade him from the synagogue and the temple. No wonder he wouldn’t have had a place in the homes or at the tables of any of the virtuous folk.
Levi’s folk were the other tax collectors and the motley assortment that the uber-righteous Pharisees called “sinners”. They didn’t ask how he made his fortune, how he took care of his family. They didn’t wonder if he was ritually clean before they joined him at his table. Call us all “sinners” if you want, he’d think. At least we know how to welcome each other and look out for each other. The camaraderie was warm, the wine was free, the smiles and laughter were real. It didn’t take much for Levi to learn to prefer the company of “sinners.”
So he was definitely surprised when the teacher stopped by his booth.
Levi knew him by name, if not by face. People had been talking about him; he was supposed to be a miracle-worker. Stories about a group of lepers healed, a paralyzed man who was walking, a miraculous catch of fish for some fisherman from over at Capernaum — lots of people were talking about this guy. Supposedly the things he did and taught upset some of the Pharisees, so Levi figured he must be a pretty good guy. Still, he wasn’t prepared for a religious teacher to stop by his place of business.
At first he was embarrassed, but it quickly became apparent that the teacher hadn’t stopped by to preach him a sermon on patriotism or greed or corruption. Neither did he seem to be trying to pay taxes. Matthew was so fixated on trying to figure out what this Jesus of Nazareth wanted with him that he almost failed to hear the words he said. When those words finally did find their way through the confusion in his mind, though, it was like someone reached into the darkness in his heart and flipped the light on — a light he hadn’t even realized until that exact moment had been turned off.
Two words: “Follow me.”
Later, when he recounted the story to others, he always had trouble explaining what happened. He always had trouble making people understand how he could walk away from his life, his livelihood, all that money, to travel around with this teacher who didn’t seem to have anything but the clothes on his back. There was no prestige in following Jesus. Nothing in it for Levi.
The best he could do to explain it later was also two words: “He asked.”
Levi mattered to Jesus enough for Jesus to take whatever risks were connected to being associated with him. When he invited Jesus to his home to celebrate, the teacher didn’t hesitate when he said yes. He didn’t consult his other followers or try to calculate the risk/reward — he just wanted to know what time he should be there.
For the rest of his life, this was how he described the good news of Jesus to someone to whom it was new. He came to believe eventually, of course, that Jesus was much more than a teacher, and he never got tired of telling the story of the day that the love and grace and acceptance and hope and redemption of God made flesh stopped by his booth and said he wanted a hated, hopeless sinner to come live with him.
“That’s why I followed him,” he’d say, “and that’s why I’ve kept on following him. And, if you follow him, that’s why you will too.”
Two words. Not deep theology, the secrets of the universe, the answers to all your conundrums. Not “five easy steps to a better life,” a free pass, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Two words: “Follow me.”
We follow him because he asks us to. He asks us to live with him, walk with him, learn from him, and in him find a new way of seeing ourselves and loving the people around us.
May we never stop following.
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