13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
(Mark 2:13-14 NIV)
In our last two times together, we looked at Jesus’ healing of the paralytic by forgiving his sins. The story followed a pattern – Jesus performs an action, the religious leaders (scribe or Pharisees) take offense, and Jesus responds, silencing the critics.
Today’s story setting is different, yet follows the same pattern. The overall story is found in verses 13 – 17; due to the many learnings and applications, we’ll visit the story across two days.
Today’s text begins with Jesus out preaching again, this time near Lake Genessarat (the Sea of Galilee). Jesus had been in Capernaum; He was likely not far from Capernaum at this point. Mark records that a large crowd followed Jesus, and He was teaching them. Mark does not record the contents of Jesus’ message, but simply the basics of the event (v. 13).
Mark does not say why Jesus was outside preaching and teaching. Did He no longer feel welcome in the synagogues? Or was He simply spending time outside so He could reach as many people as possible, the reason He moved beyond Capernaum in the first place (see 1:38-39).
Verse 14 records the first part of Jesus’ action – selecting Levi (Matthew) as a disciple. Mark tells us Levi’s role – a tax collector. Mark also names Levi’s father (Alphaeus) as part of the text. In Luke’s gospel, another disciple (James) is also the son of Alphaeus. If this is one and the same father, then we have another set of brothers that Jesus calls to follow Him.
Levi’s role as tax collector was probably our equivalent of a customs agent, collecting a tariff on goods as they passed along one of the major trade routes in the area. Levi was hated in his community, not for being Jewish, but for being a tax collector. The Jews saw tax collectors as working for the “enemy”. Upon accepting the position of tax collector, he had the promise of riches; the downside was being exiled from the Jewish community and communal life. He was banned from attending the synagogue, he was snubbed by the rest of the community, and he could not be a witness or any part of any court proceedings, just to name a few of the negatives.
Notice Levi’s immediate response to Jesus’ command. Again, the text does not say if Jesus had prior interaction with Levi or not. Since Jesus had been spending time with Andrew and Peter, James and John, who were all fishermen, they had likely interacted with Levi, as other sources tell us that Levi collected the tax (tariff) on fish caught in Lake Genessarat.
If Jesus chooses to call a man like Levi (Matthew) who represented everything wrong and reprehensible to Jewish culture, how much more does He call you and I to Himself?
Notice that Jesus did not tell Levi to clean up his act, or to conform to a certain social standard before he could follow Jesus. Jesus took Levi as he was, a social outcast and sinner who was seeking the Messiah.
Jesus’ loving and unconditional invitation still stands for all who seek Him.