Mark 2:13-17 “Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 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. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the ‘sinners’ and tax collectors they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”
When we first enter Christian circles and meet people who’ve been followers of Jesus Christ for years they seem to us like spiritual giants. We will never become like them, we think. It didn’t seem worth even trying because the gulf between us and them seemed enormous. It’s at such times that this incident described in these verses by Mark is useful because it tells us how a similar weak and sinful man did set out to follow the Lord Jesus. If we can grasp what actually happened when Levi first became a disciple we also may be encouraged to follow Christ ourselves. The first thing I want you to see is this:
1. THE LORD CHOSE LEVI.
If anything is plain from this narrative it is that fact. “As Jesus 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” (v.14). The choice was Jesus’; the command was Jesus’; the whole initiative was Jesus’. It was not that hidden away as a part of the great crowd of people at the lake listening to Christ teaching (v. 13) was Levi. It was not that Jesus began to appeal to them all to get up and come to the front, pressurising them, telling them that the decision to follow him was now wholly theirs, and then, at that time, Levi made his decision to follow Christ. Not at all! Levi was not sitting in the congregation by the lake. Levi son of Alphaeus hadn’t bothered to come to the meeting. He was making money sitting at the tax collector’s booth. He missed the preaching, but Jesus didn’t miss him. He is the good Shepherd. He left the flock beside the lake and he came searching for this lost sheep in the town of Capernaum. He found Levi. He approached him. He spoke to him and said, “Follow me.” The saving of Levi was Christ’s from its very conception.
Absolute choice is God’s alone. We may want many things, but a desire is not its own justification. Not everything you desire is worthy of fulfilment. Life is not an existential supermarket and you can pick up designer babies, and long life, and money, and happiness as a right. You may act as if you were Louis XIV, the absolute sovereign of your own existence, unwilling to accept any limitations on your desires. If your wishes are not being met you may rage against the world. So be it. Then you face an appalling future. Learn from this moment on, please, that you’ve been deluding yourself. You are a creature with a creature’s limitations chief of which is that you are going to die. There are inevitable limitations on what anyone can choose in life. Absolute choice is God’s alone and he exercises it. The apostle says, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Roms. 9:21). It is the potter’s choice whether he makes of the same clay a chamber pot or a vase. It is not the clay’s choice at all. So it is God’s choice what he does with us. It is he who formed us and gifted us and provides us with health and length of days. For of God and through God and to God are all things. (Roms. 11:36). There was one occasion in the upper room when Jesus wanted to make this fact of his prior love for his disciples spectacularly clear, speaking virtually in words of one syllable. He said to them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:16). No one has any trouble at all understanding those words. They are so simple. The problem is believing those humbling words of Jesus. The problem is in acknowledging that God alone has absolute choice. Nowhere in the Bible is God portrayed as a helpless spectator who from eternity gazed into some misty crystal ball seeing ahead of time those individuals who would choose him so that he made a note of them and chose them. “I chose you,” Jesus says to us.
“May not the Sov’reign Lord on high
Dispense His favours as He will;
Choose some to life, while others die,
And yet be just and gracious still?
“Shall man reply against the Lord,
And call his Maker’s ways unjust?
The thunder whose most dreadful word
Can crush a thousand worlds to dust.
“But, O my soul, if truth so bright
Should dazzle and confound thy sight,
Yet still His written will obey,
And wait the great decisive day.”
In other words if you are a Christian today it is because God loved you in Christ before the foundation of the world, and in time he drew you into the orbit of Christian people, putting a desire in your heart to stay with them, attend church with them, listen to the preaching of Christ with them and read the Bible alone. He is the one who powerfully gave you a willing attentive frame of mind so that when he invited you to follow him then you obeyed. You have been a Christian since the time you set out and began to follow him, but you know that if he had not taken the initiative and come seeking for you then you wouldn’t have been found.
You might be tempted to think that this is a discouraging truth. Why should it be? How did Jesus make Levi his disciple? Did he simply walk pass the tax-collector’s booth and a mysterious sensation fell over Levi so that he got up like a zombie and walked in a trance-like state after Jesus? Not at all. The rabbis of Israel allowed men to make application to become their disciples, but Jesus by personal invitation chose men to follow him. He had been living in this small town for weeks and doing remarkable things so that Capernaum buzzed with tales of Jesus. Now this man came into Levi Alphaeus’ son’s life. He came right up to him, and he spoke to him inviting and commanding Levi to follow him. The teaching in the Bible about choice does not cancel or contradict the gospel invitations of the Bible. The same God who chooses also invites. He even pleads with us to follow him. He holds out his hands to you for days, and he beseeches you to come. What grace! That same Sovereign God offers life and forgiveness and glory to those who will follow him. Take it today sinner! The basis of believing that God has chosen you is not some prior knowledge which you guess you have of that fact. No one knows whether God has chosen him before the foundation of the world. It is impossible for anyone to know that before we believe. The basis for coming to Christ is the sincere invitation God is making to you now, “Follow me.” Never mind the others here who seem spiritual giants – appearances can be deceptive – you must follow Jesus Christ
2. IT WAS LEVI THE TAX COLLECTOR WHO WAS CHOSEN BY JESUS.
You may not see the encouragement of that yet but I will endeavour to make it plain to you. Think of some unpopular vocations. Debt collectors. Social security officials who can’t give the unemployed more money. Traffic wardens. The asylum seeker who is staying at Bed and Breakfast paid for by the local council who will soon take a local’s man’s job. Especially there are those men who clamp your car’s wheels for illegal parking. They have to have a thick skin to do that for a living, to be shouted at for doing their job. Or imagine the man who is now enforcing a payment on drivers entering city centres in London and elsewhere. The truckers have been taking this route day by day for years, and then one morning there is a man in a booth stopping every vehicle and asking for five pounds.
Such an unpopular man was Levi, Alphaeus’ son. What’s his work? He is in the employment of King Herod Antipas, the brother of Archelaus and Philip. They each had a third of the kingdom of their late father Herod the Great, and Herod Antipas was the son who got Galilee. The border between his territory and his brother Philip’s was the river Jordan. In other words the last town you’d go through as you went from Herod Antipas’ kingdom into Philip’s was Capernaum. You would have to pay a toll for the privilege of crossing the border from one part of the old kingdom into another. It wasn’t like that in Herod the Great’s time. You could make the journey free. Now you had to pay, and the man picking up the payment was Levi Alphaeus’ son. He was Mr Unpopularity, but he was backed by Herod who was himself backed by all the might of Rome who were particularly cruel to tax-dodgers. If you were Levi Alphaeus’ son there was nothing you could do about the bitterness, but just soak up the anger and resentment which people showed. Paying taxes was an issue in the ‘promised land.’ We read of a number of questions and debates in the Gospels involving Jesus in the matter of paying tax to Caesar and to the temple.
Then one day the Lord Jesus came along to the tax booth, and he didn’t treat Levi Alphaeus’ son like a piece of dirt. He didn’t throw his money at him making Levi get down on his hands and knees and pick it up off the floor. He didn’t shout or swear or grumble. What he did that day changed Levi Alphaeus’ son’s life for ever. Jesus said, “Follow me.” He was choosing this man, a hated man, possibly a man who cheated and lied, to become his disciple. We can understand fishermen becoming disciples. There seems to be a kind of link between a life of patiently hunting for fish, and hunting for men. But Levi, a kind of quisling, working for the occupying power, the Lord choosing him to become his disciple – surely a mistake has been made.
Jesus deliberately chooses a despised man. We know that the scribes regarded tax collectors as lawbreakers, on a par with robbers. In fact the contemporary German scholar, Dr J. Jeremias makes this interesting observation about tax-collectors: “Any one engaging in such trades could never be a judge, and his inadmissibility as a witness put him on the same footing as a gentile slave. In other words, he was deprived of those civil and political rights to which every Israelite had claim . . . This makes us realise the enormity of Jesus’ act in calling a publican to be one of his intimate disciples, and announcing the Good News to publicans and ‘sinners’ by sitting down to eat with them” (J. Jeremias, “Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus”, SCM, London, 1969, p.311).
So here is a man who is not respectable, and religious, and moral. He doesn’t observe the traditions of the Pharisees. He is agreeable to work for the Romans at a despised job. Jesus chooses a collaborator to follow him. Now you will say that that was not typical of Jesus to choose a man no one else would have chosen, but rather rejected. No! You are wrong. This choice of Jesus is all too typical. Think of the zealot Simon, a revolutionary, from the other end of the political spectrum. Think of Mary Magdalene possessed with demons. Think of the much married Samaritan woman. Think of Roman soldiers – centurions to boot, and Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician woman chosen to follow him. Think of a murderous thief who justly acknowledged that he deserved to be put to death on a cross alongside the Saviour. Jesus chose such people as that. For him they were not tokens and symbols of his general love while he spent quality time with others. These sinners were the men who became central to his work. Levi became the writer of the 28 chapters of the first gospel in the New Testament. Levi was not a category. Jesus wasn’t thinking that he had better have one sample tax collector in the twelve. There was the tax collector Zacchaeus also who trusted in him, and we are told that once Levi began to follow him many tax collectors came and ate with him (v.15). Think of tax offices closed all over Galilee and people slipping by without paying any tax. “Where’s the inspector?” “He’s got religious. He’s following Jesus.” “I’m glad to hear it!” The Lord Jesus was not embarrassed at having every tax collector fascinated by his message and hanging on to his words.
As all this is true then there is hope for you, isn’t there? You have been a cheat, and a liar, and a violent man, and a thief, and a drunk, and an immoral person, and maybe I’ve been worse than you all, or maybe the chief of sinners has been you, or you or you. Some of you may be HIV positive, I have no idea of that, but don’t let the knowledge of that prevent your coming to Christ. His choice of Levi says that grace can reach you. His choice of the very chief of sinners says that grace abounds to you to redeem you today. The Lord’s choice of millions of others, as numerous as the stars on the seashore and the stars in the heavens says how measureless is the grace of God to choose, and pardon, and save sinful folk. Not many wise, and not many mighty, and not many noble were among that multitude, and so there is hope for you. No one can say that he is different, or that she is too hypocritical, because these are the ones Christ calls.
You remember the story of the boy who broke his parents’ hearts, taking away everything they loved, bringing shame on their lives, plunging them into poverty and abandoning them for years. Then God began to deal with him, and his repentance grew, and his self-recrimination increased. What a cruel fool he had been to deal with such loving parents like that. He longed to see them and express his regrets and ask their forgiveness for what he had done, but his great doubt was this, would they accept him again after all he had put them through? He finally got round to writing them a letter. He would come home at the end of the next week on the 5 p.m. train, but he wouldn’t come to their home if it would cause them any anguish. The train would pass the old house, and there was an apple tree that hung over the railway line. It was a landmark easily seen from the train. If they would welcome him back could they tie a white handkerchief to the branch that hung over the fence? That was what he wrote. At the end of the next week he got on the train and made the long journey home. As the train got nearer and nearer the town he found himself unbearably tense. Would there be a handkerchief tied to the branch? Would his Dad and Mum be willing to see him again? The train got closer and closer, and then around the bend it came slowing as it approached his house and the railway station. He pressed his face to the window and looked out for the apple tree, and then he saw it, and there on every branch hundreds of white handkerchiefs were tied and were fluttering in the summer wind.
The Lord wants you to come home! The Lord longs for you come back. The Lord is willing to have you! He will accept you. He has never rejected one repentant sinner, no matter how great has been his wickedness. His mercy is vast unmeasured, boundless, free. He has spared not his own Son. He has promised eternal life to those who trust in him and say, “I’ve been bad.” Come home sinner! Come home! Hear the voice of Jesus calling, “Follow me!” he says. “Levi got up and followed him,” (v.14). Be thou like him.
3. IT WAS TO FOLLOW HIM THAT THE LORD CHOSE LEVI.
Let us bring this more into focus: “Levi had been working for Herod who thought of himself as King of the Jews. Now he is going to work for someone else who has royal aspirations. Mark in this gospel is leading us up to the point where Peter, speaking for the Twelve, will declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews (8:29)” (Tom Wright, “Mark for Everyone,” SPCK, London, 2001, p. 21). Levi Alphaeus’ son has been in Herod’s service, but henceforth he will also be in Jesus’ service, at the invitation of the King himself: “Follow me!” says the King.
What did following the Lord imply? Of course in those days Jesus Christ was located in a certain place – at a beach, in a house, on a mount, in the desert, and you could literally follow him to that spot. He became your example and your teacher who constantly explained and counselled you. You followed him to his pulpit, which might be a boat, or the side of a well, or a mountainside, or a table in an upper room, and from there he rebuked, corrected, and instructed you in righteousness. In his preaching he assumed a place of authority over all his disciples. He was the leader and they were the followers. That must always be the structure. He said “The disciple is not greater than his master.” Greater than Jesus? About whom are you speaking? So Levi Alphaeus’ son became a pupil in his school. He learned everything from the Lord. Christ taught him that the Scripture could not be broken. If it were written it was the Word of God for him. He gives us an infallible book. Part of following him as our Lord is believing that. Next Friday the former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins publishes his autobiography. The title of the book is “The Calling of a Cuckoo.” In the book he says these words that he most certainly believes in “the resurrection of Jesus, whether or not one is convinced by the story of the empty tomb as the account of an indisputable, physical fact.” But this is just another way of saying that something isn’t true while it’s not false either. What double-talk! A pastor in a Marxist tyranny was put into prison for preaching the Lordship of Christ. When he heard that some seminary professors and bishops in free countries were saying things like that – that the resurrection was a metaphor – he responded by saying he would never put his life on the line for a metaphor. He would suffer and die only for truth. He kept following the resurrected Lord Jesus.
We follow Jesus’ teaching. At times we say, “Now just what do you mean Lord?” And in time he will explain to us by preachers and commentaries and especially from other parts of Scripture, and in that way we follow him. We never stop. Every day we wake up we vow, “Today I am going to follow Jesus Christ in all he has told me. I am going to believe like him and live like him.” That is the primary meaning of following the Lord Jesus. At present we have no place on this planet to which to go where we’ll find him. He is at the right hand of God, but he also comes to the place where men gather in his name. There he teaches us from the Scriptures through the gifts he gives to the church. He has given the world the truth, so that whatever is true isn’t new, and what is new isn’t necessarily true. The Lord calls his followers to really believe our beliefs and to doubt our doubts. Never make the mistake of doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts. If Jesus has said something then it is true. As his followers we refuse to be disturbed by what we don’t know, because we have him who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The difficulties we meet with as Christians are often compared to the bones in a piece of fish. We say that we don’t throw the whole piece of cod away because of the bones we encounter. We put the bones on the side of the plate and we eat the fish. So we put the few difficulties of the Bible to one side, and in time you will receive an understanding to your entire satisfaction. Meanwhile we live on the great truths of Scripture which are clear enough. Christians follow Jesus.
The great challenge is that we follow Jesus when we are emotionally disinclined. When we are virtually lying on the floor in a fit of despondency. When we have no energy at all because our hopes have been shattered and our worst fears have been realised, then we keep following him. When temptation says to us, “You can’t be expected to go to church when you feel like this. You can’t witness to life in Christ at this time. You can’t pray when you feel so low.” There is a great danger of waiting for the moment of inspiration before you pray, of making your feelings the touchstone of your duties. That is not following Christ. When we are depressed and discouraged then we still follow Christ. There are duties to attend to, every day of our lives. He will help us follow him each step of the way.
4. LEVI OPENED HIS WHOLE LIFE TO THE LORD.
What happened next? We discover that Jesus is now inside Levi’s house, sitting at his table, eating dinner. When Levi Alphaeus’ son crossed the threshold into his home he followed Christ there. He wasn’t just a public Christian, he was a Christian in private too. He wanted his home life to honour the Saviour. So often that is the most difficult place to follow Christ, living in that little space with those who depend on you, where the disagreements and the disappointments and the family heartaches are found. There in our homes it is extremely difficult to live a consistent life when we are under pressure, when we are ill, when the money runs out. More than that, no family likes change. Children don’t like change. They don’t welcome their parents becoming religious. His family had not known a Christian Levi. They had not asked him to start following Jesus. What pressures this new man might have known with his children. They might have pointed out every fall, and every inconsistency: “You say that you are a follower of Christ and you are behaving like that?”
Levi Alphaeus’ son was going to follow Jesus the Messiah no matter what his family said. They must meet him, and his friends too. So he invited Jesus to his home for a meal. He asked other tax collectors to come and many of his other friends, none of whom were particularly religious figures, and in the eyes of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were ‘sinners’ that is, they didn’t keep the hundreds of little laws the Pharisees insisted everyone should keep. Jesus said yes. He went to the party. He ate with them. You remember this was not a drinking party. There were no drugs there, and no darkness and loud drumming music. This was a meal in Levi’s house and all these un-religious men turned up, and Jesus said that he would go there too. He went because he loved Levi Alphaeus’ son, and so his family were special in Jesus’ eyes. they were ‘sanctified’ in a certain sense – different from families where none of the members were following Christ. He went to show his affection and help Levi gain some credibility in the eyes of his children and wife. He went to speak to his friends. The party became Jesus’ pulpit.
Let me turn that in two ways. Accept invitations to go to birthday parties of friends and families, and retirement suppers, and wedding receptions, and engagement parties, and Christmas specials. Do not stop away if alcohol is going to be served, or if there is going to be a barn-dance afterwards. Those are not sufficient reasons for refusing to go. There may be other reasons, more serious than that, and then you may decide not to go. That is your choice but pray about it. It might be a place of temptation for you. There may be no supervision, no adults, and wild young people present. If you don’t know what is going to happen then go with a mobile phone, or access to a phone, or a car, or some way of escape. But don’t stay away from the celebrations and feasts of the world even if at times things are said that make you cringe. Things might be much worse if you were not there. There might be other people in that place who are as sensitive as you, or much weaker than you. Bear their burden in that place. Go in the name of the Lord and may his joy be your strength. Do not tell them you will not go because you are a Christian. Tell them you are unable to go and apologise, but when you can go to parties then Christians should go.
Let me turn it also this way: you can use your home as Levi Alphaeus’ son did and invite your friends to meet with Jesus. In other words, you have a dinner party and invite your minister and his wife and your friends. Tell them, “We want you to meet our minister. You know we go to church on Sundays? Well, this is the man who is the pastor there and we’d like you to meet him.” Some may come, and the preacher will know he has been invited to say what he believes and how it is relevant to them. There is no need to think you have to have John Blanchard or Roger Carswell or any other of the able evangelists to do this. You can do it with your own minister, and that will make more sense to a lot of people, and if we pray, and all know that that is the purpose of the evening, then why should there not be much profit from it?
5. JESUS’ PRESENCE IN A PARTY WAS NOT WHOLLY WELCOMED.
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’? (v.16) asked the Pharisees. You see the mentality of the Pharisee. If you are a religious man you don’t mix with non-religious men. If you mix with non-religious men you are not a religious man. Jesus was religious, so why was he eating with these people? To eat together is a sign of camaraderie. The psalmist talks about betrayal, that he was let down by someone who had eaten with him – their hands had touched as they reached for the bowl of fruit. “I thought we were close friends, and then this happened . . .” he said sadly. One of the means of grace God has given his church is a meal, the Lord’s Supper, and we break bread together. It is a sign of unity and friendship. How could Jesus have a meal with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors? These extortioners were without God, and he was claiming to have been sent from God. This was compromise, and the Pharisees hated compromise. They stuck a label on men, “SINNERS”, and then they could ignore those men. But the Lord Jesus Christ won’t ignore sinners.
They didn’t understand that Jesus was going to these people as a doctor goes to visit his patients. When a doctor enters a hospital he is not announcing that he is sick. When he goes into the cancer ward he is not declaring that he has cancer. He is going as the physician to help and heal. What is a doctor doing spending all his life in shops, and museums, on the golf club, playing tennis and on the beach? Let him go where the sick are to be found and heal them! So it was with Jesus; that is why he went there, not to eat the veal and drink the wine but heal the sick. When he heard the question he said to the Pharisees, “‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick'” (v.17). Everyone in that room knew that Jesus was the greatest doctor the world had ever seen. He had not had a single patient die. Every one had got better. He had banished disease from Capernaum making it an illness-free zone. When he went into Levi’s house he was still going as the doctor because all these tax collectors were sick through sin, blind through sin, deaf through sin, and dead through sin. That was Jesus’ diagnosis. They needed this One who alone could heal them, that is why he had gone there.
Jesus explains: “I haven’t come to call the righteousness, but sinners” (v.17). What a mysterious phrase, “I have come . . .” I couldn’t say that. I was born. I began. I did not ‘come’ from anywhere. I had no prenatal mission on which I entered the world, and neither did anyone else. But Christ was conscious that he had been sent into the world from the Father and by the Father. He did not come on his own account. Jesus is the apostle of God sent by the mighty Creator . . . to call sinners. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.
What time is it? It is the time the hospital is open, the surgeries and consultancies are available, the great Doctor is here. He who can heal is ready to welcome and transform the sick. He is calling you to come to him. The place of healing is open! The Doctor from heaven has come and he is here today. This is a feast and in our midst stands the great Physician. He is prepared to heal you. Do not despise so great a God meeting with such ordinary people. Do not turn from a Lord who will sit with such sinners. Do not reject a God who chooses the worthless and hated of the world, healing them and making them his disciples. Thus there is hope for you. Cry,
“Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood
From Thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.” (Augustus Toplady).
He will answer you and heal you and give you grace to follow him. You will live a useful life. If you say you have no need of my Saviour then you will die in your sins. Why wait until a need begins to rise in your life? You need him today. Your link with Christ this day is the sickness of your sin. That is the handle by which he can seize you and lift you up. The best Doctor this world has ever seen or will see is here now and he can help you. Why do you stay away from him? Come to him now. He is saying to you, “Follow me.”
“Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.
Day by day His sweet voice soundeth, saying, Christian, follow Me.
As of old apostles heard it by the Galilean lake,
Turned from home and toil and kindred leaving all for his dear sake.
Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store;
From each idol that would keep us, saying, Christian, love Me more.
In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
Still he calls, in cares and pleasures, Christian, love Me more than these.
Jesus calls us, by thy mercies, Saviour, may we hear Thy call,
Give our hearts to Thy obedience, Serve and love Thee best of all.”
(Cecil F. Alexander, 1823-95).
26 January 2003 GEOFF THOMAS