Luke 5:27-32 “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. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 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”?’ 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.’”
Luke is showing us Jesus’ appeal to the underclass and the marginalized, that Christianity from the very beginning was never an elitist religion. It was never aimed at intellectuals; you did not need to be learned in order to understand its message. It was not focused on the upper echelons of society, the upwardly mobile and successful. Luke tells us in this chapter that Jesus was willing to touch and heal an outcast leper, and then that the sins of a helpless paralyzed man were forgiven and his life was transformed by Christ. Then we are told of another outcast, a man who was a crook and a traitor, a tax collector named Levi, disdained by his fellow countrymen who actually became one of the twelve apostles of our Lord Jesus.
TAX COLLECTORS WERE DESPISED MEN.
Consider the historical and social repercussions of the armed invasion of a nation, how it leaves the conquered citizens enraged at the violence and cruelty that their fellow countrymen have had to endure through the marauding enemy. One thinks of the Japanese invasion of China , or the Italians bombing Ethiopia , or the pillaging of Darfur in western Sudan by the northern Sudanese army where a couple of million people have been displaced and at least a hundred thousand killed. How such invaders are hated! A catalogue of wickedness is gathered; memories die hard, traditions are passed on and children are told in lurid detail what their grandparents’ generation suffered at the invaders’ hand.
The individuals who are hated most of all are not the alien soldiers but the people of their own nation who chose to work for the enemy, serving them and turning against their own kith and kin. Israel in Jesus’ day was a part of the Roman empire , and indirect taxes like tolls and customs were handled by sharp and unscrupulous entrepreneurs – something like the private parking organisations in our cities which have permission to clamp cars that they judge to be illegally parked. Motorists pay enormous fines to get their cars released. Clampers are not popular men in our day – I apologise if there is a clamper here. I guess it is essential work but unloved. In Jesus’ day the tax-collectors who worked for Rome were despised. Such men had made bids for the contract to collect tolls and customs in the large towns, the highest bidder getting the job from Rome . These collaborators took heavy taxes from their own nation part of which they sent to Caesar while a substantial percentage they kept for themselves. What figures of scorn the tax collectors became! Their job was a kind of institutionalized scheme of extortion or even robbery, and men were powerless to stop these thieves because of their bodyguards. If a tax-collector working for the Roman Empire in Judah should be assassinated then the Roman army might come in and take twenty heads of families from that man’s street and crucify them all outside their front doors. So you paid these men your taxes; as a trader you were legally bound to come to Levi’s tax booth and you reported what goods you had on your carts, and he assessed their value. This tariff was announced and the disgruntled trader might actually throw the surcharge in disgust on the tax-collector’s table, pick up his receipt and go off muttering what he would like to see happening to Levi and every tax collector who continually fleeced hard working men like himself. You utterly loathed these renegades who were betraying your country, and working for the enemy. You could at least ostracize such traitors, in the employment of Rome . You thought of all their contacts with those Gentile dogs; “they are probably ritually unclean men,” you said to yourself. Notice, when Levi has a party, who were the people who went along to it; “a large crowd of tax collectors” (v.29). Their only associates were their fellow publicans.
THERE WAS ONE TAX COLLECTOR WHOSE NAME WAS LEVI.
Here was a tax collector with a name. He had a personality; he was an individual with a home commodious enough for a “large crowd” of people to be invited to a meal (v.29). We are all prone to give certain people labels so that we don’t have to bother with them at all. We can ignore them and dismiss them from our minds completely because of their race, or their job, or their religion, or because of what they’ve done or what they are. We feel that our envy of their possessions is not sinful because they are the fruit of ‘ill-gotten gains.’ But here we are told of a tax collector whose parents had given him at least one name, Levi, and he lived in a big house. Many people in the Bible had two names and depending on their circumstances they would be called by the one or the other. When Saul of Tarsus moves into Gentile evangelism Luke changes his name to ‘Paul.’ Luke simply says in Acts thirteen and the ninth verse, “Then Saul, who was also called Paul . . .” and that is it. No other explanation. So, Mark and Luke use the tax-collector’s name ‘Levi,’ but in Matthew’s gospel he calls himself Matthew and in all the lists of the apostles the name ‘Matthew’ is used exclusively. It is fascinating to speculate when his name became predominantly ‘Matthew.’ Did Jesus give him this new name when he became a disciple? Or did he have two names from the beginning as did a number of the other apostles? There is no doubt that Levi is Matthew. His father’s name was Alphaeus, but he’d been given this ancient Jewish name, ‘Levi’, of the tribe of the Levites; it is a priestly name but he was serving Mammon and not Jehovah.
What is significant is that Jesus summoned Levi. The leper had come along to Jesus (v.12), and the paralyzed man had been carried to Jesus, but our Lord “went out and saw a tax collector sitting at his tax booth” (v.27). Our Lord took the initiative; he went to Levi’s office and there that he met Jesus. In other words the Saviour went to the most unpopular man in town. He visited this quisling, the traitor, the thief, the collaborator, the extortionist, the unclean man, and then Jesus effectually called this Levi to follow him. He chose Levi; he so spoke to Levi that he changed his whole way of life. Levi left everything and followed Jesus, at our Lord’s word. There were many righteous and religious people in Capernaum that day. There were good folk, and decent people who helped their neighbours. There were fine heads of families who didn’t fool around and cheat on their wives, who were present in the synagogue every Sabbath, and yet Jesus by-passed all of them that day and called a slimey crook, the most hated man in town, to become his disciple.
We wouldn’t have done this. If we’d had the power we certainly wouldn’t have effectually called a man with such an ugly reputation to be amongst the first followers of Jesus, at this moment – at the early days of the movement. You and I wouldn’t have done it even if we’d had the power. We’d have gone for the handsome, the wealthy and for influential people. We’d have called them, especially at the beginning. We’d want the image of our movement to be attractive. We wouldn’t go for the sleaze-balls to be disciples at the start of our campaign. I was in school with John Dawes who was a brilliant rugby player who went on to play for Wales and captain the British Lions when they beat the All Blacks on their home turf in New Zealand . He was playing at the zenith of Welsh rugby alongside J.P.R Williams, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, and Gerald Davies, all legends in Wales . John Dawes once came to hear me preach in Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tonypandy, but I have never heard that he came to trust in Jesus Christ as his Saviour. The Lord called me, the school wimp, and not John Dawes . . . at least not yet John Dawes. Who knows what will yet happen in the life of those who have heard the gospel sometime in the past? My point is the strangeness of the choices God makes of those who are going to be his disciples.
Christ took the initiative and went to Levi’s office. He went right up to him, standing before his table and saying, “Follow me!” It is what he does to us every Sunday. Doesn’t that give us all such encouragement? We might feel that we don’t really belong in this congregation, that it is full of righteous and good living people – and it is – but we might assume that these people were always like this, and that God made them Christians because of that, that he invariably zeros in on such people and calls the holy ones to follow him. Then we are dead wrong in our understanding of the grace of God. No one is called because of their goodness but everyone is called unto holiness. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth who are the people the Lord calls. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him [God the Father]. It is because of him [God the Father] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (I Cors. 1:26-31).
It is because of God the Father that you have been chosen, and he chooses the foolish, the weak and the despised; he has chosen a vast number of people like that because he has loved them, but why he should have loved them no one knows. God chose an extortionist like Levi, that is, a big businessman with no ethical scruples. God also chose someone who hated the gospel and threw into prison anyone who preached Jesus Christ. That is, God chose Saul of Tarsus, the last man the early Christians believed would start to follow the Lord Jesus, but God chose him. Doesn’t that give hope to you? God knew all about these men, every shady deal, every feeling of sado-masochistic excitement as Saul watched the rocks thudding into Stephen’s young body the blood flowing and splashing as he was stoned to death. God knew all the ugly tawdry details of the life of Saul of Tarsus and still he chose him.
Moreover, our Lord choosing Levi wasn’t some aberration; it was not a one-off decision. He chose other tax-collectors who were equally as bad. He actually drew many tax-collectors to hear John the Baptist preach and he gave numbers of them repentance and baptism. There was also a specially important tax collector in Jericho named Zacchaeus. We are told about him at the beginning of Luke nineteen, that “he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy’ (Lk. 19:2). He climbed a tree in his eagerness to see Jesus and our Lord said two things to him. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Lk. 19:5) and then in his house he said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk. 19:10). Here is salvation being offered to a whole underclass of covetous cheats and collaborators. Who then can say, “This salvation cannot be for me because my sin is too great.” “Follow me,” says Jesus.
THIS TAX COLLECTOR’S WHOLE LIFE WAS TRANSFORMED.
Levi became a real disciple. He truly followed the Lord Jesus Christ from that time on; no turning back. It was not some emotional spasm that he later regretted, ultimately turning his back on the Messiah and returning to his tax booth and acknowledging sheepishly he’d been rather foolish in going through that brief religious phase, dismissing it with the words, “Never again.” There have been number of people like that, some of them famous men like the singer Bob Dylan. For a time they were enthusiastic about following the Lord Jesus. It didn’t last long, and so some people attracted to Jesus and coming under the influence of a pastor say to themselves, “What if it will be with me like it was with Bob Dylan? What if it’s all emotional, a seven day wonder and I shall feel sorry that I made a fool of myself?” So instead of becoming Christians they think, “How can I be sure? How can anyone be sure? Let me wait until I am really certain . . .” What was different about Levi that encourages us to think he had become a real Christian?
i] Levi left everything.
Levi was a very wealthy man. He had more money than all of us here put together and he abandoned it all to follow Jesus (v.28). He had to turn his back on all his riches and kill his love of them. The Lord is reminding us that nothing may come between himself and us. If we have lesser gods then let’s destroy them totally. Break them up. Pull that temple down. Raze your idols to the ground. Undermine their foundations and blow them up. Leave no trace of them. Go down and down and remove every bit of them so that you can’t build on them ever again. I want them demolished. I want the great swinging iron ball suspended by the crane to crash against that idol, and smash into it, and keep crashing against it until your idol is unrecognisably broken into a thousand pieces, so that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it back together again. Even then you’ve not finished your demolition work; you root up its foundations too. God is calling for a genuine thoroughgoing repentance. Leave nothing of the idols you once worshipped like Mammon. They had a deadly effect on your life.
Consider the patriarch Abraham (who is the father of all of us who believe in God), how he had to leave Ur of the Chaldees at the command of God. He quit the place he knew and loved setting out on a long journey into the unknown believing just this, that the Lord who commanded never abandoned. The apostles James and John had to leave their father and the fishing business. The Thessalonians turned from their idols to serve the living and true God. There is no heavenly life without renunciation, and that turning away is not at the level of the superficial. We may not make a mere public rejection of our lifestyle but right in the depths of our personalities before the holy God we make abandonment of all self-centred and worldly thinking. We change our emotional life utterly and entirely. Whatever have been our priorities until this time we abandon them. Have we lived for money? For drugs? For sport? For music? For sex? For prestige? For comfort? For the business? For the family? Have I simply lived for anything that gives me some pleasure? In other words, have I lived for myself? Have I spent my weekends in the lusts of the flesh and the mind? Then what is all of that ultimately but this, that I have been my own god, and I have said, “My soul, live for yourself. Take your ease. Eat, drink and be merry. Express yourself, and satisfy yourself”? That, surely, is the great abandonment of a life created and sustained by and for the glorious God; one precious life misspent on baubles.
The Lord was requiring that Levi deliberately abdicated his sovereignty over his own luxurious life, that henceforth he denied himself and he become a Christian, a Christ-obsessed man and a Christ-centred man. We are being asked whether we are sincere about being Christians, whether it’s a big deal with us about gaining eternal life, and if it is then Christ is reminding us that there is just one way, by selling up everything, destroying the idols we’ve served so far, and renouncing that old way of life. Every idol that has had any influence over us has to be broken up. Let’s pray, “Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee.”
ii] Levi followed Jesus Christ.
”Follow me,” said Jesus. This is the command to believe. Faith and repentance are inseparable. Turn your back on everything you’ve lived for (that is repentance), and then you have to follow Christ in what he believes, how Jesus lives, the way Jesus treats sinners and saints, men, women and children, his family, neighbours and enemies. Peter writes that Christ has left us an example that we should walk in his steps, and that is what following him means. He says, “Follow me. You become my servant. Submit your mind to my teachings for I am the great Prophet. Bow your will to my commandments, for I am your King. Plead the merit of my sacrifice for I am your great High Priest. Only on these terms do I offer any salvation or life.” Are you following Christ like that? That is the true Christian life, and every sermon is an exhortation to that end. There was a cox of a Great Britain Olympic crew and in a race he was summoning the eight to supreme effort. To the rhythm of the stroke he kept crying out these words, “If not now – when? If not you – who?” That is what the commanding invitation of the gospel says, “Follow Jesus Christ. If not now – when? If not you – who?”
To be saved one has to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Entrust yourself to him. Look to him and be joined to him by faith and be saved. All of a sinner’s hope for forgiveness and divine mercy is found in the great accomplishments of the Son of God alone, so believe upon him without delay. Then we follow Jesus Christ through thick and thin, always serving him, always doing his will. It is not enough to entrust yourself to him without that kind of faith which is shown in a change of life. The reality of the faith that saves is seen in the submission of the entire life to the Lordship of the Saviour. It is an admission that he is God the Son. It is a deliberate rising and following him. Jesus says that he can take us to God if we follow him and so we place ourselves among that flock which are following this good Shepherd whithersoever he goes. He is our teacher, our protector, our leader and we are following him along the narrow way that leads to life. It is the way of the most stringent morality and personal cross-bearing. It is not the easiest, but if today we want to have eternal life, then it is only by following Christ.
It is no use hiding from the thrust of Jesus’ words by saying, “Yes, but being converted is an experience people have.” We have got it wrong. The professing church has got it wrong at such a crucial issue. Think of it! Of course it is an experience, but at the end of the day I am the one who experiences what it is to pour contempt on all my pride, and I destroy my idols, and I raze to the ground the old temples. I experience mortifying the flesh; I pluck out the right eye and cut off the right arm when they offend me. I do it. By the constraint of grace, of course, and by the power of the Spirit I do it, but the Spirit does not do it for me. The Lord Jesus bore the judgment instead of me, but the Spirit does not do the mortifying instead of me, he strengthens me to do it. He comes alongside me and empowers. I have to change my lifestyle and follow the Lord. It is not enough to rejoice that I am through the narrow gate; henceforth I must walk the narrow way, and follow my Lord. Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus, anywhere, everywhere, I will follow on. God has appointed his Son as the Captain of salvation. He will bring sinners to God if they keep following him on and on even through the valley of the shadow of death.
iii] Levi invited everyone he knew to meet with Jesus Christ.
Luke tells us that this great banquet was held in Levi’s house, and Mark also tells us that it was in Levi’s house, but when Matthew comes to write his own account of his conversion he tells us that the feast took place in a house. Now if you’re checking up on me and looking at Matthew’s gospel in the NIV then you will see that the NIV says that it was at Matthew’s house, but that is not in the Greek text. The translators have slipped it in. “A house,” Matthew wrote, but Luke and Mark tell you that this is Levi’s house and Levi’s banquet. Consider the humility of this man. The man whom Levi knew to be the Son of God when he came to write his gospel entered Matthew’s own house, and ate at his own table, but Matthew doesn’t even tell you it was his house and his party. Matthew’s new life is seen in this fact that he doesn’t draw attention to himself. He turns the focus away from himself and towards Christ.
This was the most important event in Levi’s life, and yet he is so sparing in his description of it. If Levi were alive today, and if he were like some modern day Christians, he’d be on the talk shows. He’d be on ‘Michael Parkinson’ and he’d have a new biography coming out and so be doing book signings, My Adventures with the Lord Jesus Christ; From Tax Collector to Apostle. There could even be films planned about this man, but you don’t get that in Matthew. He left everything, but again Matthew doesn’t tell you that. It’s significant that the other disciples from time to time during their work with the Lord went to back to their professions, fishing, and otherwise. Never again, Levi; when he left the job of tax collecting, he left every penny, never to return.
One other example of Matthew’s new humility is this, that Matthew is one of the few disciples who is recorded in the gospels as having said nothing. He is not involved in any disputes, in any desires to be great in the Kingdom. Most of the other disciples have at least one place where they are said to blurt out certain things, but not Levi. Maybe he was a man of few words, or maybe this is an example of his humility. He had talked plenty at the tax booth telling people what money they had to pay, demanding it menacingly from them, but once he sets out and follows Christ he is slow to speak and swift to hear.
So this Levi who was called by the Lord Jesus Christ immediately calls his friends to his home where they can meet his Master. Levi, because he had been delivered from slavery to Mammon, and because he had found Christ, wanted his friends to make this discovery too. Are we doing something like this? Are we using our homes to bring in someone who can talk to our friends about the kingdom of God ? In those first twelve months of being a Christian what unique opportunities we have. We still have all our old friends who are not Christians, but we also have the praying support of new Christian friends in taking the gospel to the old gang.
So this passage reminds us again that with Christ nothing is impossible. Christ can take a tax collector and can turn him into an apostle. Christ goes after one who was hated by his own society, who was an outcast, utterly unpatriotic, a thief, and Jesus calls him to the apostleship. The Lord Jesus Christ transforms the lives of all whom he calls, even the most despicable. Never underestimate the power of grace to change someone. Matthew was scorned by his fellow citizens, but he was brought to Christ and used so powerfully as he wrote his gospel. This is the man who copied out for the first time the Sermon on the Mount and gave the first book of the New Testament to the world.
THIS TAX COLLECTOR HEARD FROM JESUS HIMSELF THE PURPOSE OF HIS MISSION INTO THE WORLD.
We are told that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were disgusted with Jesus for going into a tax collector’s house and eating with him. If he were a holy man what was he doing eating with sinners? Although they complained to the disciples not to Jesus our Lord knew what they were saying and so he 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 to repentance.’” (vv. 31&32). Sometimes we get discouraged and doubts set in. Have we really understood what Christianity is all about? Is our evangelical view of things correct? Is our diagnosis of the human condition right? Is our emphasis on evangelism right? Then we read those words of Jesus and they are a great confirmation. The Son of God left the Father in heaven to come into this world to do what he did to Levi, and what he has done to many of us, to tell us we are sick and heal us, to call us sinners to change, to turn and repent, to give up any other idol and follow him. That is our mission to the world and we must try not to grow weary in it.
Our Lord says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (v.32). He is saying, “Listen! It is precisely those who are ill who need a doctor. So it is exactly sinners who need a Saviour. If the Saviour has truly come, where else would you expect him to be but with sinners? How would sinners be saved if the Saviour didn’t go to them? How else would they hear the words of grace? How are they going to be helped? How will their hearts be bound up? How are they going to be delivered from the leprosy of sin if the Saviour doesn’t touch them?”
The Pharisees pretended they had this incredibly high view of sin and holiness and they just couldn’t believe that Jesus would have a meal with such people as Matthew. The Lord Jesus basically says, “You don’t understand sin, because if you understood sin and what it does to people, and its eternal consequences, you’d be doing everything that you could do to make sure that as few people as possible were going to come under the strictures and punishment of God’s wrath. You would want sinners to be brought to the Saviour. You’d seek them, not standing over against them separating yourselves from them.”
J. C. Ryle says, “Sinners we are in the day we first come to Christ. Poor, needy sinners we continue to be as long as we live, drawing all the grace we have every hour out of Christ’s fullness. Sinners we shall find ourselves in the hour of our death, and we shall die as much indebted to Christ’s blood as in the day when we first believed.” That is a truth that none of us must forget.
‘I came to call sinners to repentance,’ he said. That’s his message to you. There’s no sin – there is no sin so foul that it puts us beyond the pale of his reach. There is no sin which disqualifies us from his attention. There is no sin which separates us from the ability of his power and grace and love to reach us and transform us. You say, “That’s OK for those nice, respectable people at the Baptist Church , but you don’t know me, and you don’t happen to know the fact that I had an abortion. My parents don’t even know that I had an abortion. I’ve hid this from everyone that I know. How can you say that Christ can come to me and forgive me?” Jesus says, “I came to call sinners to repentance.”
You may be saying, “Well, that’s fine for all these respectable, well-dressed, clean-shaven folks around here. But I’ve brought the firm I worked for into enormous debt, and I’m looked down upon by all who know it. People lost their jobs in their business because of me. I’m beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness, but here is Christ saying, “I came to call sinners to repentance.”
Or you may be saying, “That’s fine for other people, but you don’t understand, I’ve been struggling with my homosexual tendencies for years. I’ve lived the lifestyle that your Bible calls perverse. I’ve done it for the last decade. How can you say that this word is for me?” “I came to call sinners to repentance,” Jesus says.
You say, “But you don’t understand, I’ve committed adultery. I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve been unfaithful to my husband. Surely, I’m beyond the reach of this particular love.” “I came to call sinners to repentance.”
You can rack up all the socially despicable sins that you want, and still the Lord Jesus Christ is going to come back and he’s going to say, “I came to call sinners to repentance.” Stop doing it; turn from it and follow Jesus Christ from this moment on. Be like Matthew, a quiet Christian who was given the immense privilege of remembering what Jesus said and did and letting others know it. That is the future for you; that is the way of life; that is joy and blessedness. Every other way leads to destruction.
20th April 2008 GEOFF THOMAS