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JESUS CALLS LEVI

Luke 5:27-5:32
Key Verse: 5:27

Luke wrote of two callings of Jesus in chapter 5: Jesus’ call to Simon and Jesus’ call to Levi. Simon was a fisherman, and mostly likely a nice guy, well accepted by others. But Levi was a tax collector; very selfish man, not easily accepted by others, and rather hated by his own fellow people. In calling Simon, Jesus took some steps: getting into Simon’s boat, asking him to put out a little from shore, then telling him to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch, and finally calling him with the words of promise, “From now on you will catch men.” Simon’s response also took several steps: trying Jesus’ command in obedience and experiencing his power and holiness, seeing himself as a sinful man before Jesus, and then finally following Jesus at his words of promise. However, as for Levi, Jesus’ call was in one step, and Levi’s response, also one step. Jesus called him with a short command, “Follow me” and Levi got up and followed him. These two are exemplary callings in the Bible. Both show God’s love and hope through Jesus. Let’s study Jesus’ call to Levi according to Luke’s description.

First, “follow me” (27-29). Look at verse 27. “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth.” “After this” refers to the previous event: Jesus healed a paralytic brought by his friends, saying, “Your sins are forgiven” (5:20) and making him get up and walk. This demonstrates Jesus as the Messiah, who has authority to forgive sins. After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector. In Mark, it is written “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..." Luke omitted the preamble of Jesus teaching a large crowd beside the lake and walking along. Instead, Luke directly jumps to "Jesus went out and saw a tax collector...". To Luke Jesus' seeing a tax collector was so impressive that he lost no time in writing this. Luke wrote more about God's work in tax collectors than did the other gospel writers. As we studied in chapter 3, Luke recorded, "Even tax collectors came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?'” (3:12 in ESV). And 7:29 says, "All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John." At that time it was really surprising that tax collectors repented and were baptized for a new life. And tax collectors were bracketed with sinners. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating and drinking, they said, "Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (7:34). And 15:1 says, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus." No one could imagine that the tax collectors enjoyed hearing the word of God gathering around Jesus. Luke had to write their changes. In chapter 18 he wrote about the humble prayer of a tax collector, who stood at a distance in the temple and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, while a Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (18:10-13). According to Jesus God accepted the prayer of the tax collector. And then in chapter 19 Luke wrote about a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Jesus and was changed through encountering Jesus (19:1-9).

At that time tax collectors were collaborators with Rome. Backed by Roman power, they collected more taxes than were required from their own poor suffering people and thus enriched their pockets with the surplus. So they were hated by their own people Jews. They were known as public sinners, outcasts and renegades. They were the most unlikely people to be called by Jesus. It was unbelievable that Jesus saw a tax collector. Jesus did not bypass him as others had. Jesus stopped in his tracks and saw him. In Luke’s description his name comes later. In 5:27 Jesus saw a tax collector by the name of Levi, and then Levi sitting at his tax booth. When Jesus saw a tax collector, Levi, Jesus saw everything about him. Of course, first of all he saw Levi collecting taxes sitting at his tax booth. Here the taxes that Levi collected were likely to have been toll or customs duties (Tariff) rather than poll tax or the like. Undoubtedly, Jesus saw more than Levi’s collecting taxes. When Jesus saw him sitting at his tax booth, Jesus saw his inner conflict. We don’t know exactly why he became a tax collector, obtaining such a notorious job. Yet, we can imagine that he had started that job because he needed money to support himself and his family in the poor colonized country under Rome. After a certain period of time, however, he could not only support his family, but also could taste the pleasures of money. And then he was hooked. He became attached to the job, despite knowing that it was not the right way to make money. In so doing, he denied his conscience and good will. Now he could have money and enjoy the comfortable life and pleasures of the world as long as income was steady, living in a nice house and eating gourmet food. Then in return he could feel the eyes of hatred from people wherever he went. He lost what was more precious than money: dignity and love as a human being. He lost self-respect and hope. He had to live in loneliness without any sound relationship with others. He was disgusted with himself and was just getting old, year by year in hopelessness. He knew the time he had spent would not return and the life he had lived would not be revoked. His soul was crying for a new life, yet he did not know how. No one could see what was going on in the inside of him, but Jesus saw it.

After seeing a tax collector Levi sitting at his booth, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Levi seemed the last person who could hear such words from Jesus. It is noticeable that the words of Jesus, “Follow me” is first addressed to Levi in Luke’s gospel. Nobody wanted to be a friend to Levi. Yet, when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Jesus indicated that he was willing and happy to be a friend to Levi, that Levi might not be lonely any more in his life journey in this world. More than that Jesus wanted Levi to know true friendship based on love and truth.

And when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Jesus was helping him to have a clear new life direction. So far, Levi had followed money, and he must have deeply realized that it was a wrong life direction. Now Jesus was offering him not only a new life direction, but the best one. It was not following a certain teaching or idea or ideology, but the person Jesus. Currently, there are almost 7 billion people living in the world. So definitely, throughout human history, more than 10 billion people have lived on earth. Among them “whom to follow” has been a big question in human life and history. There have been followers of so called great figures. In our country there are followers of Prime Minister Harper, and also followers of Justin Trudeau, the liberal party leader in the hope of his becoming next PM. People can follow certain leaders or big guys to get high positions or some other benefits. One can follow a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the hope of a nice future family. In fact, whom to follow is of a tremendous importance in life. For in a true sense people can have the same life destiny as the one whom they follow. We can say that true success and failure in life relies on whom we follow. However, human beings’ sincere question can be, “Who can really say, ‘Follow me’ with full confidence and truthfulness?” For we know that human life ends in death without exception. The path of human life is not definite at any step, but definitely eventually leads to the graveyards. And since no one knows what will happen tomorrow, let alone after 10 years, who can dare to say, “Follow me”? Only one who knows where he is going, and is sure of each moment of life and of the future and of the final destiny beyond this world can say, “Follow me.” Later on Apostle Paul could say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

When Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me,” Jesus was promising Levi true happiness in life: life with dignity and love; truly meaningful and fruitful life; and certainly life eternal. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” Jesus knew where he was going. He would go to the cross and die on it and rise again from death and go back to the Father. It was to save all those who follow him and lead them to the eternal kingdom of God. In short when Jesus said, “Follow me”, it was invitation to himself and his life on earth and ultimately to his home, the heavenly kingdom. By following Jesus, Levi would be his disciple and learn of him in every area of life and become like him and finally live forever in his kingdom (Lk 23:43). This is truly the best life direction offered to Levi, and all people. When Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me” it was none other than Jesus’ great love and hope for him.

We can say many things of Christian life. But concisely it is to follow him, Jesus. Our purpose of Bible study is to follow him, for the Scriptures testify about Jesus (Jn 5:39). And the purpose of teaching the Bible and feeding God’s flock is also to follow Jesus and learn of him. So “follow me” is the best and most important life direction for all Christians from first to last.

Then how did Levi respond to Jesus’ call, “Follow me”? Look at verse 28. “and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” What an instantaneous response! Interestingly Jesus’ call and Levi’s response are in a single sentence. Levi left everything and followed Jesus. In the past, money was everything to him. But now, Jesus became everything to him. At that moment of hearing the divine call of Jesus, “Follow me,” he found the incomparable value of Jesus and decided to follow Jesus at any cost. Evidently, it was not a hasty decision. Levi’s immediate response shows he was eagerly waiting for such a divine calling. Of course, it would not be an easy path of life. We can imagine many difficulties as Levi followed Jesus, for following Jesus included living together with him and the other disciples. As Levi had lived all by himself, eating by himself and sleeping by himself, selfishness and self-centred life must have been deeply formed in him. He could often make Jesus and others sick and tired because of his terrible selfishness and self-centredness. However, since he had a decision to follow Jesus, Jesus would bear all his weaknesses and raise him as a great sacrificial servant of God. Indeed in Jesus’ care and shepherding he became St. Matthew, who wrote the first gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount which contains notable words of Jesus such as: “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) and “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33)-- in following Jesus, Matthew became a wonderful teacher of mankind.

Look at verse 29. “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” Matthew wrote, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house…” (9:10), and Mark, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house…” (2:15). As for Luke, it was not just a dinner, but a great banquet. “Sitting at his tax booth” and “holding a great banquet at his house” is a sharp contrast. This shows Levi’s change after making a decision to follow Jesus. Certainly, the great banquet was the expression of his inner joy. Those who were present at the banquet were Jesus and his disciples and a large number of tax collectors and others. The number was about 50 or even more. So the great feast cost him more than his monthly grocery fee. In the past he was not willing to spend his money even a penny for others. Now he was more than willing to spend such a big for Jesus and others. When he repented of his selfishness in following Jesus, his pocket or wallet repented. And the point of this banquet was not just for the sake of feasting. It was to make an environment for his old friends to experience the wonderful friend Jesus so that they might also live a new life in him. Their eating together with Jesus must have been the picture of the kingdom of heaven.

Second, “to call sinners to repentance” (30-32). In such a joyful and jubilant banquet, there were very unhappy people. Look at verse 30. “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’?’” As their question reveals, they could not understand why Jesus and his disciples were eating with tax collectors and sinners. To them the tax collectors were forever bad and unclean people. With their strict rules of ceremonial purity it was unthinkable that they would have eaten with people such as Levi and his associates. It was a sure way of contracting defilement. Moreover to eat with a man meant friendship, full acceptance. So they criticized the disciples. How could people who professed to be religious countenance sinners like these? They thought that the disciples would be contaminated by associating with them. Yet, their aim was challenging Jesus through complaining to his disciples, springing from their growing dislike for Jesus. To them, those who were not their sect could not be easily accepted. They were really legalistic and bigoted.

It was the disciples who were addressed, but Jesus who replied. Jesus protected his disciples and also had a broken heart for them and did his best to help them. Look at verses 31-32. “Jesus answered, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” The Pharisees and the teachers of the law seemed to categorize people into those who belong their sect and those who do not. However, Jesus spoke of the healthy and the sick, the righteous and sinners. In this world there are the healthy and the sick. It is obvious that the sick need a doctor. Certainly, Jesus was not talking about physically sick people. In that banquet all were not physically sick but healthy. To Jesus’ eyes they were all spiritually sick. The tax collectors and sinners recognized that they were sick spiritually and came to Jesus to be healed. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did not acknowledge that they were spiritually sick. So they were rejecting and even judging and condemning Jesus. And then Jesus concluded, saying, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Obviously the righteous are the healthy and sinners are the sick. According to the Bible there is no one who is righteous in God’s sight. All are unrighteous and sinners. However, there are those who think they are righteous in their own sight. Then they exclude themselves from Jesus’s love Only those who recognize themselves as sinners welcome Jesus and ask for his grace. We should always watch out self-righteousness. All human righteous acts are like filthy rags before the holy and righteous God (Isa 64:6). Isaiah 57:15 says, “For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” David confessed in Psalm 51:17, “…a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” A contrite and repentant heart is blessed. It is true that Jesus came to call sinners to repentance.

Thank Jesus who saw a tax collector Levi and called him, saying, “Follow me.” This was Jesus’ invitation to himself and to his life and his eternal kingdom. May God help each one to respond to Jesus’ calling, “Follow me” personally and treasure the words of Jesus in our hearts and follow him at each step of life in this world.

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