‘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 Alphaueus sitting at the tax collectors booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
Horsham. 24th January 2024
Jesus had told his disciples that his main purpose was to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. Here he is teaching, and as ever, he quickly attracts a crowd.
In my class at school there was a young man called Martin who was a bit of a bully. When we reached the fifth form (nowdays in the UK it’s called Year 11) we were paraded in front of the careers teacher to talk about what we wanted to do when we left school. I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper (true story). Martin, the bully, wanted to be a tax man, an ambition which he later achieved. His slightly unusual career choice didn’t make him any more popular. There’s a sense in which nobody much likes the tax man.
2000 years earlier, a guy called Levi had a similar life plan. He was a tax collector (in Matthew’s Gospel he appears with the Greek version of his name, Matthew). He was in Capernaum, collecting taxes from people as they travelled through the town. He was almost certainly working for the man we know as Herod Antipas, who was in place as the local ruler under the protection of Rome. He was, in effect, collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman occupiers. Yet he wasn’t a Roman – he was a Jew.
We don’t know much about Levi. We don’t know whether he had set out to become a tax man or whether this was the only job he could get. We don’t know whether he was good at the job. We don’t know whether he had been dishonest (and shouldn’t assume that he was}, but many of his peers were. His job was to gather a fixed amount of tax to pay his masters. They weren’t particularly bothered how he did that. Bullying was acceptable, even expected, and they were happy for him to keep any excess above his target which he managed to get. A forceful attitude was helpful, and as you might start to see, if you were good at it, tax collector could be a lucrative job. On the downside, we can assume that Levi was not the most popular man in Capernaum. He was a Jew, but he was outside the mainstream community. He was unclean. He was working for a hated occupying enemy. He was a collaborator.
The picture we have is of him sitting there at his booth, surrounded by coins and the trappings of his trade, haranguing passers by and demanding their taxes. In the noise and bustle of the busy scene, in a dusty and noisy street, this young rabbi walks by. Jesus lived in the town and it’s unlikely that this was the first time that he’d passed that way. We have seen that it’s probable that everybody in Capernaum knew who Jesus was, but we don’t know whether Levi had actually met him before, but it’s inconceivable that they didn’t know who each other was.
This story appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospel. In all three, Jesus words are the same. ‘Follow me.’ Nothing more. No sermons. No protracted arguments. Just that. ‘Follow me.’ And that’s exactly what he does.
The rules were simple. If a tax collector left his job, the Romans wouldn’t allow him to get it back. Levi did just that.
Here’s the reality. Levi had been working for Herod Antipas, the one who thought of himself as the King of the Jews. Now, he abandons everything to follow Jesus, the one who really was the King of the Jews.