Jesus had just filled Israel with fear and astonishment by healing a paralyzed man and forgiving his sins. As his nation was abuzz with awe, Jesus went about his business and “noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.”
“Luke! Is this all you wanted to say here? Did you not want to say a little something to explain why fish like Levi just jumped into the boat with Jesus? Or—did you want us to reconstruct this story for the information we might glean, as if reconstruction and gleaning were of some benefit, some benefit like manna for our souls? Ah yes. I think I get it. Thanks.”
Who was Levi? All we know so far is that he is a tax collector. And what do we know about tax collectors? Well, they are on the social pariah list right after undertakers—death being the only thing worse than paying taxes. To gain appreciation for Levi’s despised status, imagine that the United States had lost the war to the Axis Powers in World War II. Then imagine an American citizen who was in the employment of either Germany or Japan whose job it was to collect your taxes, if necessary with the tact and force of the brutal occupying army. Levi was a man without a country, loathed by his countryman beyond even their hatred for Rome. Even though he had committed the unpardonable sin of compromise, God did not see him as his nation did. God knew Levi was a lonely man who had to harden himself against the stones and slurs slung at him daily. Whatever Levi was, Jesus invited him into his inner circle. Beautiful!
We know that Levi was, at the very least, grateful and had a pent up desire to experience a party which Jesus’ unqualified acceptance apparently triggered: “And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them.”
Maybe this was a regular scum-of-the-city dinner party, but I suspect it was a celebration of an unprecedented nature. Levi had discovered that the most righteous man who ever trod the streets of Jerusalem thought enough of him to befriend him. Levi naturally assumed that Jesus would feel the same toward the rest of the city’s scum so he opened his home to them as well. However, those who were most highly ranked in their religious culture, the un-scum, were not pleased:
The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?”
I don’t know if they were all standing around together, but Jesus preempts whatever his fledgling disciples might have answered:
“It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.“
What an honor it would have been to have been there celebrating with these outcasts; eating, drinking, and making merry with God incarnate as a living consternation to all the elder brothers who were standing outside the party thinking, “I’ve always done my chores, and No One ever killed a fattened calf for me and my friends.”
Religion does a horrific thing to man’s spirit—every bit as intoxicating as lust or greed. Truly, if we are to take the story of Levi seriously, religion is far worse because it alienates. The horrific thing is the delusion it creates that through our chores we achieve status in the religious pecking order where outward moral comparisons define one layer upon another of elder brotherhood. And all the while, the Father appeals:
“Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
As we think about ourselves and our relationships with God, it seems we have choices to make. We can throw a party, or we can sing a dirge. Those who know they were sick and needed a physician will throw celebrations. Those who are fairing well in the religious pecking order must remain outside the party, grumbling and being content with their relative wholesomeness and productivity.
Father, I did not see the man lowered through the roof whose body was healed and whose sins were forgiven, but I have known a man who was raised from spiritual death as a prodigal and as an elder brother. Oh Lord, that I would remain a grateful, celebrating, lifelong friend to the friendless. For your Name’s sake, may our hearts be struck with astonishment and filled with awe. May the religious receive their invitation afresh. May the banquet continue, and may the alienation of myriad elder brother’s get the best of them, drawing them into the inner circle. Let it be.