Gift from God, for the People of God
Mark 2:13-17 (King James Version) And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. 14And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. 15And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. 16And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? 17When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Modern Believers are readers of the Word. We read the Bible. That was not the case in the early Christian church. The church members of the first century were hearers of the Word. Most people could not read. The writings that later became part of our New Testament were read in churches.
Large numbers of people sought out Jesus. The Savior taught the crowds. After Jesus was finished teaching, he passed by and saw Levi. And Jesus asked Levi to follow Him. This might not seem unusual to us, but it probably caught the attention of almost every Jewish and Gentile Believer who heard the story. Jesus saw Levi! Even more shocking than the fact that Jesus noticed Levi is the fact that Jesus called Levi to be a disciple, a student of His.
You may be wondering what is so unusual about that. Jesus called other disciples. There was nothing all that unusual about Jesus asking somebody to be a disciple. You may know Levi better by his other name, Matthew. Levi was a tax collector.
Tax collectors were hated. Part of the reason for their hatred was the amount of taxes paid and the high number of taxes the people had to pay. People had income and crop taxes. But the taxes were not limited to that. They had poll tax, import and export tax, and sales tax. Taxes had to be paid when you used bridges, roads, harbors, and when you entered a town that had a protecting wall. Want a tax escape? Do not long for the “good old days!” You will not find a tax escape there.
Levi’s work as a tax collector prevented him from associating with people of respect and honor.1 You see tax collectors were ranked with prostitutes, robbers, and murderers.2
Probably most Jewish people would have despised Levi. He was of the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe.3 But to a very devout Jewish person, Levi had sunk to about as low as he could go. He was a publican, a tax collector. Jewish tradition has it that a publican was somebody who had been excommunicated.4 Tax collectors were not allowed to worship. Remember the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the publican praying. The tax collector or the publican was standing and praying away from the temple, because he was not allowed in the temple.5
Strict Jews felt God was the only person to whom it was right to pay taxes.6 That might be why the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus when they asked Him if it was right to pay tax to Caesar. You can read that story in Mark 12:13-17.
Herod killed many Jewish zealots. They were burned alive. Given that background, you can imagine how much Jewish people who served the Romans were hated. And a Jew who collected tax money for the Romans would have been high on the “most hated list.” There is a good chance Levi had to be careful to ensure he would not be harmed by angry zealous Jews.7
The Jews were not the only ones to hate tax collectors. The men who collected tax were almost universally hated in the ancient world. One writer referred to them as pariahs.8
Tax collectors earned some of the hatred. They were noted for being dishonest and for collecting far more tax than required. The tax collector kept the excess money. Levi was the type of tax collector who was almost like a custom’s officer.9 This type of tax collector could stop and search anybody other than a married woman. If you were stopped by such a tax collector, you might have to let him search your bags. He could even force you to strip. Virtually any amount of tax could be imposed. If you were unable to pay the tax collector, he could arrange a loan. Of course the loan was at what I am sure they tried to maintain was a “modest interest rate.” Some of the tax collectors kept a few rather poor donkeys. Should you come by with a good donkey, you might be required to trade donkeys with them.10
Hating the tax man is a time-honored tradition. Society still hates the tax man. I’ve heard stories of shunning from people who worked for Internal Revenue.
When we see people, what do we see? Do we see them with kind eyes, with Jesus’ eyes? Or do we see them with worldly eyes?
We size people up. We judge them very quickly. If they do not meet our initial evaluation, sorry dude! There’s no second chance.
Young person, how do you evaluate people? By money, by looks, by designer clothes? Does a person wearing generic clothes at your school, at your college get accepted as fast in your social circles as a person wearing designer clothes? Who has more social status in your school, the person who drives his or her own car to school or the student who takes the bus? Think of the teenager who has a body and a face not even a mother could easily love. How fast will that teen be included in activities at school? On the social ladder, where does a jock fit compared to a nerd? Which one would you rather have people know is your friend?
OK mature adults. We are next on the list. Are we any better than the teenagers? There are times when we model exclusiveness very well. Think about the church member or the neighbor who is unemployed or receives welfare. How do we treat that person? And just as bad, what do we say about people who are unemployed, disabled, or receiving welfare benefits?
And we judge by externals too. How do we treat a young man who walks into church wearing less than his Sunday best? What is he comes in the sanctuary wearing badly torn blue-jeans, a thin tank-top, earrings, makeup, and a dirty baseball cap? How will we treat him? Will we take him to task because he offends our expectations of right and wrong? Or will see something of value that is much deeper than the skin?
How do we treat minority groups? Do we treat people of color with respect and immediately include them in our social circles? And how do we react when we think that single man or woman is not straight? Do we exclude them? Talk about them behind their backs? Ask people to watch their children when “that person” is around? Fortunately, that is not likely to happen here - in an affirming church.
How do people see you? How do you see yourself? Are you any kinder to yourself than to other people? Does your physical build, age, looks, personality, reputation, sexual orientation, gender expression, disabilities, or past mistakes keep you from seeing your potential?
What is the fundamental difference between the way Jesus sees people and the way we see people? Jesus sees people for whom they can become, not for who they are. Jesus sees the way people will look when the risen Christ is shining through them. That is what Jesus saw in Levi. When Jesus looked at Levi, he saw Matthew.11 That’s Levi’s second name. Matthew means “gift of God.”12 Jesus looked beyond the present. He looked into the future. Perhaps, the Messiah saw the Matthew who would write a gospel. He might have seen the Matthew that Jewish tradition holds was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin.13 We know when the Savior saw Matthew, He saw somebody of value.
Today, I invite you to step back a few feet from yourself. Look at yourself through friendly eyes, not through hostile, judgmental eyes. Imagine yourself walking along. You are in Jesus’ shoes. You look out through Jesus’ eyes. What do you see? What potential do you see? And what would Jesus say to you?
Through Jesus’ eyes you should be seeing a person who is worthy, and who is perfect or complete in Christ. You see a person who is fit for heaven. More than that, you see a person who is capable. The person you see is capable of doing wonderful things for God. And you see a person who will rule with the risen Christ forever.
And your heart may rebel. This cannot be the way Jesus, the one depicted in the Bible as the sinless Son of God, sees you. Take a look inside the Bible for a moment.
1 Peter 3:18 (Moffatt Bible) “Christ himself died for sins, once for all, a just man for the unjust men, that he might bring us near to God . . .” What is this verse really saying? Let me get into traditional trinitarian theology for a moment. In traditional trinitarian beliefs, God the Father, the Son, and Spirit are equal. The Son is God just as much as the Father and the Spirit. The way the Son sees you is the way God, for the Son is God. God sees you as a person God wants to spend eternity with! The Son’s passion was to ensure that you could be near God for eternity! That’s right. You are on the “invite list” for the most important event of all time, heaven!
You might be thinking you are just too bad for God, too tough a cookie. Think again. Jesus saw Levi to be Matthew, the “gift of God.” As a result, Matthew went from an excommunicated one, to one who helped form a communion of Christ. Matthew was transformed from an apostate from the people of God to one of the pillars of the church of God. From a person who oppressed, he helped bring liberty to the oppressed.14
And what reaction do we have to Jesus’ kind eyes, to Jesus’ kind calling on our lives? There is a good example in the bible. Mark 9:14-15 records it. Matthew got up from his work and followed Jesus. Then Matthew threw a party! You heard right. Matthew threw a party! That is what Christians need to do every week. We throw a party. The party can be quiet or loud, but church is still a party.
Matthew threw a good party too. He invited all of his friends. Mark 9:15 says there were many tax collectors and sinners at the party. And the guest of honor, Jesus, was invited! We can invite our friends to the party we call church, to the party where God is present.
At every party there are party poopers. That seems to be the rule. There are a few party poopers in churches too. But don’t worry about them. Mark 9:16 says the Pharisees, who were ancient party poopers, asked why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. And Jesus - remember Jesus is God the Son - stood up for Matthew. God stands up for you when the party poopers wonder why you are at church, why you are with God.
Remember what Matthew's name means, "gift of God." Jesus looked at Levi and saw Matthew. So today, I invite you to look at others through Jesus eyes. And when you do that everybody you see will be Matthew, a "gift of God." Then look at yourself through Jesus' eyes. See yourself in the mirror. And you will see a "gift from God." You are a "gift from God," for the people of God. Thanks be to God!