Levi's Story – Luke 5:27-32
When Jesus left the house in which He had cured the paralyzed man, the first person He saw, Luke tells us, was a tax collector named Levi (5:27), and so begins our next transformation story. We shall see how Levi the tax collector became Matthew the apostle.
What was Levi like before Jesus stopped by His tax office that day? Obviously, he was a tax collector, or publican, who practiced a profession despised by the Jews and typically characterized by fraud and extortion. (15) Publicans, the lowest level of Roman tax collectors, were typically drawn from the “dregs” of society. (16) While many of them, including Levi, were Jews, they were excommunicated from the Temple due to their collaboration with the Roman government; this excommunication prohibited them from practicing their religion or even swearing oaths before Jewish authorities. (17) Cut off from society and hated by their own people, many publicans turned to the dishonest practices of which they were so frequently accused, cheating their neighbors by collecting more than the required amount of tax and using the extra money to line their own pockets. Perhaps Levi also indulged in this kind of behavior; the text does not tell us, but we can be sure that, in any case, he was an outcast from the Jewish religious and social community, a great sinner in the eyes of the Jews. As such, he would probably have viewed himself as an outcast from God and even despised by God just as he was by his fellow Jews, but his encounter with the divine presence in Jesus Christ was soon to change all of this.
What happened that transformed Levi's life story so dramatically? A look and two words. The translated text says that Jesus “saw” a tax collector (5:27), but in the original Greek, this word has the much stronger connotation of “looking attentively” or fixing one's eyes upon someone. (18) This was not a common glance; it was an intense gaze that must have reached to the depths of Levi's heart. The look was accompanied by two simple yet powerful words, “Follow Me” (5:27). Was this an invitation, a command, or both? Whatever the nature of the words, Jesus was clearly calling Levi to leave his old life behind and accept a new role as His disciple, and Levi, under the influence of divine grace and the “flash of divine sympathy” that passed between Jesus and himself, responded. (19) He rose from his post at the tax office, left everything, and followed Him (5:28).
The Levi who sat down at the tax office that morning was not the same man who rose up a while later. How was he changed by his encounter with Jesus? Rather dramatically, he literally got up and left his whole life behind. He must have trusted Jesus unconditionally from the first moment of their acquaintance, for he abandoned his profession, his livelihood, to follow a Man he barely knew. There may even have been some physical risk involved in Levi's action; the Romans would not have been pleased to find that one of their publicans had left his job unfinished and gone off to join some traveling preacher. (20) Levi went anyway, without hesitation. (21) He chose to make Jesus his entire life. He accepted the grace offered to him and grasped the opportunity for discipleship, even if at that time he did not fully realize the intricacies and implications of his choice. He had gained a real, personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, God-made-Man. Further, Levi commenced his duties as Jesus' disciple immediately by hosting a great feast in Jesus' honor and inviting his fellow tax collectors, probably with the hope of introducing them to Jesus and offering them a chance at the new life he had just received (5:29). He thereby became a witness of the good news and an intermediary drawing others to Jesus. He was making his first attempt at mission. (22) On another level, Levi's feast was, perhaps, his way of showing gratitude to Jesus for His great gifts. The Greek word for “feast” can have the connotation of a reception. Was Levi receiving Jesus into his home as an outward sign and gesture of thanksgiving for having been allowed to receive Him into his heart? In any case, Jesus graciously consented to attend Levi's feast, much to the disgust of the Pharisees who were appalled to see Him sharing table fellowship with a group of notorious publicans and sinners (5:30). Jesus took this opportunity to explicitly state the purpose of His mission. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;” He said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”(5:31). With these words, Jesus identified Himself as the divine Physician Who had come to heal and forgive a sick and sinful world. He had certainly healed and forgiven Levi, the tax collector, who was no longer a possibly-crooked publican but a faithful disciple, no longer a sinful outcast from God but a companion of the God-Man. Levi's conversion even warranted a new name, “Matthew,” which means “gift of God” and was probably first applied as a surname. (23) Gift of God, indeed. Levi knew full well what he had received with just a look and two words.
What does Levi's story tell us about the God Who had become the intimate friend of a tax collector? First, we may discern Jesus' power. He can break into our lives and transform them in an instant. Father George Haydock notes that in Levi's conversion we can perceive “the marvelous efficacy of Christ's word and internal working, which in a moment can alter the heart of man, and cause him to despise what before was most near and dear to him.” (24) Further, we learn that Jesus seeks us and calls us to conversion. The whole purpose of His coming among us as a Man is to draw us to Himself, to forgive and heal us, and to immerse us in His loving presence. He desires a relationship with each of us, no matter what our state in life, and He challenges us to go beyond our normal ways of thinking and behaving so that we can accept His plan for our lives and be transformed in mind and heart just as Levi was.
Finally, once again we must ask ourselves, “How does God reach out to touch and change our minds, hearts, and lives as we meditate on Levi's experiences?” We may reflect on the following questions:
1. Is God calling us to a particular mission? What is His plan for our lives?
2. Do we follow God's call without hesitancy and resistance? What causes us to resist Him?
3. How is God challenging us? Is He nudging us to let go of some carefully-guarded attitudes and behaviors? What does He want us to leave behind that we may follow Him?
4. How is God breaking into our daily lives? Do we understand the power of His grace to touch, change, and heal us?
5. Do we realize that God always has His eyes fixed intently on us? How would this realization change us?
6. Whom do we need to bring to Jesus? How can we be disciples and missionaries in the world?
15. Frederic Godet, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889), 269.
17. Godet, 269.
19. Ibid., 270.; Henry.
20. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Luke, Vol. I (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1874), 190.
22. Godet, 272.
23. Ibid., 271.
24. George Leo Haydock, Catholic Family Bible and Commentary (New York: Edward Dunagan and Brother, 1859), http://haydock1859.tripod.com/ (accessed January 27, 2010).--