There are some stories that are immediate classics. They are published, or presented on the silver screen and they are immediately recognized as new standards for excellence. Maybe it’s the lead character whose story draws you further into their tale. Perhaps it’s the style surrounding every line or shot. Maybe it’s the character arc that transforms a coward into a courageous champion. Scripture is full of such stories; men and women whose beginnings could never foreshadow their great ends. One such story is found in the disciple Matthew, also known as Levi.
Jesus chose twelve men to be His appointed Apostles. They were granted unique authority in the church and would go on to lay the foundations for the New Testament church after Christ’s ascension and holy session (that is, His sitting at the right hand of the Father). We may think that such characters were all holy to begin with, but a simple glance at their origins (and indeed their lives) shows that they were mixed characters.
Matthew, also known as Levi, was a former tax collector. Three of the four gospels contain his story. It is a remarkable account because it reminds us of the depths of the love and mercy of God in Christ. Why do I say that? Levi was a tax collector. This was an especially offensive profession in the days of Jesus because these taxes were taken from the Israelites and given to the Romans, their overlords. Add to this that most tax collectors also took in more than they needed, and you have a certified thief and traitor before you; Levi was such a man.
None of that mattered because Jesus called him saying, “Follow Me.” (Luke 5:27). This call was the very call of discipleship. It was a call to leave their former life behind, and to literally get up and follow Jesus wherever He taught. Luke tells us how Levi responded, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” (Luke 5:28 ESV) Levi not only left his booth, but his life as a swindler. His repentance became visible to all, and his life was never the same.
According to our outwards senses, Jesus picked the wrong guy. Which of us would want our inner core to contain a known liar, thief, and traitor? Yet, the ministry of Christ is not about leaving people where He finds them, but in transforming every part of their world by His presence and proclamation. The call of Christ is a call to become a new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).
Why did Jesus do this? We don’t have to guess. He tells us the very reason: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32 ESV) Jesus was echoing the very same message that John the Baptist had preached before Him (Luke 3:3, 8). His message was one of repentance, but also, the King’s pursuit of His lost and sinful people.
One of the Gospel of Luke’s great contributions are the parables of the lost being found (see Luke 15). There we receive another beautiful image to highlight the reason behind Christ’s redemptive work. Jesus said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7 ESV) Heaven rejoices when rebels are redeemed.
This detail was lost to the Pharisees and scribes because their religion remained external, and never pierced their hearts (cf. Matthew 23). Hence the Gospel of Matthew’s inclusion of Hosea 6:6 in his parallel account: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” (ESV) When the church is more concerned with being a holy huddle, than a hospital for lost souls, she will find herself a whitewashed tomb.
Is there a practical component for us today? Of course! One of my favorite parts of Levi’s call is that our past doesn’t impede our usefulness in the kingdom of God. Every one of us shows ourselves to be godless in various ways. Each of us has broken God’s law, and naturally are not fit for heaven. But none of that matters before the power of Christ for He is the great physician. Our hearts may be cold, shriveled, blackened, selfish bits of flesh akin to jerky left out in the desert sun. But one breath from the lion of the tribe of Judah softens even the hardest of hearts. One burst of light from His power, can animate even the coldest of spiritual corpses.
The calling of the twelve in general, and Levi in particular, reminds us that our great king Jesus does not push sinners away from Himself, but draws them closer. This great feast Levi held for Christ is a beautiful foreshadow then of what awaits all who heed that call of Christ to come and follow Him. It is a reminder that the power of Christ is indeed greater than all our sin.