Read Mark 2:13-17.
When the 12 apostles are selected, Levi is not among them. I think this is an important thing to emphasize to show that there were people following Jesus that were not apostles.The story of Levi is significant, not because he becomes an apostle, but because he is a tax-collector. In Chapter 1, we read that the appropriate response to Jesus is to believe and repent. When one hears the message of Jesus that the time is fulfilled and God’s Kingship has come near, the only appropriate response is repentance and belief. This means, that when one hears Jesus’ message, the only appropriate response is leaving your way of living and doing things and turning to his way of living. Here he calls this man to follow him and Levi responds in the way that Jesus says is appropriate, by repenting and believing. We know he responded this way because it says, “he rose and followed him.” He stopped doing his things his way and followed Jesus.
The Bible says nothing about whether this means he left his profession. I think the text assumes he quit his job to follow Jesus, but it doesn’t spell it out because that’s not what is important. The fact that he began to follow Jesus had nothing to do with his job. A tax collector like Levi would have earned a comfortable income. It’s likely that his job was similar to what we might understand as a customs agent. If you were travelling through the area carrying goods, you had to stop and pay a tax on the goods. Levi was one of the guys you would have to pay in order to pass through with your goods. The problem with this system is that the collector determined the amount of the tax, so you’d better not catch him on a bad day! Also, these tax collectors worked for the Roman government. So they took money from their own people, the Jews, and gave it to the pagan oppressors. A lot of people didn’t like tax collectors and you couldn’t really blame them because some of them made a very comfortable living by demanding fees from their own countrymen. Yet, Jesus calls Levi, who is a tax collector, to follow him. After this, apparently Levi invites everyone over for lunch. This is what it means to follow Jesus. Levi invites him into his life, into his home. And not only Jesus, but all kinds of other people. He opens his home to his co-workers who are tax collectors and to lots of “sinners”. Verse 15 tells us that at this lunch there were other tax collectors and sinners. This must have been some lunch party!-Then just to clarify, verse 15 says, “for there were many who followed him.” Jesus is popular with the crowd of people who don’t follow the law according to the Pharisee’s standard. Jesus seems to have lots of followers that aren’t exactly religious people. Some of his followers aren’t very devoted to obeying the law. By being a tax collector, Levi and his co-workers would have interacted with people who were unclean so they would have been unclean. This doesn’t seem to bother Jesus because he goes home and eats with them. These sinners v 15 references may not have necessary been morally reprehensible people, but people who simply did not follow the law to the standard of the Pharisees, but it doesn’t rule out immoral people. Going to someone’s home and eating a meal with them, was an identification with them, not just a meal. Jesus is joining himself to them as much as they are joining themselves to Jesus. This type of thing was unheard of in Jesus’ day and even in our day people don’t quite know what to think of it. Religious teachers didn’t spend time with those types of people. In verse 16 we see the Pharisees reaction to Jesus. They didn’t go to the meal itself, but were likely in the crowd listening to Jesus teach. The Pharisees wouldn’t dare be seen in the house of an unclean tax-collector; that would get them too close to violating a purity law or something. They see Jesus head back to Levi’s house with these lawless people and they take issues with him. Now, it is unclear whether Jesus hears this questioning directly, or through his disciples. So his response is either to the Pharisees or his disciples, I tend to think they disciples relayed the questioning to Jesus and so he tells the disciples his response. Some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t go to the meal either so the Pharisees ask them, “What is he doing, eating with such people?” His disciples didn’t join the lunch because they didn’t want the Pharisees to give them any problems. Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with this. In verse 17 Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus is referring to the tax collectors and sinners that he is spending time with, calling them sick and sinners. These people weren’t necessarily outcasts and may have been quite successful. Sometimes we perceive Jesus as helping the sick and downcast like the leprous man. This is certainly an accurate picture of Jesus, but he comes not only to the social outcast, but also to the socially sophisticated and prosperous. The prosperous often reject Jesus’ message, but in this story, Levi embraces it. His reference to the sick and sinners is not an indictment on their manner of living, but their spiritual condition. In other words, these people aren’t sick because they hate God, they are sick because they find God as inaccessible, distant, and unrelated to daily life. People are spiritually sick when they have given up on the things of God and decided to pursue their own things apart from God. Such people usually wouldn’t deny the status of sinner conferred upon them. They are just done with religious things.This is the state of many people who I know, and I would guess, many people you know. Some people avoid religion because they are simply tired. Life wears them down. It becomes too much to put on a smile and pretend like nothing is wrong. Other people are tired of the packaging of religion. They feel like God is lost amid all the politics and organizational issues of the church. It’s difficult to pretend like you feel well when you are sick. Jesus knows this, and he goes to these people. For Levi to follow God the way the Pharisees said he had to would have been impossible for him. There were too many rules. He couldn’t figure out all of that and he would have just kept failing over and over. Religion was packaged in a way that made it easier to avoid than follow for Levi. Jesus sees this and he tells his disciples, I’m here for the sick and the sinners. I’m here for the people who are tired of trying to do the right thing and they can never seem to do it. Jesus says, I’m here for the people who are taking two steps forward and then three steps back. Levi’s response is crucial. He stopped trying to do things his way and he followed Jesus. He believed that in Jesus, God was accessible. He believed that God’s kingship had come close enough or even a tax-collecting sinner like him to experience. Levi repents and believes.
The Pharisees set up hundreds of customs to instruct every aspect of life. In doing this they thought they were righteous, but Jesus says, I didn’t come for them. They may have moral sophistication, they may do and say all the right things, but they don’t get it. Tax collectors and sinners like Levi were just trying to do what they could to make it through life and hope for the best. In my experience, this seems to be where most people are in our day. They aren’t horrible people, many are just tired of trying to figure it out, or wounded by people like the Pharisees. But Jesus comes saying, I am the better way. Follow me. For many people, the church has set up a barrier that must be overcome before they can even come to terms with who Jesus is. If we are going to reach people who do not know God, we have to be conscious of this. The church requires meetings and classes and events for “good Christians”. If you aren’t at church every time the doors are open, then you’re a big sinner. Because people can’t figure out how this will work in their lives, the just decide to avoid it. In avoiding the issues of the church, inadvertently, they avoid God and they live life their way. The only way to overcome this is for each of us to love these people individually and personally. This is difficult because it requires personal investment and it takes time, in fact often it takes a lifetime. This is the way that people will overcome so many of the perceived barriers the church has presented in our culture. This is the way that people will have the opportunity to hear Jesus call them to turn from their way of doing things and follow him.