As we continue in the Galilean ministry of the Lord, we come to:
As we shall see from this second section, the Lord calls Levi from the receipt of custom to become one of His disciples. Although none of the Gospel writers record much about this incident, each adds a distinct touch.
The Lord was by the sea and, as we see in this Gospel, this was a common retreat for the Saviour.1 His purpose was to withdraw from the scene in the house and from the clamour of the crowd and the opposition of the rulers. His desire, as was seen here, was to teach and to impart the message that the multitude needed – forgiveness of sins.
It is clear from the vocabulary used that the crowd continued to come. Hiebert comments, ‘The imperfect tenses picture successive groups coming out to Jesus, and each group receiving His teaching. Mark alone noted this fact here’.2 They did not come as one mass but gathered over a period. In that time, the Lord spoke to the different groups as they approached.
It is interesting to see that Levi was sitting at the receipt of custom. He was gathering the fruits of his collaboration with the Roman authorities, which was probably some port or trading tax levied at that point. As he was allowed to take a percentage of the taxes gathered, he could well have been a wealthy man.
Mark records that it was ‘as He [the Lord] passed by’. The opportunity was at that very moment. Levi seems to have caught the urgency of the situation for his was a decisive response to the call that came.
The Lord’s words were simple and direct, ‘Follow me’. There could be no simpler message than that contained in these two words. They came with all the authority of the Lord, issued as a command. There had to be a response of one sort or another. However, one commentator states, ‘Follow me may be rendered “be following me or continue following me”. Jesus prescribed a new life-style, not a temporary errand’.3
The cost of obeying the call must not be underestimated. Levi was probably a wealthy man but to leave his post at the crucial time of tax collection was to cut his ties with the Roman authorities, to sacrifice affluence and luxury for an unknown road. It is Luke who tells us, ‘he left all’, 5. 28. There was no question in Levi’s mind. He took the decisive and irrevocable step, and he took it willingly. He chose to follow, not as a single or occasional thing but as a new character of life.
The reality of Levi’s step of faith in following the Saviour is seen in this verse. Although the two events, his call and his meal, may have a short period of time between them, nevertheless they demonstrate the commitment of Levi to his new Master.
Those present, by invitation it is assumed, were ‘many publicans and sinners’, v. 15. Levi would seem to have used his contacts amongst his fellow tax collectors to bring them together to meet the Saviour. There may well have been those amongst his former friends and colleagues who would wonder at the reasons for Levi’s change. They were given the opportunity to meet the Lord who had changed his life and his outlook upon it.
Luke tells us that it was ‘a great feast in his own house’, 5. 29. Whilst this indicates something about Levi’s wealth, it also tells us of the extent of his desire to reach sinners with the gospel through the Lord Himself. These were people who would have been excluded from the synagogue and from other places of communion with the religious leaders and common people. Thus, it was the home of Levi that is used as the venue. Perhaps there are some practical lessons in evangelism that we can learn from the example of this man.
Levi’s actions were not welcomed by the Pharisees. They viewed social contact with the publicans as defilement. In their eyes, such activity was not that of a godly man. Hence, they stood in condemnation and judgement of the Lord.
It is to be noted that the Pharisees did not approach the Lord with their question. They approached the disciples. Whether this was because the disciples were on the fringe of the large company, whereas the Lord was as its centre, we are not told. However, we can imagine that the question would raise doubts in the minds of the disciples, as it was a question raised by the leaders of the day.
But, as the social and moral outcasts of the nation, did not the publicans and sinners need a Saviour? The Lord was not in the midst of such a company because He sought the friendship of sinners but because He sought their salvation and blessing. He ‘came … to call … sinners to repentance’, v. 17. May we never lose sight of those that need a Saviour, whatever their status in society!