Jesus calls Levi. Or Matthew. Whoever.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 July

And why the point isn’t to party with sinners.

Mark 2.13-17 • Matthew 9.9-13 • Luke 5.27-32

I don’t expect anyone’s ever liked taxmen—except of course the kings for whom they were collecting. In first-century Israel, the Judeans and Galileans particularly disliked the taxmen, and to understand why, you gotta understand their history.

In 67BC, Queen Alexandra Salomé of Jerusalem died. Her sons Hyrcanus (whom she made head priest) and Aristobulus fought over who’d be the next king. Antipater bar Antipas, the governor of Idumea (formerly Edom) backed Hyrcanus, and talked him into getting military help from Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, whom we know as Pompey. The Romans intervened in the fight, overthrew Jerusalem (and out of curiosity, Pompey took a peek in the Holiest Place of the temple), and imprisoned Aristobulus. But Pompey screwed Hyrcanus over, keeping him head priest, but making Antipater governor of Judea.

Antipater’s son Herod: You might’ve heard of him. He married Hyrcanus’s granddaughter, and despite not being Jewish, used his Roman connections to become king of Jerusalem. After Herod’s death, his sons likewise fought over who’d be the next king—and again the Romans intervened, with Augustus dividing Israel into fourths. Two sons, Antipas and Philip, were made tetrarch/“ruler of a fourth” over the Galilee and Perea (today’s Golan Heights), and a Roman procurator was put over the other half, namely Jerusalem.

The procurators appointed whoever they pleased as head priest. Usually the Levite who bribed them the most. And this was the state of things when Jesus began his ministry: Half-Jewish “kings” over northern Israel, Romans over southern Israel, and a family of corrupt Sadducees—who don’t even believe in miracles!—running the temple. Plus Roman soldiers everywhere, keeping the scum in power, and crucifying anyone who rebelled.

You already don’t like the taxman, but these taxmen were collecting money for the Romans—forcing the people to pay to be oppressed. As a result these publicani/“public men” were seen as traitors. Most Jews simply hated them. For the most part they refused to let them into their synagogues or temple. Since the taxmen sided with the pagans, they were considered no different from pagans.

Romans didn’t pay their taxmen, but simply let ’em overcharge on taxes, and take their income from the overcharge. So taxmen regularly overcharged. And why shouldn’t they?—the people hated ’em anyway. May as well hate ’em back… and get rich off them.

Pharisee attitudes about taxmen.

The Pharisees who wrote the Mishnah considered taxmen to be ritually unclean. Tahorot 7.6 No different from murderers and thieves. Nedarim 3.4 Their acts were tainted, and Pharisees shouldn’t accept tainted money.

As usual, there were exceptions to these attitudes. Archaeology shows us some taxmen sponsored synagogues and civic works, gave to the temple and to the poor, and so forth. So how could a synagogue take money from a taxman if his money was tainted? Simple: Some taxmen tried to be fair and righteous, despite their job. Certain merciful Pharisees recognized this, and accepted them despite the usual prejudices Jews had against taxmen. Not every Pharisee was as legalistic as the Mishnah (or even the gospels) makes ’em sound.

And to be fair, some taxmen hadn’t chosen that career field. Jobs, y’see, were often passed down from parents to children. If your dad was a farmer, so were you; if your dad was a handyman (as was Jesus’s), so were you; if your dad was a taxman, usually so were you. Taxmen’s kids would be treated as scum, even though it wasn’t their fault their dads colluded with the Romans. Some of ’em grew up bitter, and chose to become taxmen, just to get back at the world. They were cursed, so to speak.

Till Jesus stepped in and broke that curse.

In Mark Jesus happened to go past the taxbooth; in Matthew and Luke it sounds like more of a deliberate act.

Mark 2.13-14 KWL
13 Jesus went out again by the Galilee’s sea.
The whole crowd went with him, and he taught them.
14 Going past, Jesus saw Levi bar Khalfai sitting in the taxbooth.
Jesus told him, “Follow me,” and getting up, Levi followed him.
Matthew 9.9 KWL
Going there, Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting in the taxbooth.
Jesus and told him, “Follow me,” and getting up, Matthew followed him.
Luke 5.27-28 KWL
27 After these things, Jesus went and saw a taxman named Levi sitting in the taxbooth.
Jesus told him, “Follow me,” 28 and leaving everything and getting up, Levi followed him.

Levi bar Khalfai.

Yeah, you notice the gospels don’t have the taxman’s name straight. Mark and Luke call him Levi. Matthew calls him Matthew, and implies it’s the same Matthew whom Jesus later picked for the Twelve. Mt 10.3 Most Christians tend to ignore the discrepancy and say they’re the same guy who just happened to have two names. Jews usually just had one name, and you’d know which one you meant by bringing up one’s city (Mary of Magdala, Judas Iscariot, Jesus the Nazarene) or relatives (Andrew, Simon’s brother; John, James’s brother; Jesus bar Joseph). But some, like Simon Peter, had a nickname; and others, like Saul of Tarsus, had a Roman name, Paul. Possibly Matthew was Levi’s Roman name.

If Levi’s father (Alfaíos, Latin Alphaeus, Aramaic Khalfai) is the same as that of another of Jesus’s students, James “the Less,” Mk 15.40 KJV who’s called James “son of Alphaeus” more than once, Mk 3.18, Ac 1.13 we’ve got a third set of brothers besides James and John, and Simon and Andrew. Seems Jesus has no problem with nepotism. For all we know, Jesus singled out Levi specifically because James followed him first, so Jesus decided to bring his brother into the fold.

This story takes place at the taxbooth in Kfar Nahum. In every port city like theirs, and every gate of a walled city like Jerusalem, there’d be a taxbooth. It’s a lot like going through customs. Then, as now, they’d find out what you were bringing in, and tax you for certain items. Today we go through that only when entering a country; then, it was for every single city. ’Cause if you intended to sell produce, or fish at market, or even if you wanted to enter, the Romans wanted a cut, and you had to pay admission. It was considered the cost of doing business. (It was also why people founded cities. You’d get rich if you owned one.)

If Jesus called Levi to be a talmidim/“student,” it’s a safe bet Levi was about the same age as his other students—in his teens. This wasn’t his taxbooth; the gospels never identify its owner, but likely it was his father’s, which was why Mark gave his father’s name. Levi couldn’t simply ditch his post, like Luke describes, without someone else there. There’d be three or four taxmen—relatives of Levi—at the booth, possibly with some muscle, like Roman soldiers, in case people objected too strongly to what they were charged.

Like Levi, the taxmen were alienated from their fellow Jews. The job paid well, but though they could afford it, most synagogues would never let taxmen’s kids be taught by their rabbis. The only chance they’d have of hearing a rabbi would be if—uncharacteristically—the rabbi were walking the streets, teaching in public, as Jesus did. And they only way they’d get trained by a rabbi is if they could find one who didn’t care where the tuition money came from. Since most Pharisees considered them thieves, good luck with that.

Now, rumor had it this particular rabbi, Jesus the Nazarene, was Messiah. Remember, Messiah was expected to overthrow the Romans. Taxmen worked for the Romans. So where did that leave them in Messiah’s kingdom? Outside. In outer darkness. Wailing and grinding their teeth. Think they figured they had any chance with him?

So when Jesus just came up to the taxbooth and ordered Levi, “Follow me!” you can see how, in the taxmen’s minds, the inconceivable had just happened. Probably in the crowd’s minds too. But that’s Jesus for you: He does the impossible for fun.

None of the gospels say Levi immediately followed Jesus. He might’ve taken some convincing that Jesus was on the level. But one of the convenient things about being young is you can recover quickly when your world gets turned upside-down. Taxmen in God’s kingdom didn’t remain an impossible idea for long: The king just invited him personally. So he followed. Good on him.

The rest of us? We need to be more willing to follow Jesus when he knocks our worldviews over.

Lunch with Jesus. And taxmen. And sinners.

Mark 2.15-16 KWL
15 Jesus came to dine at Levi’s house.
Many taxmen and sinners were dining with Jesus and his students—many followed Jesus.
16 Pharisee scribes, seeing Jesus eat with the sinners and taxmen,
said this to Jesus’s students: “He eats with taxmen and sinners?”
Matthew 9.10-11 KWL
10 It happened as Jesus dined at the house, look:
Many taxmen and sinners who’d come were dining with Jesus and his students.
11 Seeing this, the Pharisees told Jesus’s students, “For what reason
does your teacher eat with taxmen and sinners?”
Luke 5.29-30 KWL
29 Levi made Jesus a great feast in his house,
and there were many crowds of taxmen—among others—who were dining with them.
30 Pharisees and their scribes muttered to Jesus’s students, saying, “For what reason
do you eat and drink with taxmen and sinners?”

The word I translate “dining” is katakeímai/“laying themselves down.” ’Cause that’s how first-century middle easterners and Romans ate: You put couches round the table, laid on your stomach—propping yourself up by a cushion or your elbows—and ate with your hands. The paintings of the Last Supper with Jesus and his kids sitting upright (and all on the same side of the table): Nope.

Luke said Levi made a feast of it. So it wasn’t just lunch; it was a three-hour soirée, spending the afternoon or evening with them. Naturally Levi had taxmen over: His family and friends. And since taxmen were ostracized from synagogue, this meant a lot of Levi’s friends would come from the same pool of Jews who didn’t go to synagogue. Or as Pharisees called ’em, “sinners.”

The Pharisees were greatly bothered by this behavior. As they should have been.

Yes, believe it or not, I am taking their side. Here’s why: D’you think Jesus was the first person to ever hang out with sinners, hoping he’d reform them? Of course not. Since Abel hung out with Cain, people have been trying to win one another over by their good example. Wives try it with difficult husbands. Brothers try it with wayward sisters. David probably figured he could win King Saul over with his music—maybe this time Saul wouldn’t try to spear him. Some Christians actually try “missionary dating”: Going out with pagans, hoping they’ll win ’em to Jesus.

Trying to fix other people is hardly new. But most of the time it doesn’t work; and nine times out of ten, the righteous compromise. Out of curiosity—and sometimes to prove to themselves we’re no better than they—pagans test us to see how far we’re willing to go. Some of us will go, and have gone, just as far as they do: Many a “missionary date” ends in the missionary position. Some of us don’t wanna appear judgmental, so we judge nothing—which implies we subtly endorse everything—and make no impact. Some of us even sell out our fellow Christians: “Those legalists in my church would pitch a fit, but I’m a tolerant person. I got no problem with that.” But we really should.

So nine times out of ten, what Jesus was doing would have rotten consequences. Sinners would use it as justification: “Hey, the rabbi hangs out with us, so we can’t be all that bad.” Devout people who lack self-control would also use it as justification: “Hey, the rabbi had a glass of wine with them, so there’s no reason I can’t have six glasses of wine with them…” And hypocrites will claim they’re blending in so as to win people over—but really they just wanna blend in, and party.

We justify such behavior by telling ourselves, “Hey, I’m planting seeds.” But a compromised message is a moldy seed. It rots. It doesn’t grow without a miracle. That’s the rule. Jesus is the exception.

When Jesus ate with Levi and his friends, he didn’t sit on his hands and keep his mouth shut, for fear of offending anyone. They knew who it was they invited: He was the rabbi with the words of eternal life. Jn 6.68 But unlike the Pharisees who stood outside, Jesus was actually willing to go into the building, eat their food, and talk with them. Not shun them as if they were unclean (which, frankly, they may very well have been). To Jesus, relationship is always more important than ritual.

He didn’t go there to party. He didn’t casually look the other way when people misbehaved. He spoke the truth. Not harshly, not in judgment; the Son of Man didn’t come into the world to condemn but save, Jn 3.17 and the Son of Man didn’t go to dinner parties to be a wet blanket but point people to the Father.

The Pharisees didn’t really know him, so of course they didn’t know his motives. That’s why Jesus was patient with them, and answered them when they objected.

Jesus, friend of sinners.

In Acts, Simon Peter got similar crap from his fellow Christians when they heard he ate with gentiles. (You know, in that instance where the Holy Spirit sent him to meet some Romans and tell ’em about Jesus. Ac 10) So Peter explained himself… and the Christians changed their minds.

Acts 11.1-4, 18 KWL
1 The apostles and fellow Christians in Judea heard the gentiles had received God’s word.
2 When Simon Peter went to Jerusalem, the circumcised kept their distance from him,
3 saying this: “You visited men who have foreskins. You ate with them.”
4 Peter began to reveal the sequence to them, saying…
18 Hearing these things, they stopped objecting.
They glorified God, saying, “So God also grants repentance to life to gentiles!”

Some of their response is ’cause these Christians knew Peter well enough to give him some credit. They knew he didn’t just go to parties under the guise of “missionary partying” or “planting seeds,” while meanwhile he talked about nothing important, and stuck around for a nice glazed ham. Peter wasn’t that guy. He was like his Master.

If the Pharisees knew Jesus, they’d also know he wasn’t like that. But they didn’t necessarily know him that well. Still, Jesus explained himself, on the off chance—if they honestly did care about their neighbors—they might likewise rejoice at how gracious God is to sinners.

Mark 2.17 KWL
Overhearing, Jesus told them, “Strong people don’t have need of a healer.
Instead those suffering evil do: I didn’t come to call the right-minded, but sinners.”
Matthew 9.12-13 KWL
12 Overhearing, Jesus said, “Strong people don’t have need of a healer.
Instead those suffering evil do: 13 Go learn what it means.
‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ Ho 6.6
for I didn’t come to call the right-minded, but sinners.”
Luke 5.31-32 KWL
31 In reply Jesus told them, “Strong people don’t have need of a healer.
Instead those suffering evil do: 32 I’ve not come to call the right-minded, but sinners,
to repentance.”

If any taxmen were under the delusion Jesus’s presence was any kind of endorsement, having Jesus bluntly call ’em “sinners” took care of that. But Jesus also bluntly said he came to call them. They needed a healer. That’s exactly who he is.

So I totally understand the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus. In the past, I’ve knocked them for it. Since then, I’ve dealt with plenty of overzealous newbies who’ve tried to likewise befriend sinners, but they compromised and botched their witness. So I discourage them, not from befriending sinners—go right ahead and befriend ’em!—but from naïvely thinking compromise won’t be a temptation. Humans instinctively wanna feel comfortable, and most of us find the fastest way to get comfortable is to conform. Don’t.

Do not hide your Christianity, nor tamp it down in social functions for fear of how people will think. Be like Jesus: Be real. Love everyone. But don’t sin.