Jesus Calls Levi (Matthew)
Jesus left the town of Capernaum and went to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. People kept coming to see him, though, and he taught the crowds that gathered. He continued to preach. (13)
There was a tax booth there by the sea. Capernaum was close to the border with Decapolis at the time. It was also close to the border of the territory of Philip the Tetrarch. Vendors had to pay a tax to transport goods from one area to the next.
Tax collectors were usually non-observant Jews, since observant Jews would not do business with Gentiles. Tax collectors were generally despised and hated because they were symbols of Roman domination and because they got rich at the expense of their countrymen. Jewish rabbis declared them unclean, expelling them from the synagogue.
Despite all this, Jesus calls Levi to follow him and Levi leaves his booth and follows Jesus. Levi is the same person referred to as Matthew in Matthew’s gospel. Levi was his Hebrew name and Matthew his Greek name.
To follow means a response of faith, identifying with Jesus and his mission.
A song that conveys this thought is “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus” by Leslie Tucker. The third stanza says:
“My cross I'll carry, till I see Jesus;
My cross I'll carry till I see Jesus,
My cross I'll carry till I see Jesus;
No turning back, No turning back.”
Calling Levi would have caused the Jews great consternation. Jesus already touched an unclean leper. Now he calls an unclean tax collector to be one of his disciples. The Jews considered Levi to be ceremonially unclean and morally corrupt, as well as a sort of traitor. He would be more troublesome since he was a tax collector by choice, whereas the leper did not have a choice.
It also created an interesting dynamic among the disciples. There were 4 fishermen and 1 tax collector. Levi would not be a natural fit.
It gets worse, from the Jewish viewpoint. Not only did Jesus call Levi to be a disciple, he attended a dinner party at Levi’s house. Levi seems to have had the same joy at meeting Jesus that Zacchaeus, another tax collector, had. Levi invited many tax collectors and other sinners to a dinner party at his house.
Sinners were people who lived outside the Jewish law. They might be criminals, but might also just be laborers and other common people who did not or could not live up to the standards of the Jewish law. Shepherds were included in this group, likely because they had to be out with the sheep and not in synagogue on the Sabbath.
This dinner party was likely held in the courtyard in front of the house. People walking by could see the party, so they could see Jesus reclining at the table with these unclean sinners. Some of those watching were Pharisees and Scribes, those who studied the law and worked to observe it as well as all the rules imposed by the Pharisees.
Knowing that Jesus taught the Scriptures and claimed to be the way to God, they were horrified to see Jesus violating their customs by eating with unclean people. The word “sinner” correlates to the word “wicked” in the Old Testament. Psalm 1 said the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked is blessed.
When Jesus heard them ask why he was doing this, he answered that he came to call sinners, not the righteous. Jesus demonstrated his mission by eating with sinners. He stated his mission was to call sinners to salvation.
Men and women did not have to be observant Jews to follow Jesus.
This is the same battle the Apostle Paul fought later.
Luke recorded Jesus saying he came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10) He made that statement as he dined with another group of tax collectors, including Zaccheaus.
The Jewish approach to religion at the time was exclusion. Only Jews had the law and only observant Jews were favored by God. Jesus’ approach was inclusion. No longer was race or observance of the law the issue, only faith in Jesus for salvation.
This needs to be the approach of the church also. We need to seek the lost and proclaim the gospel to them. It should not matter what race or economic status they are. We do not do a very good job at that on the local church level.
The New Thing
This group of stories, which ends in 3:6, show the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus intensify. This story revolves around the practice of fasting.
There were three movements going on at the time of Jesus. One was the ministry of Jesus. Another was the remnant attached to John the Baptist. The other, and the oldest, was the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were only about one percent of the population. But they were respected for their devotion to the law. By the time of Jesus, their devotion to the law had evolved into the making of hundreds of extra rules for piety. These rules are sometimes referred to as the Tradition of the Elders.
Some of these rules related to fasting. The Pharisees held that the three pillars of Judaism were prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. The law only required one day of fasting per year, the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16:29-30) Moses said they were to “afflict” themselves, which is interpreted to mean fasting.
But the Pharisees added many fasts. They typically fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as in times of crises, and for personal reasons. Although not required by the law, fasting became a symbol of religious commitment and piety.
During one of these times, the Pharisees and the disciples of John are fasting. (18) So, some of the people who were watching Jesus asked why his disciples did not fast. There is an underlying accusation of lack of piety here.
Jesus answered them with three metaphors. He often responded with metaphors.
The first metaphor is a wedding feast. A Jewish wedding feast lasted for a week. It was a week of fun with lots of food and wine, music and dancing, and taking off from work. The guest of the bridegroom, who was hosting the party, would never be expected to fast during the feast.
Jesus identified himself as the bridegroom and his disciples as guests of the bridegroom. While he did not condemn fasting, he said it was not the appropriate time. His coming as the Messiah and savior is a time to celebrate, not suffer.
Jesus then inserted a sad note. You have to wonder if the disciples got it. Jesus said when the bridegroom is taken away from them, the disciples will fast. (20) John the Baptist had already been taken away from his disciples. Jesus here foreshadows his being taken away from his disciples in his arrest and execution.
Another point to note in this metaphor is Jesus’ identification of himself as the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, the husband of Israel is God. For example, Isaiah 54:5: “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD (Yahweh) is his name”. Jesus equated himself with God, just as he did when he claimed the authority to forgive sins.
The second metaphor is about sewing. No one sews a new, unshrunk, piece of cloth an an old garment. If you do, when you wash it, the patch will shrink tear away and make the original tear bigger. (21)
The third metaphor involves wineskins. Old wineskins would get stiff and brittle. If you put new wine in an old wineskin, the wine will expand with gas as it ferments and the skin will burst. New wine requires new wineskins. (22)
Jesus is the new patch and the new wine. He is not an addition or appendage of Judaism. He is not integrated into the law or the synagogue.
So, the call to the people here is to remove themselves from Jewish traditions and join the wedding celebration. It is to become new receptacles for receiving Jesus and his gospel.
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