The Calling of Levi: #taxcollectorslivesmatter

These thoughts started a conversation that was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 10, 2016.  They were based upon readings from Matthew 9:9-12, Mark 2:14-17, Luke 5:27-32.


I wonder how much Levi’s life really mattered.  To be certain, he probably saw himself as a pretty important man; after all, it was his sanctioned duty to collect the taxes for the government.  As a Jewish tax collector, however, he would have been particularly despised, especially by the religious leaders.

His trade was dishonest.  He profited from cheating his own people, overcharging their taxes when he could to make a comfortable living.  He also would have been in daily, intimate contact with the Gentile—non-Jewish—authorities (which, to remind you, wasn’t an elected government, but an occupying force).  Such contact would have made him ceremonially unclean.  And what made it worse was that his uncleanliness was deliberate.  Levi was a religiously unclean traitor to his people who filled the treasury of the occupying government by stealing it out of the pockets of God’s people.

People knew better than to associate with Levi.  They made contact only when absolutely necessary.  To them, his life mattered little.  He was a crook, a deserter of his people, a conspirator with the enemy, and religiously defiled by the company he kept.  The world, in the eyes of the religious, would have been a much better place—a purer and more righteous place—without Levi in it; so they stayed away as much as they could.  To associate with him, even in passing, would have been a sign of validation and approval toward a culturally despised individual.

It must have been strange, then, to Levi and the people when Jesus stopped at the tax collector’s kiosk, looked Levi in the eye and said, “Follow me.”

At first he didn’t take the invitation seriously.  Levi tried to go back to his business of counting the coins in his purse, but Jesus just stood there.  He didn’t walk away.  Finally, Levi looked up and he made eye contact with Jesus.  It had been a long time since anyone had looked him in the eye.  Most people avoided him.

In that moment, as Levi got up to follow Jesus.  I’d like to think that he had a renewed sense of self-worth.  Where most people had said he was unclean and worthless.  Jesus said, by his presence and his invitation, that Levi’s life had worth.  Levi’s life matters.

Jesus had a way of doing that: showing people that regardless of what society (secular or religious) said, their life had meaning and purpose.  Jesus was keen on reminding people that their lives really mattered and he did it in a particular way.

Jesus never said, “blessed is everyone.”  He said

blessed are the poor’ (Luke 6:20).  He did not say ‘as you do it unto everyone, you do it unto me,’ but ‘as you do it unto the least’ (Matthew 25:40).  Jesus did not say ‘love everyone,’ but ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44).

Continually Jesus drew our attention not to loving people “in general” but to specifically caring for those we would tend to discount or condemn…

Why did Jesus have this emphasis, and why should we?  Because then as now, there are people who were marginalized, condemned, and shut out of the system, and the hallmark of Jesus’ mission and ministry is all about drawing our attention to them.  It has to do with empathy for the “other, for the one we would normally regard the “least”[1]

or regard not at all.  In stopping at that tax-collector’s booth and engaging Levi, even asking him to follow, Jesus was saying #taxcollectorslivesmatter.

Jesus continually travelled to the margins of respectable society to remind his followers that those who live there are people of sacred worth: that their lives matter no matter what others may say or believe.

He reminded his followers that #childrenslivesmatter, that #gentilelivesmatter, that #womenslivesmatter, that #adultererslivesmatter, that #prostituteslivesmatter.  It wasn’t that Jesus was trying to say these lives matter more.  He was saying that these lives matter.  He was giving them a worth that society did not see nor offer; and, make no mistake, that disrupts and threatens the lives of people who already think their lives matter.

The Pharisees and legal experts grumbled at Jesus for the company he was keeping.  Any self-respecting person who believed their life mattered wouldn’t waste their time with people whose lives don’t.  But, its to these–the forgotten and the marginalized–that Christ came.  To those whom society pushes down, Christ lifts up and says, your life matters.  The question is will his followers do the same?

So I wonder how much time you’ve spent with people on the margins?  How have you carried on the mission of Christ to show people whom society pushes to the side that their lives matter?  How have you demonstrated in the way you live your life and interact with others that #blacklivesmatter? that #gaylivesmatter?  How are you helping people heal from the wounds society has placed upon them? showing the marginalized, particularly, that their lives matter?

 

 


[1] “Why Jesus Would Say ‘Black Lives Matter” by Derek Flood, Sojourners (June 4, 2015) <https://sojo.net/articles/why-jesus-would-say-black-lives-matter> Accessed July 8, 2016.