Sometimes we ponder our own spiritual state and conclude, “I am such a mess. What could God possibly do with me?” The answer is, “A lot!” To demonstrate that, let’s take a look at Matthew (not the gospel, but the man) to illustrate the difference between how we view ourselves, how we view one another, and how Jesus views us.
His name was Levi, and he lived in the city of Capernaum. He was a Publican, that is, a collector of public taxes for the Roman Empire. Levi was a man despised by his own people, the Jews. He worked for Rome, and Rome represented the boot of authority on the neck of the Jewish nation. Levi sat, day after day, callously collecting taxes from his own people, with a Roman soldier standing behind him, equipped with spear and sword, as a representation of Rome’s authority over the subjugated Jewish nation. Levi was a man detested by his kinsmen, an outcast among his own people.
Given his name, it is my suspicion that Levi was from that very tribe, the priestly Levite tribe, the tribe who interceded with God on behalf of the nation. Levi quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. His gospel is saturated with Hebrew scripture. As a Levite, he would absolutely be that sort of man, yet, it seems he has become frustrated and disillusioned as he observes what has become of his people. He saw their lack of devotion to spiritual purity, even among the “holy” men. He saw the temple of God turned into a marketplace, a place where thievery was so common that it had gained acceptance as a daily practice. He saw the utter hypocrisy that was carried out in the name of God, and something within him snapped as he saw what was once holy and meaningful turned into something empty, worthless, and misleading. In his frustration, Levi resigned himself to getting as much as he could out of life, and he did so with the backing of Rome. We see much in today’s church that resembles what Levi saw as he looked at the religious system of his own day, and people today, understandably, hold similar disdain for the institutional church and its religious systems.
As a gatherer of tribute for the Roman oppressors, Levi had a quota of taxes to collect each month, and anything he could collect beyond that quota was his to keep. With the authority of Rome behind him, I suspect this was not an overly difficult task, and that his business was quite lucrative. His greed and national betrayal fueled the fires of hatred from his own people.
Another man lived in Capernaum, a man named Simon, later to be called Peter, meaning “Rock,” the brash, hot-tempered apostle who steals our hearts with his passion and devotion. Undoubtedly, Simon was familiar with Levi, the tax gatherer. It has been humorously speculated that Levi was the man who taught Simon to curse!
Beyond Simon and Levi, yet another man made his home and headquarters in Capernaum, for a time, and that man is Jesus. It is undoubtedly the case that Levi was very familiar with the man, Jesus. Jesus likely passed Levi’s tax booth many times, and just as likely paid his own taxes there. I have little doubt that Levi had heard this young Rabbi teach from time to time, and he may even have witnessed some miraculous healings, as we know that many of those healings took place in the city of Capernaum.
As he watched, and listened, Levi saw lives dramatically impacted by the work and teachings of this man Jesus. He was seeing something real, something dramatically different than the hypocrisy-infused religious systems of his day. Levi was steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, so much so that something within him fearfully yearned for what Jesus seemingly represented. It rang true. It seemed to be free of everything Levi despised in the religious authorities of his day.
The time came that Jesus walked by Levi’s booth, and we are told that he saw “a man,” not a collector of taxes, not a sinner, not a thing to be hated. And Jesus said to this man, two simple words – “Follow me.” In response to that, Levi abandoned his lucrative income, his plush life, and he did exactly what Jesus called him to do. He followed, and he never turned back. Jesus did not tell Levi to clean up his life, to pull himself together, to accomplish great feats in the name of God. He said, “Follow me.” That is what we are called to do, and when we do that, the rest will flow naturally within us, and from us.
As Levi obeyed the call to follow, Jesus named him “Matthew,” which means “gift from God.” How different that is from the way the community had always viewed Levi. How different from the way Levi likely viewed himself! Gift from God. So profound is the impact of Jesus on the life of a man or a woman that Jesus can bond the traitorous Matthew with the impetuous, impulsive, patriot-minded Peter, in the same family of disciples.
No matter your background, your history, your reputation among the people, Jesus calls you to follow him. And I wonder … what name does he then give you? Lover of humanity? Heart of gold? Defender of the weak? Bearer of truth? Encourager of the disheartened?
Find your unique identity in Christ and use it for the advancement of his kingdom.
Victoriously in Christ!