God’s Word for You
Mark 2:13-14 The Levite
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, October 9, 2021
The Calling of Levi (Matthew)
13 Jesus went out again along the sea. The whole crowd went to him, and he taught them. 14 As he was passing by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him. And Levi got up and followed him.
They came from the ends of the world. They came from India, from Persia, from the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Asia Minor, and from Damascus. All of them came through these streets on their way south to Egypt, to Cush, to Arabia. And of course, they were on their way to Jerusalem.
The Levite came every morning to the empty street that would soon be crowded with people. He unfolded his little table and his stool, and he took the coffer from his donkey along with the little scroll he used for a notebook and a stylus, and he set himself in his usual place in the street. The fishermen had already passed through, long before dawn, on their way to the quay, to their skiffs and fishing boats, carrying their masts and gaffs over their shoulders and wearing their nets around their necks like the heavy chains prisoners wore as they shuffled along. They would be back at sunset with their catches. But here came the first early travelers, people who had crossed the Jordan after sunset and camped out along the roadside east of the village in the night. Now they were on their way through, and he collected the customs tax from them. Most of the money he collected went to his superiors, the Roman publicani, from whom he also had purchased his license to be a local tax collector. But publicans were leeches. The people had to pay as they traveled, and collecting their money was a good living. But something nagged and stabbed at the Levite’s conscience. Leech, it said. Parasite. The Levite charged more than the fee he passed along, just like every other Publican, because that was how he made all of his money. He kept everything he could; more, in fact. Much more. The license fee might, probably would (he told himself), go up again next year, or the year after, and he might not be able to afford it unless he raised his own fee. He and the other tax collectors clicking open their little tables and stools were the hated faces of the whole Roman taxation system with the people of this town. Everyone answered to them. This was security. This was power. Damascene coins, Indian coins, Egyptian coins—they all converted into Roman denarii. One man’s copper clinked in his purse as well as any other’s. He shoved the nagging words into the back of his mind. Leech. Parasite. Sinner. He tried to think of some little tune to hum to keep the nagging words away. All the tunes he knew were the Psalms he learned as a child. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” The Levite stopped humming the tune and sat down on the seat.
What bothered the Levite was precisely that he was a Levite. The Name (the Levite had begun to follow a local tradition not to say the name of the Divine One aloud, but to say “the Name” instead) had commanded Levites not to have any inheritance in the land of Israel; no fields of their own, no income at all apart from the tithe of what came in as offerings from the people. Rather than walk south up into the mountains and up to Jerusalem, this Levite had relinquished his Levitical share in those offerings in order to snap open his little table at this crossroads and demand offerings of another kind. He had heard of other Levites who had done the same thing because they were unable to prove their heritage after the return from captivity centuries before. They were like outcasts. The people of Benjamin, Judah and Simeon told those Levites that they were still Levites, but the priests said they couldn’t prove it, so they weren’t Levites according to the Law of Moses. In a way, they were nothing. The goy Gentiles with their special place outside the temple courts were more welcome than the unproved sons of Levi. The Levite thought about that with some resentment, but then he felt the guilt surging up in his heart like a bad headache. He was no outsider because of any error in a tally from four hundred years ago. He was an outsider because he wanted the good money of the Publicans. He was truly a parasite. He was like the birds that fed on the fish carcasses west of the quay; birds that gorged themselves so full of garbage that they couldn’t fly, but flapped and hobbled their way around in the bloody, fly-infested filth. Leech. Sinner.
He set his teeth and looked at the people as they came by. They didn’t like to look at him. They were, in his mind, like the dying fish in the boats that came in at sunset. Their eyes were unseeing. They didn’t want to think about what was happening, these sheep that he fleeced, like the dying fish. They just wanted to get past this part and, they hoped, to get on with life. Their coins clinked in his coffer. The tallies scratched themselves across his pages. The words of guilt faded and another sin, greed, pleasure for what he was taking, snuck its way into his thoughts like wine dulling his senses.
Then there was a disturbance. The Levite looked up. A man he had heard about and even heard in person was standing there, looking at him. It was the Nazarene, Jesus! The Levite had heard things this Jesus had said. Jesus made the guilt in his heart disappear whenever he spoke. Here he was, like a hero standing on a hill, yet he was just a man standing in the street. For a panicked moment, the Levite considered letting Jesus get by without paying any tax. It would be worth it. He might even pay the tax for this Jesus himself. He would do anything for the feeling of freedom Jesus gave him. Just this once, this one moment of this warm morning by the seashore; if only he could hang onto this love he felt in this moment. He knew now that it was love, this feeling of gratitude for the way Jesus made him feel about his greed, how he had rejected a life as a Levite, and his other sins. Not a leech. Not a parasite. Not a scavenger. A child of God. Oh, the Levite thought, let me live in this man’s forgiveness for the rest of my life!
Akolouthei moi, Jesus said. “Follow me.”
And then the Levite knew that the things people said about Jesus were true. Some people wondered whether this Jesus might be the One, the Messiah of God.
And suddenly, the Levite realized he had used the name of God in his thoughts without being afraid, without sidestepping and saying “the Name” like a scared and superstitious fool. This Jesus was the Son of God. He had known the Levite’s thoughts; he had known what was in his, in Levi’s, heart. He would follow him for the rest of his life. He got up, took his donkey by the halter, and followed Jesus, and he never once thought about his Publican’s table and stool or coffer of coins ever again. But the scroll and stylus? He might use them for something better.
Follow me. He would follow. He did follow.
Pastor Timothy Smith