His occupation was a tax-collector, employed by the Roman authorities to collect taxes of the Jews in Capernaum, and because of this he was hated by his fellow-Jews. His bench would have been located on the great commercial road that went from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Damascus. Capernaum, located in the region ruled by Herod Antipas, was also situated on the border of the territory ruled by Philip, which would be another reason for a toll booth.
The story is part of a section in Mark in which Jesus displays his power in a variety of ways, whether it be his power to heal from disease or his authority over demonic opposition. At the same time, these accounts reveal that opposition to Jesus was beginning to appear, particularly from the religious leaders; in the incident involving the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12), Jesus was accused of blasphemy, and in the calling of Levi he is accused of compromise. Not only was he regarded as a compromiser, but his contact with tax-collectors and other undesirable characters made him ritually unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees. Neither are we to forget that Jesus is training Andrew, Peter, James and John for their future role as fishers of men, and here they can watch Jesus catch a fish (Levi) who would join them in the band of apostles.
1. Encounter between Jesus and Levi (v. 14)
(a) The seeking Saviour. The verse presents Jesus as searching for those who need his help. Sometimes the details of an incident are presented as if others took the initiative (as with the four men who carried their paralysed friend to Jesus or even with the leper who approached Jesus for healing); at other times, the details indicate that the person who was blessed by Jesus did not anticipate any such help, and that seems to be the case with Levi. The same is true today: some actively seek for Jesus and their conversion can be likened to a process, whereas others suddenly are found by Jesus. This means that there are three types of persons in the congregation today: those who sought Jesus, those who were converted suddenly by Jesus, and those who are still strangers to Jesus.
(b) The seeing Saviour. Jesus saw Levi from a distance. As he looked, there was joy in his heart because he was looking at one he had determined to save. He observed Levi involved in his daily work and was aware that he was a despised and lonely figure. Not only was joy there in the Saviour’s heart, there was also love and compassion. In a similar way Jesus sees us where we are. Not only does he see where we are physically, he also sees where we are internally. He sees the longing of our hearts; he is aware of the secret emptiness that is there.
(c) The speaking Saviour. Jesus said to Levi, ‘Follow me.’ The response of Levi indicates that there was power in the words of Jesus. The term ‘follow’ is a graphic illustration of what faith in Jesus means. The expression itself was in common use among the rabbis to describe the attitude of their disciples who were to imitate their lifestyle by practising their teaching. There is no doubt that Jesus wants his followers to be like him, and the more like Jesus they are the more beautiful they are. But there are other dimensions to the illustration of following.
First, there is a call to companionship with Jesus, to be his friend; Levi, who had no friends, was promised the friendship of Jesus. Second, there is a promise of guidance, because the call implies that Jesus will be leading Levi through life, and therefore shows that Jesus will function as the Good Shepherd and take care of his sheep. Third, the illustration of following is a reminder that Jesus and Levi will be heading towards a specific destination, which is heaven. So when Jesus issued this invitation to Levi, he was promising the tax-collector a great deal. And the same benefits are offered to us.
2. Evidence of the change in Levi’s life (vv. 15-16)
First, Levi gave up his lucrative business. Levi made a bigger sacrifice that Andrew and Peter because they at least could go back to their fishing. So when Levi gave up his lifestyle he made a real sacrifice. Yet giving up all that he had been doing made him a very happy and generous man. We are not called to abandon our secular work, but in order to follow Jesus we have to give up what will hinder us. Obviously we have to give up sinful practices, but in addition we may have to give up some activities that can be regarded as neutral. It is an important lesson to learn that what may be suitable for other Christians may not be helpful to us.
Second, Levi introduced his friends to Jesus and his disciples. Some of the guests were rather shady characters, but Levi knew that the Jesus who had helped him was able to help them as well. Levi invited the guests, but Jesus was the central figure at the feast. The tax-collector gave the feast because of the joy he had in Jesus and wanted others to share that joy as well. No doubt, Levi had held many a party in his house, and he may have chosen it because it was a suitable place to tell his former companions that he had changed his allegiance and was now following a new Master and was beginning a new way of life. The place that he had once used for sinning now became a place he used for serving Jesus.
Third, Levi was criticised by religious formalists. The Pharisees would have nothing to do with Levi when he was a tax-collector and they would have nothing to do with him now that he was a follower of Jesus. What would have pleased them would be for him to have adopted their religious taboos. They focussed on outward behaviour and did not understand the enthusiasm of a lover of Jesus.
3. Explanation by Jesus of his mission
In response to the Pharisees’ criticism of Levi, Jesus explained his mission. He likened himself to a doctor who wanted to heal sick people. A doctor who does not help the sick is not living up to his calling.
(a) Jesus dismisses the objection of the Pharisees. It is evident that the Pharisees had not realised the point of Christ’s mission, that he desired to be the Rescuer of sinners. Calvin comments that ‘hypocrites never think over the purpose of Christ’s mission to earth’. It is important to note that Jesus here does not try to help those who refuse to ask him for help.
(b) Jesus’ description of people is that they are sick. Unlike the Pharisees who were unconcerned about the needs of people, Jesus discerned their exact state. What kind of illness do people suffer from? It is the hereditary illness of being in a state of sin, a condition that is pervasive (affects every part of a person), progressive (each sinner is getting worse), and punishable (they will be judged for it by God.
(c) Jesus demands repentance of people before he will save them from the illness of sin. Repentance is like going to the doctor and admitting that something is wrong and asking him for help. What is repentance? It is an outlook that affects every aspect of our inner being. It affects our minds because we realise that our previous attitudes and behaviour were wrong; it affects our hearts because we realise that we loved the wrong things, but in repenting we now hate them; it affects our wills because repentance means we now choose to go in the right direction. The issue is not the degree of our repentance; rather it concerns the direction of our repentance, whether or not it is towards God.
4. Lessons from the life of Levi
(a) The wonder of being a follower of Jesus Christ. From Day 1 Levi was close to Jesus. He listened to the teaching of Jesus and watched his actions. His companionship grew into admiration and his admiration became delight. We can imagine his joy at various stages in his journey with Jesus while he was on earth. What joy Levi must have had on the first Lord’s Day when the risen Jesus met with his disciples! And what delight Levi must have known on the Day of Pentecost when his Jesus, now exalted, sent on him and his fellow disciples the Holy Spirit to equip them for faithful service. Levi disappears from the pages of the Bible, but tradition tells us that he served the Lord in Ethiopia where he was martyred for his faith. He has been in heaven for almost 2,000 years, still rejoicing as he follows his Lord. Levi lost a career, but found a purpose in life; he lost earthly prospects but was given an eternal adventure.
(b) Jesus can take our talents and use them in his service. Levi was used to writing and taking records, therefore he was very suitable to become a writer of one of the Gospels. In a similar way, Jesus can take our talents, even if we have used them in the service of sin, and employ them in developing our spiritual characters and extending his kingdom.
(c) The importance of humility in serving Jesus. This beautiful aspect of Levi’s character comes out in his own list of the twelve apostles. Both Mark and Luke only mention his name in their lists, but in his record he adds ‘the tax-collector’ to his name. Levi never forgot where he was when Jesus found him.
(d) The benefit of immediately stating that we have become disciples of Jesus. Levi wasted no time in letting his friends and acquaintances know what had happened to him, and he did it in such a way that made it easy for them to meet Jesus for themselves.