After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him. (Luke 5:27,28 NASB)
In my field of employment all my customers are tax and accounting professionals. These people come from all walks of life, have different personalities (seriously, they do), and go through more moods than a teenager. One thing we all agree on though, is that we dislike the IRS, agents, auditors, customer service, and website. We hate all of it, lock, stock, and barrel. It seems to be historically ingrained in people from every culture and time, we reserve our highest form of dislike for the revenue agent. Except for Jesus.
A little historical setting may be in order. The “publican” (Latin) or “telonas” (Greek) collected certain kinds of taxes. The normal income taxes we think of were collected by Romans, not locals. What Levi is doing in his ‘booth’ is collecting what we would call sales or excise taxes. They were sort of like tolls on businesses, merchants, farmers, and anyone bringing anything to market. The collector would purchase the opportunity to collect these taxes from the Romans. Then the collector would be responsible for paying a regular amount to the Roman government. Anything they collected above this amount they could keep. The “trick” so to speak was to collect “what the market could bear”. Collect too much and merchant traffic and the local economy would drop off. There was no real ‘too little’ unless you collected less than the Romans wanted from you. In other words, the taxes for this sort of thing were arbitrary, and therefore this office was severely abused.
And before you get too upset with such a system, keep in mind the Counts and Countesses of Europe purchased their titles as opportunities to “tax” the traffic on a portion of highway. They were also responsible for the highway’s upkeep and protection, but since we now remember their wealth and not so much their activities, you can imagine what they collected. It only later became a “noble” title, but was initially purchased by wealthy merchants. This is the sort of thing Levi was doing in his booth when Jesus calls.
JEWS AND COLLECTING TAXES
The cultural setting for Jewish people was a bit different though. Among Jews, in the inception of their nation by God, being called out of Egypt and given laws by Moses, there was no taxation like we think of. Instead they gave to support the religious tabernacle practice, the Levites, and the priesthood. The Tribe of Levi wasn’t given “land” as an inheritance, they were instead given a share in the offerings and sacrifices of the people. This is only sort of tax in the law. Yet in practice, the kings (especially Solomon) taxed the people. Sometimes these taxes were heavy, but they were part of the warning given by Samuel to the people when they requested a king. It was different for the people, and so to have to give money to Gentiles that which they only gave to God before was hard on them, or so they claimed. Clearly they had been doing so to their own leaders for centuries.
Under the Romans, these tax collectors were typically Jews. They intentionally made themselves ceremonially unclean through their constant contact with Gentiles, the collected what only was owed to God (and they knew it), and in practice they collected too much. Any Jew who would choose such a profession was the pinnacle of pariah-hood. Both socially and religiously, they had chosen against their people. So two things in Jesus’ choice are remarkable.
WHY CHOOSE THIS GUY?
First Jesus sees Levi, He pays attention to this traitor to His people, His chosen people. But then Jesus doesn’t just notice Levi, He calls this traitor to follow Him. This has to be an insult to the other disciples. It had to demean their calling to have this guy included. It was such an honor before, but now, if a tax collector can be included, than why not start calling the lepers? But it has to be an affront to the people around, following Jesus as well. They hang on His every word, they want to see Him heal, and what He does next, and then Jesus calls this fellow to actually be one of His disciples. He has all these people around Him already demonstrating interest in His activities, but He calls Levi. Seriously, what is Jesus thinking?
WHY DOES THIS GUY ACCEPT?
But second, Levi “left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him”. Why would one who chose such a life, now choose against it to follow Jesus? What was he thinking? He had no hope of acceptance. He had to know what it meant for Jesus to even suggest such a thing. Yet, Levi leaves everything (including grumpy Romans – not safe necessarily). Peter, James and John leave their business, and so here does Levi. He leaves his source of revenue, he leaves his responsibility to Rome, his obligations. It wasn’t just difficult, it had to be somewhat dangerous. Why would he, if he chose against his people, now choose to follow this wandering preacher?
HOPE AT THE CORE
I believe that the core issue here is hope. I suspect that Levi chose against his people as he did because he lacked hope. For whatever reasons, history, family or otherwise, he had lost hope in Israel. Then, when Jesus comes by, hope wakes up again in him. There was something about Jesus that sparked that hope he had lost. And so when the opportunity is offered, Levi leaps at it, hopefully. Now I don’t know the details, how often Jesus had passed him before, what drove Levi to choose his profession, or any prior conversations he had with Jesus. All I know is that one in this setting was given the opportunity to follow Jesus, and this one took it.
Hope is often ignored by believers. But the writer of Hebrews states that it is the foundation of faith. Without hope, faith has nothing to substantiate (see Hebrews 11:1). Hope is in what is not seen, therefore it always looks expectantly ahead to what is to come. Without hope we have nothing to believe in faith. So, often hope is the prize the powers in the heavenly realms target in humanity. Without it we have no faith, and without faith there is no relationship with our Master. I believe that Levi lost hope, it was snatched away from him by the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms (or he gave it up). And I believe, in Jesus, Levi found his hope again. He was called, and he went.
How much more complicated do we make it? How often do we notice something wrong, but can’t quite put our finger on the problem? How often do we realize what we lost amounted to our hope? Once we realize it, it’s not hard to get back because we hope in the One having made and sustaining the universe. But we are often quick to barter our hope away for cheap stew. We look around us and we choose logic or reason over hope. We choose the negative the potential slight of God against us rather than to believe steadfastly in His goodness. Say what we want, what do we do? How do we feel? These actions and feelings stem from our core beliefs. If we want to know if we’ve lost our hope, then let’s check how we react to hard times. Do our core beliefs indicate we have hope in our Maker? Do we act and feel in the face of harsh realities as if God is still God and still rules on His throne, that He is still good, that He still loves us without reservation?
Do you? I don’t always, but I do find that this is one of the things that my upbringing gave me. More often than not, I do respond in core beliefs steeped in faith. But rather than pat myself on the back, that’s where I came from. I was raised to think that way without question. Not every believing home had that element, but mine did, almost ridiculously so. So I have that germ of the ridiculous belief in God even when faced with the evil, the terrible, the horrific, and the just plain bad in this world. I’m shocked at it, but not at Him. When people ask me, then it occurs to me to ask God, and question Him, but until they ask, I’m assuming He’s as shocked and appalled as I am. He’s probably more hurt and sickened by it than surprised by it, but still.
SHARING THE HOPE WITHIN US
I think recapturing hope is probably one of most potent methods of sharing the good news of Jesus we can use. See what hope you can recapture for yourself today, and then share it. In your voice, your smile, your attitude, let your hope be evident to all, and dare them to ask you, “what’s up with that?” That’s your invitation to share Jesus. Take it!
What’s your view through the knothole?