His name was Levi! New Testament readers know him better as Matthew. A tax-collector. Rome had set up a system of “client kings”. It offered its approval and military support to this king or that one if the king would agree to raise taxes for Rome’s needs [the client king got his cut, of course]. They’d assess how much they wanted from a kingdom and the client king would give that to Rome. It didn’t matter how much more he could wring out of his people so long as he could give Rome their cut.
The Jewish people had two reasons to despise the tax-collectors—Rome and the Herodian family with whom Rome had made the agreement.
Tax-collectors weren’t poor little things who were mistreated; we get a better view of them as a class when we think of those who collaborated with the Nazis in France or Belgium or Holland. They must have been emotionally and socially tough to take such a job in the midst of their own people. Don’t you think they would have had to harden themselves to work for the hated and abusive authorities? Would they not be resentful and bitter and durable when every day they were despised, jeered at, isolated and passed by in silence? And if they had wives and children would they not have to steel themselves against the pain their loved ones would surely feel in such a society? My guess is they well have been lonely at times too but gutted it out. You think so?
In any case that’s who was sitting at his place when Jesus walked up to him. There He stands looking in silence at him, those big earnest eyes searching Matthew while the tax-collector looks up at Him every now and then with a “Well, what do you want?” sort of look.
Then the silent looker-on says: “Leave all that and follow me!”
Obviously Matthew knew something of the one who spoke to him. It cannot have been just anyone—the local butcher, for example—that came and said that to him. The collaborator had heard about Jesus. Bless me, even Cornelius had heard (Acts 10:37-38) and even a little Greek mother from the Sidon area. Matthew knew who this was! Some critic would have seen all and as soon as Jesus said, “Leave all that and come and follow me,” he would have run off to tell his friends. “Guess who the new prophet asked to follow him!” They’d guess and the informant would say, “No, no, better than that! Guess again!” When they’d exhausted their list of pious people who loved Israel and hated the Herod family he’d say, “No, it was ‘old money-bags’ himself. Levi the tax-collector.” They’d shake their heads at the prophet’s naiveté but that would turn to wonder when the word got around that Matthew had got up and done it! There it lay hidden all along and only Jesus had the love to see it and the goodness and power to harness it!
All the hatred, all the sneering, all the isolation and intimidation couldn’t turn Levi from his tax-gathering table, it couldn’t melt his hardness or strengthen him to finally join the oppressed against the ruthless masters—the world powers. But the stories about this One and one long look at Him, one strong sweet appeal from Him and Matthew strode out of one world and into another, to a new way of life and never looking back.
When I think of such a dramatic turn around all sorts of questions swirl around in my mind—questions I have no satisfying answers for. Now and then when I think of it, it makes me half wish I had had Matthew’s experience and felt the dramatic urge. I was never a great kid but my coming to the Lord Jesus, my entering the waters of baptism and taking His name upon me as my Lord and Savior was almost a quiet and steady process—as it is with most of us I suppose. I love that too, but the drama of Matthew’s conversion (and many like him down the centuries) thrills me as it must thrill you.
Every final meeting of the Lord Jesus just before we get up from whatever we were busy with and follow Him has its drama even if it isn’t obvious. It’s more than (not less than) a personal u-turn. Worlds collide and empires clash on those occasions. People by God’s grace throw off the shackles and throw themselves into an adventure that knows no end. Once again, in each conversion, the Story of God as told in the person of Jesus Christ is re-told and re-enacted in a faith-filled baptism, in a weekly Suppering with the living Lord at the Lord’s Supper when they culminate in the rehearsal of His resurrection to new life and a new world [Romans 6:3-7].
Such conversions are an ongoing witness to the presence of God’s saving power and the present existence of a new creation.
People are called to and made for adventure when Jesus comes calling and transforming them with truth about a new world, a new creation and to a cosmic mission.
In the days of the sailing ships, sailors who had sailed with Drake would come back and tell stories of what it was like to sail with such a captain. They’d tell tales not of balmy days in safe lagoons and gentle breezes. They’d tell of storms, raging seas and battles with giant waves; they whip off their shirts and show scars they’d got as a result of battle with sea monsters and jagged rocks, they’d show calloused hands that rowed for half a day and then another half and then another until exhausted but successful in bringing their ship into contact with a friendly wind that would fill the sails. Farm boys—barefoot farm boys, eyes wide with the longing for adventure, boys who’d never seen the sea would shrug off their harnesses, leave their ploughs lying in the fields and run off to another life—to another world!
That same Jesus is walking the earth today, stopping here and there and looking long at women and men, boys and girls, then saying, “Come and follow me and I will show you what you were made for.” And then and there, even the same life setting will become new and shot through with glory and adventure and people spring up on to white horses and ride after a white-horsed rider whose name is THE WORD OF GOD (Revelation 19:13-14) to battle seven-headed beasts and Death and Hell itself (Revelation 13:1; 20:14)!
(Oh Lord of Life won’t you come to us electrify us by a new awareness of who we are? Deliver us from lesser causes and energize us for the ongoing clash with a satanic world that hates you and all you love? Open our eyes to our reason for existing; for the world’s plundered poor! Won’t you help us to rise to our feet and go the distance? Forgive us for having an abundance of your blessings and in our greed wanting more? For the world you have loved in and through and as your Son won’t you help us to gospel about Him? We don’t doubt you but we fear when we see and hear how we your people pursue “more” and “more” while countless Lazaruses lie helpless and licked by the dogs. We fear what’s happening to us when we demand more and more “freedoms” while millions lie enslaved. There is no other help but you. Where else can we go? This prayer in Jesus Christ.)