The only thing that qualifies us to be followers of Jesus is that we are sinners who need grace. Sinners are the only kind of people Jesus calls, as the Apostle Levi (Matthew) discovered.1
Levi looked around the campfire circle at Jesus and the other eleven disciples. Strange rabbinical school, he thought. Not exactly the cream of the scholarly crop. Led by a rabbi with no formal theological training, his disciples tended to be a bit heavy on fishermen.
But he saw himself as the oddest of the oddballs.
Levi had been a tax collector. That meant he had essentially worked for Rome. And that meant he had been considered a traitor by most of his neighbors. “Tax collectors and sinners” were synonyms.
Whatever Roman official had crafted the empire’s internal revenue system had been a genius. It was designed to encourage collection corruption. So long as Rome received its prescribed amount from a region, collectors were free to keep any overage. There was serious money to be made by the financially ambitious, and ethically…unprincipled. And the more corrupt the collector, the more alienated he became from his own people, thus increasingly dependent on Rome’s continued governance.
It had been a hard vocational choice. A tax collector’s income was both sizable and reliable. It wasn’t as vulnerable as other trades to the fluctuations of the local market or the caprice of rain clouds. But it required that one be willing to endure a different kind of drought: social respect. When Levi became a collector he knew he was trading his reputation for financial security. Thereafter he had kept a prudent distance from synagogue society and made his friends within the “sinner” caste.
And then came the strangest and best day of his life.
Levi had heard about Rabbi Jesus. Everyone seemed to be talking about him. There were reports of astounding miracles. People were puzzling over his parables.
And now Jesus had come to town! Levi had hoped to hear him preach, but he was swamped with work. Tax collectors dare not disappoint their regional managers.
Sitting in his tax booth Levi had seen a bustling crowd approaching. Experience had taught him to keep his head down and look busy to avoid making eye contact with his despisers.
Suddenly the bustle had stopped right in front of him. He could feel peoples’ eyes on him. He heard mutterings. He looked up cautiously. An intense young man was staring at him. He knew immediately it was Jesus.
A nervous knot formed in his stomach. He braced for a rabbinical rebuke.
But what Jesus said was, “Follow me.” There were gasps from the crowd and a murmuring hum. Levi sat in a frozen stun. Jesus was clearly speaking to him. But what did he mean?
Jesus’ expression grew more earnest and he beckoned with his hand. He wanted Levi to literally follow him—at that very moment!
A jumble of thoughts collided in Levi’s mind. What about the tax booth? Where was Jesus going? Would they be gone long?
But he also felt an exhilaration and joy he had never experienced before. For so long he had assumed (and been told) that God didn’t want anything to do with him. But now it seemed that, through Jesus, God was speaking directly to him. And despite the fact that abandoning his booth would no doubt cost him his job, Levi suddenly realized that he would gladly trade financial security for following Jesus.
So he laid down his quill, stood up, and simply fell in behind Jesus. He had never felt freer in his life.
Now, sitting around the evening fire, it hit Levi all over again how strange and wonderful and merciful are the ways of God. Who would have guessed that he would pluck a tax collector, of all people, right out of his booth and appoint him to be a disciple of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah? And now many tax collectors and sinners were swelling Jesus’ ranks.
Being a sinner was the only qualification Levi had for joining Jesus’ disciple band. Jesus had come to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). Levi was sick with the disease of sin and Jesus, the Great Physician (Luke 5:31), healed him.
Because of that, Levi later threw a party at his house and invited his sinner friends to meet Jesus. And many followed him (Mark 2:15).
Jesus did not call us because of our righteousness or gifting. He called us when all we had was need. And even now, as his disciples, we serve only in the strength and grace that he supplies (1 Peter 4:11), because apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
1This imaginative narrative is taken from these texts: Luke 5:27-32, Matt 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17.