“As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him”. Mark 2:14
Last week, when we thought about Jesus’ encounter with the unclean spirit, we used the word “evil” and anagrams of it to think about our responses to the story. This week, as we think of the calling of Levi, that same set of anagrams can help us think about what was took place and what it says to us.
“He saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth”, Saint Mark Chapter 2 Verse 14 tells us. In the Old Testament, Levi was the third son of Jacob. The tribe of Levi were those who were given the religious duties and the name “Levi” became associated with priests. In the time of Jesus, the Levites were a group connected with the Temple in Jerusalem whose duties involved upholding religious traditions and rules. If we read the book of Numbers Chapter 3, we see the Levites being a people who were set apart, people who had a special role in the service of God. That someone who bore the name of “Levi”should be collecting taxes at the roadside ran contrary to all the traditions attached to Levi in the past.
As Christians, we are meant to be a people set apart. How often, though, are we like Levi, drifting into lives that run contrary to all that we believe?
To most of those who gathered beside the lake of Galilee to listen to Jesus speaking, Levi was a vile man. Tax collecting was a racket. People like Levi would decide themselves how much they would charge, passing on the official amounts to the authorities and putting the balance into their own pockets.
Levi would have been a prosperous man. In order to carry out his duties hew would also have been fluent in Aramaic (the everyday language of the Jewish people) and Greek (the common language around the Mediterranean and the language in which the New Testament was written). He would also have known Hebrew from attending the synagogue and perhaps some Latin through dealing with the Romans. To understand how much Levi would have been thought as vile, we need to think in terms of how we would see someone running a protection racket today—pay them what they ask or they wreck our property. Levi had to be paid whatever he demanded, or he could destroy someone’s livelihood.
Who are the people we would regard as “vile”? Jesus saw something in Levi that other people did not see and Levi changed, do we still believe in that power to change people?
More than just vile though, mixing with the people he did, Levi would have been thought of evil. Levi came from the province of Galilee, which, unlike the province of Judea, was not administered directly by the Romans, but by a puppet ruler Herod Antipas, who was answerable to the Roman authorities. Levi would have been thought vile because of corrupt practices, and would have been thought evil because as a tax collectors he would have been seen as a collaborator with the occupying Roman imperial power.
The Jewish people were very devout people and hated the ways in which the Romans would run roughshod over Jewish religious rules. The attitude of Pontius Pilate is an example of the attitude of the authorities in Jesus’ time and an example of why collaborators might be thought evil. Pilate hadn’t much liking for the Jewish religion; he had twice had run- ins with the Jewish leaders about images of the emperor, which the Romans regarded as images of a god and which the Jews regarded as a blatant breach of the Commandments. Twice Pilate had allowed Roman standards bearing images of the emperor to be carried into Jerusalem. Pilate had also been involved in a row over money; Jerusalem needed a new water supply so Pilate had taken money from the treasury in the Temple to pay for a new aqueduct. Sacred things were not respected and the people were angered.
Even if people had thought Levi a reasonable person, he would have been thought evil by his associations, yet Jesus was prepared to see him as an individual. Do we see individuals or do we see people as labels? Do we see each person as someone for whom Jesus dies, or do we see them as just a part of a group we dislike?
Jesus goes to the house of Levi to share in a meal and it understandably prompts grumbling among those who saw Levi as a vile and evil man. In Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 16, we read, “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” A third anagram of Levi is “veil” and it is as though a veil has been drawn over they eyes of Jesus’ critics. Jesus’ opponents simply cannot see things as they are, so, in Verse 17, Jesus points out the reality to them he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus is pointing out the truth, but they cannot, or will not, see it
When we look at people, is it sometimes as though there is a veil over our own eyes? Do we grumble about what our faith demands of us? Do we even grumble about God, thinking that people should get what we think they deserve and should not receive God’s grace?
“Follow me”, says Jesus to Levi, “And he got up and followed him”. The final anagram of Levi is “live” and that is what Levi is called to do for Jesus, to leave his old life behind and to follow Jesus, living a new life, living a life far from his old life.
Jesus calls us to live for him, to follow him. Levi would be judged not on any words he might say, but on how he lived his life. Our faith will be judged by others not on anything we say, but on the way which we live our lives.
Levi, vile, evil, veil and live – each word reminds us of the challenge of responding to Jesus.