Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Calling of Levi Mark 2:13-17

Introduction

Election of Donald Trump surprised many & caused a great deal of uncertainty about what 
he will do as President.

Therefore a lot of focus this week has been on the people Trump is appointing to key positions in his administration, to try & determine what his priorities will be, and what he plans to do during his term in office. Like Trump's own election, there have been some surprises and some concern about a few of his appointments.  Particular the appointment of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist, who is accused of making homophobic, racist and sexist comments.

Jesus’ choice of disciples also must have surprised many people, and it is this that I want to focus on tonight, especially in the context of the calling of Levi the tax collector. 

Calling of Levi 2:13-17

Levi, who is better known as Matthew, and who many scholars believe is the author of the Gospel of Matthew, was a Jew who worked for the Romans as a tax collector.

He collected taxes from citizens as well as from merchants passing through Capernaum, which was an important customs post on the caravan route between Damascus to the north east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west.

No one enjoys paying tax, but Israel at the time of Jesus was occupied and controlled by the oppressive, corrupt, pagan Roman Empire, and the taxes that were being collected were going to Rome and the Emperor, and thereby financing the Roman occupation. Imagine how you'd feel if Britain was occupied by a foreign power and you were being forced to pay money to the very people who were oppressing you.

Any amount that the tax collectors collected over and above what Rome required, they could keep for themselves. But many of the tax collectors exploited the system for personal gain, effecitively stealing from people & pocketing the profits for themselves. Therefore understandably tax collectors were hated by most Jews, and were excommunicated from the synagogue and seen as traitors and thieves.

That is why in Luke 3:12, when tax collectors came to be baptised by John in the Jordon and asked him "Teacher, what should we do?" His response was "Don't collect any more than you are required to." And when Zacchaeus came to faith in Christ, he said "If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back 4 times the amount."

Capernaum although an important and prosperous town wasn't a particularly large place, with a population of only around 1,500 people, and subsequently Levi would have been a well-known, albeit unpopular person.  And because much of Jesus' ministry was based in and around this area, Jesus would have known who Levi was, and observed him before, they may have even talked to one another.

Think how quickly news can spread around a town like Carlisle. Imagine therefore what it must have been like in a place like Capernaum, everyone would have known who Jesus was, including Levi, who may well have been one of the people in the crowds who flocked to hear Jesus speak, and seen him perform miracles.

For example when Jesus healed the paralysed man in Capernaum, it is possible that Levi was amongst the crowd, or would certainly have heard about it. People were drawn to Jesus, and I suspect Levi was also drawn to this young, charismatic, preacher and miracle worker, Jesus.

But Levi, could never have guessed what would happen next.

Because Jesus walked up to Levi and said "Follow me" and Mark tells us that Levi got up 
and followed him, just like that. In that moment Levi's life changed forever.

Calling to be a Disciple

Jesus was not the only person to have disciples.

But how Jesus chose his disciples was very different to how disciples were normally chosen.

The aim of a disciple was to become like their master, to be able to do and say the things their master could do and say.

Therefore only the best of the very best were normally chosen to be disciples.

When a child reached the age of about 6 that is when their formal education began, going initially to Bet Sefer between the ages of 6 and 12.  Bet Sefer means House of the Book. There they would study the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT), in particular the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, and would learn to read, write and memorise the sacred text.

At the conclusion of this boys would undergo a bar mitzvah, which they were welcomed into the community as a full-fledged male member. Usually at this point, the boy would begin to learn the family trade. That would have been the case for most of Jesus' disciples, few if any would have gone onto further study.

In first century Judaism higher education beyond Bet Sefer was for boys alone, and only the brighest and most promising boys would continue in their studies.

For the best of the best they would go onto Bet Midrash between the ages of 13 and 15, where they would study (and memorize) the entire Old Testament.

After Bet Midrash, there was Bet Talmud which went from the age of 15 to 30, which only the very best were able to pursue.

To participate, they had to be chosen by a Rabbi. The way this would work is that they would go to the rabbi they wanted to follow, and see if he would accept them. The rabbi would question their prospective disciples, to determine their scriptural knowledge. He would ask questions about the prophets, search their understanding of scripture and various laws. Ultimately the rabbi would be seeking to answer just one question. That is.... can this potential disciple, really become just like me.

And then, only if they passed all these tests would they be accepted, and be called a 'talmid' or in English, disciple. 

There was a saying 'May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi', they would literally follow in the footsteps of their rabbi, being a disciple was a way of life. They would seek to emulate their rabbi and become like him. They would eat the same food in exactly the same way as their rabbi. They would go to sleep and awake the same way as their rabbi and, more importantly, they would learn to study Torah and understand God the exact same way as their rabbi.

When a disciple took on the teaching of a particular rabbi, they were said to take on the ‘yoke’ of the rabbi. That is why Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If after all this questioning, the rabbi felt the person had the potential to become one of his disciples by learning to think and act like he did, and become like him, and spread his ‘yoke’ to others, then he would say to them “Come follow me.” But if they didn’t meet the necessary requirements, he would send them home to continue to learn the family trade or business.

This is significant because when Jesus called his disciples, and they were at work, Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishing, Levi was sitting at his tax collectors booth. There is nothing to suggest that these were the top students from the graduating class of Jerusalem Theological Seminary.  Therefore they weren’t the best of the best, they hadn’t made the cut, they weren’t the obvious first choice. Put bluntly, it would appear that Jesus was settling for the rejects.

And crucially JESUS CHOOSE them, not the other way around.

That is why in John 15 Jesus said “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit--fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)

Levi, and the other disciples were not the obvious first choice. If you were looking through human eyes and considering natural abilities, they didn’t measure up.

Dear Sir:

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.
As part of our service, we make some general comments for your guidance, much as an auditor will include some general statements. This is given as a result of staff consultation, and comes without any additional fee.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high 
score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.

Sincerely,

Jordan Management Consultants

Jesus, when he called Levi to follow him, wasn’t making His choice based on natural human reasoning, or the abilities of Levi or any of the other disciples. His choices were made using much different criteria. He saw the potential that exists within them and within us all – to become like him. 

So what?

What does this mean for us?

In calling Levi, and the other disciples, Jesus demonstrated that this movement is everyone, and not just for the elite. It was for the rich & poor, old and young, men and women, educated and uneducated.  This Jesus movement was for anybody and everybody.

This story reminds us that GOD DOES NOT CALL THE EQUIPPED, HE EQUIPS THE CALLED.

We may be sitting there & thinking how can God use someone like me, but he can and he does. And if God can use someone Levi, and someone like me, with all our failings and short comings, then he can definitely use someone like you.

Paul in 1 Corinthians writes ‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.’ (1 Cor 1:26-30)

Unlikely People

Our lack of experience or perceived lack of ability, or past mistakes is never an obstacle to being used by God.

Throughout Scripture we see that God uses the most unlikely, and often deeply flawed people.

If God could use people like Noah who was a drunkard, Abraham who was an old man, Moses who was a stutterer, Rahab who was a prostitute, David who was an adulterer & murderer, Jonah who ran away from God, Matthew a tax collector, a young boy with a small picnic of five loaves & two fishes, or Saul who persecuted the church, then he can certainly use people like you and me.

Call to follow Jesus

As Jesus called Levi to come and follow him, so Jesus calls us to come and follow him.

The question for each of us to ponder is – in what way do we sense God is calling us? It may be that God has something very specific in mind for you, and maybe you’ve been wrestling with that sense of calling, like an itch that won’t go away.

Or it may be that the call is recommitting yourself to be faithful to God where he’s already placed you, as a husband, wife, mother, sister, friend, neighbour, work colleague. 

Maybe the call is for you to recognize that what you are doing now matters to God, and that is where God wants to use you, as an agent for transformation and change.

Or it might be a realisation that you have drifted away from God, and that Jesus wants to call you back to himself, to recommit to following him.

So some questions to consider - in our daily lives what does it look like to be a disciple of Christ?

What would it mean for us to be covered in the dust of our master Jesus?

Levi’s Response

Just as extraordinary as Jesus’ call on Levi, is Levi’s response to Jesus.

‘Levi got up and followed him.’ (Mark 2:14)

He literally left everything behind, to follow Jesus.

Levi was probably very wealthy, being a tax collector was a lucrative occupation, but he left that all behind, realizing that material wealth was nothing when compared to the spiritual wealth of knowing Jesus.

But what he lost was far outweighed by what he gained in following Jesus. Because he discovered acceptance, forgiveness, a new family to belong to, and new direction and purpose for his life. 

And the same is true for us. There is a cost in following Jesus, that is why Jesus talked about taking up our cross & following him (Matthew 16:24). Putting him first in our lives, is not always easy, but it is the path that leads to everlasting life.

The other important thing Levi discovered in Jesus was here was someone who believed in him.

We talk about the importance of believing in God, but do you know that God also believes in us too.

In Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, he writes.

The entire rabbinical system was based upon the rabbi having faith in his disciples…. A rabbi would only pick a disciple who he thought could actually do what he was doing. 

Notice how many places in the accounts of Jesus’ life that he gets frustrated with his disciples. Because they are incapable? No, because of how capable they are. He sees what they could be and could do, and when they fall short, it provokes him to no end. It isn'’t their failure that is the problem; it is their greatness. 

They don’t realise what they are capable of.

So at the end of his time with his disciples, Jesus has some final words for them. He tells them to go to the ends of the earth and make more disciples. And then he leaves. He promises to send His Spirit to guide them and give them power, but Jesus himself leaves the future of the movement in their hands. 

And he doesn’'t stick around to make sure they don’t screw it up.

He'’s gone. He trusts that they can actually do it.

God has an incredibly high view of people.

God believes that people are capable of amazing things.
I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus, which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me.

I have been told that I need to have faith in God, which is a good thing.

But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.

The Rabbi thinks that we can be like him!

What I love about the story of Levi is that the very first thing he does after Jesus calls him, is to throw a party for his friends, people like him, considered outsiders, people who weren'’t considered good enough, people who hadn’t made the grade, so that they too could meet Jesus. Levi discovers in Jesus, someone who loves him, and believes in him, and more than anything else he wants others to know this to.

And this for me embodies what the Christian faith is all about, it is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.

Jesus tonight calls us to follow him. To leave behind our old life, and discover a new life with him. And in calling us, he says to us “I believe in you. And through the empowering of my Holy Spirit, you can become like me. To even do the things I did.”

How are you going to respond?

Questions:
  • None of Jesus' disciples were the obvious choice, what lessons can we learn from this?
  • What did Levi have to leave behind in order to follow Jesus, and what things might you have to leave behind?
  • What did Levi gain in following Jesus?
  • How do you respond to the idea that Jesus believes in you, and that you can become like him?
  • The Jews had a saying 'May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi' - what might that look like for you as a Christian?
  • What does it mean for you personally to respond to Jesus' call to "Follow me"?