Jesus - Levi and the Publicans
Jesus, Levi and the Publicans
Having just finished his sermon, the preacher went to the back of the church for his usual greetings and handshaking as the congregation was leaving. After shaking several hands, the next person was the six year old son of one of the church members.
"Good morning, Matthew," the preacher said, reaching out to shake the boy's hand.
As he was doing so, he could feel something in the palm of Matthew's hand. "What is this?" the preacher asked.
"It's money and it's for you," Matthew replied with a big smile.
"I don't want to take your money, Matthew," said the preacher.
"But, I want you to have it," Matthew insisted. "My daddy says you're the poorest preacher we've ever had and I want to help you."
Just a reminder that if I make a mistake in the lesson or say something you disagree with please come and see me and we can look at the scriptures together.
For our text today I would like you to open your bibles to Mark 2:13-17 – Mark chapter 2 beginning at verse 13 - “And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [KJV]
One of the places to which Jesus often went to teach during these early days of His Galilean ministry, was the along the shore, by the Sea of Galilee. According to Luke 5:3, on one occasion Jesus was sitting in a fishing boat which had been thrust out just a little distance from land so that people could hear Him better as He taught. That would be similar I suppose to use using a raised stand for people to both see and hear the speaker or our use of an microphone. There needed to be some way in a crowd for Jesus to be heard. This little boat on that occasion became his pulpit.
Back to our text. On this particular day in Capernaum, Jesus is at the sea side with crowds of people surrounding Him and Mark tells us, “He taught them.” On this day something else would take place as well. That something was the call of Levi (or Matthew) to follow Him. The Bible tells us that “he arose and followed him”. This call of Levi quickly resulted in a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees.
Today, in keeping with the song we have just sung, “Give Me The Bible”, that is exactly what I would like to do, give you the Bible, give you the text which we have just read. Let us examine the text for its truths and its lessons.
I. Levi (Matthew) – We begin with Levi.
A. The gospels of Mark and Luke identify this man as Levi. The gospel of Matthew however refers to him by the name Matthew.
1. These are not two different men as some might claim – one simply needs to read the three narratives to realize that there are too many similarities within them for Levi and Matthew to be different men on different occasions.
2. What we have here though, is a man with two names - Hebrew & Greek.
3. Often in that day a person might have a Hebrew name and Greek name. You will remember for example Simon Peter, or John Mark, or Saul Paul. Each of these is a man with two names, often his Hebrew name and the other by which Greeks might have called him.
B. The bible tells us that Levi was sitting at the place of custom. He was a tax collector, or perhaps more accurately a customs agent. Levi was also what scripture refers to as a “publican”.
1. Publicans were people who were employed by the Romans or their surrogates. I wondered what a “publican” was and I found that the Roman senate farmed out or “outsourced” the direct taxes and the customs to capitalists who undertook to pay a given sum into the treasury (in publicum), and so received the name of publicani . Contracts of this kind were large and fell naturally into the hands of the richest class of Romans. These Publicani then appointed managers, who employed the actual custom-house officers, who examined each bale of goods, exported or imported, assessed its value more or less arbitrarily, wrote out the ticket, and enforced payment. Although the custom agents or officers were not the publicani, they were often referred to as publicans. The Greek word for these custom-house officers’ means “tribute-collectors” but the Kings James and others use “publicans”.
2. The negative part of being a Jewish publican was that they were Jews who were in the employment of Rome, the oppressor. That made them despised and held in contempt. The scribes and Pharisees, keepers of orthodoxy, held publicans in the greatest contempt.
3. Certainly, it would be unthinkable for a scribe or Pharisee to attend a social gathering with publicans.
C. When Jesus called Levi, we meet him as he is busy at his work. He is sitting at the place of custom.
1. I remember the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John don’t you? When Jesus called them they were busy at their occupations. They were busy at their trade. They were fishermen, tending to their trade, mending their nets and other tasks. One of the things that I think it is important to note here is that Jesus called busy men to be apostles. He called busy men, men who were accustom to work, men who were accustom to responsibility. That is the sort of person He called. He did not call people who were sitting idly on the side. He did not look for people who had not occupied themselves in the busyness of real life. He sought busy people.
2. One of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that if you want to get a job done you ask a person who is already busy to do the job. That person is more likely to get the job done than one who is accustomed to idleness.
3. Here is Levi, busy at his occupation. This man is by trade a customs collector and the customs collectors and tax collectors of that time were people who did not have a great many guide lines from either the holders of the contract, their managers or the Roman government about the rate of taxation.
a We have a convenient little chart in the back of our tax booklet from the IRS telling what the rates of taxation will be, for income tax that is. The tax collectors in that day could pretty well assess any sort of tax they chose to assess on anything they chose to tax.
b Out of this system the publicans were able to enrich themselves and often did. Some were wealthy people. This is of course one of the reasons they were so despised and hated. Often what they charged was viewed as exorbitant, unfair, and corrupt.
4. Thinking about this, here is Levi, sitting at the place of custom, the place of collecting tax or duty. What are we to suppose about him? I will suggest to you that Levi might have been, and probably was, one of those rare honest individuals in what had come to be considered a dishonest profession. I’ll base that supposition on the fact that Jesus called him to follow Him.
D. The Bible says Jesus called him and “he arose and followed him.”
1. I would also suggest that his arising to follow the Lord was something that was precipitous. Remember that Levi was sitting at the place of custom as Jesus was walking by at the sea side. That would suggest to me that the place of Levi’s employment was a place of duty collection - at the sea side.
2. When you fly into an international airport such as Cleveland from outside the country you go through customs, a standard procedure. You must pass through customs before you are able to go out into the lobby of the airport. The customs agents will give you a little form, if you have not already filled one out on your flight.
a On this form one of the things you must do is list all of the foreign purchases you have made and are bringing in with you. There is a standard deduction of course, we all know about those kinds of things, an amount you are allowed to bring in, but you have to list the things you are bringing in. The customs agent looks the form over and then tells you to “go on”, usually. He is at the place where you would expect the customs agent to be, and that is where Levi was.
b At the place of custom, a place by the sea side, a place where perhaps there was incoming traffic and shipping. The fact that he was there leads me to believe that Levi may have had the opportunity to both have heard of Jesus and perhaps to have heard Jesus teaching.
3. This also suggests to me that what we read here in Mark’s gospel is not the entire story. This rest of the story is likely that Levi has been hearing of and even hearing Jesus, Himself, over time and that his choice to leave the place of custom and follow Jesus is a choice of conviction growing out of the message of Jesus.
E. There is something else about Levi. This man probably made a great sacrifice in the eyes of the world, by becoming the disciple and apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. As I read about this particular occupation in that age, it seems probable a person who left his job as a publican would not have been able to return to it. Stop and think about this. The contract holder hires managers to employ and manage the custom agents. The profit to the contract holder depends on the excess the managers can obtain above what the contract holder paid the government. The profit to the manager depends on the work of the custom agents to do the same. How do you think a custom agent would be viewed if he left his job?
2. Here then is a man whose occupation is as a customs agent. To follow Jesus he must leave his profession and he likely can not return to it. He has in effect given up his job for all time.
3. Thinking about Peter, Andrew, James and John. They were fishermen and could return to their profession. There is indication in scripture that for a period of time they did indeed do so. I do not want to minimize for an instant the decision made by Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Jesus.
4. I do want us to see that there is the probability Levi has nothing by way of a profession to which he can return. When he arose and followed Jesus he left behind the opportunity for further employment.
II. A BANQUET WITH PUBLICANS, QUESTIONS AND AN ANSWER
A. The next thing we read in the text is that Levi gives a dinner or a banquet, for his friends and for Jesus. He invites his friends and Jesus to share a meal together.
1. Looking at verse 15 we read; “And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples”. That expression “publicans and sinners” is one given to these people but not by Jesus. This was the way in which the Pharisees referred to these people. They were publicans and sinners.
2. They were people who, as I already mentioned, would not be acceptable in a social context to the scribes and the Pharisees.
3. This word “sinners” arrests my attention momentarily and I wonder by whose assessment that was? Was this the assessment that was tagged upon these particular people because the Pharisees had so labeled them - outside of orthodoxy? Publicans and sinners. You can almost hear the contempt in that expression. Because of their association with Romans, heathen, oppressors, they were certainly people of distaste to the people who thought themselves to be so holy and so right.
4. Yet, while that probably was the case could I suggest to you that some of these “publicans and sinners” may also have been people who were very aware of sin and their spiritual needs? Some very likely recognized their sin and their spiritual destitution.
5. I make this comment in reference to Luke 18:10-14 I’d like you to turn there with me and read. What we are going to read is the word of Jesus. This was the situation, Luke 18:10-14 – “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. That is reminiscent of the setting we have in Mark’s gospel chapter 2! There are the publicans at the banquet and the Pharisees, who for some reason are in the environs of the banquet. So we have in this passage both parties of our text. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, Now this is the man whom the Pharisees despise… And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. That is why I suggest to you that among these people who the Pharisees have called publicans and sinners may well have been people who recognized their spiritual needs. Something the Pharisees obviously could not do for they thought themselves above that. Jesus continues; I tell you, this man, Speaking of the publican, went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”.
B. Now back to the book of Mark. The fact that Jesus is a guest at this banquet causes the Pharisees to go to some of Jesus’ disciples and ask a question. “How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?” That’s their question.
1. The question would arise out of the situation that at that time no respectable rabbi would ever think of going to a banquet like this. This is not something that would occur to a rabbi to do. He would not behave in such a way. Here is Jesus, often referred to by the term rabbi, teacher, here is Jesus who is at this banquet with publicans and sinners. How is it that He does this? This is just not something that’s done!
2. This becomes another point of criticism, another point of attack which they will accumulate with all the rest and ultimately send Jesus to the cross.
3. There are several lessons here but there is one difficult lesson and not one which I particularly enjoy thinking or talking about. It is not all that uncommon for a person seeking to do good, seeking to reach out to other people to be criticized by folks who think of themselves as the righteous. “I wouldn’t go and do that.” “I wouldn’t be involved in the lives of people who may be dirty or unkempt, or addicts or diseased or that have lice.”
a I’ll never forget hearing about Cecil A. Hutson, a preacher in Texas, about his going into a home in the early years of his travels into Mexico, a home of deep, deep poverty. Cecil was a person who showered at least once a day and sometimes more. He liked to be clean and abhorred the insect life that creeps into peoples homes in that part of the world. He went into this house and the people there were very poor. The floor was dirt, very little furniture. The people probably could not bathe often. They came up to him and hugged him and he said he was thinking, “Oh, no, how many lice am I going to take home with me.” He said that he couldn’t help thinking it. But he learned he had to get past that kind of thinking in order to be happy and work among our brothers in that impoverished area.
b According to him there are many of the people from this country, who will not go and eat in a home down in Mexico. Cecil didn’t know you weren’t supposed to. At some point he talked to a friend who mentioned this to him. Cecil asked, “If that’s true why is it that I’m being invited somewhere to eat at least four times a day?” His friend said because you will, because you’ll go. You would have to know this preacher to appreciate this, but he said; “Well, if you’re going to put a tamale in front of me I’ll go, I’ve never met a tamale that I wouldn’t eat.” The point is that so many Americans won’t go. Cecil knew that there are certain risks involved in going and that he would need to be careful, and yet, he wondered isn’t that reaction something with which we have become comfortable? Do we criticize people who would go to the unkempt and the dirty and the diseased? Go to people who are not as high on the social scale as we are? Go to the rejected, the undesirable? Often it does happen.
4. Back to Mark again. What’s happened here in the text is part of the gathering storm that is going to finally engulf Jesus.
5. Everywhere He would turn would be the critical eyes of the Pharisees. Now Jesus heard this question and He answered it.
C. Turn to chapter two of Mark verse 17: When Jesus heard it, He said to them, Mark 2:17 - “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” There are two or three things that Jesus does in this answer.
1. First of all, Jesus identifies sin as a great spiritual sickness needing the great physician.
2. The second thing that happens here is that He does not identify the Pharisees as righteous. That’s not the point of His answer. Having said that I need also to add, they believed they were righteous. They believed that they were the ideal keepers of the Law of Moses.
3. Jesus identified people who recognized their spiritual need as sinners. He could not help those people who did not desire His help—the Pharisees, the Scribes.
4. He could help people who recognized that sin was a problem in their lives. He desired to help them and would help them. He could assist those who knew their sin and saw their great need.
5. That leads me to another question. Why would Jesus go to this banquet? Think about that. Why would Jesus, the Great Physician, go to that kind of banquet? Jesus went where the needs were. This particular occasion gave Jesus a wonderful opportunity to minister to the spiritually sick. In His answer, and this perhaps is the greatest lesson of the text, in His answer notice the emphasis He places on repentance. . I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.
D. The emphasis on repentance
1. In Luke chapter five and verse 32, Luke in his account of this particular occasion uses almost the identical language emphasizing repentance as the reason for Jesus coming. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”
2. Repentance was the great message of John the Baptist. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:2. Repentance became the great message of Jesus. By the way, the gospel of Luke is often held up as the gospel which shows that Jesus is for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews, and Luke lays heavy stress on the need for repentance.
3. Jesus did not come for people to maintain their behavior as they were in the past. Jesus came to call people to change their lives. He didn’t come to approve the status quo. He didn’t approve the lives of the publicans and sinners, but He announced; “here’s what I’m here to do—to bring these people, who recognize their need, to repentance, to change their lives.”
4. I have a question for us today. How, are you listening, how has Jesus changed our lives? How has Jesus changed your life? Levi, Matthew, had a choice to make when Jesus said “follow me”. He could have remained at his post as a tax collector but he chose to follow Jesus. His choice to follow Jesus has enshrined his name in memory forever as the apostle whose gospel bears his name.
Following Jesus will probably not result in our becoming famous, but, folks, following Jesus will result in our eternal security which is far more valuable than any earthly thing. “I’ve come to call sinners to repentance.” Today the call of Jesus is to people who need Him, people who need to repent, people whose spiritual lives are bent out of shape, and people whose lives are marred because of sin. People who recognize sin as a spiritual malady and are willing to change their lives.
In John the eighth chapter verse 11, are the words of Jesus to the woman we’re told had been taken in the very act of adultery. Of course, the Law of Moses prescribed that she be stoned and the person accusing her cast the first stone. Who’s going to cast the first stone? Remember when Jesus looked up all the accusers had left. “He said neither do I condemn thee go (now listen to these words) go, and sin no more.”
You’ve got to change your life. Today I’m wondering how many are here who need to change their lives, repenting of whatever sin may be present in their lives and changing their lives in keeping with the will and the word of God. Perhaps there are those needing to be baptized into Christ. Certainly, repentance is a very important element in the steps toward that baptism. Repent and be baptized Acts two verse 38 says to people in sin. Change your life. Make the decision mentally to change your life and be obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ who is the Great Physician. You might say in conclusion, as song #615 says, “The Great Physician now is near”. Who needs the healing that He offers? Will you come while we stand and sing?
Cecil A. Hutson
16 July 2006
Where and when we meet
Chardon, Ohio 44024