July 14, 2020 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Luke 5:27-28 (NRSV)
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
The story of Levi in Luke 5 shows us, once again, that Jesus calls people who are on the margins of society. Often, those on the margins are even more responsive to the call of Jesus because they have less to give up than those who are more central and privileged. Yet, we must remember that Jesus also calls people who are on the margins of our own networks and preferences. Jesus doesn’t check with us first before he calls people to follow him.
The story of the call of Levi in Luke 5:27-28 is about as simple and straightforward as it could be. As Jesus is walking along, he saw a tax collector named Levi and called to him, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27). Immediately, Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:28). That’s the whole story. (It is told with similar brevity in Matthew and Mark, though Levi is called by his alternate name, Matthew, in Matthew 9:9).
I wish we had a little more of the backstory here. What was going on in Levi’s life that helped him to receive the call of Jesus? Did Levi know anything about Jesus before this encounter? Had he been with Jesus? Or did he only hear rumors about Jesus? Unfortunately, we can’t answer these questions. Luke tells the story of Levi’s call to emphasize the starkness and suddenness of both Jesus’s call and Levi’s response. Following Jesus is a matter of saying “yes” when he calls. This much is crystal clear.
The immediate response of Levi is surprising. But that’s not the only surprise in this story. Perhaps an even greater surprise has to do with what Levi did for a living. He is identified in verse 27 as a “tax collector.” Levi was in a profession that could lead to considerable wealth, since Rome had given him authority to tax people beyond what the government required in order to line his own pocket. But even if Levi was wealthy, which is implied in the following story in Luke, he was a person of low status. He was despised by his neighbors as a sell-out and a cheat. He was, after all, working for the enemy of the Jews, helping to raise funds for their continued domination of the Holy Land.
So, the giant surprise in this story isn’t Levi’s response so much as Jesus’s choice of whom to call as his follower. Jesus called a person who was despised, who had become wealthy by taking advantage of his neighbors, and who was seen as disloyal to the Jewish people. Earlier in this Following Jesus Today series, we saw that Jesus called Simon Peter even though he confessed to being a sinful man (Luke 5:8). Levi would have been regarded as one of the worst of sinners. Yet, knowing how controversial it would be to have Levi as one of his disciples, Jesus called him nevertheless. Jesus’s choice is the biggest surprise here.
The fact that Jesus called Levi should warn us against certain prejudices that can easily dwell in our hearts. Have you ever discovered that someone is a Christian and thought to yourself, “Oh, I can’t believe that he is a Christian” or “I can’t believe she considers herself to be a believer”? The case of Levi reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that Jesus calls people we would consider most unlikely candidates for discipleship.
The fact is that Jesus calls people who are on the margins of society. Often, those on the margins are even more responsive to the call of Jesus because they have less to give up than those who are more central and privileged. Yet, we must remember that Jesus also calls people who are on the margins of our own networks and preferences. Jesus doesn’t check with us first before he calls people to follow him. The truth is that Jesus has followers who don’t talk or live like us, who don’t share our politics and passions, even the kind of people we’re apt to denigrate or dismiss. The call of Levi helps to keep us open, knowing that God’s ways are not our ways in all things, including the choice of who will follow Jesus. It also reminds us that we have been called, not because of our worthiness, but because of God’s amazing grace.
How do you respond to the story of the call of Levi? What thoughts or feelings does this story stir up in you?
In what way – or ways – have you experienced the call of Jesus?
Do you find yourself stretched to accept as brothers or sisters in Christ some of those whom Jesus has called to follow him?
Check your own heart to see if you have prejudices against certain kinds of people who are Jesus followers. As the Lord to give you an open heart to his sovereignty and to the people he calls to follow him.
Lord Jesus, thank you for calling Levi to follow you. Thank you for reaching out to people who weren’t well thought of in their society. Thank you for challenging me to be open to your sovereign choices. Thank you for choosing to call me to be with you and to serve you. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Calling of Levi (Mark 2:13-17)
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he is the principal writer of Life for Leaders and the program lead of the Third Third Initiative. Previously, Mark was the senior pastor of a church in Southern California and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. Mark has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,000 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark has taught at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
Click here to view Mark’s profile.