TURNING UNLIKELY STARTERS INTO SUCCESSFUL FINISHERS
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. 29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
INFORMATION: ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
Jesus went out
and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi
sitting at his tax booth.
Jesus said to him,
28 and Levi got up,
and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house,
and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
30 But the Pharisees
and the teachers of the law
who belonged to their sect
complained to his disciples,
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them,
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor,
but the sick.
32 I have not come to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance.”
THE INFORMATION IN MY OWN WORDS
- The incident happened after Jesus left the house meeting with religious leaders
- He went out to the road saw a toll collector named Matthew/Levi
- He was sitting in his toll booth
- Jesus invited him to become his follower.
- Matthew/Levi got up from his seat.
- He left everything he had with him where it was.
- He followed Jesus.
- Afterwards, Matthew/Levi held a grand banquet at his house
- Jesus was the honoured guest.
- A large number of fellow tax collectors and others were eating at the banquet.
- The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were part of their group complained to Jesus’ disciples.
- They ask why Jesus and they, themselves broke the Jewish tradition of not eating with tax collectors and sinners.
- Jesus heard them ask the disciples this question and answered their question.
- The sick people need the presence and help of a doctor.
- Healthy people don’t need a doctor.
- I have not come to tend to the people who consider themselves to be righteous.
- I have come to call those who know they are sinners so that they are able to repent.
MESSAGE: IDENTIFYING ENEMY PRESENCE AND WORK
It was quite a few years ago now when we began to ask a very simple question about the community spheres where we lived and worked. We wanted to know how we could best identify the way the message of the gospel could impact each particular sphere. If you think of the gospel stories, they could easily describe difference “community spheres” where the presence of Jesus had influence. It isn’t difficult to tabulate a list of differences. All you have to do is to identify what it was like before the Jesus said or did something and then see what was different afterwards. We tried to figure out a way to quantify that difference. This was the question:
“If the kingdom of God fully came to this sphere, what would be different?”
In most cases, we could write down a list of things without any difficulty. This question needs to be followed up by another question,
“Why are these kingdom of God things not happening?”
The answers to those questions will expose the work of the enemy of God. It is the enemy identified by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6: “principalities, powers, rulers of this world’s darkness and spiritual wickedness in heavenly realms.” We are told very explicitly that the primary cause is not human. It is the work of a spiritual adversary. We are told that we should not fight against humans, but against the spiritual forces that have captured them and used them. The shape of this battle is for the spiritual forces to be destroyed and the humans redeemed. When we have identified how the rule of God’s kingdom would look and what is happening to prevent that rule being established, we then need to know which weapons to use to pull down strongholds and set captives free. Those weapons are identified for us by Paul as sevenfold: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the word of God and prayer.
The story of Jesus meeting up with Levi (who I will refer to as Matthew for the sake of simplicity) is one of the most powerful life transformation stories in the whole of the Bible. When we read the story five different entities: individuals or groups of people are highlighted:
Jesus the Messiah/King of the kingdom of God: his presence is the nearness of the kingdom. The work of that kingdom will only be accessible through him.
- The disciples are raw recruits learning to serve the work of the kingdom of God. We don’t know how many were with Jesus at this time. We do know that Peter, Andrew, James and John were definitely there, but perhaps others as well.
- Matthew who is a tax collector: tax collectors were Jews who had colluded with the Roman authorities to collect taxes and other fees. They were despised not only for their link to the Romans but because they were dishonest, robbing from their own people by extorting more than they were due. As far as the religious leaders were concerned, not only were the tax collectors and sinners defiled and unclean but anyone associating with them was considered as equally defiled and to be shunned.
- Matthew’s friends: they are described as tax collectors and sinners. They were all people who were rejected by the orthodox religious leaders who thought they were honouring God by despising and rejecting them.
- The religious leaders: Pharisees and teachers of the law who belonged to their sect. These were the conservative custodians of traditional Jewish religion. They believed the law was given in two forms, as written down by Moses and as oral law given to godly leaders down through the centuries. For them, pleasing God was based on strict adherence to traditional rules and practices. They saw Jesus as a lawbreaker and a heretic. They believed that his power to heal and cast out demons was derived from the devil.
HOW THE ENEMY SHOWED UP AT THE TAXATION OFFICE
- Matthew’s lifestyle. Here is a man who was willing to serve his own greed by betraying and stealing from his own people. It was more important than family, friendships, social interaction and the synagogue. It was backed by the cruelty of Roman governance. The Romans achieved the ignominy of being the greatest torturers and the cruellest rulers of history to that time. That authority guaranteed Matthew’s power to extort wealth from already impoverished people. Matthew was sitting at his toll booth on the road. Most probably it was the road built by the Romans along the western side of the Sea of Galilee. His job was to collect the toll (much like we used to have at the beginning of our freeways. He would also collect a form of import duty for goods being taken to further markets. His presence there represented a very tangible symbol of the greed and corruption we see everywhere in our world today.
- Matthew’s friends’ lifestyle. When Matthew threw a party to introduce all of his friends to Jesus, it was a collection of people whose flaws and lifestyles were rejected by the religious status quo. People who are rejected find some comfort in each other’s company. There wouldn’t have been any community elders or leaders present. No one who wanted to maintain religious purity would have gone near the place. So this was a gathering of all the rich rejects. It would have been very unlikely that there would have been any poor people present. This was a gathering of the “impoverished wealthy people.” When greed and corruption are the common denominators, there will always be a maze of unusual social connections. These connections will usually be there because they play some part in promoting the greed and corruption and keeping the wheels of the systems oiled and running.
- Religious Leaders The sad irony of this group was the fact that they would have seen themselves as being pawns in the work of God’s enemy. They considered themselves to be experts in what God liked and didn’t like and were the ones who defended what God liked and opposed what God didn’t like. All the while these sad sincere people were getting in the road of the greatest work of God ever known in the history of the heavens and the earth. Jesus describes this in a discourse that exposes the failure of the religious system that had become a tool in the hands of the enemy rather than a light shining in the darkness. This is one of the things Jesus says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
It’s not hard to see the universal application here. Most of us know or know about people like Matthew and his mates. There will be a scale here, some more and others, less. The same goes for the social networks around Matthew. They are familiar to us as well. We are all too familiar with religious hatred and sectarian destruction. When people assume they have achieved religious status, power and privilege they often involve systemic elitism. This will form a foundation for condemnation for other groups and individuals who don’t agree with them. All of these exist in every community and generation. All of them are symbols of the potency of God’s adversaries. Remember, we are not talking about the people themselves, but the spiritual forces influencing and enslaving them. In this story, the purpose of Jesus is to overcome the power of the real enemy so that all “flesh and blood” involved get another opportunity to be rescued, reconciled and restored to their God-ordained vocation.
HOW DID JESUS USE THE SEVEN WEAPONS TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY?
Matthew was sitting at the toll booth on the road heading south along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a typical day. He was collecting tolls from the people using the road and customs and excise taxes from people who with taxable goods. Even though the people from whom he collected the money were his own people, he used his power and influence to extract more than was due. Like his Jericho counterpart, Zacchaeus, his wealthy lifestyle was built on the foundation of corruption and intimidation. He paid a high social price for his greed. He was hated by his own people, cut off from the synagogue and always under suspicion from the unpredictable ruthlessness of Roman occupation. He could have easily been voted as the most unlikely citizen in Capernaum to become a passionate servant of God.
Think about the message that was communicated to him when Jesus of Nazareth stood before him, not to pay his taxes, not as yet another potential source of legal and illegal income, but with a simple invitation. Well, was it really an invitation. It was a royal command. There was no discussion and no explanation. Here was the loving Son of God offering a greedy, immoral traitor the opportunity to serve him. The truth that was uncovered for all to see on that day was the fact that prior record has no bearing on merit in the presence of the redemptive love of God. While almost every sector of humanity can’t help assessing someone on a given scale of worthiness, the invitation from God is to step into another world; a world where the accumulation of sordid, culpable guilt can be washed away in a moment. Matthew saw and heard this love, and it changed his life forever. The man who would cheat and oppress innocent people for personal financial gain ended up writing an account that would make Jesus known to every generation to come and die in Ethiopia because he would not stop proclaiming that same message.
We must make the point here that it was the devil who convinced Matthew that it was okay to beat people up to get their money and it was okay to betray his own people by becoming an agent for the Roman occupation. On that day only one man made the desire and will of God known. The simplicity continues to mess without heads, but the power of unveiled reality is unmistakable. On that day the devil totally lost his grip.
As Matthew got up from his chair, left his moneybag under the table and walked off with Jesus, every last kingdom-of-this-world attitude and assumption was challenged. Some people would have been amazed, others indignant. It is unlikely that a single person in the sphere would have approved. But that’s because they had a clue of what the kingdom of God is like. Their shock should be a lesson to us. We should not only NOT be shocked but should be longing to be able to see the next person that comes into our presence as God sees them, not as our culture and background has taught us to see them.
Surely we don’t have to say too much about this that hasn’t already been said. Jesus was God on that day as he was on every other day. What Jesus did was what God was doing. What he said was what God was saying. What he wanted was what God wanted. Our difficulty with this incident is that we almost have to put some kind of caveat around what happened. Just imagine what you might have said if you were Jesus’ senior advisor and, on coming to where Matthew was doing business, Jesus said, “I’m going to offer that man a place among my twelve chosen apostles, what do you think?” What are you going to say? You are going to tell him its a bad idea. You’re going to explain that such a move would be interpreted as endorsing the immoral and horrible things tax collectors are doing. You’d also point out that having an ex-tax collector in the team would only fuel the aggression of his opponents. There were enough questions already, with a bunch of low-life fishermen in tow. All of those things would have come directly from the kingdom of darkness. The love of heaven demands that all people receive indiscriminate doses without exception or diminution.
Wherever selectivity, preference or scale of values exist we are describing the kingdom of this world, not the environment of heaven. Jesus loved this man and called him to follow because he loved him. It’s the same for you and the same for me. Remember that Jesus’ invitation/command to Matthew was not, “Matthew, continue living as a greedy, dishonest traitor and I will endorse your destructive way of life.” It was “Matthew, follow me.” In the moment, it involved a choice between walking away from everything he had previously valued. The only thing that will ever make such a decision a safe one will be when it involves righteousness like that of Jesus – pure, holy love; completely trustworthy and fully able to deliver on every promise. And, by the way. The fact that the righteous Son of God was standing in front of him meant that all the power and influence that had locked him in a prison whose walls were built on greed, dishonesty and injustice rendered that enemy powerless. That’s why Matthew could get up from his table and walk away after Jesus.
GOSPEL OF PEACE
Well, the gospel of peace was undoubtedly proclaimed that day. My working definition is as follows: “When the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ are made known in a way that enables a person to decide to follow him, the gospel has been proclaimed.” On that day the Person standing in front of him was offering him a clear choice. We know of at least one other occasion where a man stood before Jesus, heard Jesus and then walked away. We have noted before that the weapons will often overlap and in this case they do. The revelation that the closest relationship with Jesus is offered regardless of background and on the basis of simple obedience (to the King) IS the gospel presentation. The fact that Matthew died serving Jesus in Ethiopia is testament to the power of the gospel to neutralise the lies that had created and then maintained the prison he had lived in. Matthew got born again that day.
Reread the story and look for the things that Jesus was trusting God to do. Then, the exercise of Jesus faith that day will become clear. Another way to look at it would be to ask what the risks were in what Jesus was doing. Here is another question, “What change happened that day as a result of Jesus addressing a simple command to a Galilean low-life (in the opinion of the general population)?” Or yet another question, “How could the change in Matthew’s life have come about without any risk?” All of these point to the fact that Jesus was trusting God to do something on the basis of his faith initiative. Remember what Jesus said to his Father in the prayer recorded in John 17:
“I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. ……….. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”
Jesus was confident that his Father would “give” him a number of individuals in whom he would invest his own life so that they would multiply disciples throughout the nations. There was a contract between them. Jesus would tell them everything he knew from the Father, and they would respond with faith demonstrated by obedience. Jesus’ faith was evident on the day he stood before Matthew and challenged him to become a follower/disciple. I know we would feel more comfortable if this was framed with some form of sovereign guarantee, but on earth, no guarantee exists. All of us can say “No” if we choose to do so. Jesus exercised faith in his Father’s promise, and Matthew walked away from his table full of money. When that kind of faith stood in Matthew’s sphere the enemy’s power to serve up lies was broken, and Matthew walked free for the first time in his life.
I have been trying to make the point that the idea of “salvation” as a weapon of war has everything to do with the state of our relationship with the Father and Son. Salvation is the word that describes the restoration of a relationship that was meant to be there from beginning to end. We were given life on this earth to live and children of our heavenly Father. We are created in HIS image to carry his PRESENCE and fulfil his PURPOSE. When we stray from that, we lose our identity and our eternal significance. The only home we will ever truly belong to is the one where God is our Father and where we are members of the family working in the family business. Being born again is a term that describes the start of that relationship. The environment of Matthew’s tax table was imbued with toxic and destructive assumptions. He was a dirty rotten sinner, hated by God and shunned by his own people. If lightning had fallen from the sky and struck him down, the people of Capernaum would have rejoiced that God’s justice had been served. It was Jesus sense of assurance and his whole identity as Son of God that allowed him to live completely free of that attitude. When he walked up to Matthew, he wasn’t thinking any of those things. He was living out of the culture and climate of heaven. That’s why he kept on doing things that shocked those whose only experience was the kingdom of this world – even if it was a religious kingdom that supposedly honoured God. When we live as citizens of the kingdom of God and see ourselves as living in a foreign land, we can bring the environment of heaven to wherever we happen to be on the earth. The challenge is to allow salvation to have its way with us. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds till we think and reason and desire like God and not like other people.
WORD OF GOD
Just imagine a conversation between the Father, God and his Son Jesus as he walked from the house and approached Matthew’s tax collection table. Remember, Jesus had lived in this world for thirty years before beginning his ministry. There wasn’t an aspect of the culture of his day, and there wasn’t a prevailing point of view that was foreign to him. As a fully qualified human person, Jesus had the same choices as we all have. When it came to Matthew and tax-collectors and sinners alike, Jesus would have been familiar with that prevailing viewpoint. Matthew was to be avoided, even shunned. God hated him, and the only thing he could look forward to was more money, more luxury until God vented his displeasure by judging him. From another point of view, Jesus could have thought that Matthew was potential bad publicity. It would be better for his reputation as the Son of God and for the success of his ministry to pass by on the other side and thereby avoid the risk. He already knew the religious leaders disapproved. And he had just been in a room full of them. The reason he didn’t listen to any of that comes down to the fact that he WAS the Word of God because he HAD the Word of God. Whether it was represented by a text from the Scriptures of the present voice of the Holy Spirit, Matthew was the next item on the kingdom of God agenda. He had to challenge the demonic stronghold that had locked Matthew in a world of disapproval and hatred. I suggest that this Word was so seamless in his life that there was no hint of hesitation. Same for him, same for us. When the Word of God becomes seamless in our lives, (whether written or by Holy Spirit presence), we will have the drop on the devil every time. This may be my imagination, but I doubt that the devil suspected that Jesus would attack the little stronghold he had built around Matthew’s life. This surprise attack was successful – as will ours be when we do the same thing.
I have written on this issue before. I can only point you to what has been said on the matter in previous of these postings. Jesus didn’t pray at the time. He did pray all the time. It was prayer that produced this kind of incident. Not a religious commitment but the outworking of a primary relationship. His daily life was shaped by his prayer life, and his daily life shaped his prayer life. We seem to so easily abstract prayer from ministry. We have produced a plethora of Christian tribes who pray but don’t do any ministry, and we also have a bunch of people who do ministry but don’t pray. When we pray we not only have fellowship with the Father and the Son, but we become directly involved in smashing enemy activity. It is not the air strikes that pave the way for the infantry. It is the infantry paving the way for the infantry. God doesn’t have an air force, just has soldiers on the ground who know how to engage the battle by engaging with their commander in chief.
The success of this battle is pretty simple and clear. Matthew was a full-blown story of enemy victory. The enemy had encouraged and enabled Matthew to set aside a whole range of normal human warning systems to become the greedy, dishonest traitor he was. Demonised values defined his world, and his social world was made up of others similarly enslaved. There is something about this story that annoys me though. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a contemporary experience where this kind of thing happened just as it did that day in Capernaum. Before we use the old chestnut, “Well this was Jesus, the sinless Son of God and those things happen for him but not for me,” we need to note that there are no special conditions attached to this incident. And we know that Jesus did the same thing with Peter, Andrew, James and John. We could ask, “Did Jesus do the same thing with every tax collector?” The answer is, “He didn’t.” We are going to read about a banquet he attended in the next section. As far as we know no further disciples were enrolled at that event.
I want to return to the question, “What was it that made Matthew’s response a worthy one?” We all know that he was responding to Jesus, not just another ordinary citizen from the town. If you were approached by someone you didn’t know and they said to you what Jesus said to Matthew, no one is going to tell you it would be good and wise to get up, leave everything and go. What makes Matthew’s response a worthy one is the fact that it is Jesus, his loving King who is doing the asking. The Creator is standing before the created being. The author and finisher of faith is inviting him to embrace his God-ordained destiny and vocation. To respond to such a Person in this way is the ONLY worthy choice. When you have brain cancer, and a brain surgeon calls you to place yourself completely in his hands, it is a worthy response to say “Yes.” It is (usually) a foolish person who says, “No.” When your mechanic tells you the noise in your engine means there is a problem and asks you to leave it in his hands to be fixed, the worthy response is the same. As then and still the same today, the Son of God stands humbly but powerfully before us and calls us to follow him as King. Only a fool would say “No”, and only a bigger fool would say “Yes, but on my terms.” Jesus deserves our pure and sincere devotion. He is loving enough, powerful enough, good enough, trustworthy enough. We must not hedge our bets and have “two-bob each way.” When we do the enemy always wins. When we abandon ourselves to him the enemy always loses.
 See Ephesians 6:12
 Matthew 23:13-15
 There is some conjecture as to whether tax collectors like Matthew worked for the Romans directly or for the puppet ruler, King Herod. Either way, they were the meat a very tenuous political sandwich.