The Book of Luke, The Calling of the Disciple, Levi or Matthew As We Know Him – Lesson 60
Luke 5:27-39, And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. 28And he left all, rose up, and followed him. 29And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. 30But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? 31And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. 32I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 33And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? 34And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? 35But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. 36And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. 37And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. 38But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. 39No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.
We see in this passage a calling out of a disciple and because of this calling out another opportunity presents itself for Jesus to be confronted by the Pharisees and scribes as a result of a celebration of that calling out.
The calling of Levy or Matthew as we know him and the banquet at which Jesus and “sinners” intermingled was another incident in which the gap between Jesus and the Pharisees widened in a substantial manner.
The Pharisees and scribes continued to be confronted with behavior that was opposed to their way of belief.
This section of Luke’s gospel which we have just read, reports the reaction of the Pharisees to the “eating and drinking” of Jesus and His disciples and it tells us of one of the basic issues which put Him and the religious leaders of Israel in opposition.
Levi’s Resignation (5:27-28)
This Levi, known here and in Mark (2:14) by this name, is elsewhere referred to as Matthew and we are told that he was a tax-collector.
We know from the New Testament that anyone who was a tax-collector was a very unpopular person.
A tax collector was synonymous with “sinner” and on a social par with gluttons, drunkards, and harlots.
A tax collector was barely on the bottom rung of the Jewish social ladder.
In that society a man could hardly sink lower than a tax collector.
One reminder to us in this lesson is that God does not honor social ladders.
He tells us that all have sinned and come short of his standard.
Social ladders are like a man boasting that he can make it further in his attempt to jump a great gap or gorge than other men, but no matter how far he jumps he still falls in the pit.
The one who jumps nearest and the one who jumps farthest both fall into the pit.
What good is it to brag or think highly of yourself by being able to jump the farthest if you only end up in the pit?
That is what it means when God tells us that all have sinned and come short of his standard.
We have a propensity in classifying ourselves into categories that put ourselves above others in one way or another so as to justify ourselves as righteous.
And the Pharisees had perfected that classification to a high degree as to what made them righteous and what made the tax collectors sinners.
The people of that day included tax collectors in the same category as drunkards, gluttons, and harlots with all of these at the very bottom of the social ladder.
If you would be honest with yourself you see yourself as somewhere on a social ladder with some folks above you and many folks below you.
But the truth is what the Bible tells us, that all have sinned and come short.
No one is capable of jumping the gap and all on the social ladder fall short.
When Jesus was accused of eating with sinners he was accused rightly but on this earth you can eat with no one but sinners for that is all there are.
We are told in our passage that Levi sat at the receipt of custom and from that fact we know that he was a custom-house official.
The Talmud distinguishes between the common tax collector and the custom house official.
The tax collector collected the regular real estate and income taxes and the poll tax.
But the custom house official collected the duty on imports, exports, tolls on roads, bridges, the harbor, the town tax, and other variable taxes on an unlimited variety of things, which allowed many opportunities for graft and corruption.
The taxes in Judea were levied by publicans, who were Jews, and were therefore hated the more as direct officials of the heathen Roman occupying power.
Levi occupied the detestable position of a publican of the worst type — who himself stood in the Roman custom-house on the highway which connected Damascus and Ptolemais, and by the sea where all boats sailed between the domains of Antipas and Philip.
The name “publican,” which applied to these officials, is derived from the Latin word publicanus — a man who did public duty; A civil servant.
The Jews ostracized these publicans because the very taxes they were forced to collect by the Roman government were a sign of servitude to Rome.
The presence of the publicans constantly reminded them that God had forsaken His people in spite of the hope of a delivering Messiah which was told by the prophets.
Tax-collectors were hated, not only because they may have misused their authority, but because of what they represented.
Tax-collectors were a constant reminder of the fact that Israel was not a free nation, but was subject to Roman rule and authority.
The publicans social standing was at the bottom of the ladder with the harlots, the lenders of money with excessive interest, gamblers, thieves, and dishonest herdsmen, who normally lived hard, lawless lives.
Good people would not socialize with the publican.
In the mind of the common people they were just “licensed robbers”
According to religious system of the day there was no hope for a man like Levi.
He was excluded from all religious fellowship.
His money was considered tainted and would defile anyone who accepted it.
He could not serve as a witness.
And Levi was the more hated kind of tax-collector, who assessed taxes for commerce.
It was practical to have his tax office stationed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum where he could intercept all commerce.
No one would get by Levi without the official stamp which all goods would get only after the paying of taxes.
Shepard in his “Christ of the Gospels” writes: Capernaum, being located on the Via Maris and being a busy populous center, had a large custom-house with a correspondingly large number of tax-gatherers. It was located at the landing-place for the ships which traversed the lake to various towns on the other shore. The flow of commerce along the highway was also great. From the midst of this group of men engaged in a lawful occupation but likely unlawful abuse, Jesus would win some to eternal life. He was accustomed to pass by that way and doubtless made use of His opportunities to evangelize them. Levi, may have heard Jesus preach by the seaside. He would not feel free to enter the synagogue. The great Teacher frequently taught the humble fisher-folk and others in the open air by the sea and so reached many in this way with His message who would be inaccessible in the synagogues. It may not have been a sudden response by Levi to the call of Jesus. Perhaps he had pondered long, as he sat at the receipt of custom recording the import and export duties, the words of some message on the Kingdom, and had secretly decided in his heart that he would be some day a disciple of the new prophet. He was strangely drawn to Jesus, recognizing in Him the helper of all men, even sinners.” Shepard, pp. 145-146.