“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (verse 13-14, NKJV)
As Jesus passed by… This line strikes me so strongly. We all pass by a thousand things each day that we never take a single moment’s notice of, don’t we? People, interactions, opportunities… We simply “pass by.” But when Jesus passes by, He sees things. He saw Levi “sitting at the tax office.” Any one of us would have glanced Levi’s way and have simply muttered to ourselves, “What a hopeless sell-out.” But when Jesus saw Levi, He saw a heart hungering for acceptance and love. Aren’t we so thankful that when Jesus passes by us, He looks our way, too?
In Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s call to discipleship and Levi’s immediate response of obedience is abrupt and unexpected. The sudden encounter is one which even leaves us a bit uncomfortable perhaps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the abruptness of this interaction:
The call of Jesus goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience… How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events… Thus we get the stupid question: Surely, the publican must have known Jesus before, and the previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent in this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus… Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher of a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text, Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)
An unexpected call, and an immediate response… You know, I used to look at this story and shudder in awe at the magnitude of Levi-Matthew’s sacrifice. To be honest, I always found the account intimidating. Would I have been able to walk away from everything known and comfortable in my world? After all, Levi’s decision was an irreversible one! Theologian William Barclay points out:
Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide. (Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)
But, you know what, as I reflect on this passage more fully, I think I now understand why Levi could and would immediately choose to follow the call. Through his whole life, Levi-Matthew had struggled to find meaning and purpose, to feel like he belonged somewhere. And now, here was that opportunity standing before him, in the form of a Person named Jesus. Levi was being offered an invitation to be a part of a community, a family. He was being called into an eternal friendship with the very Son of God. As Bonheoffer concludes, “At the call, Levi leaves all that he has – but not because he thinks he might be doing something worth while, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus… When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.”
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot