Several years ago (back when I was a youth pastor) I created a series of illustrative videos intending to make a profound point about Christians and how we, as Jesus’ followers, so poorly represent Him. In Christianity there is a concept that as “ambassadors of Christ” the way we behave and treat people should reveal Jesus to the world around us. You’ve probably even heard a pastor say, “You might be the only Bible someone ever reads.”
After describing Himself as the “Light of the world” and then defining His disciples as “light-bearers” Jesus specifically exhorts all of us to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The way the whole thing is designed to work is that when the world comes into contact with a Christian they should encounter Jesus… That the experience they have should be divine… That the person should leave the interaction with the residue of Christ. It’s why in addition to “light” Jesus also encourages us to be “salt” - one seen and the other experienced.
In actuality, the very word “Christian” literally means “little-Christ”. According to Acts 11:26 the word was first used in the ancient city of Antioch to make fun of Jesus’ followers. The irony is that a term meant to mock believers ended up being the greatest of all compliments.
So, back to the videos… Since the world is supposed to learn about Jesus through their interactions with Christians, I thought it would be interesting to illustrate how terribly believers fail in this mandate by having Jesus act like the stereotypical Christian. To make my point I ended up editing scenes out of an old 70’s Jesus movie and overdubbing the audio.
Aside from the goofiness of Jesus being Swedish and the fact his mouth didn’t really line up with my voice (imagine an extremely low budget foreign film), it really was a strange and even bizarre experience seeing Jesus be judgmental of sinners, cliquish with the disciples, self-righteous and condescending, generally wussy, or verbalize a hatred for gay people.
Since these five videos were sacrilegious by design and it was concluded they might ruffle some feathers, instead of showing them to the 400 students attending our youth conference, I eventually only showed them privately to our youth group. And yet, the point was powerful! I wanted the very idea that Jesus would act this way to be offensive and abrasive in order to hammer home the fact it’s equally offensive to Jesus when Christians behave this way!
One of the things that personally irritates me is how many people end up having serious and largely unfounded misconceptions of Jesus simply because the Christians who claim to represent Him fail to act like Him in so many ways! Gays end up believing Jesus wants them to burn in hell - because that’s the general vibe fundamental Christians put off.
Many think Jesus is judgmental and that they couldn’t possibly be accepted by Christ - simply because Christians fail to demonstrate His heart towards the lost! The world (and maybe even some of you) generally sees Jesus as a holy-roller who’d never drink or have fun - because of Christian legalists who misrepresent Him. It’s all terribly counterproductive.
This morning I want us to look at one specific person Jesus called to not only “follow Him”, but would intentionally choose to be one of His closest disciples. This man, like almost everyone Jesus called, is what I’d call a Misfit! He wouldn’t have fit into our little Christian, sterilized, religious templet of someone Jesus would reach and use. He didn’t look the part.
The reality is that in today’s church culture this man would have been kept at an arms length. He would have been met with judgment, not love. His past would have made it impossible to see any type of redeemable future. He would have been written off, beyond the impact of grace. This man was a Misfit no one would have reached - with the exception of Jesus!
Not only should this story challenge the way we see Jesus, but it should effect the way we, as Christians, represent Him. The truth is that seeing how Jesus treated people should manifest two responses within us: (1) It should challenge the way we see and therefore treat the Misfit, and (2) It should encourage us that literally no one is beyond the grace of God!
Mark 2:13-14, “Then Jesus 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.”
For context you should keep in mind that Jesus is in a region known as Galilee. Note: Galilee was a collection of towns surrounding the Sea of Galilee. More in likely Jesus is currently hanging out in the city of Capernaum - which would serve as His headquarters in this region.
Recording the first-hand, eyewitness account of Peter, Mark (scribing for Peter) writes that Jesus “went out again by the sea” - the “multitude came to Him” - and “He taught them.” Though it was customary for Jesus to teach from the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath, we’re told Jesus’ teaching ministry was not limited to a place of worship.
In this scene Jesus is having a beach-front Bible study! No doubt with larger crowds coming to listen (a “multitude” as is described), Jesus was constantly looking for larger venues that could provided some natural vocal acoustics, as well as plenty of space. This is why Jesus would often teach from a mountain-side or, as in this case, with the water at His back.
I love how the KJV translates this passage... “And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them.” This word “resorted” indicated that the people who came to hear Jesus did so out of a deeper longing of the soul. This implies the motivations of the crowd were pure. Though hard to explain, there was something about Jesus and the words that He spoke that satisfied and quenched a deep spiritual thirst.
Back in Mark 1:22 we’re actually told the crowds “were astonished (literally amazed) at Jesus’ teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The way Jesus presented God’s Word made it come alive. It was piercing and powerful! Oh to be able to go back in time to hear Jesus preach! How awesome would that be?
As Jesus finishes up His sermon and is making His way presumably to Peter’s house, which acted as his home in Capernaum, something interesting catches His attention. Jesus sees a man known as “Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.” Levi was the tax-collector.
As the Apostle Peter recounts the scene to Mark his protege, he says that without hesitation Jesus changes course and precedes to go out of His way to call Levi to “Follow Him”. Then, probably to the surprise of everyone present, with equal resolve and immediacy Levi arose, accepted Jesus’ invitation, left behind everything, and immediately followed Him!
Historically, we know “Levi the son of Alphaeus” was also known by his Roman name Matthew. This man would not only become one of the Twelve Apostles, but would later write a narrative of Jesus’ life known as the Gospel of Matthew. Following Pentecost, history claims he later ministered in Ethiopia where he was ultimately martyred for Christ.
Though only one verse, there is a lot we know about Levi from this passage… By his very namesake, we can conclude Matthew was of Jewish decent with a priestly heritage. His family would have be extremely religious and likely fundamental. Because we’re also given the name of his father “the son of Alphaeus”, Levi likely came from a prominent family.
Aside from this, the mention of his occupation as a “tax collector” also tells us much. There is no doubt Matthew was highly educated. In order to collect taxes for the Roman Empire it was required you be skilled in arithmetic and literate in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Additionally, as was the norm, collecting taxes brought Matthew into incredible wealth.
Understand… Right from the beginning “Levi the tax collector” presents a bit of an interesting dichotomy. Levites from prominent homes were typically groomed to become religious scholars, Scribes, or even political leaders - Pharisees. And yet, Matthew decided for unknown reasons to reject his family, heritage, destiny and instead collect taxes for Rome.
With all this in mind, there is no escaping the fact Levi would have been hated by his Jewish brethren! Because he collected taxes on behalf of the occupying Roman government, being a Jewish tax-collector, Levi would have been viewed by his brethren as a traitor, extortioner, turn-coat. The common perspective was that he’d betrayed the people of God for money.
To this point let me take a few minutes to explain how a tax-collector like Matthew actually made a living in the first-century… First, the job of tax-collector wasn’t something you applied for on the basis of merit. These limited positions in Rome were actually auctioned off to the highest bidder. As such, Matthew had used his inheritance to purchase his position. He’d made a significant personal investment in order to enjoy the power he now possessed.
Secondly, Rome would dictate to Matthew what he needed to bring in on a monthly basis. And note: These figures were not disclosed to the general public and could vary depending on the season, who collected, or how much money Rome presently needed.
And finally, anything Matthew brought in above and beyond the figure Rome issued was pure profit. Matthew, as all tax-collectors, literally made his money gouging, ripping off, and even intimidating the people in his jurisdiction. For example… If someone refused to pay or ante up, Matthew had Roman soldiers available to be his muscle.
In my mind we often confuse who Matthew really was when we call him a tax-collector. For whatever reason when we hear the term “tax-collector” we develop this mental picture of a book nerd, a little man sitting behind his desk counting coin in kind of an obsessive compulsive manner. Ironically, there is little historical data to substantiate this perspective.
When we think of a “tax collector” we typically imagine Ben Stein from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. However, the truth is that this isn’t an accurate portrayal of Matthew at all. Instead, you should see Matthew as being more like Paulie Walnuts from the hit show “The Sopranos”!
Matthew was a first century gangster. He was a lone shark. He was basically a lieutenant in a very complex crime syndicate. Understand, Matthew was guilty of more than just ripping people off… Cross Matthew and you might have found yourself being “fed to the fishes.”
Keep in mind… The distain and hatred for the tax-collector was so deep within the Jewish community that Matthew would have found himself excommunicated from the Temple and refused entry to the local synagogue! On the flip side, because of the nature of the profession, when it was all said and done... Matthew really wouldn’t have cared!
When Jesus called Jewish fisherman to be His disciples, it no doubt raised a few eyebrows because they weren’t religiously educated and were blue-collar types… But when Jesus called Matthew, it left the Jewish community in complete and total disbelief - shock!
Though unconventional, at least the fishermen like Andrew, Peter, James, and John were good Jewish boys - maybe not the smartest, but at least they were honest and religiously devout. And yet, when Jesus called Levi to follow Him, He was intentionally adding a notorious traitor, an anti-religious, money-grabbing, Paulie Walnuts to His inner circle!
And to make what Jesus was doing in this scene even worse, recent archeological findings have shown that in Galilee Rome had specifically levied a special tax on fish. This means the other disciples not only knew Matthew, but had been personally ripped off by him! Imagine Peter and the other disciples reaction when Jesus turns to Matthew and says, “Follow Me!”
As you read through the first two chapters of Mark’s Gospel you’ll be struck by the fact Jesus not only calls the common man to follow Him, but He also chooses the deviants! I mean if Jesus would call Matthew to be His disciple, not one person in this room can be excluded.
One of the parts of this text that jumps out at me is how we’re told that before Jesus called him He first “saw Levi!” You have to wonder... What did Jesus see? If Jesus saw and therefore evaluated people the way we do, there’s not a chance in the world He would have called Matthew to be His disciple. Jesus would have seen the hardened, tough, even cold, detached, Paulie Walnuts persona Matthew had carefully crafted to be good at his job. No one would have ever dreamed such a man was qualified to be a part of Jesus’ crew!
So... When Jesus looked at Matthew what did He see? I think we can confidently say Jesus saw way more than Levi’s outward appearance or larger, tough-guy persona. When Jesus looked over and saw Levi sitting in that tax office He viewed a side of this man, this Misfit, no one else could have or for that matter even would have ever cared to see.
There is no doubt Jesus was able to look through the facade and peer directly into Matthew’s soul. And what did He see? It’s likely judging by Levi’s reaction, Jesus saw a man mired in guilt and filled with condemnation. A man lost and one who was in desperate need of salvation. Though he’d never admit it, Matthew was probably lonely, empty, longing for something more... A life better than the one he’d created for himself!
While the text doesn’t mention any of this, the proof is Matthew’s immediate reaction to Jesus’ invitation! After seeing Levi and locking eyes with this man, Jesus commanded him, “Follow Me!” And you know what he did... Matthew immediately left everything behind and followed Jesus! Matthew heard the call and responded to the invite. There was no conversation, no internal wrestling, no waiting for a better more convenient opportunity.
And it wasn’t as though Matthew’s decision to follow Jesus wouldn’t carry with it life-altering consequences. You see, as a tax-collector, his decision to abandon his post and follow Jesus would bring with it major implications for Matthew’s life.
There is an element of truth to the fact fishing was a business any of these men could return to if following Jesus didn’t work out (we actually see them doing this after Jesus’ death). That said… Tax-collecting for Rome was not a game you could simply pick back up once you left! Just like the mob... Once you’re out - you were out for good! You irreparably cut ties forever.
Not to go to far with the analogy (and maybe I should write a book titled, “The Spiritual Lessons I learned by watching The Sopranos” for there are many), but as a tax-collector the only way you could escape your current identity was by assuming a new one! To get out of the mob, you’d have to go into witness protection and assume a new identity.
The point you shouldn’t miss is what Jesus' invitation was designed to afford Levi. In calling him to leave it all behind and follow Him, Jesus was giving Matthew an opportunity for a fresh start - A new beginning. And with few words Mark tells us Matthew jumped at the opportunity to leave behind his “identity of tax-collector” for a “new identity as follower of Christ.”
What did Jesus see that day? Aside from Matthew’s spiritual longing, I am convinced (as He does with you and I) that Jesus saw even more than what presently existed. Jesus saw beyond his crimes, beyond his rejection of God’s people. Jesus saw more than his past!
As in Matthew’s case, I believe when Jesus invites a person to follow Him He does this not based upon one’s past mistakes, but rather upon one’s future potential! In that very moment when Jesus extends the call… When He invites you to follow Him, Jesus doesn’t care who you are in sin, but rather who you’ll become in His righteousness.
You see Jesus invites people to make a great, radicle exchange. He asks us to leave behind the old life we’ve made for ourselves for a new life found in following Him - being His disciple! Don’t miss this… Jesus was asking Levi to leave behind the person he presently was in order to become the person Jesus desired to make him into!
Matthew had to decide if he was willing to leave behind the fleeting things of his world so that he could receive a lasting reward reserved for all eternity found only in following Jesus.
Don’t forget… Matthew was a terrible person. Nothing about Matthew demand God’s mercy. He’d done nothing to merit Jesus’ invitation to receive a new identity! Instead, by His grace and grace alone, Jesus decided to call him. Jesus was reaching out to the Misfit, because it was the Misfit He’d come to save! It’s clear Jesus’ offer was to good to pass up!
Sometimes when we look at stories like this one we tend to keep them in isolation from the larger flow of the text itself. If you consider the flow of Mark’s Gospel leading up to this story Matthew is the perfect embodiment of the two previous miracles Jesus has just preformed.
Spiritually speaking, Matthew was both the Leper Jesus healed at the end of chapter 1 and the Lame Man Jesus raised up in the first half of this chapter. As illustrated by the Leper the natural consequences of sin had taken its tole on Matthew’s life, and like the Lame Man he found himself completely paralyzed to do anything about it! He was stuck!
But there is one interesting distinction we see in Levi’s story... While the Leper desperately came to Jesus on his own accord and the Lame Man was lovingly brought to Jesus by four friends, it was Jesus who went out of His way to come and minister to him!
I’m so encouraged by this! Like the Leper there are people who come to Jesus on their own - typically out of a complete desperation. This is a person so tired of their life in sin and the consequences sin has rot that they pursue Jesus pleading for His salvation!
Others though are more like the Lame Man - Paralyzed by their sin and stubborn to come to Jesus on their own. And yet, by His grace, God eventually uses their friends to pick them up out of their weakness - love them through their lameness - and bring them to the Savior!
But there are also people like this man Levi - They’re oblivious to sin’s damaging effects. They have no positive influences to point them the right direction. The truth is that they aren’t even seeking! In actually these Misfits have been judged and written off by the religious establishment. And yet, Jesus sees! Jesus sees their inner needs and deeper longings, and when the moment is right He specifically seeks them out with a simple invitation.
Whether this morning you find yourself sitting in that pew like the Leper completely desperate or maybe like the Lame Man a friend has brought you or you’re here with no expectations at all like Matthew… This is what I can say with total certainty - Jesus sees you and is speaking through the void with a simple command... “Follow Me!”
I love what immediately follows… Mark 2:15, “Now it happened, as Jesus was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.”
Not only should the way Jesus calls the Misfit challenge the way we view such people, but what happens next should stir us in profound ways. Mark tells us that Jesus has called Levi to follow Him, Levi responded by accepting the invitation, but then something incredible happens… We’re told that instead of heading back to Peter’s home (which is where He was staying while in Capernaum), Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner!
But that’s not all… Knowing that Jesus would be chilling at his crib, Levi then proceeds to invite all of his friends to come and hang out as well! In a sense Matthew throws a party.
Culturally speaking, it might have been shocking to have called Levi in the first place, but then for Jesus to go to his home and break bread with his community of “sinners” would have been scandalous! The religious would have seen this as completely inappropriate.
Matthew’s life changed the moment He encountered Jesus and he now wants to expose everyone he knew to the same dynamic. Most incredibly we’re told the results of this evening was that many of Levi’s friends end up having the same radical encounter with Jesus that he had earlier in the day. A Misfit saved by grace desired other Misfits to experience the same!
I cannot escape the fact that if Jesus saw a Misfit like Levi so much differently than the religious world of His day, then maybe we (as His representatives) should also seek to see others through the same heavenly lens. Jesus saw a man most of Christians would likely overlook. He saw the man Levi could become - Sadly, we’d only have seen the Misfit he was.
The interesting thing about this story is the example Matthew presents. Here we have a man, a new disciple of Christ, immediately bringing Jesus into his dark world of Misfits for one reason - Jesus had already proved His love for Misfits when He went out of His way to personally call him! Levi knew from first-hand experience that if Jesus’ love and His grace could be extended to a man like himself than it could be extended to anyone!
Sadly, I have found that Christians fail to represent Christ to the Misfits in our midst because they’ve lost sight of the fact that apart from grace they’re fundamentally no different! Christian, it should be your heart and passion to seek out the Misfits our religious world has written off because Jesus was willing to reach you… A Misfit saved by His grace!
The great tragedy is that the church today isn’t reaching the Levi’s because we've lost touch with the heart and mission of Jesus. We’ve lost sight of His grace and are therefore failing to see people as He does! Jesus called us to bear His Light in the dark world we live in… To be salt - For people to experience His love and grace when they encounter us!
The truth, and reason I wanted to take a Sunday to look at this powerful story, is that seeing how Jesus treats Misfits like Levi should challenge the way we treat people - knowing that literally no one is beyond the reach of the grace of His saving grace! It is my prayer that when people interact with you they leave knowing they encountered Jesus.
Finally, if you’re sitting there and have yet to make the decision to follow Jesus, please know… If Jesus would call a scoundrel like Matthew (Paulie Walnuts), then there is no reason He wouldn’t call you! I say this from personal experience. “Zach, you don’t know me! You don’t know what I’ve done or presently doing. You don’t know the terrible crimes I’ve committed.” To this point you’re right, but Jesus does and He’s calling you anyway!
How amazing that while you may not be seeking Him, Jesus is seeking you! We don’t know what all Matthew heard that day, but we do know he heard Jesus’ call. I have no doubt the very fact Jesus would go out of His way to reach him (a Misfit) was all that Levi needed to know. I’m not going to lie to you… Levi’s decision would come at a cost, but in that very moment what he’d loose paled in comparison to the life he’d gain following Jesus.
Please know… Jesus could care less what you’ve done, where you’ve come from, what your present identity may be. Instead, His chief desire is what you’ll do, where you’ll go from this moment forward, and who you’ll become if you accept the new identity only He can offer! Jesus saw Levi and He sees you! The invitation is the same, “Follow Me!"
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