The Calling of Levi

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

  Jesus, John 4:13, 14

To repent means to turn around, to stop what you’re doing and do the opposite.  To repent means that even though you used to assume one thing was true, you now know it’s wrong – all wrong – and you will now believe and act upon something totally different.  Repent is a good, strong word, full of hope and new beginnings.  In the context of Jesus’ kingdom, repent is an invitation to another world, another life, a way of being that was supposed to be all along and can be now.

. . . we need to repent, for example of our convenient assumption that following Jesus and pursuing the American Dream are in complete harmony and will take us pretty much in the same direction.  They won’t.  The reality of the kingdom is dangerous and beautiful and life-altering. To repent is to say to God: ‘I’m blind.  I don’t see, but I want to.  Please show me your heart in everything.’

 – Rick McKinley, This Beautiful Mess

The Encounter

 27After 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, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. 

 29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30But 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’?” 

 31Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 

Luke 5:27-31 

Some Observations

The passage starts out, “After this . . .” referring to Jesus’ healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof in our last encounter. 

Levi the tax collector is Matthew and this story is also told in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

In the Matthew version, Jesus additionally says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” after telling the Pharisees that it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick, and that he has come to call sinners to repentance.

We must likewise learn.  Becoming merciful towards people – expressed through lives of love, 

grace, kindness, gentleness, non-judgment, generosity, sacrifice, etc. – is central to the call of discipleship and becoming more and more Christ-like.

While we are clearly called to holiness, Jesus’ call is more about the new attributes we are to take on as we are conformed to his image than the things we are to now start avoiding.  Jesus is more interested in us becoming loving, merciful people that bless others than “sacrificial” (having overcome a lot of visible sin), but unloving judges of those less pious around us.

In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were often corrupt and universally despised by the people, considered swindlers and the lowest of the low.  Jesus walks right up to Matthew and says, “Follow me.”  That is the usual “call” Jesus asks people to respond to in each encounter.  Note that he lays out no plan, nor states any intention or prerequisites.  He applies no persuasion.  The fact that Matthew immediately got up and followed him is fascinating.  What attracted him to Jesus?

We can assume the Matthew likely heard of the miraculous healings Jesus had been doing and perhaps even his claims of deity.  He was probably stunned that Jesus would even approach him or actually invited him to become a follower.  He likely had a deep awareness of his own sin and brokenness.  As was the case with the first disciples, he “left everything” to follow Jesus.

Matthew’s response implies a degree of faith that Jesus had something to offer greater than his current situation, humility (he must have looked foolish to impulsively abandon his booth) and obedience (his immediate response to Jesus’ request).

The next thing Matthew does is holds a great banquet for his colleagues, the other tax collectors, presumably to honor Jesus and give them a chance to meet him.  As Jesus celebrates with the outcasts, the Pharisees predictably take a shot a Jesus for “eating and drinking with tax collectors and ‘sinners.’”  Jesus answers them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Again, Jesus affirms the focus of his ministry: healing, liberation, preaching the good news of the kingdom and calling sinners to repentance.  We can assume that he was doing just this in the midst of the party, perhaps in an unspoken way merely through his merciful presence among such a ragtag bunch of swindlers.

The Pharisees probably felt pretty smug after hearing Jesus’ response, assuming they were the “righteous” Jesus was referring to with no need for repentance or a doctor.  Bad assumption, as we will see later.


“Does not wisdom call out?  Does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud.  Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare to her.”

  Proverbs 8:1-3, 10-11

A Prayer

“I love you, O Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.  He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.  I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.”

  Psalm 18:1-3