He saw a tax collector named Levi sitting in a tax office. Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. … “I’ve come to call sinners to change the way they think and act, not to call people who think they have God’s approval.” [Luke 5:27-28 (GW)]
Although we often consider Paul’s conversion story to be the perfect example of how Jesus can change a life, I think Matthew is the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the gospel writer. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi, the tax collector. Tax collectors were the lowest of the low. Because they were employed by the Romans, they were considered traitors and, since they extorted far more than what was owed, they were considered dishonorable. Driven by greed, taxmen could demand whatever they wanted as long as no one revolted and the Romans got their share. Since their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers, the people were at their mercy. Known as publicans, tax collectors were even less popular in the first century than they are today!
Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) his reputation for dishonesty, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! Levi gave up wealth, job security, family, and his crooked friends and co-workers to follow Jesus. The disciples who were fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them. But, if the publican returned home, he would come back to nothing. His job and the source of his wealth would be gone. Moreover, he certainly couldn’t expect the people he’d exploited to welcome him home with open arms. When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words. When he accepted Jesus’ call, the despised and dishonest tax collector named Levi left everything behind him to become the beloved apostle and gospel writer named Matthew.
Jesus says, “Follow me!” Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?
We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1979]
Whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow me doesn’t deserve to be my disciple. The person who tries to preserve his life will lose it, but the person who loses his life for me will preserve it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (GW)]
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses, and follow me. Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for me will find them.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (GW)]
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