A Publican Named Levi
“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. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And 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. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32).
Was this publican a Levite? If so his degradation was all the greater. But to whatever tribe he belonged he was an Israelite, and, by becoming a publican he dishonoured his name and nation, and cut himself adrift from his friends and possibly from his family, to be classed with heathen men and sinners.
And for what? There can be but one answer. It must have been for gold. Gold dominated him, it was more to him than honour, fame, friends, national pride. It had hardened him also to the opinion of others, for he sat at the receipt of custom in the open market, heedless of the scorn of his fellow townsfolk. A despised man was he and degraded. And Jesus saw him sitting there, and said to him, “Follow Me.”
The command must have started those who stood by, and especially, Peter, Andrew, James and John. They had heard the same command and had instantly obeyed it, leaving boats and nets and fishes and parents and hired servants, but they were hard-working and respectable men; rough perhaps, and uncultured, but as far as was known there was nothing in their lives of which they needed to be publicly ashamed. And they had followed Him, for His call had been irresistible, and they had dimly glimpsed in Him the Redeemer of Israel, and for Israel’s sake as much as for the power they had felt in His word, they had followed Him.
But this publican! What cared he for Israel? He was no patriot, he was a traitor to his nation. And could the cause of Jesus prosper with such as he among His followers? Public opinion would be most definitely against Him for this choice, as indeed it was from that day onward, and would not these respectable disciples find this addition to their number most objectionable, and question their Master’s wisdom and abandon Him? And would the man whose very soul had become withered by its greed for gold heed the call? The great question was, What would Levi do?
A miracle happened at that wayside booth. The publican LEFT ALL, ROSE UP, AND FOLLOWED HIM. It was not at an evening service, when all the gold possible had been gathered in and safely locked away, that this call came and this decision was made; it was during business hours, as he collected and counted the coveted coins. Then the voice of the Lord reached him, and the chains that had held him fell away, and a new life quickened his dead soul, and he left all, rose up and followed Jesus.
It may be that in his unsatisfied heart there was a secret yearning, and he could not tell it to Pharisees or scribes or priests, for they would have spurned him, and he would have been ashamed to tell it to the baser men who had become his companions. But it was there surely and he was a soul-sick sinner, with a sickness that was only aggravated by his covetousness, and when the great Physician passed by and looked upon him, there was an instant response to His gaze and an answer to His call. He realized that Jesus who was seeking him was the One he had needed, the One in whom he could trust. Then what he had counted as gain he spurned as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus, the Lord. The gold had lost its hold upon him, and he forsook the old life once and for all, leaving the tax-gatherers revenue to whoever cared to claim it, for the glory of the King had broken into his dark life. Jesus was better than gold.
He answered to the divine claim, for Jesus is God. Who but God has a right to claim men before father, mother, wife, children, houses or lands? And who but God can so fill the heart that every right claim falls into a subordinate place, and every evil thing drops off like a broken fetter? And who but God can take up such men as Levi was and save and transform them and mould them to His will and make them the happy servants of other’s needs? Happy is the man who hears in the voice of Jesus the voice of God and answers it with an instant obedience.
The people had said “We have seen strange things today,” when they saw the impotent man take up his bed and depart on his own legs to his house glorifying God; but they saw a stranger thing when covetous Levi, delivered from his master passion, followed Jesus, and with a heart overflowing with new and generous feelings gathered into his house a great company of publicans and others to hear the voice that had set him free. He had ceased to collect the shekels and had begun to select souls. Yes, a greater miracle was wrought on Levi than upon his palsied, neighbour, for it was a moral and spiritual miracle changing his very nature.
The Scribes and Pharisees murmured but the heart of the Saviour rejoiced and Levi’s feast gave Him the opportunity of proclaiming His grace and announcing His mission. “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).