Ten years ago we started Young Life in Elk River, MN, the town where I grew up. After a 20+ year absence from the community, we returned and I became the director of youth ministries at a local church. Five years into my tenure at the church, at the urging of the senior pastor, I left the youth ministry work in the hands of others and helped start the community outreach ministry.
A local Young Life presence exists only if the community deems it important enough to provide leadership and financial support. One way of communicating the importance of the ministry and to garner financial support is an annual fund-raising banquet. At our first banquet, we invited the Mayor of Elk River to close the evening with prayer. Prior to praying, she made a couple comments, including the belief that my late-father and former mayor would have been immensely proud of his son. I assumed she was right. Over the years, unfortunately, I’ve known of a number of dads who could not say they were proud of their sons. Take Alphaeus, for example.
Alphaeus’ son, Levi, had gone over to the dark side – he became a tax collector for the Roman empire. Conquerors relied heavily on the taxes collected from their subjects. Given the aggressive building of infrastructure including entire cities, the Romans especially needed to collect significant monies. Their approach was to outsource tax collection – the recruitment of locals as tax collectors. With community eyes, these local tax collectors were well aware who they could bleed for funds. They worked on commission – the more they could collect, the more for themselves. It has also been suggested that a tax collector had a quota to reach. Anything above and beyond was theirs to keep. In essence, a tax collector was a traitor in the eyes of his community.
In Palestine, the tax collector was more than simply a traitor. He was in league with the pagan government. They were doubly despised for their choice of occupation – traitors to the people and traitors to their God. The Mishnah, the written collection of Jewish oral tradition, tells us that Jews who collected taxes were disqualified in every manner – expelled from the synagogue, shunned publicly, and a family disgrace. Thus, tax collectors and sinners were considered one and the same (cf. Matthew 11:19, Luke 5:30, 15:1).
We don’t know anything about Alphaeus’ response to his son’s career choice. But we do have record of Jesus’ interaction with Levi, also known as Matthew (cf. Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32). Jesus was walking along the beach, much like he had when he called the fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – to become his followers. The Gospel of Mark indicates he was accompanied by a crowd that he was teaching. We can surmise that his newly called fishermen followers were among the crowd. We can also surmise that a source of revenue for Levi was the Galilee fishing industry.
Imagine the scene. Jesus is sitting on the beach teaching. Somewhere in the background, maybe down the beach a hundred feet or so, sits Levi at his tax booth. Imagine the fishermen in the crowd seething with anger just at the sight of this shunned traitor. Imagine, if you are Levi. What’s running through your mind as you watch the interaction of Jesus with the crowd? You long for such interaction.
Then Jesus breaks the rules again. He gets up, walks over to Levi and invites him to become a follower. Levi left everything, rose and followed Jesus (Luke 5:28). Everything. The fishermen left their fathers, but they could always go back to fishing as a fall-back option. Levi left everything. There was no going back. And he did not have family as a fall-back.
We should also imagine the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ invitation of Levi. Imagine the deep and rightfully held indignation of the people when Jesus not only entered into a conversation with this shunned character, but invited him to join the crowd that was following him. Specifically, imagine the indignation of the fishermen. Jesus gave James and John the nicknames “sons of thunder.” Peter was passionate and zealous about injustice. I can imagine Jesus needing to physical hold these guys back when Levi rose to follow. Then Jesus broke the rules yet again – he accepted an invitation to a party Levi threw for him, inviting his “tax collector and sinner” associates.
Fast forward three years as Jesus said to his followers, “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21). I suspect this experience was in the back of their minds as they listened to Jesus’ directive. Jesus expected them to set aside their righteous indignation in favor of the outsider. I assume he expects the same of us.