Levi and His Teacher

This was published as an article in Gospel Herald,  the denominational magazine of the Mennonite Church, 78.28 (July 9, 1985) and is reused by permission of MennoMedia. Some of the “things to do” reflect traditional Mennonite concerns, some reflect the newer understandings of prominent Mennonite leaders of that time, and some reflect a broad evangelicalism. The mixing of these viewpoints defined much of who we were in the Mennonite Church at that time. You might be able to draw up a similar list reflecting the diversity of your own Christian community.

Two minutes before he stood up from his chair in response to Jesus saying “Follow me,” Levi was apparently still involved in his business of collecting taxes from fellow Jews and other residents of his Galilean town (Mark 2:14). After he so simply joined Jesus’ group, Levi held a dinner party in his home with his new teacher, fellow tax collectors, sinners, and fellow disciples of Jesus in attendance (v. 15).

    Jewish tax collectors were regarded as betrayers of their ancestral faith because their work required them to handle coins bearing images of foreign pagan rulers and as betrayers of their people because they grew rich by cooperation with the hated foreign rulers and exploitation of fellow Jews. To be a Jewish tax collector, Levi had to stop thinking about certain things that other Jews were concerned about.

    “The scribes and the Pharisees” had a question about the attendance of Levi’s new teacher at Levi’s dinner party (v. 16). The Pharisees were those who, more than others, pursued the objective of being good Jews. Since the Bible was concerned about “clean” and “unclean,” they were also concerned about these things. So they avoided those situations which might involve a compromise of cleanness, including eating with people who were not as concerned about the same matters.

    The Pharisees’ concern about these and other religious customs came naturally to them because they had worked at them so long. But other Jews usually had to be taught. The Pharisees fasted on a regular basis, but Jesus did not teach his disciples to fast (v. 18); they were careful to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest, but Jesus did not teach his disciples to do so, at least not in the same way (v. 24); God had given good things to the Jews, and the Pharisees wanted to see Jews guard those good things. A new popular teacher who seemed to be going in quite the opposite direction was a disturbing thing to see.

Things we ought to do

The Pharisees were good people and concerned about things they were sure Levi and every Jew should attend to. But the Pharisees gained no perpetual monopoly on goodness. There are a number of things that we think evangelical Christians ought to do, such as (this list was made up with the help of a few fellow Christians):

  • Read the Bible every day.
  • Participate in a Bible study group.
  • Go to church on Sunday.
  • Lose weight.
  • Eat whole grains and vegetables.
  • Do something about world hunger.
  • Come to the church potluck.
  • Get back to the earth.
  • Redeem the inner city.
  • Discover the value of contemplation.
  • Quit navel-gazing.
  • Vote Republican.
  • Quit voting Republican.
  • Vote.
  • Don’t vote.
  • Write to your congressperson.
  • Picket the Pentagon.
  • Picket an abortion clinic.
  • Work heartily at your job “as to the Lord.”
  • Be a good steward.
  • Give sacrificially.
  • Pay your taxes.
  • Withhold your taxes which go to military purposes.
  • Share the gospel with your neighbor.

    Now because there are many of us, some of these good things are contradictory. The result is that we find plenty to argue about with each other. But I would certainly not try to end that—some of these good things I myself consider worth arguing for. But it would be worthwhile to think about how these good things which Christians should do appear to people who find themselves in a position similar to that of Levi, Levi who got up from his tax office, took his new teacher home, and had a dinner party with his new teacher and his old friends.

Answers to pointed questions

Jesus, Levi’s new teacher, was asked some pointed questions, but did not leave the questions unanswered. At the dinner party, he said (v. 17): “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” If they had not been sinners, Jesus would not have been there with the other guests. “I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.” If they were not sinners and tax collectors, Jesus would not be calling them to learn from him.

    In response to a question about fasting, Jesus said (vv. 19-22): “Do wedding guests fast while the groom is still there? They certainly don’t engage in fasting while the celebrating is still going on. If my disciples have me with them, they will celebrate. Everybody knows that if you force the new into old, tried, and true patterns, both the old and the new will be altogether lost.” These people may not take well to the good things which religious people do by habit, if at all. But they will have the presence of their teacher.

    About the Sabbath (vv. 25-27): “Doesn’t the Bible itself show that human need is more important than the line between the religious and the secular? Even so good a thing as the Sabbath exists for human beings, not vice versa. So whatever they do with the Sabbath will be because of their devotion to me.”

    In short, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30).


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