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Tony's Reflection 35
Would you ever fancy the job of England football manager? He has an overwhelming and unenviable number of choices, every time he chooses an England team.
His choice of players reflect the manager’s personality and his outlook on the game. Is he “safety first”? Does he like to throw caution to the wind and take risks?
Once he has made his choices, a whole army of pundits and self appointed experts will pounce and tear apart the team he has chosen.
After the game, it gets even worse for the manager. If the team played well, the players get the glory. If they didn’t, the manager will get the blame. The way he told them to play was wrong… the players he chose were wrong. The England football manager and his reputation lives or dies by his choices about who will be on the team.
Mark has already told us about Jesus selecting the “players” he wanted on his “team” of followers. We saw him walk up to four fishermen and tell them to follow him. Jesus had such a unique combination of authority and winning ways… they had been strangely drawn to him and simply dropped everything they were doing, to follow him.
In today’s episode of Mark’s biography (Mark 2:13-17), we see Jesus’ authority and winning ways, again. Except Levi, the one Jesus chooses here, couldn’t be more different to the fishermen Jesus has called earlier. When Mark tells us the story of Levi, he wants us to marvel, once more, at Jesus authority and winsomeness. Mark has something else in mind, too. Something shocking and disturbing. You see, there was a dark side to Levi…
Levi was a tax collector.
That may sound innocent enough, to us. A clerk working for the tax office might be the butt of jokes from time to time, in our day. Back then, though, tax collectors were absolute scum. They were on the same level as thieves and murderers. It was all to do with who they worked for and how they did their job.
Back in Jesus day, Israel was part of the Roman Empire. The Empire needed money from the colonies, so they appointed tax collectors to bring in the hard cash. Each tax collector had a patch and a target for how much tax he had to raise. The Empire didn’t care how he pulled the money in, so long as he made his target. Extortion and intimidation were just fine.
Levi didn’t get paid by the Empire. He made his money by creaming off more taxes on top of his target. The Empire didn’t care how much he took. He could rake off for himself as much as he could get away with.
We can see why Levi, what he did and how he made his living, would have been an affront to every patriotic Jew.
Levi was also an affront, religiously speaking. Israel was God’s people. So, if you betrayed Israel by working for the foreign Empire, you were also betraying God.
It is easy to see why Levi was not popular, to put it mildly.
Imagine the scene Mark gives us. Jesus has been walking around teaching and as usual, huge crowds are following him.
Jesus passed Levi, sat at his mobile, outdoor tax collection point. As the crowd following Jesus catches sight of Levi, there is a murmur of disapproval. Some kick up the dust in Levi’s direction. Others spit at the ground in front of his collection point. Levi sees the anger. His strong-arm gorillas couldn’t protect him from that big a crowd. Time to go home, perhaps?
Jesus turns and looks at Levi. The crowd are expecting a cutting comment from Jesus. Something about being a traitor. Something about putting God and country first. There is a hushed silence as the crowd looks on, expecting Jesus to cut Levi down to size.
He looks Levi in the eye. You can hear a pin drop. “Follow me,” says Jesus. Levi drops everything and follows. How could Jesus want a man like that on his team?
Later that evening Levi throws a meal for Jesus. All Levi’s friends are there. What sort of friends does a tax collector have? Not “nice” ones, for sure. Other tax collectors are there, aplenty. A few prostitutes. Plenty of dubious characters. And there is Jesus, in there with them all, enjoying the party.
Back then, you would tell a “holy” man by the friends he chose and the company he kept. The Pharisees hear what is going on. They knew this Jesus was no good. And now here he is, proving it, by the company he keeps. They start to grumble and grump. Not at Jesus directly, of course, but at his disciples – the more respectable ones, at least.
Jesus picks up what they are saying. “I haven’t come for the “respectable” he says, but for the ones who know they have a problem. I am here as the doctor of souls. Doctors go to the sick.”
Have you ever thought you are “not good enough” to be a Christian? Take heart. Jesus came for those who know they are “not good enough” and are honest enough to admit it. He doesn’t just come with sympathy for our problems and failings, either. He is a doctor. He comes with medicine, to cure them.