The biographies of Jesus tell a fascinating story about his encounter with a man named Levi Matthew, a tax collector. The evangelist Luke makes a point of stating that Jesus “saw” him. Other people saw him too, but not in the same way.
They saw him the way motorists see the toll booth worker on the turnpike: most took no notice of him. Those who did tried to avoid him. But others looked at him with disgust. He was a tax collector. People have never cared much for the company of tax collectors – then or now. But people working for the IRS are a hundred times more welcome in our day than tax collectors were in Levi’s day.
A tax collector was a citizen of Israel who went to work for Israel’s conquerors, the Romans. He collected tax money from his people and gave it to the Romans to fund the military occupation of their own country. And he did it for money. When people looked at Levi, the more generous saw a greedy and dishonest low-level bureaucrat. Most saw a traitor. The rest just saw a loser.
St. Luke says that Jesus saw Levi Matthew. He had his eye on him. He saw the things other people saw, but he saw something they didn’t see: He saw what Levi Matthew would become. Not a traitor who sold his life for money but a saint who would sacrifice his life for God; not a low-level bureaucrat but a high-level apostle; not a loser but a saint.
It is unlikely that other people saw this. Perhaps a few – Levi’s mother, his best friend – caught glimpses of it. It is improbable that Levi himself (or Matthew, as he’s more often called) saw himself in this way. But Jesus did. He has an eye for what others miss. This is not just true of apostles and evangelists, but of us. He sees what we cannot yet imagine: what he’s going to make of us.
But Matthew could not be made into the extraordinary person God intended him to be while he was sitting at his toll booth. He first had to get up and follow Jesus. This is also true of us. We want God to do something with us, something special – and he’s willing – but it’s going to mean getting up, following Jesus, and leaving old ways behind. Those who do begin making progress toward their calling. Those who don’t stall.
Many people want God to do something in their life and wonder what is taking him so long. But they are sedentary and passive, ensconced in their old life, and unmoveable. As such, they can hardly expect anything to change. God steers people’s lives when they are moving – or, to be more precise – when they are following.
One of the changes people then notice occurs in their relationships. This is clear in Matthew’s case. One of the first things he did was to throw a dinner party, with Jesus as the guest of honor and his old friends – his fellow traitors, losers, and dishonest bureaucrats – as his dinner companions.
When Matthew invited Jesus to dinner and told him who was on the guest list, I imagine he replied, “I’d love to come” – and meant it. Going to Matthew’s house for dinner was a gracious and noble thing to do, but it was not a politically savvy move. It would be like a congressional candidate accepting an invitation to speak at a Communist Party USA dinner.
Luke described the party-goers as “tax collectors and others.” Matthew himself referred to those others as “sinners.” For Jesus to accept such a dinner invitation in his culture was to communicate acceptance of the person making the invitation. To eat with “tax collectors and sinners” – traitors, losers, and dishonest bureaucrats – was tantamount to accepting them.
Jesus did not equate accepting people with approving their behaviors, and the “tax collectors and sinners” understood this perfectly. Other people did not. They had long used rejection as a tool to force such people to change. Jesus used acceptance as a tool – or better, as a context – for helping them change.
(First published by Gannett.)