(A) Introduction. (Read the passage.)

Alan Carr's sermon on Mark2v13to17 found in provided a useful outline for this exposition.

(B) Jesus and the Publican

There are four things to note about the way Jesus dealt with Levi:

(1) His choice.

Levi, later called Matthew, was a strange recruit! He was engaged in disreputable employment. Capernaum was on an important east to west trade route. Levi probably collected customs duty on goods entering and leaving the city on behalf of Herod Antipas. He suffered from the stigma attached to all tax collectors who were generally collaborators with the hated Romans and guilty of extortion. It was very easy for a customs officer to demand more duty than was legally required. Many tax collectors were also in business as moneychangers and usurers.

What Matthew was, made no difference to Jesus. What a man is, has never mattered to Jesus. He doesn't just welcome those like Lydia and kindly Barnabas into his kingdom but also rogues like the dying thief and the Philippian jailer. William Barclay in his commentary on Mark quotes a story told by Hugh Redwood. It is a story of a woman who began attending a ladies meeting in the dockland area of London. She lived with a Chinese and brought her mixed raced baby to the meetings with her. She enjoyed the meetings and came over and over again. Then the vicar approached the woman and said, "I must ask you not to come any more. The other women have said that they will stop away if you continue to attend." The lady looked at the vicar and said sadly, "Sir, I know I'm a sinner, but isn't there anywhere a sinner can go?" Well - the one place a sinner should be welcome is church!!

(2) His judgment

Jesus discerned the potential of Levi. He not only saw what he was but also what he could become.

It is not always easy to easy to see what a person may become. Schoolteachers often get surprised! I got on a bus recently that was on its way from Suffolk to London. As I got to an empty seat near the back a voice came over the intercom, "Don't you recognise me Mr Reed. You used to take the Micky out of me at school." I sat down and began to make a list of all the boys I had teased and tormented at Debenham High School. At the top of my list was Barry Duff. Sure enough when I got out at the comfort stop there was Barry waiting at the door for a chat. We were pleased to see each other! But I would never have anticipated that the uncoordinated, awkward, skinny Barry would ever be able to manoeuvre a large coach through the London traffic with such confidence and panache.

God saw the potential of some unlikely characters in the Old Testament: Joseph the spoiled brat who sneaked on his brothers, Moses vegetating in the desert, the mighty warrior, Gideon, threshing wheat in the wine press for fear of the Midianites and beautiful, shapely Esther concubine of Persian Emperor, Xerxes. All of them proved to be, in one way or another, the saviour of their people.

In the new dispensation Jesus has made much of seemingly unpromising material - William Booth the pawnbroker's clerk, William Carey a cobbler, John Newton the slave trader, John Bunyan the Bedford tinker, Billy Bray the drunken Cornish miner and D.L. Moody the boot salesman.

(3) His discernment.

It would be very wrong to think that Jesus called Levi on the off chance and that he responded on a whim. Jesus knew Levi was ready to forsake his old life and start a new one. He, like the other twelve disciples, had been prepared for the call. Levi was one of those that God gave to Jesus. See John10v29 and John17v6. It is possible that Levi knew the fishermen followers of Jesus. The Zebedee family doubtless sent salted or dried fish to Jerusalem for sale. They would have to pay tax on their product as it left Capernaum. Levi had many contacts with the public and was in an excellent position to pick up information about the popular preacher in Capernaum. He may even have listened to Jesus teach. So, he began to question his way of life and long for a closer association with Galilee's favourite son.

I strongly believe men and women have to be prepared for salvation. Many of the boys and girls who were converted at the Pioneer Camp during my years as a worker had been prepared for salvation by Christian parents, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders. My brother Paul was a case in point. All his tent leader did was ask him, "Are you saved." That was the catalyst that brought the process of conversion to completion. Even Saul of Tarsus, who had such a sudden and dramatic experience on the road to Damascus, had been kicking against the goads for some time. See exposition on Saul's conversion.

(4) His challenge "Follow me" Jesus said to him.

Levi responded to Christ's call. Luke records: Levi got up, left everything and followed him.


    (a) Gave up more than any of the disciples. We know that the fishermen still had their boats after the resurrection of Jesus and were able to go fishing. It would be very difficult for Levi to go back to being a tax collector. He made a clean break from the old life. William Barclay tells of a certain famous man who had the habit of going for long country walks on Dartmoor. When he came to a brook that was rather too wide to cross comfortably the first thing he always did was to throw his coat over to the other side. He made sure first of all that there was to be no turning back. He took the decision to cross and made sure that he was going to stick to it. That is how Levi was. It is the best possible response to Christ's call.

            I have decided to follow Jesus,
            I have decided to follow Jesus,
            I have decided to follow Jesus,
            No turning back, no turning back

    (b) Gained much. When Levi got up and left everything behind to follow Jesus for the first time in years his conscience was clear. Eventually he got a better job. He told the story of Jesus. Even if Matthew did not write the gospel that bears his name it is highly likely that he was the main source of much of the material it contains. We are indebted to Matthew for nearly all we know about the teaching of Jesus. Levi, or Matthew as he became, swapped local infamy for worldwide fame. As William Barclay so succinctly put it: God never goes back on the man who stakes his all on him.

    Not every Christian is going to enjoy worldwide fame. However, every Christian can experience the great satisfaction of doing good work - serving Jesus where he has placed him or her - cultivating a small corner of God's great and productive vineyard.

            I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold;
            I'd rather be his than have riches untold;
            I'd rather have Jesus than houses or land;
            I'd rather be led by his nail scarred hand.

            Than to be a King of a vast domain
            Or be held in sin's dread sway;
            I'd rather have Jesus than anything
            This world affords today.

(C) Jesus and the Party

Firstly the party tells us something about Levi:

(1) He used his assets for Jesus. He was wealthy and owned a substantial property so he was able to organise a great banquet for Jesus at his house. When a person becomes a Christian he or she should put their assets at Christ's disposal. After Lydia, the rich businesswoman, became a Christian she extended hospitality to Paul and his companions. She said, "If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house." Acts16v15. Luke notes: And she persuaded us. A little later the Philippian jailer was converted. What was his response? The jailer brought them (Paul and Silas) into his house and set a meal before them. Acts16v34.

(2) He considered his new life something to celebrate. It wasn't something to be miserable about! My friend Tommy Bamber is inclined to think that Christians are repressed and emotionally inhibited. Perhaps this is the impression I give him! But believers are not like this. They have been set free and given new life. Jesus said, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John10v10. I can remember little Mr Will White becoming a Christian in his late 70's and how happy it made him. He came to every service he could to rejoice in what great things Jesus had done unto him. Lk8v39. AV. Becoming a Christian is not something to be half ashamed of or to be kept secret; rather it is a work of grace to be sung about.

            What a wonderful change
            In my life has been wrought
            Since Jesus came into my heart!
            I have light in my soul
            For which long I had sought,
            Since Jesus came into my heart!

            Since Jesus came into my heart,
            Since Jesus came into my heart!
            Floods of joy o'er my soul
            Like the sea billows roll,
            Since Jesus came into my heart

(3) He was pleased to introduce what friends he had to Jesus. They were a pretty disreputable bunch - mostly other tax collectors and even worse - prostitutes.

I suppose if we had a very famous family member we would be delighted to introduce him or her to our friends. Yet we are not very good at following Levi's example and making Jesus known to our associates and acquaintances.

Secondly the party tells us something about Jesus:

(1) He gladly accepts what we give him. Jesus did not refuse to attend the banquet Levi threw in his honour. Jesus wasn't churlish. I can be a bit churlish! The Brockley Cricket Club members wanted to organise a special cricket match to celebrate my 50 seasons with the club - but I put them off!

We can be absolutely certain that when we do anything to show our love and admiration for Jesus it will bring blessing both to ourselves and others.

(2) He is not ashamed to associate with publicans and sinners. I wonder how the disciples felt! I think some of them were pretty uncomfortable. Peter was an orthodox Jew who wanted to keep in with the authorities. Fraternising with the outcasts of society did not seem a very good way to go about it.

The strange thing is that Jesus never felt uncomfortable around the socially unacceptable. He felt uncomfortable with religious people! This should make us pause for thought.

I was talking to my old friend Jesse today. She began to reminisce about two sisters who lived near her. One of them got married to a member of the Exclusive Brethren. When the married couple moved into the family home the husband insisted that the unmarried sister eat in a different room from him and his wife because she was not a member of the same sect as themselves. Words almost fail me! How can the Exclusive Brethren carry on in this way when Jesus ate with publicans and sinners? Yet we know that until very recently there were numerous evangelical churches in the South of the U.S.A. that were white only! Blacks were excluded.

(3) He didn't tell them how bad they were. Jesus ate with the publicans and sinners. He socialised with them and chatted to them. The Saviour showed how much he loved Levi's friends by accepting the invitation to attend his new disciple's banquet. Later Paul followed in his Master's footsteps. He writes to the Corinthians: I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 1Cor9v22. See exposition on 1Cor9v22.

Another individual who followed the example of Jesus was Mark Hatfield, an outspoken Christian who often opposed President Nixon in the U.S. Senate. After Watergate Nixon resigned in disgrace and retreated to his San Clemente compound to live in virtual isolation. He had few visitors because politicians did not want to risk their reputations by being associated with him. But Mark Hatfield went! When asked why he made these trips to San Clement Hatfield replied: "To let Mr Nixon know that someone loved him."

(D) Jesus and the Pharisees.

Jesus was always going to have problems with the Pharisees because they were:

(1) Exclusive.

The Pharisees thought they were special. Luke introduces them like this: But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who belonged to their sect ... . v30.

They belonged to a sect and illustrated all the dangers of being members of what C.S. Lewis called the 'inner ring'. The Pharisees were the ones in the know - the true guardians of Jewish religion. They were the enlightened insiders and as such the only ones who mattered. Anyone who disagreed with them was dismissed as a nonentity and an irrelevance.

(2) Devious.

The Pharisees didn't complain about Jesus to Jesus himself. Instead they picked on his disciples - a much easier target - and asked: "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners.'" v30. The 'experts' were reluctant to attack Jesus directly although as time passed and Jesus' support waned they grew bolder.

This is the situation we are in today. The media is still reluctant to criticise Jesus directly but attacks him through the church or his followers. So evangelicals are portrayed as strident, hard-nosed bigots. Eventually as the influence of the church weakens the enemy will mount an assault on the blessed one himself.

(c) Holier than thou.

The Pharisees wanted nothing to do with people they disapproved of: Samaritans, Gentiles, Sadducees, tax collectors, prostitutes, leather workers and so on.

Christians have a tendency to withdraw from people they disapprove of: Muslims, gypsies, homosexuals, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Arminians, liberal churchmen, charismatics, fundamentalists.

Paul saw Jesus as the one who removed barriers. One of the greatest barriers was between Jew and Gentile. Paul could write to the Ephesians: For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, ..... . Eph2v14. I wonder what Paul would say to today as he surveyed the huge variety of barriers that have been erected in what should be a united body - Christ's church.

(E) Jesus and the proclamation.

Jesus proclaimed that:

(1) He could do nothing for the healthy. Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." v31.

The self-righteous are never going to repent. We should watch out for the tell-tale signs of self-righteousness. The Pharisees were:

    (a) Meticulous in small things. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin." Mt23v23.

    Some religious people have through the years been very, very careful about small things - abstaining from: alcohol in all its forms, raffles, Sunday newspapers and swearing. There are some words I have never used - could it be that I am proud of it!

    (b) Keen to make a good impression. Jesus said of them: "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'". Mt23v5to7.

    Woe-betide us if everything we do is done for men to see! It is very difficult for a charming self-publicist who has secured one promotion after another and who is a popular and respected member of his golf club to repent of his sin. What sin? Sin has not been much of a problem so far! Sin hasn't prevented him from securing a top place in the company and invitations to all the parties that matter. Nobody he knows mentions his sin!

    (c) Self-congratulatory. The Pharisees were proud to be the men they were. They congratulated themselves on their education, observance of the Law and place in society. One can almost hear one of them boasting loudly: "God I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evil doers, adulterers - or even this tax collector." Lk18v11.

    There is a lot of this goes on both outside and inside the church. There are media folk who if they prayed at all might say: "Thank God I'm not intolerant, a woman hater, a Bible basher, a bigoted, right-wing fundamentalist." There are some Christian fundamentalists who think, "Well, I'm glad that I'm not immoral, politically correct and cut off from the real world like some irreligious, liberal academic."

Sadly the Pharisees were sick without knowing it:

    (a) They neglected what really mattered. Jesus said, "You have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness." Mt23v23.

    Philip Yancey provides a good example of this tendency in his book, 'What's so amazing about grace?'

    Author Tony Campolo, who makes a regular circuit as a chapel speaker on Christian college campuses, for a time used this provocation to make a point. "The United Nations reports that over ten thousand people starve to death each day, and most of you don't give a sh--. However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more concerned about the fact that I just said a bad word than you are about the fact that ten thousand people are going to die today." The responses proved his point: in nearly every case Tony got a letter from the chaplain or president of the college protesting his foul language. The letters never mentioned world hunger.

    Doesn't this show that it is possible to be meticulous over trivialities and to neglect justice, mercy and faithfulness?

    (b) Their reputation among men was not shared by God. This is what Jesus, who knew what was in man, said of the Pharisees: "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything is unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." Mt23v27and28.

    The best of men is not all he seems! Occasionally someone has called me a good man. I am by no means good! I am not good by my own standards and God has higher standards than I have. As Paul put it: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Rom3v23. I like the quaint way the writer of Ecclesiastes sums up the human condition: Whosoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. See exposition on Ecc10.

    (c) They lacked humility. The Pharisees lacked the essential quality to enter the Kingdom of God. They were not poor in spirit - unlike the tax collector in Jesus' parable who would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me a sinner.' Lk18v13. Jesus concludes the parable with words none of us should ever forget: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

(2) Jesus can do great things for the sick.

A person who is aware of his sin and the unsatisfactory nature of his life might well repent. The sinner who desires to change and who looks to Jesus for help will discover that:

    (a) He is able to deal with a great variety of ills: guilt, fear, self-loathing, failure, futility, disappointment, bitterness, self-reproach and despair.

    The Christian sings from experience:

            In him I live upon him cast my care
            He saves from death, destruction and depair.

    (b) No-one is so ill that Jesus cannot help them. There is no-one so depraved that Jesus cannot restore them. At Calvary Jesus saved the thief crucified along side him who by his own admission deserved his punishment. If Jesus had the ability to rescue some murdering bandit from eternal destruction he is able to save any sinner who genuinely repents.

            Sinners Jesus will receive;
            Sound this word of grace to all
            Who the heavenly pathway leave,
            All who linger, all who fall!

            Sing it o'er ....... and o'er again .......
            Christ receiveth sinful men; ......
            Make the message clear and plain: .......
            Christ receiveth sinful men.

    (c) There are many others, millions upon millions, who can testify to Christ's saving power. Jesus is not short of recommendations. Just as many a business thrives on the recommendation of satisfied customers so Christianity spreads on the recommendation of satisfied believers.

    (d) His cure is two-fold:

      (I) Christ's saving death, symbolised by his precious shed blood, is the means of forgiveness. The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1John1v7.

      (II) The Holy Spirit is given to all who trust in Jesus. The Spirit gives new life to the believer. It is almost as if the believer receives a transfusion of the Spirit. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

      He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 2Cor1v21to22.

(F) Conclusion

Philip Yancey recounts a scene from the movie Ironweed to illustrate grace. The characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. Besotted themselves, the two debate what they should do about her.

"Is she drunk or a bum?" asks Nicholson.

"Just a bum. Been one all her life."

"And before that?"

"She was a whore in Alaska."

"She hasn't been a whore all her life. Before that?"

"I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess."

"Well, a little kid's something. It's not a bum and it's not a whore. It's something. Lets take her in."

There is a significant difference between God's grace and that of Nicholson and Streep. He takes in the bum, whore, drunk and worse BUT on one condition. They must repent of their sin and follow Jesus. This is what Levi did. It is what we all must do - go for broke on Jesus.