And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said to him, Follow me.…
We noticed how, at the healing of the paralytic, there was a critical assemblage. Secretly did they impugn the absolution pronounced by the Master, and publicly were they refuted. Immediately after, it would seem from all the accounts, Jesus takes the bold step of calling a publican to become his disciple. It was a throwing down of the gauntlet to his enemies. It was taking up a man whom they had excommunicated and despised, and so bringing the kingdom of God into collision with the Jewish authorities. Let us, then, consider -
I. THE CALL OF LEVI, AND ITS ACCEPTANCE. (Vers. 27, 28.) Levi was a leading "custom-house officer," as we should now call him, situated at Capernaum, where the caravans from Damascus to the Mediterranean regularly passed. His office was, we have reason to believe, a lucrative one, so that he had every worldly reason for remaining in it. Doubtless he had no position in the Jewish Church, but, considering the Sadducean scepticism which flourished within the Church pale, the worldly advantages of the tax-gathering would reconcile Levi to excommunication. When Jesus found him he was busy at his tax-gathering. The piles of money were possibly before him. He was never more prosperously occupied before. But lo! this itinerant Preacher, who has no settled home, has not where to lay his head, comes along, and calls Levi from his business to become his follower. "Follow me," says Christ; and for Levi it meant the surrender of his worldly calling, and becoming an itinerant preacher of the kingdom of God. The step for Levi was most serious. And here notice what Jesus demanded. It may be expressed in three words: it was faith in himself. In no way could he better test Levi's confidence than by asking him to surrender the comfort and certainty of his worldly calling for the uncertainty of the Christian ministry as carried on by the Master himself. It is the one demand which Jesus always makes, that men should trust him. And Levi surrenders at once. He leaves all, rises up, and literally follows him. It is a farewell to tax-gathering, that he may take service in the retinue of the Prince of peace. Such a surrender without reserve is what Christianity means. Jesus is put before every one and everything, and his command is our law. The following of Christ, moreover, includes the whole Christian morality. If we take his way and carry out his will, and do, day by day, what we believe he would in our circumstances, then we shall find ourselves holy and useful in increasing measure.
II. CONSIDER LEVI'S FIRST MISSIONARY EFFORT. (Ver. 29.) This was in the making of the great feast. Hospitality may be missionary in character. If its design is to bring friends into contact with Jesus, as was literally the case here, then it is distinctly a missionary enterprise. Levi felt that the best thing he could now do would be to get all his acquaintances together and to introduce them to Jesus. And ought not this to be the aim of hospitality still, apart from all cant and hypocrisy? Should not hosts inquire what their motives are in making feasts? Are banquets for display, for the advancement of worldly ends, or for the Master's sake? Moreover, this banquet of Levi shows us the limits of our work. All we can ever do for men is to introduce them to Jesus. We cannot do more for their salvation. It is the personal acquaintanceship with Jesus into which they must enter if eternal life is to be theirs. "This is life eternal, to know [i.e. to be acquainted with] thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). The missionary enterprise through hospitality is only beginning to be realized. Hospitality needs to be redeemed, like many another good thing, from worldly uses. A loving heart wilt enable a faithful Christian to accomplish this.
III. PHARISAIC OBJECTIONS TO CHRIST'S NEW ASSOCIATIONS. (Vers. 30-32.) Eating and drinking in the East are the universal tokens of mutual confidence. After this, the parties will be true to each other until death. Hence the Pharisees with their scribes (so in Revised Version and best authorities) - the legal experts they had brought with them - object to Jesus and his disciples going in "hand and glove" with excommunicated men. From their standpoint it argued great laxity on the part of our Lord. Really it only meant his freedom from Pharisaic pretence. And his defence was complete. He took the Pharisees on their own ground. He assumed that they were spiritually whole, as they supposed themselves to be. Of course, he knew how seriously they were in this matter deceiving themselves. But assuming they were whole, he would, as a Physician, have been losing his time and missing his opportunity had he associated only with them. It is the sick, these publicans and sinners, who need the Physician's care. Hence he hesitated not to enter into Levi's house and mix with Levi's guests. Now, association with others may, like hospitality, be a form of missionary enterprise. This should be our motive in associating with others. Why not be propagandists in all our contact with men? It is not necessary we should be "puritanical;" for that was exactly what Jesus in this case and in every case declined to be. But we may in all our hearty fellowship with others keep their spiritual good clear as a star in view. Our Lord's principle, too, as here stated, is impressive. He did not come to summon to his side the men of reputation, the men of good public character, the pharisaically righteous, but to call "sinners," those who despaired of themselves and needed help. In this he states his grand policy. It is for us to realize its meaning and to imitate him. As self-despairing ones, let us rally round the Saviour, as he calls us to him, and then let us vigorously publish the call to other sinners, that they too may be saved.
IV. THE PHARISEES FURTHER OBJECTED TO CHRIST'S PRACTICE. (Vers. 33-35.) Having defended his association with publicans and sinners, he is next assailed because he did not teach the disciples to fast. The Baptist, in the spirit of the old regime, directed his disciples to fast, but Jesus took a different course altogether. And here we must remember that the Law of Moses prescribed fasting only on the great Day of Atonement, when sin was brought so powerfully to remembrance. The fasting twice a week, in which the Pharisees indulged, arose out of those "traditions of the elders" which in many respects overlaid the precepts of the Law. Against these traditions our Lord set himself firmly. Notice that:
1. Fasting is a comparatively easy form of self-denial. As Robertson has said in a sermon on ver. 33, "All can understand the self-denial of fasting, because hunger is a low want, known to all. But all cannot understand the self-denial of hard mental work, or that of associating with uncongenial minds, or that of honestly pursuing a disagreeable occupation or profession." The coarse minds which proposed to criticize Jesus, therefore, took up fasting as the form of self-denial which they found themselves equal to, and sought to condemn Jesus for neglect of it.
2. There is no good in fasting for its own sake. The person who abstains from food merely to be able to say he has fasted and so fulfilled a human tradition, is not living a noble life. Asceticism had, therefore, no countenance from Jesus.
3. The Divine life is essentially social. The Trinity of Persons in unity declares this fact. God has been social from everlasting, and when he appeared incarnate it was as an eminently social Saviour. Hence he represents himself on thin very occasion as a Bridegroom, and life with him as a bridal feast. Mourning would be as impertinent at a marriage-party as fasting would be when Jesus was present with his people. The sociality of the Christian faith endorses the propriety of the policy of Jesus.
4. Fasting becomes appropriate when fellowship is interrupted. Our Lord refers to his own departure as a being taken away from them, a violent operation - a prophetic note about the cross! In such days will the disciples fast. The felt absence of the Lord should so impress us that fasting would be only natural with us. Through fasting the soul regains its sovereignty over the body, and the gracious presence of the Master as an experience is regained.
V. OUR LORD'S SPIRIT OF INNOVATION. (Vers. 36-39.) The Pharisees expected ha would conform to old customs, as unoriginal minds are wont to do. But they utterly mistook him. He came, as these twin parables tell us, with new cloth and new wine. This can only mean the Christian spirit, social and missionary in its very essence. Robertson is quite wrong, we believe, in making the new wine and new cloth "austere duties and doctrines," and the old bottles and old cloth as the weak novices in the shape of the new disciples (ut supra, p. 196). In what respect these "austere duties and doctrines," were new no one, we imagine, could tell us. They were the old wine and the old garments, easy and palatable to the self-righteous mind, like old wine; but the Christian spirit of sociality and missionary enterprise was the new wine which the self-righteous do not particularly care for. Hence our Lord resolved to initiate no such foolish policy as this, to tack on the free spirit of Christianity to the old pharisaic spirit of fasting frequently and being generally morose. The two would not work, and so he courageously resolved to be an innovator, cost what it would, and to conduct his disciples to a better position than Pharisaism realized. The disciples are the new bottles, and the Christian spirit is the new wine. The free, social spirit, which Christianity fosters, may not be palatable to the proud minds of men, but the humble appreciate and preserve it as the disciples have done down to this day. We ought to have the courage of our convictions, even when it leads us to take new courses for men's sake. - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me.
WEB: After these things he went out, and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and said to him, "Follow me!"