Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

35. The Call of Levi (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32)*

The careful reader of Matthew’s gospel can hardly fail to note the method by which that record has been put together. It is the compiler’s aim to bring together similar material into well-defined sections each of which reveals some aspect of the Ministry of Jesus.

A very obvious early example is chapters 5, 6, 7 -- the Sermon on the Mount. These are followed by two chapters narrating a long catalogue of miracles. Chapter 10 assembles the instructions given by the Lord to his disciples, not all at the same time, regarding their own work of preaching. Next, two chapters detail encounters with Pharisees and others who rejected his claims. Chapter 13 lists a long series of parables. Then comes the great turning point of the ministry when, rejected by Pharisees and the common people alike, he foreshadows the acceptance of the Gentiles (ch.14, 15). Then through two eloquent chapters (16, 17) the shadow of the cross is cast across his path. Next, there is instruction regarding offences and forgiveness (ch.18, 19, 20). The rejection of Jerusalem follows (20, 21) together with a variety of symbolic indications that the Gentiles will receive what Israel have scorned. Chapter 22 details the long controversy with Pharisees and Sadducees in the temple court, and is followed by the great arraignment of those religious leaders (ch. 23). Then the Olivet prophecy (ch. 24, 25), and the detailed account of the Lord’s trial, arrest, and crucifixion with a brief triumphant record of the resurrection.

A Miracle among miracles

None of the other gospels has the same kind of pattern in its structure. An inevitable consequence of this method is that here and there Matthew has had to sacrifice exact chronological sequence. Indeed it is remarkable that these dislocations should be so very few.

The miracles of Chapters 8 and 9 are almost certainly not given in correct sequence, although they do all belong to the early part of the year of the Lord’s popularity.

That section has one particularly impressive feature. Embedded in it is the story of Matthew’s own call to discipleship. It is as though the apostle was saying to his readers: “Here, amongst all these other miracles, is a miracle to match any of the wonders included in this record -- the Lord called me from the sordid selfishness of a tax-gatherer’s routine to be one of his chosen few.”


The crowds assembling to hear Jesus were so great that the synagogue could not hold them, so open-air meetings were improvised by the lake side (Mk. 2:13). Not very far away was the custom house, to gather tolls from the fishing fleet and all the boats which plied in and out of the harbour there. The great east-west road entered the territory of Herod Antipas a short distance away, and the trade it carried was also a fruitful source of revenue. The tax-gatherers who did this unpopular work for the Romans and for Herod were the most hated people in the nation. They in turn shrugged their shoulders and saw to it that they were well paid for all the resentment and ostracism they had to put up with. With hardly an exception they were a villainous unscrupulous lot. It is on record that in one part of the Roman Empire several cities erected statues to one Sabinus, “the honest publican.”

The Call of Levi

One day Levi the publican, the son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:14; 3:18; Study 42), was seen by Jesus as he sat there “at the receipt of custom”. It was no casual glance which Jesus gave him. He stood and watched (Lk. 5:27 Gk.) and probably not for the first time. Then the word of power which wrought so many miracles produced yet another marvel: “Follow me”. Without any hesitation this publican quit his ledgers and his tax-assessing to be henceforth a full-time disciple of Jesus: “he left all, rose up, and followed him” (Lk. 5:28). The language is precisely that used to describe the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John (v. 11), but with a verb added which the New Testament normally uses to describe resurrection: Matthew rose up to a new life in Christ (as did the paralytic; Lk. 5:25 s.w).

This forsaking was a big act of faith. The others whom earlier Jesus had called at the same place still had their fishing boats as an insurance policy. But this publican, who had doubtless paid handsomely for the privilege of rooking his fellow-citizens, would now never be able to ask for his civil- service job back again. He had burnt his boats.

Matthew’s gospel is the only one of the three which uses the name Matthew in this incident, his Greek phrase implying that this was an added name. The others veil the publican’s identity, calling him Levi. Similarly, in the lists of the Twelve, the first gospel is the only one which describes Matthew as “the publican”. This splendid man gloried in the fad that the Lord had rescued him from such a sordid soul-destroying way of life. Now he paid his dues to a higher Lord, and chronicled not the avarice of an evil master, but the glorious deeds and words of one who laid down his life for his friends (Matthew means ‘God gives’).

Renunciation and Witness

When Elisha said farewell to his old life to become Elijah’s disciple and minister, he did so formally, sacrificing the oxen he had been ploughing with, and sharing the peace offering with his family and friends (1 Kgs. 19:21). When Peter and Andrew left their fishing, they too gave hospitality to their new leader (Mk. 1:29). Levi did the same thing, even more formally. “He made for him (that is, for Jesus) a great feast in his house, and there was a great company of publicans and of others”(Lk.). This implies that Matthew’s house was a big one. Its owner was no underling but a man who had ‘ risen high in a lucrative profession.

Again there is what might be called an undesigned coincidence in the narrative -- Mark and Luke both specify that the reception took place in his (Levi’s) house. But, naturally enough, Matthew, writing about his own home, calls it simply “the house”.

Probably an appreciable amount of time elapsed between the call of Matthew and the giving of this great feast (held most likely in the courtyard of what must have been one of the biggest houses in Capernaum). Since there were “many publicans” among the guests, it may be surmised that Matthew sent invitations to all his civil-service colleagues in that area (perhaps including Zaccheus at Jericho), and it would take time for notification and assembly of the guests. Jesus seems to have been using this conversion of Matthew as the spearhead of a campaign amongst these second-class citizens. Mark’s text is delightfully ambiguous as to whether the house and the feast were Matthew’s or Christ’s. “I came not to call (invite) the righteous...” seems to imply the latter.

Another interesting comparison between the synoptists is this. Mark’s phrase is: “many publicans and sinners... with Jesus and his disciples”; But the corresponding expression in Luke is: “a great company of publicans and others (the word means ‘others of the same sort’)”! Mark adds: “and they (the publicans) followed him.” This can only mean that one of the fruits of Levi’s splendid public witness to faith in Christ was the conversion of a considerable number of his colleagues.

The Pharisees criticize

The phrase used by Mark about the feast is exactly that which describes Abraham’s great celebration of the weaning of Isaac (Gen. 21:8 LXX). That public designation of the heir of the promises was immediately followed by mockery from the one who deemed himself to be Abraham’s true heir. On this occasion also, immediately after Matthew’s open proclamation of Jesus as Lord this true heir of the promises found himself exposed to the mockery of those who preened themselves on being the elect of God. The Pharisees, the very men who had sat criticizing Jesus as he healed the paralytic in the synagogue, were well aware of what was happening. The point is often made in books on Bible manners and customs that it was commonplace for others besides the invited guests to walk in and out whilst a feast was in progress, and that this is what the Pharisees did. Such an idea should be viewed with suspicion. Has any evidence ever been cited that this was a normal practice of the times? It is difficult to resist the impression that this notion, like a number of others dogmatically set out in such volumes, has been made up as a fairly confident inference from what is already there in the gospel story; and then, as a lovely demonstration of how to reason in a circle, these “manners and customs” are cited in support of this kind of interpretation.

The bogus character of this particular sample is readily seen when the record is read with a little more attention to detail. Is it at all likely that such men would enter the house of such a man? Also, the criticism of the Pharisees was addressed to the disciples, and not to Jesus himself--they were astute enough for that! But if this was done whilst the feast was in progress, was not Jesus bound to be immediately aware of it? The main intention was to sow uneasy doubts in the minds of the disciples without Jesus knowing what was afoot. So the criticism was almost certainly put to the followers of the Lord as they were coming away from the feast. The ellipsis is wrongly filled out in Matthew 9:11: “When the Pharisees saw it...” (note the italics in the AV). A better rendering would be: “when the Pharisees saw who the guests were.” They saw because they were on watch outside the house.

The disapproval was cleverly expressed: “How is it that he (your Teacher! Mt.) eateth -- and drinketh! -- with publicans and sinners?” (Mk. 2:16). Either the disciples also had taken part in the feast, but were carefully left out of the gibe of the Pharisees; or else they had not been invited, and were therefore all the more ready to listen to disparagement of this kind. The aim was to undermine confidence in their leader. The kind of answer which these devious men wished to insinuate and were ready to supply was: ‘Because he is one of the same kind. His holiness and pious talk are a facade. Here is his true-character.’

The Lord’s Response

As on every later occasion when his disciples were under fire, Jesus came to their aid at once. Did his marvellous powers of awareness of what was going on in people’s minds operate here? Or did one of his friends quickly and quietly inform him of what was happening?

The answer came promptly and pithily: “How is it...? Because they that are strong need no physician, but they that are sick”. Of course Jesus welcomed such company because these were the people most in need of help. By contrast, the Pharisees thought themselves spiritually healthy and strong. The Lord’s irony was sharp and biting. He had no time for them. Spiritually more sick than the publicans, they deemed themselves to be not only thoroughly healthy but also the physicians of others. Poor fools that they were, they had no ability to diagnose their own sickness. So Jesus bade them: “Go ye, and learn what that meaneth: I will have mercy (see Study 39), and not sacrifice” (Mt. 9:13). The words were like a blow in the face. That this untutored artisan should bid them, the educated doctors of the Law, go home and read their Bible! “Go ye, and learn...!” Were they not the teachers of the nation, honoured and revered by every one? And what were they to learn? “I will have mercy (a spirit of forgiveness for those in need of it) and not sacrifice (selfishly offered for one’s own high standing with God)” (Hos. 6:6; where note the context: 5:15; 6:2). Then was it not their duty, if indeed they were the nation’s spiritual healers (and how they liked to think that they were!), to spend all possible time and effort on the reclamation of these despised and hated publicans?

In quoting Hosea’s blunt words the Lord was not proscribing sacrifice (the time for that would come later; Mt. 21:12). He was employing a common Bible idiom for “not so much this as that”, “not only this but also that” (Pr. 8:10; Jer. 7:22, 23; Joel. 2:13; Mk. 9:37; Lk. 14:26; Jn. 3:17; 5:30; 6:27; 7:16; 9:3; 12:44, 47; 14:24; Acts 5:4; Rom. 2:13; 1 Cor. 7:10; 15:10; 1 Jn. 3:18).

The Lord continued, his words a matchless fusion of irony and tenderness: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). It was he who called sinners. They joined him, not he them! (cp. Gen. 14:13d). So he ate and drank with publicans -- repentant publicans, who stirred by the self-denial of one of themselves, recognized that here was One who could help them as no Pharisee in the land was able. “And they followed him”. Jesus, gained wealthy and grateful disciples that day.

A Link with Isaiah?

The Old Testament is never very far away from the teaching and work of Jesus. Yet, in many an instance, the ideas of psalms and prophets are so subtly woven into the fabric o| the gospel record that they easily go unrecognized or unappreciated. Is the incident just considered an example of this? The following collation with Isaiah 58 is either designed and impressive or else marvellously fortuitous:

Isaiah 58

Behold, ye fast for strife and debate. . .to make your voice to be heard on high.
The Pharisees’ quibble about fasting (Mt 9:14).
Is it such a fast ... for a man to spread sackcloth under him?
The patch on the old garment?
Is this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free.
The saving of publicans and sinners (these oppressors were really the oppressed.)
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor to thy house?
Matthew’s feast.
Then... thy healing (RV) shall spring forth speedily.
“They that are whole need not a healer but they that are sick.”
If thou takeaway from thee . . . the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity (LXX = murmuring speech).
The pointing of criticism at Jesus.They “murmured” at him (same Gk. word)
Thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.
Sinners called to repentance.

(cp. also Is. 57:17, 18: “Covetousness, see his ways (Lk. 5 :27), heal him, lead him (follow me)”.

Notes: Mark 2:13-17

He saw. Consider other people Jesus “saw”: Mt. 4:18, 21;Jn. 1:48; 9:1; Lk.21:2.

Sitting at the receipt of custom. In the time of the Egyptian Ptolemies, a publican received between 8 and 16 talents in salary, ie.£2-3 m. (1983 inflation).

Follow me; and he rose up and followed him. Mark used the name Levi. He does not say explicitly that Levi was an apostle, but this language (1:17, 18) plainly implies it.
And they followed him. The very phrase used about Matthew (v.14). So even though not peripatetic apostles, they definitely became disciples.
Scribes of the Pharisees (RV), i.e. scribes dedicated to the Pharisee style of interpretation of the law.

Said to his disciples. It was a trick they would try several times more in the next two years -- trying to drive a wedge between leader and followers. Lk. has “murmured”, the much repeated word in Ex., Num. to describe faithless Israel in the wilderness.

Sinners. These were probably people Jesus had healed and who (so people reasoned -- as John’s friends did) must have suffered as they did because they had been sinners. Lk. is content to call them “others”. His word means “others of the same sort”.
No need of a physician. Specially no need of physicians unable to diagnose their own sickness!

They that are sick. And these publicans had come to the best doctor. Contrast Asa: 2 Chr. 16:12.

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