Is it easier to give up things willingly, or have things taken forcefully?
We don’t like it when people take our money. Paying taxes, paying tolls, and coming up with the funds for all the things we have to pay for can make the blood pressure skyrocket. Tollbooth collectors on turnpikes have had guns pointed at them, been spit on and called names for doing their job. In the first century, toll collectors were not liked very much, either. Israel was a tiny country in the middle of some superpower countries in the Ancient World. If you want to move anything from Egypt to Assyria, Babylon, or the Hittites, you have to pass through Israel. There was a trade network in Galilee with roads that run around the lake and out to the major highways. The Romans used these roads to move men and material. A major highway was the “way of the sea”, described in Isaiah 9:1-2, and was known as the Via Maris, or King’s Highway. And it goes right past Capernaum.
Naturally, there were tollbooths on that highway so that the king could take anything that was transported from the sea to the land, and from Galilee to the surrounding areas. There were taxes on the fish, the weaving, the clothing, and the produce that came from the farmers. A Jewish tax collector was considered a traitor to their people, and to God.
Jesus had been hanging out in Capernaum, staying at the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, and teaching by the seashore. It’s a big city. The fishing trade is big in that region, and around the Sea of Galilee there are many harbors and places to dock boats that were coming in from fishing. Peter, Andrew, James and John are very familiar with tax collectors. As business owners, they have had to pay their fair share of taxes. One day, Jesus entered into their lives.
As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Mark 1:16-18
But then Jesus does the same thing with a local tax collector.
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. Mark 2:13-14
Fishermen are middle class citizens who do respectable work. Jewish tax collectors, on the other hand, were put in place by the king and ruling authorities, and they overcharged the people and kept the profits. They were seen as unclean people for taking dirty money, and as traitors to their own people. Levi was a tax collector for Rome. He had a booth in town and Peter, Andrew, James and John knew exactly who he was. He was the scum that collected taxes on their fish. He was the one who took their money and lived in a fancy house. He was oppressing the people of God just like Rome was! “Jesus! What are you thinking?”
It’s one thing when your money is taken from you. It’s another thing when you’re asked to give it up willingly. Levi had the opportunity to be wealthy and comfortable. He had a cushy job that allowed him and his family to have opportunities that many people could only dream of. His children may have had a privileged education; his wife could buy fine clothes; he enjoyed some favor with the higher ups, but when Jesus calls him, he gets up, leaves his booth and distances himself from his money…willingly!
Following Jesus might mess up our lives, too. The stories that Jesus tells sound pretty good, but if we have a good job, good friends, and a decent future, following Jesus might mess that up. If Jesus called you today, could you do it? What happens when Jesus calls the people that you greatly dislike, and they decide to take him up on his offer? Can you handle hanging out with them?
After Levi decides to follow, Jesus goes over to his house and hangs out. And
…many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him.
A good Jew did not go into a tax collectors house or eat with them, but Jesus did it anyway. Some translations say that while Jesus was having dinner, they were eating AND drinking with him. It brings up images of the Eucharist, and says that this is a messianic banquet in the dawning kingdom of God.  Jesus is making friends. Lots of them. It’s not just one tax collector. Many of them are following Jesus.
Jesus didn’t exclude them, marginalize them or show them the error of their ways by shaming them. He sat down and ate with them. The following statement of the scribes is understandable: “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:16
I wonder what the disciples were thinking at this point. Peter, Andrew, James and John knew Levi from the tax booth in town. They may have had a grudge against him. But now everyone is having dinner together. Are they feeling a bit sheepish? Is dinner awkward? How are the conversations going between the other tax collectors and the four disciples? Are they worried about who might see them with their present company? I mean, it’s bad enough that they up and left their business and their family to follow Jesus (there’s enough stigma and shame to go along with that), but now they’re hanging out with the local thugs and partying up! When the scribes ask this question, do they even know what to say? “Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?” “I—; um—-; —well, you see…yes, why IS he eating with tax collectors and sinners?”
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:16-17
“Well boys, since these people are obviously ‘sinners’, and I’m a healer, I need to be with them…not those of you who think you’re already in good condition.” Ouch.
Is it easier to give up things willingly, or have things taken forcefully? Jesus might ask us to willingly give up the things that make us feel secure. Jobs, bank accounts, investment planning, homes and neighborhoods change. In an instant, these things can be taken away, altered by the market, crumbled by a natural disaster, or snatched away through death. Only the kingdom of God will remain. Levi followed Jesus and left his financial security, and Judas followed too, but he wasn’t happy with the way of the cross. He tried to gain financial security by betraying Jesus, and he shamefully killed himself when he realized what he had done. Jesus didn’t accommodate other people’s agendas or ideas of security. He went the way of the cross and said, “follow me.”
Jesus might also be asking us to willingly set aside our prejudices so that we can see the beauty of what he is doing in this world. He has the right to call someone like Levi: a tax collector. He can call a drug dealer; a homeless man; a woman of the streets; a person who struggles with depression; someone with no college degree, and even someone like you. The kingdom of God is radically and offensively inclusive. We aren’t forced to accept it. But rather, it frees us up to willingly include the people that Jesus would include at his table. The scribes ask, “Why is HE eating with tax collectors and sinners?” Maybe we should be asking, “Why aren’t WE eating with them?”
 Craig A. Evans, Stanley E. Porter eds., Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 2000, 394.
 M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 81.