Easter without Hindsight, Ordinary People, No 3, Levi
When Jeshua (today called Jesus) decided to stay with Zaccheus, the tax collector, he shocked the respectable and religious people around him. Jeshua of course, had form here. Very early in his public life in Galilee (now in northern Israel) Jeshua had met another tax collector, Levi, in Caperneum, by the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake in the north of valley of the River Jordan and attracted similar criticism.
Levi collected tolls for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. When Herod’s father (the King Herod who massacred the innocents in the Christmas story) died just after Jeshua’s birth, Galilee was inherited by Antipas. His brother Philip got the Golan Heights running into Syria. A third brother called Archelaus inherited the southern lands of Samaria, Judea and Idumea. Archelaus’ rule was so bad that Jeshua’s parents, on the run from King Herod’s massacre, were too scared to go back to Joseph’s (Jeshua’s father) home town of Bethlehem, and moved up north to Galilee instead. That’s why Jeshua, a Judean, grew up in Galilee. Meanwhile the Roman Emperor Tiberius sent Archelaus into exile and Judea became a Roman province. Jeshua will meet Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea on Good Friday.
Early in his public life Jeshua lived in Capernaum, a town beside the lake. It was the crossing point between Philip’s and Herod’s land and there were now tolls to be paid at the border. Plenty of people could remember (under old King Herod) when there were no tolls. Imagine being employed to suddenly charge people to park where they used to park for free. Levi and his kind were unpopular and that was probably compounded by systematic over-charging.
Jeshua decided he wanted Levi as a disciple, according to Mark’s gospel (Mark 2:13-17). Look at the calling from Levi’s point of view. Not many others would collect taxes for Herod as he was the Romans’ puppet ruler. Levi was seen to be working for the hated foreigners. Most people probably grumbled and abused him. This increasingly famous rabbi, however, had called him as a disciple. Levi would have recalled that Herod Antipas, his employer, believed himself to be king of the Jews and (like old King Herod before him) marketed himself as messiah. It won’t be long, in Mark’s gospel account, before another disciple, Peter, will declare that Jeshua is messiah, God’s chosen king of the Jews.
Jeshua dines with tax-collectors and other sinners. The local religious worthies couldn’t believe that a rabbi would consort with people who didn’t conform strictly to the requirements of religious law or the strict political requirements of opposition to Rome. Many have speculated that there were prostitutes present and some have also asked what drew Jeshua to spend time with prostitutes. Perhaps a better question is this: What it was about Jesus and his message that made tax collectors, sinners and (possibly) prostitutes comfortable in his presence?