The story of Levi’s transformation takes only six verses in Luke 5. The brevity of the tale belies the radical discontinuity of his before and after. In a moment, Jesus lifted him from his self-selected hell, his personalized tomb – traitor to his people and prodigal to his God – and gently seated him beside Himself as beloved son of the heavenly Father and champion for his nation, Israel. The brevity of the telling belies the complexity of Levi’s before and the sweet simplicity of his after.
What tale does your life tell? What is your before? Your after?
Before the transformative moment with Jesus, like a tree bent by unrelenting winds, Levi’s hearty beginnings in the faith of Abraham had been twisted, distorted, misshapen to Rome’s sway, to the Empire’s bidding. His name discloses the parental passion that this son would sink roots and draw deeply from the ancient faith, then bring forth fruits of righteousness.
His name, Levi, had first been given to one of the sons of Israel. Out of the tribe of Levi came super saints – Moses, the prophet who penned the Torah and reflected the radiant light of Yahweh, and Aaron, the high priest and covenant representative for Israel to the Holy One, and Miriam, prophet and leader of the chosen people.
Levi carried a grand name, a storied name echoing wondrous feats of faith and devotion. Scholars believe Levi not only as a child was sent to Torah school to prepare for his bar mitzvah, but was the very person in mind when Jesus commented, “Every teacher of religious law who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who brings from his storeroom new gems of truth as well as old (Mt 13:52).”
Levi was a Bible scholar, trained by the rabbis. Analytical, detached, and deeply private, Levi would succeed. He was like a tree, firmly planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in its season, its leaves not withering, and in everything, he prospered. Until he chose a different god, a god of affluence.
From his family, Levi collected the airy stuff of high expectations, the dreams of great faith, and the aspirations of a life fruitful to God. None of which put bread on the table. He was no fool. From his Roman patron, Levi gathered the bankable realities of a prominent position as tax collector, its considerable power, and the potential for staggering wealth.
To be a tax collector for the empire required a patron, a Someone with genuine clout in the web of relationships centered in Rome, to offer the position. It also required that the recipient of the patron’s gift publicly honor the gift-giver at many public events, often in the context of worship, the worship of one of the many gods of the Roman pantheon.
Levi held by his roots in faith in the One true God was jerked and torn by his commitment to Rome. Aligned with Roman customs and culture, habits of mind and habits of time, he was wrenched from his community, his God, his heritage, his way of being in the world. Torn. Distressed, he hoarded, and clung to his wealth, power, and position. He focused on his need of security and safety. The tear in his life became an insatiable chasm of need for more.
Disintegrating as he sat that morning in the rock-solid tax office, surrounded by displays of Roman power including the presence of a couple of Roman legionnaires, he ached. By walked Jesus, with His stout sense of identity as beloved Son of the Father and His single-minded integration as One well-pleasing to God, with the divine reaching out through His shining eyes and warm smile, Levi was caught and set free.
In Jesus he discovered an entirely new life, a freeing, satisfying, fully integrating life, the life he was meant to live. Jesus asked for all, and Levi gave. He gave himself over to Jesus. With this reorientation, Levi became the energetic, confident, and talkative host we find at the end of the six verses, the perfect host of a banquet to introduce his friends to Jesus so they might experience disorientation and reorientation to God.
Levi still serves as host. The story of his life is told so that for us, for you and for me, Jesus might walk by offering to replace our before with His after. A brief tale, but one God longs to tell.