We live in a world of boxes, just watch TV or read a magazine and this will be obvious. We make a box and call it beauty, and we put skinny in that box, and we put this feature and that feature in the box, and anything that is not in the box does not count as beautiful. We make a box and call it success, we put money, prestige, stock portfolios, houses, 2.5 kids, etc. in that box and anything that is not in that box must be failure. We create a box and call it normal, and we put in that box white, middle class, straight and other such characteristics and anything that is not in that box is abnormal, different, scary, and to be avoided.
We have many boxes in our churches to. We have a box called worship, and depending on the church we put different things in that box, and deem everything else as not worship. We have a box called Christian, and depending on what church you are in your box might be different, but if you don’t fit into that box, you aren’t in.
Jesus didn’t like boxes. Often people tried to put him into a box, but he just wouldn’t stay put.
People thought of Jesus as a Rabbi, and began to force him into that Rabbi box. Now in order to be a Rabbi you need disciples. There was a certain way in which you got disciples. Hebrew boys went through rigorous religious training when they were young, they would learn the Hebrew scriptures inside and out. Now those who shone, who stood out among the rest would approach a Rabbi and ask if they could follow him and the Rabbi would either agree or not. Disciples were the good students, the ones who shone in religion class. If you didn’t fit that box you were out. Jesus didn’t much like that box.
Look at Gospel stories with this in mind. Jesus first off doesn’t wait for students to come to him, but he goes to them! What kind of Rabbi is this? A Rabbi would never reduce himself to that! Secondly, not only does he approach the student, but he approaches a tax collector.
Now tax collectors aren’t exactly the most beloved in our society today, but this was even more the case in Jesus day. Tax collectors were seen as traitors, they were Jewish men who collected money from other Jewish families to give to the Roman empire, the empire that was oppressing their people, the empire that was working in direct opposition to the God they believed in. Tax Collectors were placed on the same level as thieves and murderers. They were the scum of the scum. And Jesus goes up to a Tax Collector, who was in the middle of doing his traitorous deed and asks him to follow him. If you were watching this you would be mind boggled.
If there was anyone that you should avoid asking to be apart of your radical new movement it would be a tax collector.
On top of this, Jesus had a Jewish Zealot on his team. One who felt the only way to be free from Rome is to kill the Romans. How could you have a Roman Sympathizer and a Roman Killer on the same team? What is Jesus saying? Jesus is saying that his kingdom is radically different then the kingdoms of this world. Jesus takes the box of how things work and burst it from the inside. He says that the redemption of the world, the freedom that comes from Christ is one that frees both those oppressed by the empire, and those enthralled in it. Jesus calls people right out of the empire, asks them to leave and join in his new empire. Jesus calls us to break out of the box we have been put in, to join him in shattering the boxes of our world.
What does this mean? Well, my first reaction is to say that for us this means that we are called to go out and call even the most unlikely candidates to come and follow Jesus. And this is probably true. But as we approach Lent, a time of self reflection and repentance I begin to look at myself and realize that I am not as far from being a tax collector as I would like to think. It is not hard to see that we live in a world gone wrong. And in some ways I, like Levi the tax collector, profit from this. For instance my cheap clothes come from the slavery of children on the other side of the world. The green houses gases that I produce cause weather systems that are devastating for the poorest of the poor in our world. Often my investments or RRSP’s are put into corporations that have low labor standards, cause all sorts of troubles for communities all over the world, and oppress millions. In many ways I need to read this story not as if Jesus is calling me to go out to the tax collectors of the world, but rather, I am the tax collector. I am the traitor. In this way I am the last one Jesus should call to join him in redeeming this world, in transforming this world, because as this world is, I am benefiting. But despite all this, Christ still calls me.
This is the beauty of Jesus, is that he calls us, no matter our weaknesses, our struggles or fears, to a place of honor as his disciple. This is the grace of the Gospel, the Son of the Living God calls us to relationship with him. Now hear is the hard news, the hard news is that it is a call that costs us everything. In the story of Levi the only response that he can have is to leave his place in the Empire, leave his tax booth and followed Jesus. The call of Jesus is a call of repentance, which means a call to turn around. Levi drops his livelihood, he drops his financial security, he drops his place in the Empire, he drops his ability to be self sufficient, he drops all that he has known, and he follows Christ in a whole new direction.
Call and Response, these two parts are both in the story, and both need each other. Sometimes we focus on the grace of the call, forgetting about what the call demands in response. Sometimes we preach that all are welcome, all are loved, all are called to follow Christ, but never teach what following Christ really means. Jesus is preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, a good news that is diametrically opposed to the Kingdoms of this world, and it requires in response all that we are, all that we have.
I have seen this lived through the life of friend very close to me. A few years ago he got into real estate, he bought houses and began renting them out. He did this he admits now because of the money he could make. But Jesus began to call him through the people that would come and rent from him. He was the Christian, and thought that he was meant to call them to follow Jesus, but he began to realize that through them Jesus was calling him. Profit no longer was the goal, the goal was relationship, was helping people fight their struggles, their addictions, their demons. This cost him more then I can say, it cost him money, security, relationships. People often think he is making silly decisions, that he is being financially irresponsible, but he finds that the call of the Kingdom demands no less then this response. This friend is a huge inspiration to me, because when I see him I realize that I am basking in the glory of the call without every giving a response. Jesus doesn’t like boxes, and gave his life to tear them down. His call to us is to do the same. What is our response?