This whole scene happens in Capernaum, one of the towns along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In my own personal study of this passage, a few of things clicked together for me.
1) Capernaum was considered Jesus' home base (cf. Mt. 4:13; Mk. 2:1).
- Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen from Bethsaida, a close neighbor to Capernaum, also along the shore of Galilee (about 6 miles away). Fishermen would have been very familiar with each of the lake towns.
- Levi is a tax farmer (see below). More than likely Peter, Andrew, et. al. would have known Levi because of their fishing business.
I know that I have often imagined Jesus as this itinerant teacher, wandering around, picking people at random to be his disciples. But now I highly doubt that was the case. We're talking about very small towns in a limited geographic region. Capernaum was Jesus' home. He often took walks along the shore of the Galilee. He would have known the fishermen; the fishermen would have known the tax farmers. Jesus was most likely not choosing from a bunch of strangers but people he was familiar with and who knew each other, at least to some extent.
You can thank the predictably-inaccurate King James Version for giving us the word "publicans" instead of "tax farmers." Publicans were actually a very specific social class in Rome that would not have been in the regions of Galilee or Judea.
Tax farmers, on the other hand, were usually wealthy land owners or businessmen. They would pay Rome or a local government in advance for the taxes they expected to collect from others (meaning they were already wealthy) and then make back the money they had given to Rome by collecting tariffs on commerce in their town (with little to no regulation).
Tax farmers were a despised class, especially among Jews. The rabbis put them in the same category as murderers and adulterers. If a Jew became a tax farmer, they could no longer be a judge or a witness in a court case; they were excommunicated from the synagogue; if a tax farmer entered your home, it became ceremonially unclean.
Worst of all, tax farmers were seen as collaborating with the empire, a nearly unforgivable offense.
WHAT JESUS DID
So Jesus is in his home-town and comes across a tax farmer. What does He do?
- Jesus puts Himself in the company of the despised. He purposefully ends up at the tax booth and asks a hated member of society to be His disciple. There is both invitation and challenge in Jesus' call. There is no statement of judgment over what Levi had been doing; and yet there is still the call for Levi to get up, leave his former life behind, and follow.
- Jesus does this all in front of an audience. He starts, once again, with a quiet walk by the sea, but soon ends up with a crowd (v. 13). You better believe that the crowd wasn't too thrilled to end up near the tax farmer's booth. And you better believe that many would have been appalled at Jesus' actions of mercy and relationship-building towards Levi.
- Jesus calls the tax farmer to follow Him. "Oh and by the way, come meet my other disciples, these fishermen!" Do you think that Peter, James, John, and Andrew were all that happy about having to welcome a tax farmer into their ranks? And yet Jesus is creating a new kind of community, where even those that have every reason to hate each other share food, lodging space, and lots of quality time.
- Moreover, Jesus actually goes to Levi's house! And eats with him! For a first-century Jew, who you ate with was considered as important (if not more) than who slept with. And here's Jesus hanging out with a despised social class (tax farmers). Once again, Jesus has an audience, this time the religious authorities (scribes and Pharisees). And once again, Jesus has no concern for their critique or judgment.
- Jesus had identified a "person of peace." In other words, because of His relationship with Levi, He was soon having dinner with a bunch of Levi's friends. Because of one relationship, Jesus had unlocked the potential of a whole lot of relationships.
Firstly, as Christians, do we ever purposefully and strategically put ourselves in locations and situations where we can call others to follow Jesus? And, if we did, how much trouble would we get in? Are we hanging out in places and making friends with people that would make others doubt our salvation?
Secondly, can we identify the "tax farmers" in our lives? The folks that everyone else writes off that we maybe need to be having over for dinner?
Thirdly, who are the people of peace in our lives? The people that, when we bother to get to know them, can introduce us to their friends and their social circles?
Finally, are we ready, willing, and prepared to call people to follow Jesus? Jesus isn't walking the shores of Galilee anymore. He sent us to walk the shores and streets of our towns. Are we confident and competent enough to say to someone else, "Follow Jesus"?
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green
The Gospel of Mark, William M. Lane
Mark for Everyone, N.T. Wright
The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Craig Keener