Once upon a time in a land not far from our own, there was a tidy, well-manicured neighborhood. Its residents kept the streets clean, lawns trimmed, and standards high. Each house-hold had two kids, two parents, a dog or cat, and a goldfish. They walked their dogs and waved at the mail carrier and turned out their lights by 10:00 p.m. They enjoyed their quiet lives. But then their tranquility was turned upside down. A man bought the brick house on the corner of Oak and Elm. A single man. Not a family. Not a couple. A single man by the name of Levi.
Levi, as it turned out, drove a Corvette, souped up and top down. Levi, as it turned out, mowed his lawn bare chested. Levi, as it turned out, installed a pool and a deck and a grill and an outdoor sound system. While the rest of the neighbors were winding down for the evening, Levi was cranking it up.
He had parties. His friends came from the seedy side of town. They drove jacked-up pickups and low-riding Chevys. The men wore Dingo boots and tattoos. The women wore tight tank tops. Some men had six-packs for abs; others arrived with six-packs in their hands. They all talked too loud, drank too much, and partied too late into the night.
On Sunday mornings when the fine people of the fine neighborhood drove to church, they looked at the beer cans strewn on the front lawn of the new neighbor and said to their kids, “That man needs Jesus.”
And so Jesus came. He walked into the neighborhood and onto the street. He went from house to house asking if anyone had time to talk, play dominoes, or grill burgers.
But who had time for such folly? They had their work and curfews and chores. No one had time for Jesus. No one, that is, except the guy on the corner of Oak and Elm. The guy with the loud car and loud friends. He had time.
Jesus knocked on Levi’s door, and Levi invited him in for supper. The two hit it off. They hung out, told jokes, and discussed life. Eventually Levi told Jesus about his sordid past. Jesus told Levi about forgiveness and the future. Levi asked, “Even for me?” Jesus smiled. “Yes, especially for someone like you.”
One day Jesus paid him a special visit and gave him this offer: “‘Follow me!’ So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 5:27–28 NCV).
Levi. Better known as Matthew: Matthew the apostle, the gospel writer, the first-generation follower of Jesus. But before he was Matthew, he was Levi. Before he was stained glass, he was stained merchandise. Before he helped write the Bible, he helped himself to the pockets and purses of his countrymen.
Matthew was a public tax collector, a Jew who worked for the Roman IRS. The emperor allowed tax collectors to collect a duty on anything and everything. As long as Rome got its part, the revenuers could take as much as they wanted. They did. They got rich by making people poor. On their walls was a framed mission statement: “Get all you can and can all you get.”
That’s how Matthew could afford the Corvette and the parties. That’s why he was brash and wild. He’d long since swapped his dignity and self-respect for a fat wallet and fast car. He was never invited to neighborhood cookouts, never included in the high school reunions. People whispered as he walked past, “That’s Levi, the leech.” He was a scoundrel, a hustler, slicker than the belly of a snake. He was a tax collector.
Jesus, however, saw potential in Matthew. Matthew saw redemption in Jesus. So when Jesus made the offer, Matthew took it. He joined Jesus’ ragtag band of disciples.
But even though Matthew had a new life, he couldn’t forget his old friends. He missed the gang. For sure their language was salty and morals were loose. They hung out at gentlemen’s clubs and spent weekends at the casinos. They dressed slick, drank too much, and lived too fast, but Matthew had a heart for them. One day he told Jesus, “I like your crew. I like Peter, John, and the others, but I really miss Billy Bob and Bubba Joe and Betty Sue . . .”
Jesus said, “Let me tell you something. To be my friend doesn’t mean you can’t be their friend. I’d love to meet them.”
Matthew perked up. “You would? They aren’t the churchgoing type. They aren’t welcome in the synagogues.”
“No problem. Neither am I. How about throwing a party? We’ll get both groups together—Peter and Thomas and Billy Bob and Bubba Sue.”
“Actually his name is Bubba Joe. But that’s a great idea.”
Matthew called the caterer and made a guest list. “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them” (Luke 5:29 NIV).
This wasn’t a simple backyard barbecue. It was a great banquet with a large crowd. Fancy wine. Maître d’s. Food on every table, guests in every corner. And not just any guests but a curious confluence of bikers and beauties and Bible toters. The apostles intermingled with the rabble-rousers. It was the happy-hour crowd and the Sunday school class at the same party.
Jesus was thrilled.
The religious leaders, however, were riled.
They were called the Pharisees. Their moniker came from an Aramaic word meaning one who is separate.1 They were all about separating themselves from sinners. Holiness, by their definition, meant cloisters, quarantines, and isolation. Good people—God’s people—circle up their wagons. They don’t chum with bad people.
When the Pharisees got wind of the party, they crashed it. They marched into Matthew’s house wearing scowls and frowns and holding extra-thick copies of the Bible. They pointed fingers and demanded an explanation from Jesus. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30 NIV).
Matthew’s friends groaned. They knew the drill. They knew they didn’t fit in. All their lives they’d been told, “You aren’t good enough for God.” They began to gather their things so they could leave. The party was over.
“Not so fast,” Jesus said in so many words. He stood up—if not literally, at least symbolically. He stood up for Matthew and his friends. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32 NIV).
Jesus peppered the sentence with irony. Pharisees considered themselves spiritually “healthy” and “righteous.” In actuality they were unhealthy and self-righteous. But since they did not think they were sick, they saw no need for Jesus.
Matthew and the gang, on the other hand, made room for Jesus. As a result Jesus made room for them.
Max Lucado, How Happiness Happens: Finding Lasting Joy in a World of Comparison, Disappointment, and Unmet Expectations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).
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