When the best this world can offer stops interesting you
I recently read a story about a high school janitor that I found fascinating and encouraging.
From my perspective, one of the most character-forming jobs a person can ever take on involves cleaning up after other people. Parents certainly understand this. Anyone involved in property management understands this as well. I first came to understand it when I was growing up and had to clean the floors and the meat department of my father’s grocery store. I learned it on an even deeper level when my wife and I ran a conference center. We had staff to help us, but we remained directly involved with cleaning up after guests would leave. It was an all-hands-on-deck kind of experience to get that place back in order.
Well, the janitor I read about spent the bulk of his career cleaning up other people’s messes, and he didn’t really mind it. He wasn’t married and didn’t have any children, but the others-centered attitude he cultivated while cleaning up after others developed into a form of love that few people are willing to demonstrate.
Because he didn’t have a family that he needed to financially provide for, he decided to keep his personal expenses low and his lifestyle simple so he could pay for as many young people to go to college as he possibly could. My understanding from what I read was that during his career, he funded the education of 33 people, and I believe he did it in a way that they didn’t completely know where the funding came from. He could have lived for himself like most people do, but he found greater joy in using his blessings to bless others.
When many people hear a story like that, it stands out to them because it’s so different from what we’re most commonly used to seeing in this world. There are things that this world offers that we’re often encouraged to grab hold of and aspire to continually strive after. But where does that really leave us? Will that fill the void within us or satisfy the deepest longings of our souls?
The earthly ministry of Jesus demonstrated that His aspirations were of a higher level than most of the people around Him. The people flocking to Jesus and the people who observed Him with a critical spirit primarily seemed to care about the finer things of this world without giving much thought to the deeper needs of the soul. But Jesus, through the words He taught and the actions that He took, attempted to show the world of that time that there’s a better way to live that’s anchored to a higher level of belief.
One such person who came to understand what Jesus was trying to show him was Levi, a tax collector.
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)
I don’t know too many people who get excited about paying taxes. I think most of us realize that taxation has the potential to fund governmental operations and public works, but because most taxation systems in the history of the world have been routinely abused, it’s hard to find many people who enjoy being taxed. The people who seem to celebrate taxation most are those who are being enriched by the system at the expense of others. That was true during Levi’s time just as much as it is during ours.
The Scripture tells us that Levi was a tax collector whom Jesus passed by when He was going back and forth between Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. It’s highly likely that Levi was a wealthy man. Most tax collectors who worked for the Roman government were because, in addition to the fair commission they were allowed to take from the taxes they collected, they often overcharged people so they could pocket the proceeds.
The Jewish people resented being cheated in this way. Not only did they despise being subjected to Roman rule, they also resented being forced to give the money they earned to a government that didn’t align with their values, views, and aspirations.
They found it particularly distasteful when one of their own, a Jewish man like Levi, chose to work for the Roman government in this way. When a Jewish man during that era willingly took on the role of becoming a tax collector, he was essentially ostracized from the community. His family and friends would avoid him because of the shame he brought upon them. He was also excommunicated from the local synagogue. Such a man was treated like an outcast among his own people because his loyalties demonstrated that he valued riches over relationships and dishonest gain over faithful loyalty.
So while Levi was wealthy, he was also probably lonely and used to being despised and rejected. Most people didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and I suspect Levi was gradually starting to realize that trading relationships for dishonest gain just wasn’t worth it. I also suspect that Levi never thought his reputation could be recovered or renewed. But Jesus demonstrated that restoration was absolutely possible.
As Jesus passed by Levi’s tax collecting booth, he commanded him to follow Him. To the surprise of everyone but Jesus, Levi obeyed. He got up from that booth, left his career of dishonesty, and followed Jesus.
By the way, you and I have benefitted greatly from this interchange between Jesus and Levi, possibly in ways we may not have realized. Have you ever thought about the fact that many of the things we know about the earthly ministry of Jesus we know because Levi wrote them down for future generations to read? Levi had another name that you might be more familiar with. His other name was Matthew, and he was the man the Holy Spirit inspired to write the Gospel of Matthew that we find at the very beginning of the New Testament.
Stories like Levi’s fascinate me. He had what most people in this world think they need in order to be happy, but once he got it, he realized it left him feeling empty and alone. Then Jesus came along and offered Levi a new life and a chance to do something radically different. Levi went from following what this world promises will bring hope and salvation, to following the actual Savior of the world, Jesus. Levi clearly wanted others to meet Jesus as well, so he hosted a dinner.
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)
Do you ever think back to high school and wish you could do some things differently? I certainly do. I was talking about this with a friend just a few years ago. My family had dinner with her, and of course, we spent a little time reminiscing about some of our memories from our growing-up years.
During the conversation, she reminded me that when she first started attending our school, I wasn’t very nice to her. When we were both about 13 years old, our lockers were right next to each other and I used to make fun of her relentlessly. I wish that wasn’t true, but it definitely was. As I look back, I think I was projecting my own insecurities and things I didn’t like about myself onto her, but that’s not something I understood about human nature during that season of life.
Because our last names are close together in the alphabet, our lockers continued to be near each other for most of the rest of high school, and during that time, she noticed a big change in my attitude. Instead of making her feel excluded, I had a change of heart. The Lord convicted me of that behavior and helped me to gradually learn the importance of demonstrating mercy toward those who feel like they’re on the outside. She told me that she greatly appreciated that change when she observed it taking place within me as the Lord helped me to understand more about His heart and His loving nature.
When I read Levi’s story, I can only imagine how relieved he must have felt to be welcomed and included by Jesus. He was so relieved that he invited others who were feeling like social outcasts to come to a meal at his home. We’re told that a sizable group of tax collectors and others who were considered some of the most culturally sinful people were invited. This delighted Jesus but provoked the self-righteous people of the community who were looking for reasons to be critical.
The scribes of the Pharisees, a deeply religious sect of Judaism that was known for the strict adherence to man-made rules, were particularly appalled. It appears that while this meal was going on, they found a way to pull some of Jesus’ disciples aside so they could question them. They asked them point blank, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
I can’t help but wonder what was going on in their heads when they asked this. Jesus was clearly growing in popularity and prominence. Large crowds of people were coming to hear Him speak. People were spreading the word of how He taught with authority and demonstrated spiritual authority over illness, infirmity, and demonic possession. With so much going for Him, why would Jesus risk His reputation to sit down with such vile people? Why would He dare associate with tax cheats, adulterers, and people of low social standing?
What does that line of questioning reveal about the hearts of these scribes? These men clearly believed they were more righteous than others. They also judged others with severity and a lack of compassion. They lived for the praise of men and couldn’t understand why Jesus would risk His reputation to eat a meal with such people as these.
Aren’t you glad that Jesus was willing to do this? Where would we be if He wasn’t willing to associate with sinners? Where would we be if He wasn’t willing to take the form of a servant in order to lift us up? If not for His compassion, we would remain lost in sin. If not for His willingness to risk His reputation, we would have no hope. Every time He saves a lost sinner, He risks His reputation yet again because we know we still have the propensity to make Him look bad when we stumble or experience personal failures.
Jesus overheard the way the scribes were questioning His disciples so He replied in a way that we would all benefit from taking to heart. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Doesn’t that truth warm your heart? Doesn’t it bring you great relief to know it’s true?
Self-righteousness is dangerous for many reasons, but one of the most critical is the fact that the self-righteous see no need for the Savior. They’re convinced that they’re fine on their own. But those who can admit that something is wrong in their life that only Jesus can fix, find the help they need and the kind of new life that only He can provide.
As His followers, His bride, His church, let’s keep what Jesus said in mind. Let’s reject the temptation to embrace self-righteousness because the more we embrace it, the less we’ll think we need Jesus and the less likely we’ll be to show compassion to those who have yet to meet Him. By His grace, let’s keep the table open to those who feel ostracized and far off so that they can be introduced to Jesus and experience the joy of life in His presence.
© John Stange, 2023