Leaving Everything to Follow Jesus
by Jack Wald | August 18th, 2019

Luke 5:27-32

In Luke 5 we read about Jesus coming up to Peter, James, and John who were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. He called them to follow him and they (Luke 5:11)
pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

In the text for this morning, soon after Peter, James, and John began to follow Jesus, Levi left everything and followed Jesus.

I was in university, majoring in sociology and taking pre-med courses so I could apply to medical school after I graduated, when a friend asked me if I had ever prayed and asked God what he wanted to do with my life. I had begun to follow Jesus a year and a half earlier and assumed God could use a doctor, but I prayed and received a very clear and strong sense that I should go to seminary. This very clear call from Jesus turned the course of my life around, but it did not happen right away. Despite this clear sense that I should go to seminary I resisted.

One of the reasons I resisted the call of God to go to seminary was that so many of my peers were going to seminary. I resisted the call for three months. I bargained with God, offering him increasing percentages of the money I would earn as a doctor. I told God that if everyone went into the ministry, who would be left to give money to the church?

Finally one day in December when I was waiting for someone to go to lunch with me, I was praying while I waited and found myself saying, “OK, I give up. I’ll go to seminary.” I dropped my organic chemistry class, took creative writing and speaking courses, and applied to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Fortunately, not everyone leaves everything and goes to seminary. But we are all called to leave everything and follow Jesus. What does “everything” mean? The rich young ruler was called by Jesus to sell all he had, give the money to the poor, and then follow him – but Jesus did not call everyone to do that. What Jesus did do is call people to leave everything that will get in the way of following him. What everything is depends on the call of God to each person.

In this morning’s text, Jesus reaches out and calls a tax collector to follow him.

In Luke’s telling of the life and ministry of Jesus, he has told stories of Jesus’ reaching out to outcasts, men and women who were rejected by society. Jesus reached out to a leper which I preached about a couple weeks ago.

As you read the gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, it is clear that Jesus continually reached out to sinners. Sometimes they came to him and he did not reject them. Other times he took the initiative and reached out to them. He did not wait for them to come to him. He went to them.

Jesus came into this world to rescue people who were on a path that would not lead to being reconciled with God, their creator. Jesus stepped into a world populated by people who were preoccupied with themselves and called them to leave that fractured world and come to him for healing and wholeness.

In one of the parables Jesus told, a man invited guests to a grand banquet, but they all told the servant who gave them the invitation that they could not come. (Luke 14:21)
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

Notice that Jesus did not say to go to the malls and gated communities. He said to go into the streets and alleys of the town. Jesus did not come into the world to save the respectable; he came to rescue the sick and broken. It is good for us to remember the words of Eugene O’Neill who said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” The fortunate people are the ones who realize they are broken and need a savior.

Jesus came to rescue the sick and broken which stands in stark contrast with much of the church today. The church today, for the most part, seeks out the respectable and when they come into the church, the church rejoices. Respectable people are chosen to be deacons and elders. Respectable people are asked to lead the bible studies and ministries of the church. Churches want respectable people to be a part of their community and they push away those who are not respectable.

We need to hear this truth: Jesus searches for sinners, not those who think they are already saints. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and we see who some of the people in that church community were. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

“That is what some of you were.”

Think of the first years of the early church. If you could go back in time and step into a community of followers of Jesus, who are the highly respected people you would meet? There is a gracious woman, beautiful inside and out. She is wise and radiates with the joy of the Holy Spirit. You ask her name and she tells you she is Mary Magdalene. She tells you of her life when she was demon possessed and how Jesus delivered her from those demons. There are also beautiful and gracious women, wise and gifted women, who had been prostitutes. There is a man, strong and healthy, with a beaming smile, who talks about the day Jesus met him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the region of Gerasene. He had been a wild man, feared by everyone, put in chains that he would break. He had lived in a cave like an animal. And now he preaches and evangelizes, telling everyone about Jesus.

Throughout church history the gospel has come to outcasts, to the poor and the oppressed, and they have been lifted up by the power of the love of Jesus for them. The wealthy and powerful have often used the gospel for their own purposes. It is the outcasts, the poor and rejected, who have been most grateful for the new life Jesus has given them.

Not all wealthy people have behaved this way and not all outcasts have responded positively to the gospel, but if you paint with a broad brush, what I have said is true.

Let’s take a look at the text for today. First, I will help us to understand what is happening in this encounter between Jesus and Levi. Second, I will talk about seeking out the people Jesus is seeking. And then third, I will talk about the responsibility of the one who is being sought.

In Mark’s account of this encounter he writes that Jesus had been teaching and then was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he spotted Levi. In Matthew’s gospel Levi is identified as Matthew. Since both Luke and Matthew used Mark’s gospel as a resource in writing their own gospels, it is clear that Matthew changed the name of Levi to Matthew when he wrote his gospel. Perhaps Levi, when he became one of the followers of Jesus, decided he wanted a new name to go with his new calling and changed his name to Matthew. But for the rest of the sermon, since I am preaching from the text in Luke, I will be referring to Levi.

Levi did not come up to Jesus; Jesus saw Levi and went to him. Who was Levi and what was he doing?

Levi was a tax collector. In the system of collecting taxes, there was a city ruler who collected taxes to be sent to Rome. In his collection of taxes, he also had to collect more tax for his own expenses. The job of collecting taxes for the city ruler to send to Rome went to wealthy Romans who then hired tax collectors to actually collect the money. At times those tax collectors would hire others to help them, becoming head tax collectors.

There was a tax on the harvest but also indirect taxes on all items purchased or leased, a kind of sales tax. This multi-level system with each person collecting more tax than required to pay for their own expenses gave a lot of room for abuse.

Tax collectors were despised for several reasons. 1) They collected money for a foreign power that occupied the land of Israel. They were viewed as collaborators. 2) They were notoriously dishonest, growing wealthy at the expense of other people. 3) Their work involved them in regular contact with Gentiles, making them ritually unclean.

Jews excommunicated tax collectors because they regarded them as robbers. But when tax collectors came to see John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, (Luke 3:13)
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,”

John did not reject the tax collectors who came to be baptized, he simply asked them to be fair and honest in their work – which was most often not the case.

Levi was not a head tax collector like Zacchaeus who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus pass. He was a lower-level tax collector who worked for someone like Zacchaeus. He was one of the men who sat at a booth and collected taxes as people traveled from town to town.

As Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee he spotted a despised tax collector and saw something in him that made him walk up and say, “Levi, follow me.” Jesus had the ability to see into the hearts of men and women and perhaps he saw Levi’s unhappiness, boredom, and dissatisfaction with what he was doing. Perhaps Levi had heard about Jesus and longed for a different life. Perhaps Levi was tired of being despised and rejected. Perhaps Levi wanted to follow Jesus but thought that Jesus would not want to have anything to do with someone like him. Perhaps Levi saw Jesus coming and looked at him with longing in his eyes and Jesus saw that look. Whatever Jesus saw in the heart of Levi, he knew that Levi was ready to be invited.

Levi got up, left everything and followed him. 

Earlier in the chapter Luke tells us that Jesus talked with Peter, James, and John who were fishing in their boat. They had been fishing all night and had caught nothing, but Jesus told them to throw their net overboard one more time and the net was filled with fish. After this amazing demonstration of who he was, Jesus called them to follow him. (Luke 5:11)
So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

When I first read the accounts of the disciples being called to follow Jesus it seemed to me to be miraculous. I was mystified by how they responded to a stranger who asked them to follow him. It took me time to decide to submit to God after I first became aware of his presence. I did not instantly leave everything and follow him. It took time for me to think and make my decision. What happened that made the disciples instantly drop everything and follow Jesus?

I read the accounts of the disciples being called as though there was no back story, no history of the relationship between Jesus and the men he called to follow him. But now, many years later, I am convinced there was a back story, a history, that is not recorded in the gospel accounts. This is one of the reasons I like the possibility that Jesus, Peter, James, and John – and perhaps some others of the disciples of Jesus – had all been disciples of John the Baptist before Jesus began his own public ministry. Before Jesus called them to follow him they knew who Jesus was. They probably knew what John had said about Jesus after his baptism. Jesus was not a stranger to them. It makes more sense to me that there was some history before Jesus called them to follow him.

In Levi’s case, I would guess that he had been thinking of following Jesus, was attracted to Jesus, but hesitated because he knew that in the minds of religious Jews, he was a despised sinner. He wanted to follow but felt trapped in his situation. Levi sat at his booth, saw Jesus coming, looked up and wished in his heart that it would be possible for him to be set free, just as lepers had been set free by Jesus.

So when Jesus went up to Levi and told him, “Follow me,” it was an easy decision. Levi was ready. Levi was so overjoyed that he invited Jesus to a banquet so all his friends could hear from Jesus themselves.
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.

Levi was so excited that he threw a party so his friends could hear the good news from Jesus just as he had heard the good news. What was the good news? Sinners are welcome in the kingdom of God.

There were tax collectors at the party; who were the other sinners? They were people who would not normally expect to have contact with a religious dignitary like Jesus. It is not specified who they were, but they were not the moral upper crust of society. Pharisees regarded contact with these people, eating and drinking with them, as inappropriate.

Just the presence of Jesus at the party, a rabbi with a growing reputation, was healing for these people who suffered as outcasts in Jewish society. They were shamed by the religious elite and the presence of Jesus restored honor to them. It would be expected when Jesus came to a town that one of the Pharisees would have him eat at his house. But, amazingly, Jesus chose to eat with them.

This is one reason why the gospel has had such a powerful effect on the poor and oppressed populations of the world. The lowest caste in India, the untouchables, are used to being treated with disrespect. When the gospel comes they are set free from the caste system. This is good news of great joy. They are eager for this good news and embrace it far more than in the other castes of Indian society.

The wealthy and powerful are not so eager to hear the good news of the gospel. They are already receiving earthly rewards. Their religious system is working for them and they do not think they need Jesus.

The Pharisees pushed away these outcasts as being unclean; Jesus embraced them. Despite the impression this made on the religious leaders, Jesus sought out sinners to bring into his kingdom.

Jesus was not concerned with his reputation. He did not come into the world to win a popularity contest. Jesus came into the world to rescue people and bring them into the eternal kingdom of God.

So the Pharisees, at some point after the party, voiced their criticism.
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

The Pharisees were not mean people who enjoyed pushing people away. They were zealous for the law of Moses. Religious purity was the pathway to God. When Paul defended himself to the Jews in the temple in Jerusalem who wanted to kill him, he said, (Acts 22:3)
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.

The Pharisees were zealous for the law as the pathway to God and so they were offended when they saw a rabbi, a man respected by many Jews, breaking those laws by eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. He was making himself ritually unclean and did not seem to be concerned about it.

Jesus’ response did not directly answer their concern. They wanted to know why he was not obeying the law of Moses. The law of Moses was what they believed saved us. What they did not understand was that Jesus, not the law, was the way to salvation. So,
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

What is sad and what broke the heart of Jesus is that the Pharisees did not realize they were themselves sinners who needed to repent. This is why Jesus spoke so harshly to them, trying to wake them up to the truth.

There are too many Christians today who are like the Pharisees. When I was a young pastor my neighbor’s garage was the setting for his friends to get together, drink beer, and play cards. These were hunting and fishing, women chasing, fun-loving, hard drinking, Vietnam War veterans who worked in the steel mills and coal mines. Occasionally they would pull out of their freezers venison (deer meat), squirrels, rabbits, fish and other wildlife they had shot or caught. The food was grilled and was delicious. I called these events “protein feeds” since we consumed so much fish and meat. Since I limited myself to two beers, I developed a reputation as an expert card player, having the advantage of being sober when I was playing.

After some time my neighbor and six or seven of his friends agreed to meet with me to read and talk about Jesus’ encounters with people in the gospels. They may have gone to church as children and married in a church, but had not been in church for years. Over the course of several weeks we read the accounts and then discussed what we learned about Jesus from the way he interacted with these men and women.

Some of the women in the church learned that I was doing this and let me know that they were upset and did not want these kind of people coming to their church. These men were not respectable and did not belong in a church like ours, they said.

I was furious and preached a sermon from Amos 4 (Amos 4:1–2)
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”
The Sovereign Lord has sworn by his holiness:
“The time will surely come
when you will be taken away with hooks,
the last of you with fishhooks.

I would like to go back and preach that sermon again. I would have been more direct but also more loving in what I said. In any case, the sermon I preached went over their heads and nothing changed.

When I left to move back to Boston, these men I met with are the ones I missed the most.

The men I was meeting with were precisely the kind of people who belonged in our church. They understood that they were sinners in need of a savior. Some of the women in the church viewed themselves as being so morally superior that I imagine they thought that when they arrived in heaven, the moral standard of the citizens of heaven would rise.

I was furious with the response of some of the women to the evangelistic study I had with these men, but the truth is that we fall into that trap ourselves.

We get excited when a respectable man or woman, or a respectable couple with nice children arrive in our church. In contrast, Jesus and the angels in heaven celebrate when a sinner comes to church. God’s grace shines in the outcasts who come into the family of God. Angels in heaven celebrate the grace of God who makes sinners whole. An outcast who comes into the family of God shines with a bright light that proclaims the marvelous, wonderful, saving love of Jesus.

I have had the privilege of knowing respectable people in our church who once lived lives like the prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with her tears. I have known men and women in our church who lived lives of desperation, addicted to drugs and being sexually promiscuous. I have known wonderful followers of Jesus in our church who had been robbers and thieves. The people in the church in Corinth Paul mentions have also been members of our church community over the years.

Oscar Wilde wrote: The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all have a past and because we understand that and have reached out to Jesus, we all have a future.

At the end of this sermon, let me take a brief look at the other side of this encounter. Levi left everything to follow Jesus.

What did he leave? He left his source of income. He left the lifestyle he had been living. He left the life he had become accustomed to.

What about his tax collector friends? Did they also leave everything behind and follow Jesus? We don’t know. But what we do know is that Jesus passed by many tax collectors and he did not go up to all of them and tell them to come follow him. Why not? Why was Jesus selective in who he asked to follow him?

Last week Elliot preached from John 5 and the account of the man lying by the side of a pool.
(John 5:1–6)
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. [4] 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

There were a great number of disabled people lying by the pool: the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. Why did Jesus not say to everyone, “You are healed. Pick up your mats and walk.” He went up to one man among the many who were there and he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

On the face of it, this is a stupid question. Why would the man come there everyday for thirty-eight years if he did not want to get well? And the answer is what Elliot said last week, “dysfunction becomes the normal.”

In a movie titled, “Shawshank Redemption”, a man, Brooksy, who has been in prison for fifty years, from age 23 to age 73, is paroled and begins living in the outside world. He has a difficult time adjusting to all the freedoms and after a few months hangs himself in his room.

The other inmates discuss his case and one of the older inmates says that the problem is that Brooksy became institutionalized. He became so used to living in prison with all the restrictions of prison life, that he could not live outside of the prison where he had to take care of himself.

This is why, I think, Jesus asked the man if he wanted to get well. Did the man want to get up, pick up his mat, and walk away? Was he willing to begin taking the responsibility to work and provide food for himself and others in his household? For thirty-eight years food had been brought to him, clothing had been given to him, his needs had been taken care of. Now he would have to begin doing these things for himself. So Jesus had to ask, “Do you want to get well?”

Levi left his job, left his friends who did not want to follow Jesus, and began a new life with Jesus, with new friends, new responsibilities.

Jesus did not call every tax collector to come follow him because he knew in their heart they were not willing to leave everything to follow him. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give the money to the poor because he looked into his heart and saw the rich young ruler’s attachment to his wealth.

We are all sinners in need of a savior, but not everyone is ready to be saved. We want to work with Jesus as he seeks to rescue the lost. We were created to be with God for eternity in his kingdom and it breaks the heart of God when people choose to resist or defy him, but God will not force us. We must choose freely and willingly, and some will choose to resist.

When we help others, reach out to outcasts, the poor and oppressed, we need discernment. What is in the heart? We see many needy people, but who among them is willing to leave everything and follow Jesus? I don’t mean by this that we should not feed the hungry, help those who have nothing. We should do this, but when we help someone who is needy, when we begin a relationship with someone who is needy, we need to pray for discernment. Otherwise, all our energy and time can get sucked up by someone who does not want to change, but is just trying to see how much they can get out of us.

We see many needy people, but who among them is willing to leave everything and follow Jesus? Who is willing to give up their manipulation and deceit and follow Jesus? Who wants a new life and who just wants to get what they can from the person who is offering to help them? Over my years in Rabat I have had many relationships with people trying to smuggle themselves into Spain. Some of these people were honorable people and I enjoyed my relationship with them. But I spent too much time and energy with others whose goal was getting to Spain, not following Jesus. They worshiped getting to Spain, not God. They used God and worshiped Spain.

We need to have compassion and act on our compassion, but we need to be wise with how we use the resources we have. Out time, money, possessions are all limited. Jesus used discernment; we need to do the same.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 7:6)
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

For the followers of Jesus there is nothing more holy than the gospel. This message is to be offered to all, but there is a limit to the time that is to be given to those who are not interested or who use it to advance their own self interests.

In one of his parables Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a pearl. (Matthew 13:44-46) The kingdom of God is a pearl, to be preached to all, but when Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the gospel, he instructed them (Luke 9:5)
If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.

We are called to take the gospel out into the world, but when it is rejected or used for personal gain, we are called to move on to others who are open to the truth and life of the gospel.

Jesus was a teacher. He taught wherever he went. He was eager to tell people the truths of the kingdom of God, but when he was taken to Herod, he refused to say a word. (Luke 23:9) Paul preached to the Jews in Corinth for a time, but in the face of persistent rejection and hostility, he turned away and moved out of the synagogue to teach the Gentiles.

Let Jesus be your model. Be generous with your time and resources. See people with the eyes of Jesus and care for them as Jesus cared for people. Pray for insight as you seek those who are interested in hearing about Jesus.

When you sense they are not interested in the gospel, but only want to see what they can get from you, move on. There are others who need to hear Jesus’ words of life.

Who do you identify with in this story? Are you feeling like Levi, trapped in your situation, feeling unworthy of being accepted because of what you have done, because of what you are doing? Jesus is calling you to come and follow him. There is grace and forgiveness with Jesus. He is asking you to leave everything behind and seek him above all other people and things. Are you willing to leave everything and follow him? Then come to him and receive the riches of heaven.

How much do you need the love of Jesus in your life? How lost would you be if you did not have Jesus? Cling to him. What is there in your life that competes with your relationship with Jesus? Leave everything and follow him.

Do you want to work with Jesus in his rescue mission in this world? Pray for discernment. Reach out to those whose hearts are being prepared for the invitation to follow Jesus. Reach out to anyone who is ready to hear the good news of Jesus. Look in the alleys as well as the main streets of life. Look for treasure under the glittering images people project. Look for treasure under the less respectable images people project. Look for anyone who has a heart open to Jesus.