I wonder how the other disciples felt when Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, to become one of the twelve. I can imagine them rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and thinking, “What is he doing? If he wants this movement to go anywhere, why would he choose someone who will be distrusted and even hated by the people because of his association with Roman oppression? This is not going to make our life any easier!” Some of them – maybe all of them – must have questioned Jesus’ judgment. I doubt that Levi was a popular choice.
Maybe you can think of someone in your life that you would just as soon not have in your life: an obnoxious co-worker, perhaps, or a constantly complaining neighbor, or an impossible boss, or a disreputable or embarrassing relative. Maybe you’ve found yourself wanting to distance yourself from them. Perhaps you find yourself thinking, “My life would be so much easier if he didn’t work here, or if she wasn’t part of this committee, or if I didn’t have to deal with them.”
But they’re there, and somehow you’ll have to cope, just as the apostles had to cope with the addition of Levi to the inner circle. There’s a rather disturbing sentence in our community’s Rule of Life that reads, “The first challenge of community life is to accept wholeheartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will.” It’s not always easy to do.
Jesus must have seen something in this tax collector that wasn’t obvious to the others. I imagine they were caught up with the label he bore – tax collector – and wondered what having a tax collector in such a prominent position would mean for the group’s unity and for the effectiveness of their witness. But Jesus was able to see Levi in a new way, a way that looked beyond the label and saw him not as he was, but as he could be.
I once lived next to a young couple whose hobby was collecting antique furniture. On Saturday mornings they would often head off to a local flea-market to search for treasures. I was always amazed at the junk they brought home. I couldn’t imagine why they wanted it. But then they would set to work – stripping off layers of paint, re-aligning drawers, re-attaching broken legs, sanding and scraping and refinishing. And in the end, the piece of “junk” they’d started with had become a magnificent piece of antique furniture. They had an uncanny ability to see the potential in something that someone else had discarded as worthless.
I think this is the gift that Jesus gave to Levi. He gave him a chance to be who he truly was, to become something he could not have imagined himself to be. He gave him a chance to step out of an old role, to discard a label, and to become someone new. He gives this same gift to us. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” writes St Paul, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Cor. 5:17)
It’s a challenge to see others with fresh eyes, particularly when we’ve become so accustomed to the labels we’ve assigned them. But it’s also a great gift that we can give them – to see them anew; to see them as God sees them, full of potential and possibility. This is the way God has looked on us – as sinners worth redeeming, as junk worth saving. With God’s help, we can give to others the same gift that we have received.
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