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The Most Hated Man in Capernaumby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
James J. Tissot, 'The Calling of Saint Matthew' (1886-1896), gouache on gray wove paper, 10-1/4 x 6-5/8 in, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
On a normal day, the most hated man in Capernaum sees hundreds of people go by his tax booth on the road out of town. Most pass without a word -- unless it is a curse. But when Levi spots a loaded donkey headed east, he bounds from the shade of his stand to demand that its owner unpack. If it's wool or dried fish, hides or grain they're transporting for sale -- or anything else -- he forces them to pay the tax.
Nor is it a light tax, maybe 4% on whatever Levi declares to be the value. Levi is flexible, of course, the most important factor being, how much can he force that merchant to pay. Once he announces the tax, he doesn't accept a denarius less. To keep his tax license, for his part, Levi must pay a fixed amount each week to the chief tax collector. Whatever he can collect over this, is his to keep. And Levi collects a lot!
A merchant refuses to pay? Levi calls in the nearby soldiers and confiscates his goods on the spot. He is merciless. Few argue these days; just pay up and hurry away lest he change his mind.
Levi is one small cog in the wheel that enables the hated oppressors to suck the Israelites dry to enrich Caesar in far-away Rome. It is no exaggeration to say that Levi is the most hated man in all of Capernaum.
But Levi has been acting strangely. After hours he has been attending the open-air meetings held by the Nazarene teacher Jesus. Throngs pushing and shoving so they can see a genuine miracle -- a blind man healed, a lame man walk again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that no one in all Galilee wants to miss.
Levi loves to listen to Jesus. One story he can't get out of his mind. Of a prodigal son who leaves home and squanders his father's wealth with wine, women, and song. When he finally returns broke, it is not to resume his place as son, but to be a farm hand, that's his plan. But the old father sees him, runs to him, and embraces him. The son protests: "I'm not worthy." But the father insists, "You were dead, son, but now you're alive! Come up to the house. We're going to have a grand celebration." Your Heavenly Father forgives like that, Jesus says.
One sweltering day, Levi sits in the shade of his tax booth when he sees a man he recognizes coming up the road -- Jesus, the Teacher. Levi stands up and steps outside. They look at one another for a long moment, Levi and the Master. And then Jesus breaks into a broad smile, extends his hand, and speaks only two words: "Follow me!"
Levi freezes, then falls to his knees. "Master," he says, "you don't know me. You don't know what kind of man I am. I am not worthy!"
"I know exactly the kind of man you are," says Jesus, pulling him to his feet, "and you're exactly the man I'm looking for."
Levi wipes away his tears with the back of his hand. He doesn't know what to say. "Okay," he ventures. Jesus nods. Then he blurts out, "Yes, Master. If you want me, I'll follow you anywhere!" And then, almost as an afterthought, "By the way, Jesus, would you do me the honor of coming to my house tonight for a party? I'd like you to meet some of my friends."
"I was hoping you would ask," chuckles Jesus. "Now come along. We've got places to go."
Levi closes the door to the tax booth and locks it for the last time. He walks away from a most lucrative "trade," if you could call it that, in exchange for a life that depends upon people's charity. But he doesn't care anymore. He is beaming as he follows Jesus along the way.
At the appointed hour his house is full of guests. Not the elite of Capernaum, mind you. They are the rejects, the cheaters, the drunkards, the ladies whose husbands have divorced them for adultery. They are all there, along with a couple of thieves and a few notorious highwaymen.
The food is plentiful, the wine flows, and Jesus seems to be enjoying himself immensely. One by one, he wins over Levi's friends with his genuine warmth and ready smile.
There's harsh knock at the door. It's a band of self-appointed judges, the local Pharisees. "We want to talk with Jesus," they demand gruffly.
He goes to the door.
"Holy Man," they say with deep sarcasm, "why do you eat with these tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus smiles. "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. I haven't come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Won't you come in?"
The leader stammers to reply, but Jesus has gone back to the table and his new friends clamor around him once more.
It is a joyous celebration at Levi's house that extends far into the night. Sounds of laughter spill out of Levi's windows, and roll down the streets of the town where neighbors peer out and wonder. For inside Levi's house, the Doctor is at work, and he is in the process of healing and forgiving. And that night, he restores the joy of the most unlikely people you can imagine, including one joyous taxman named Levi, newly out-of-work.
The story is fictionalized, but you probably recognize it from the Gospel accounts in Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; and Luke 5:27-32. Churches and religious organizations may use this story in services and publications so long as the copyright info is included: "Copyright 2020, Ralph F. Wilson. All rights reserved. Used by permission."
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