Mention the Internal Revenue Service of the United States to a U.S. citizen, and it is likely that some joke at the expense of the IRS or a complaint about tax rates will soon follow. It seems that nobody really likes the taxman, who often appears as the enemy even in works of fiction. One can think of the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham who exploits the people through unjust, heavy taxation in the Robin Hood stories.
In first-century Palestine, tax collectors were not looked upon with any more affection than these other examples. Actually, they were seen with even more disdain. First-century tax collectors represented the Roman Empire, which occupied and governed the Promised Land—illegitimately so, in the view of much of the Jewish populace. Tax collectors attained their posts by bidding against other applicants and competing for who could promise Rome the most revenue. The winning bidder would then take more from the people than he needed to fulfill his bid, keeping the difference. The add-on sum for his own pockets could be quite excessive. Because of their association with Gentile governance, Jews who served as tax collectors did not tend to be very observant of the Mosaic law. Ancient Jewish records outside the Bible report that tax collectors were kicked out of the synagogue, could not serve in the legal system as a judge or witness, and were seen as disgraces by their families.
So, when Levi the son of Alphaeus, better known to us as Matthew, the author of the first canonical gospel, saw Jesus approaching him that day long ago on the shore of Galilee, he likely did not expect the Lord to call him to discipleship. But our Savior did. As in His call of Andrew, Peter, James, and John (Mark 1:16–20), Christ did not ask Levi if he was interested in serving Him. Jesus commanded Levi to become His disciple, and Levi obeyed immediately (2:13–14).
The lesson for us is that our Lord may call those to ministry who at the time of their call seem to be the unlikeliest of candidates. And He does so in order to show us divine grace. John Calvin, in his comments on the parallel account of Levi’s call in Matthew 9, writes, “This publican, who followed an occupation little esteemed and involved in many abuses, was selected for additional reasons, that he might be an example of Christ’s undeserved goodness, and might show in his person that the calling of all of us depends not on the merits of our own righteousness, but on his pure kindness.”