We continue our lectio divina by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
One of the defining elements of the gospel narratives is Jesus’ relationship with his disciples – and it begins in the various ‘calls’ which he issues. The call of Levi – whom we know more commonly as Matthew, the tax collector – is no different. It has all of Mark’s breathless brevity: encounter – call – response. And yet it is set within a narrative context which shows Jesus fully engaged with the various people who accompany him, and whom he calls into his company.
The little passage begins with Jesus teaching. We might almost say that this is Jesus’ default position – the teacher who engages with those who have a mind to learn from him. And this, of course, is the heart of discipleship – the attitude of one who wants to learn from a master. Only when ‘learning’ has become the root of this relationship can ‘following’ (what we usually say discipleship is) happen. The learning which characterises the disciple of Jesus is not one subject to a set syllabus or specification delivered over so many semesters – Jesus’ disciples know that learning from him never ends, that it is a programme for life, and that it becomes more intense and more necessary the closer we draw to him. In Christianity there are no gurus – no one, except Christ, possesses the fullness of truth, because he is the Truth. This is the great irony of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, as John relates it to us in his Gospel (John 18:28-40, and especially verses 37-38). Pilate asks: Truth? What is that? But the question is not ‘what?’ but ‘who?’ In fact, Truth stands before him but is masked by his fear, a fear which makes the movement of the Holy Spirit redundant for him in that moment. The true disciple sees truth laid bare in the person of Jesus, and that truth is a well of living water which never dries up but invites us, again and again, to drink from it.
Frequently, for many, the truth to which Jesus bears witness can be too much to take. We still, within ourselves, want to assert that ‘I know better’, and ‘I’ll do what I know is best for me’. Christ’s truth is one which comes to life through real sacrifice of self, as he shows us, and so it is not a truth which changes according to circumstances and demands and agendas. This is a reality which rarely dawns on us, fully, in a single moment. It often takes a lifetime of our experience, and seeing life through the experiences of others, before we can do this.
But, in this moment in our lectio, Christ asks us to filter the many ‘truths’ which clammer for attention in our world and in ourselves, to see which, with him at the centre, ring true! And from whom, or what, do I receive words which give life, teachings to live by and from?
With all of this as the background, Jesus calls Levi. There’s no suggestion that Levi has been part of the crowd listening to Jesus, or indeed that Jesus means anything at all to him. He’s sitting at the customs house – where money was changed – getting on with whatever he did.
If he is Matthew the tax collector, then Levi has a job which was despised by the Jews. Working for the Romans as part of their provincial infrastructure, and gathering taxes from his own people, while expected by his imperial masters to ‘skim of the top’ to keep his own wage healthy, he could not have had many friends. But throwing his lot in with a wandering preacher and teacher could not have presented itself as an automatically better option. So, what moved Levi to hear the call, in the first instance, to follow, and then to respond so wholeheartedly? We shouldn’t ignore the fact that, as Mark has told us, Jesus was a person whose very presence and voice and word expressed his authority. His call to Levi isn’t a command – it’s not framed by an ‘or else’ clause! And yet something in the invitation – and this is what it is – hooks Levi’s ear and heart. Whatever else was going on in Levi’s life we get the impression that he was waiting for this call, this invitation, this opportunity to change and embrace a new way of living.
And so, having heard, he responds, and gets up, and follows.
For us – is there a deep call, coming from Christ, to you, made personally, to get up from what you are doing, and which doesn’t reflect who you really are, to leave behind, and go after Christ? How this new discipleship is expressed has to be pinned down to a specific way of life. But hearing and acknowledging his call to you is the first step.
The call to Levi makes an immediate change. We switch scenes to Levi’s house, a dinner, with Jesus present, and a fairly colourful collection of society’s ragtag rejects! Tax collectors and sinners – the people who guarantee that Jesus won’t have friends in high places! Of these people the French painter Georges Rouault wrote, when reflecting on the inspiration for his own work:
“Deep down within the most unfriendly, unpleasant and impure creature, Jesus dwells”.Georges Rouault
So, Jesus is fully with these people, and, becoming part of their circle by welcoming them into his circle, lives among them, and at an existential and profoundly essential way, lives within them. Christ here plays host to Christ.
With every meal in the gospels at which Christ presides or at which he is present there is a deeply eucharistic character. He is at the meal and he is the meal! He welcomes and he feeds. Indeed, he has already been doing this for these men and women – having fed them with the word of his word, the bread of his teaching, he now feeds them with the meat of his presence, a presence which is unique and which makes them into something new. In his acceptance of them as they are, he forms them already into ‘church’, which only comes about when Christ is truly present in the fullness of his self-gift. They – messy in the midst of their monotony – know in their profound need how to give thanks for what they have not had and which they now receive. And this giving thanks is truly eucharistic.
How do I give thanks for the gift which is given and which I take for granted? Can I, even in my own messiness, bring myself to a Jesus who waits, who knows me already, and yet who still welcomes?
And how do I welcome Jesus in the other and celebrate his presence? In this, the overcoming of judgement and prejudice is always a challenge, and the scribes of the Pharisees party are lurking somewhere, within me, to criticise and denigrate.
The present moment is already a time when we look for healing, recognising our many sicknesses, physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological. Often, we wait until things have reached a crisis point in our own lives before we act to ask for help. Perhaps that is part of our broken humanity – that we have to descend to the lowest point of the pit before grace takes a hold of us, and we, in turn, take hold of grace. To hear Jesus’ words newly spoken in our hearts at that moment may be the way to new life – ‘I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners’.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-