As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. — Mark 2:14
Here in this brief scene near the start of Mark’s gospel is the whole of the Christian experience. As Jesus is walking along the seashore, he spots a tax collector on duty. A man named Levi mans his regular post. Jesus disturbs Levi at his tax booth with the sharpest two words the Tax Collector had ever heard. Follow me.
Tax collecting was the most commonly hated profession a Jewish man could hold in Jesus’s day. The taxes went to the ruling superpower, Rome, whose rule over Israel was total and harsh. Instead of collecting their taxes, themselves, the Romans would farm the unpopular job out to locals within nationalities they had so definitively conquered. So a Jewish Tax Collector would mediate the heavy taxation of his kinsmen to pad the power of the Roman Empire. That the Son of God would choose—remember, there were only twelve open spots—someone as loathed Levi is historically remarkable. Equally as remarkable, Levi got up and followed him.
Despite the security of his government job, regardless of all he didn’t know about this upstart Rabbi, and against every ounce of wisdom that warned against walking in the dust of an unproven prophet, Levi followed. We don’t know the tenor of Jesus’s “follow me.” The text doesn’t tell us if Jesus’s non-verbal communication was welcoming or that Jesus knew how to sell the idea of walking away from every life safety. Jesus’s call was simple and poignant. His invitation clear and blunt. The choice was unapologetically pressing. Levi had to get up and go or watch Jesus walk away. I imagine that the seriousness Levi heard in Jesus’s terse invite was matched only by its weight. The adventure matched by the risk. The hope by the fear. The significance of Levi’s entire existence hinged on, follow me.
Discipleship works like that. Through Jesus, God has arranged the nature of life our experience around a summons. Jesus still calls. We’re still bidden. We’re all, in one manner or another, tucked away in our tax booths. And Jesus still circles the sea of our experience, stopping not to ask, but to declare, follow me.
The influential World War II era German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, “Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” We don’t go to Jesus and offer our services. The call is unilaterally offered from the other direction. Christ’s call is as initiating as his love. He will offer. Ours is to receive. It’s when we step out from behind the booth that we become followers. Before then, we belong to ourselves, or the state, or our jobs, and thus, to no one. We’re sheep without a shepherd until we chase after him.
And this is the beginning of discipleship. That we first follow. We’re offered nothing else. This is the first and only thing Christ followers have. Follow me. No one is told the whole story on the first page. The arc of Levi’s life with Jesus isn’t revealed to him in “follow me.” Levi had to abandon everything to heed the only thing offered him. Follow me. Jesus would go on to tell Levi the whole of what following him meant. Jesus would keep pouring into this Tax Collector left his booth and emptied himself of everything but walking with the Christ. Levi would move from that first charge “follow me” to the final commandment, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”. But the entire time between bore the weight of that first moment by the sea with Jesus.
With Christ, where it starts is where it ends. And the journey between, which Levi would come to know so profoundly, is the beginning and the end. The life of the disciple is found at his birth. And the last, greatest lesson is there in the initial invitation— “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”