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4. The call of Matthew (Levi) and his reception in honor of Jesus (Mark 2:13-17 ; Matt. 9:9-13 ; Luke 5:27-37) .
Jesus went out from the house of Peter to walk by the seaside. He needed a brief rest after the sharp conflict with His astute and stubborn enemies. This walk on the beach was a favorite haunt of His. There was place for physical recuperation in the salt-laden breezes and for quiet meditation and prayer after the heated debate. Soon the crowd was gathering about Him again. We do not know how many days of strenuous activity He had in the ministry by the sea before the call .of Levi. It may have been many days; but possibly it was on that same day that He passed by and "saw the son of Alpheus," who may have been the father of James the Less, also later of the Apostolic group.
Levi was a custom-house official. The Talmud distinguishes between the tax collector and the custom house official. The Gabbai collected the regular real estate and income taxes and the poll tax; the Mockhes, the duty on imports, exports, toll on roads, bridges, the harbor, the town tax, and a great multiplicity of other variable taxes on an unlimited variety of things, admitting of much abuse and graft. The very word Mockhes was associated with the idea -of oppression and injustice. The taxes in Judea were levied by publicans, who were Jews, and therefore hated the more as direct officials of the heathen Roman power. Levi occupied the detestable position of a publican of the worst type --a little Mockhes, who himself stood in the Roman custom-house on the highway connecting Damascus and Ptolemais, and by the sea where all boats plied between the domains of Antipas and Philip. The name "publican," which applied to these officials, is derived from the :Latin word publicanus a man who did public duty. The Jews detested these publicans not only on account of their frequent abuses and tyrannical spirit, but because the very taxes they were forced to collect by the Roman government were a badge of servitude and a constant reminder that God had forsaken His people and land in spite of the Messianic hope, founded on many promises of the ancient prophets. The publicans were classed by the people with harlots, usurers, gamblers, thieves, and dishonest herdsmen, who lived hard, lawless lives. They were just "licensed robbers" and "beasts in human shape."
According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a man like Levi. He was excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue. His money was considered tainted and defiled anyone who accepted it. He could not serve as a witness. The Rabbis had no word of help for the publican, because they expected him by external conformity to the law to be justified before God.
The attitude of Jesus toward the publican was in complete contrast to that of the Rabbis. He had come to seek and save the lost. The Pharisees were separatists, and did not deign to have anything to do with a publican, who was to them no better than a Gentile. But Jesus came not to condemn a whole class or any individuals, but to save every sinner to a better life. He refused to admit that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government, while that continued supreme and maintained order in the land. Why was it wrong to collect the tax? Even though Levi and his colleagues .of the custom-house had been extortioners, Jesus would fling open the door of repentance and salvation to them. He despaired of none, not even the worst.
Jesus made himself a friend of men, even of the publicans and the worst of sinners. By doing this, He "made Himself of no reputation" so far as the elite society was concerned. But He was a friend of all classes, the rich and the poor, the learned and the illiterate, the good and the bad.
Capernaum, being located on the Via Maris and being a busy populous center, had a large custom-house with a correspondingly large number of tax-gatherers.