Preparing to teach my 4-year-old Sunday School class about when Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple, the only Scripture reference in the lesson was Matthew 6:9: And as Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office; and He said to him, Follow Me!” And he rose, and followed Him.
Looking for more details on this event, I read Luke 5:27: And after that He went out, and noticed a tax-gatherer named Levi, sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me.”
These two scriptures prompted two questions: What would make a Jew become a hated tax-gatherer? What would make a man respond so promptly to follow a strange teacher, even if He is the Son of God?
I thought, there must be more to this story, a lot more. After considerable research, I imagined how the events might have happened. This narrative was born out of that imagining.
“Is this all you have?” Levi scanned the baskets of small fish.
Simon scowled. “No. We made a huge haul last night, but I’m keeping that for myself. I’m only selling you these puny ones because I feel sorry for you.”
Levi did not appreciate Simon’s sarcasm. The man poured the fish into Levi’s baskets while he counted out coins from the leather purse under his tunic.
“Hurry and get them to market. We came ashore just before daybreak,” the man offered.
Levi nodded, picked up the handles of his cart, and headed back to town. The sun, pink on the horizon over the lake, would warm quickly, but there were twelve hours before Sabbath. He would have no problem selling them today, although he could already hear the complaints about the price. James would probably complain too, but they had to eat, same as everyone else. When everyone demands fish and there are no fish, merchants can make more money. It’s not cheating, as James would argue—it’s business. And good business. That’s what Papa would say. If he were here to say it.
Levi turned off the dirt path and onto the hard-packed ground of the main road. The wheels of his wagon creaked and bumped along. He nodded and smiled at anyone he passed, blessing them with “Shalom Shabbat.” A familiar shadow crept up on his right.
“Shalom Shabbat, Levi!” shouted Reuben, who also pulled a truck of small fish. “We should do well today, heh? The sabbath tonight and lots of travelers today—what could be better?” Levi smiled and nodded as he lumbered along. “First one to market is a fresh fish!” Rueben quickened his pace.
“I prefer slow and steady, Rueben. I learned that lesson years ago! Remember?” Levi laughed and watched Rueben gaining distance on him. Papa certainly had not laughed that day when the boys were racing back from the fishing boats and Levi stumbled, spilling his fish. Levi didn’t expect the sudden heaviness that grabbed his heart. He stopped and gulped droughts of sea air before going on.
He gripped the handles of his cart tighter and started to take a step, then froze. Please, Yahweh, not again. He was marching down the main road toward him. His body armor, which covered his broad, muscled chest, clanked and squeaked with the cadence of his heavy steps. The ghastly helmet that sported a red frill hid the man’s grim face, but Levi knew him. Levi darted his eyes down, but it was too late. He heard the familiar thud of the soldier’s pack.
“Yes, of course,” Levi hastened. “Just let me get these fish to my brother. He’s waiting for me at the market. Then, I can run back—
“Carry it now!” The soldier’s hand moved to his sword, and Levi dropped his truck where he stood and picked up the man’s pack. He followed the soldier—away from town.
The sun rose unrelentingly as Levi counted his steps and lumbered behind the Roman who apparently did not have to be at Gennesaret anytime soon. Levi was approaching 2,000 steps when he glimpsed the mile marker. He dropped the pack in front of it, then gathered his tunic and ran back to town wishing he could run as fast as Rueben. He smelled the fish long before he saw the wagon.
He was now almost an hour late and too tired to pull his load any faster. Eliezer, the old carpenter, stood in the doorway of his shop as Levi trudged past. “Why aren’t you at market yet, Levi?” he croaked.
Why aren’t you dead yet? Levi thought. “Oh, you know. Just enjoying the sea air! Shalom, Eliezer.” The old man only shook his head disapprovingly.
He passed the other shops, bustling inside with the day’s preparations. His mouth watered at the tantalizing smell of baking rolls as he passed the baker. He knew the first batch of fresh goods would be at market already and was hoping to buy some for himself and his brother. The weaver was already returning to his shop with an armful of sheep’s wool for his pretty daughter Elise to begin spinning. Finally, Levi turned the corner to Capernaum’s marketplace.
Other vendors, busy with their commerce, interacted with people up and down the highway. Fresh fruits and vegetables lined the other end of the street. The farmers most certainly enjoyed the scents of the baked goods of the vendors next to them. The fishmongers stayed on this end by the tollbooth. Travelers coming and going from all over Galilee were required to pay tribute at Samuel’s toll booth across the road. Samuel always ate well, but everyone hated him. Levi finally pulled up to the family’s stand.
“Where have you been?” James barked and began his work with the fish. Levi wiped the sweat from his face and stared at his brother. James filled his lungs with a deep, understanding breath and looked to heaven. Levi did not have to explain where he had been—it was too familiar. James hoisted a basket to their table, shaking his head. “I think these fish are ruined.”
“Well, it’s not my fault!” Levi spat.
“I know,” his brother sighed.
One by one, customers came by their booth, turning their noses up and scowling. “You boys must get to market earlier,” one sage advised. “Reuben is sold out already. Good, fresh fish too. Small, but fresh. Alpheus, rest his soul, was always early to market.” The man wagged his head.
A woman picked out a few fish. “Your father was such a good man, Yahweh rest his soul.”
“Yahweh should avenge his soul! And the rest of us!” Levi sneered.
“Levi, you shouldn’t talk like that!” Miriam said glancing over her shoulders. “The Romans,” she whispered.
“I know the Romans! The Romans killed my father.”
“Levi! Alpheus was a hard-working man. Your father’s heart gave out. How did the Romans cause that?”
“Every week the cheating publicans demanding more. A new tax, a new tariff. Sometimes, he had to pay almost half his profits. Fish dwindling, Romans expanding. That’s what killed him. What new tariff have they invented today, I wonder?”
Miriam shrugged and offered her few coins. By lunchtime, the brothers still had plenty of putrid fish and only Miriam’s few coins—“pity payment,” Levi called it.
Paavo, a publican spy, walked by scrutinizing the baskets.
“Yes, go report to your master what great business the sons of Alpheus are carrying on this day. At this rate, we might afford half a loaf of bread for Sabbath,” Levi called out.
Paavo walked close to Levi bending his head toward him. In hushed tones, he said, “I know you hate us, but I will be eating well tonight. If you get too hungry, come see Joseph. He’s wanting to open another toll booth at the crossroads. Only if you get hungry,” he smirked and continued walking.
Levi raised his hand in a gesture that knocked one basket off the table, spilling fish in the dirt. He lifted his foot and gave the basket a swift kick. It rolled into the empty street.
With the sun moving closer to the horizon and the shadows lengthening, the brothers carried their fish, now good and spoiled, to the Gehenna, the burning refuse heap outside of town.
“Today wasn’t a complete loss,” James encouraged. “At least the baker gave us his leftover loaves. Tomorrow will be better, you’ll see.” They looked at the darkening sky. When the first three stars of evening appeared, a gentle wind carried the low sustained tone of the ram’s horn that called them to sabbath. The brothers headed home for another sabbath meal of stale bread and fish.
In the morning, they walked to the synagogue, although Levi wondered why he bothered. Yahweh clearly paid no attention to his rituals.
Jairus stood at the doorway of the synagogue and dutifully greeted the men as they shuffled past him. He greeted the brothers. “Shalom Shabbat, Levi, James.”
“Shalom Shabbat, Jairus,” James replied. “How is your little daughter?”
“Not so little, she tells me every day. Papa! I’m almost twelve, she says. Soon, she’ll be looking for a fine husband, heh?” Jairus looked intently at James who could only clear his throat.
“Yes. Well. Shalom Shabbat, Jairus,” James repeated and scooted into the building. Levi grinned.
The congregation began the familiar shema from the Torah, “Hear, oh Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One . . .” Then Jairus brought out the Torah scrolls. This week, Reuben was scheduled to be the reader. The young man stepped up to the platform in the center of the room and looked at the open scroll. He began to recite in a clear, strong voice, “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’” Then Eliezer stood and began to drone on about Messiah, the great myth of the Torah, while Levi contemplated a way to feed himself and his brother.
The next week, Joseph stopped by the brothers’ stand. “I heard you didn’t have so good a business last week, Levi. Must be why I didn’t see you in my office to pay tribute. Still,” he lifted one of the small fish by its tail and dangled it. “You did make some sales. I expect to see you soon.”
“Do you intend to buy that?” Levi asked.
Joseph locked eyes on Levi and let the fish drop back into the basket. “I’ll see you soon, Levi. Yes?”
On Friday, Levi trekked through town to the tax office at the top of a small rise that looked down on Capernaum. Levi pulled back the heavy curtain and stepped into the musty room. He closed his eyes and opened them to adjust to the darkness. Joseph’s bulky figure sat behind the table.
“Welcome, Levi! I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I need three drachmas this week.”
“Three! Are you crazy?”
“You raised your prices. Don’t try to deny it. You know, Levi, I’m starting to wonder if you are not smuggling your fish out of here to avoid paying your taxes.”
“You know I’m not.”
“But I doubt the authorities would believe you if I suggested such a story to them.”
Levi’s mouth went dry. He knew Joseph could threaten such a report to extort the money. It happened to others in the marketplace all the time. Best to keep quiet and pay. He would be no good to James sitting in jail. Levi handed the coins to him.
“You know, Levi, you could be doing so much better than selling a few little fish at market. Business is good here, so I’m expanding. I’m moving Samuel’s toll booth down the highway and putting up another one on this side . . . to be more convenient to the travelers.”
“You mean so you get your money coming and going,” Levi corrected.
“I’m needing to spend more time in Gennesaret. You know everyone here; you could collect the tolls and the tributes from the marketplace vendors. You could set your own fees—fair fees, I’m sure. You would make a lot of money. It’s time you live up to your name—Joined. Join something, Levi. Join us. You’ll never go hungry.”
“No thanks.” Levi exited the dark room.
He saw James at the bottom of the road and waved. They had plenty of time before Sabbath to enjoy a swim in the sea, followed by more mouth-watering dry loaves and a few small fish. Then he saw that familiar hulking shape step in front of his brother. The man’s chiseled muscles were evident even from this distance as he pulled his pack off his broad shoulders and dropped it at his brother’s feet. Levi watched from the top of the street, helpless, as James struggled to haul the pack onto his slender shoulders. He bent under the weight and tottered after the Roman. Levi clenched his fists and spat. He looked back over his shoulder. Then, he turned and walked into Joseph’s office.
“Aaron was robbed today,” James announced, stepping into the house. “Again.” He handed some fresh loaves to the servant girl who met him at the door.
“What happened?” Levi asked.
“One of those urchins from the shacks loaded up a basket with pomegranates while Aaron was helping a customer and took off,” James explained.
“You saw it?”
“Did you report it?”
“What’s to report? Thanks to the new “family” business you started last year, I’m an unreliable witness. Remember?” He tossed some coins into a jar.
“Why do you put your alms in there? Why don’t you just spend it? Buy something for yourself.”
“Because someday, you will not be a hated tax collector. On that day, I will be able to give to Yahweh properly in His holy place.” James plopped on the couch.
There was a loud knock at the door, and Levi shouted from his couch, “Enter!” A stout young man opened the door and stepped into the room. “Samuel, my friend. How are you?”
“Hungry!” the man said and plopped onto the couch. The fellow publican was one of the few friends Levi had.
“Aneta! Food!” Levi hollered. The servant girl entered with a platter of dates and goat cheese and the rolls and placed it on the table. Then she took a basin and pitcher of water over to Samuel and washed his hands and feet.
James grabbed a roll and said, “I’m going to meeting—while they still allow me to come in.”
Samuel called back to James, “Good! Say a prayer for us sinners!” He laughed and popped a date into his mouth.
A few minutes later, they heard a syncopated wrap at the door and both men shouted “Paavo!” as a young man stepped in. His slight build made him look much younger than he was, which made it easy for him to slip around the marketplace and report to the publicans what kind of business the vendors were having. Paavo eased onto a cushion, greeting his friends. Levi poured wine for his guests.
“Paavo, what’s new?” Levi asked.
“Well, we finally have a carpenter, three actually.” He rubbed his hands greedily. “They should produce three times what old Eliezer did.”—“Yahweh rest his soul”—interjected Levi and Samuel together. Paavo shrugged and nodded his slight agreement. “The whole family moved here. They have sisters.” Paavo smiled and raised his eyebrows up and down.
“I think I met the brothers,” Samuel said. “James and Jude.”
“Yeah. There’s another one too, but apparently, he’s a real troublemaker. He’s some kind of magician.”
“What do you mean?” Levi asked.
“Well,” Paavo scooted up on his couch, “I heard that he was at this party in Cana—wedding or something. I don’t know—not important! They ran out of wine and he got really mad.”
Samuel drained his cup and poured himself more wine. “A drunkard! I like him already!”
“Well, the guy goes over to the washing pots—the ones filled with water—and turns the water into wine!”
“Paavo!” Levi said disapprovingly.
“It’s true. I swear! I heard it from the baker who heard it from his cousin—who lives in Cana—that’s where the party was—who heard it from one of the guests. That’s practically first-hand information.” He bit into a fresh roll. “Oh, and the baker sold twelve extra loaves last week for a party.”
Paavo continued, “Anyway, I heard he’s supposed to be reading at meeting today.”
The men continued their kibitzing over the food and wine. After a couple of hours, James returned and, stepping silently into the room, poured himself a glass of wine. He gulped it down then poured another cup.
“I guess there was no wine at synagogue today?” Samuel asked and the others laughed at his joke.
James took a deep breath. “You know that new family from Nazareth?” he asked. They all nodded and exchanged smiles. “The son taught at the synagogue today.”
“James or Jude?” Samuel asked.
“No, the other one, Yeshua.”
“Is he a rabbi?”
“Didn’t I just say he taught at the synagogue today? Of course, he’s a rabbi, but he sure doesn’t teach as the scribes. While he was teaching, the strangest thing happened.” James picked up a date and sat down on the edge of the cushion, shaking his head. “While he’s teaching, we all hear ‘What do we have to do with you, Yeshua the Nazarene?’ from the back of the room.”
“That’s a fine welcome. Who was it?” Levi asked.
“Bacchus,” James said.
“Crazy Bacchus?” Samuel interjected. “That explains everything.”
“Wait! That’s not all. Bacchus stood up and said, ‘Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’ And then the man—Yeshua—” James looked at Levi who leaned closer. “He rebuked him! He said, ‘Be quiet and come out of him.’ And Bacchus fell on the floor. He was writhing like a snake. Then he cried out with a really loud voice,” James raised his arms for emphasis, “and—just—lay still.”
Samuel sat up straight on the edge of his cushion, his mouth bulging with food. “The new rabbi killed Crazy Bacchus?” he blurted, spewing goat cheese in his lap.
“No! Bacchus got up off the floor and sat down, apologizing to everyone. He wasn’t crazy anymore. The scribes were saying an unclean spirit came out of him.”
Levi looked for a moment at James then began laughing. “You actually had me there for a minute.”
“No, I’m serious! Ask anyone. Well, anyone who was allowed at meeting today.” Samuel and Levi looked at each for a second. Then Levi picked up the flask of wine and offered it to Samuel.
“More wine, Samuel,” he hosted, looking at James. “How about some more food. We have plenty.” Still looking at James, he emphasized plenty. Paavo grinned.
“You know,” Samuel said, holding his cup for Levi to fill, “I think I heard about this man. It must be the same guy. He was kicked out of the synagogue in Nazareth. The whole family had to move here because of it.”
“Why was he kicked out?” Levi asked.
“I think he was trying to do some kind of magic in the synagogue, but it didn’t work. That’s what I heard. Has to be the same man.” Samuel said and gulped his wine.
James grabbed another date and took a bite. “Well, I certainly don’t believe it because after meeting, this new rabbi wanted to go to Simon’s house. Simon told him that his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. But he just walked on to Simon’s house anyway. We all followed.”
“Why would you follow him?” Levi asked.
“I don’t know.,” James shrugged. “We just did. You know Andrew and I are friends, so I went along. Yeshua walked into the house, touched the woman’s hand, and she got up. She wasn’t sick, no fever. She started serving us.”
“Raca!” Levi retorted. “What kind of rabbi would touch a woman—and a sick woman? James, she had been resting and was feeling better. No rabbi touched her. You know Simon’s mother wouldn’t lie around with guests in her house. Yeshua touched her. Umph! Sometimes, I think you’ll believe anything. Come on, Samuel, Paavo.” Levi left the house. Samuel quickly grabbed a handful of dates, drained his wine cup, and followed his friend. Paavo sat chewing on his bread then looked up at James who stared at him. Paavo stood awkwardly, nodded a good-bye, and hurried after his friends.
Levi walked out of his booth. It had been a profitable day collecting the tolls. Even some merchants of the town had paid their tributes at his office. He turned the corner onto the beaten path that led to the sea. The small area of sparse grass to his right was barely green, but it was welcome color to Levi, as were the red blooms of the shrubs that ringed the grassy knoll. A couple of palm trees stood as majestic guards of this god-forsaken town. There, at the top of the slope he saw the sun glinting off the Sea of Galilee, making the water sparkle as if it were full of diamonds. There were certainly no diamonds here, Levi thought, as he walked down the sloped, winding path beside the walls of black basalt. The whole town was built with the dark sea rocks, but it certainly did not sparkle like the sea.
He raised his hand and wave at Rueben, who was coming out of the weaver’s shop where Elise would be weaving fabric for tunics. As soon as Rueben saw Levi, the smile vanished from his face and he turned his head away.
Levi sighed and continued down the path and stopped where it leveled out in front of Samuel’s door. He raised his knuckles to knock on the splintered wood and heard the familiar clap of the centurion’s hobnailed leather soles marching on the hard-packed road just beyond him. Although he was sure he need not fear the Roman molesting one of their tax-collectors, Levi looked around for any place to duck into. He turned his head slightly toward the hulk a few yards further down the path. He saw another man step from one of the shops and walk in front of the centurion. Levi shook his head with pity at such unfortunate timing. The hulk threw down his pack at the man’s feet. The man actually smiled at the hulk then bent over and heaved the pack onto his back. The two headed quickly toward Levi who was a statue at Samuel’s door with his hand still raised as if in some kind of salute. As they passed, Levi saw the man talking to the Roman. Why would he talk to the soldier? Was he crazy?
“Do you have any family here? My family moved here recently. It’s a nice town, don’t you think?” Levi heard him say as they passed. The man’s face was turned and hidden behind dark curls, but Levi was sure he had never seen him. He watched the two men trudge up the street and make the right turn at his toll booth. Of course, it was the opposite direction the man had been going.
Samuel opened the door and instinctively ducked at Levi’s raised knuckles. “Bar-Adam! What are you doing? Come in, come in.” Levi sheepishly opened his fist and shook his fingers trying as well to shake off what he had just seen. He smiled at his friend and stepped into the house.
A few hours later, Levi left the house a lot merrier with Samuel’s wine and food in his stomach. He smiled knowing that at least he and his brother would never feel hunger pangs again. He headed back up the path to his own home and saw the man and the Roman coming round the corner from his booth. They must have been walking miles and miles by now. Even new to Capernaum, the man should know he’s only required to go one.
The man was no longer smiling at least, and the hulk’s face bore its usual deep scowl. But the man was still talking and gesticulating as if there were no four-stone pack on his back. Levi looked intently at his own sandals when the men passed him and heard the dark-haired one saying something about the kingdom of God. Even if it did exist, why would anyone talk to a Roman about the kingdom of God?
Levi walked to the carpenter’s shop. There was no door or curtain over the opening or the windows. The large room was full of light. A young man was bent over one table smoothing a long piece of wood. Flecks of curled wood shavings littered the table and floor. Another man bent over the opposite table, working on a chair. When Levi entered, this man continued working but called out, “Shalom! How can we help you?”
“I need a chair,” Levi replied. The man looked up from his work and pursed his lips. He sighed the heavy sigh that Levi had grown accustomed to and walked to the counter. “You’re James, aren’t you? I’m Levi, I . . .”
“Collect tolls. I know. Shouldn’t you be at your booth? We paid our tribute last week to Joseph.” The man wiped his hands on his large handkerchief and threw it over his broad shoulder.
“I said I need a chair,” Levi repeated, matching the curtness in James’s tone. “Your brother is the rabbi, isn’t he?”
“Well, if you need wine, he’s not here,” James said, shaking his head. At this sarcasm, the younger man at the other table stood straight and looked at them.
“James! Don’t talk like that.”
“Excuse me,” James directed to Levi. “My brothers are both a little. . .” James twirled his finger at the side of his head, then scratched his hair when his brother stepped next to him. “This is Jude.”
Levi smiled. “I understand. I have a younger brother too. His name is also James.”
“Ha! I’m James. We’ll have to call your brother James the Less. When do you need this chair?”
Zebedee stepped into the tax office and greeted Levi. “Zebedee! How are you, my friend?” Levi said, ignoring Zebedee’s pursed lips. “I heard you and your sons made quite the haul the other day.”
“It wasn’t us. It was that holy man.”
“What holy man?” Levi asked.
“Yeshua, the teacher from Nazareth.”
Levi rolled his eyes. “Not you too?”
“You know Andrew, Simon’s brother? Of course, you do. He puts great store in this man, Yeshua.”
“Hasn’t Andrew gone following that wild guy? The Baptist?” Levi asked. Everyone seemed to be following someone these days.
“Yes, but now he likes this Yeshua. I think this man may really be somebody, Levi. Simon and Andrew were mending their nets earlier this week. They had been out all night and hadn’t caught a thing. My sons and I were on our boat with our hired workers. A great crowd had followed Yeshua to the shore to hear him teach.”
“A great crowd? How many disciples can one rabbi have walking with him? I recall Rabbi Aaron only had five or six for his halakha.” Levi laughed. “I remember one time they nearly knocked him into the well trying to copy how he got a drink of water. Sometimes, I wonder about the way we Jews do things.”
“Let me finish. So, Yeshua got into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from shore a bit. Then he taught the crowd.”
“Taught them what?”
“The kingdom of God. We heard him speak incredible things; things I’ve never heard the scribes say. Then, when he finished teaching, he told Simon to put out further—into the deep—and let down his nets for a catch.”
“In daytime? The man may know Torah, but he doesn’t know about fish, does he?” Levi laughed.
“Levi,” Zebedee motioned him to come closer, “Simon and Andrew pulled in such a haul, they yelled at us to come help. We put out from shore and, I’m telling you, the fish filled our boats until I thought they’d both sink! Big fish too. Not these sardines we’ve been living on.”
Levi stared at the man. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it. He had no words.
“I’m grateful for the fish, too, because the man has had such an effect on my boys that they’ve left the business to follow him. Simon and Andrew, too!”
“Simon Bar-Jonah following a holy man?” Levi laughed. “That’s even bigger than your fish tale.”
“Did you hear about his mother-in-law? Sick with a fever. One touch from Yeshua—she’s up preparing food.” Levi pawed the air rejecting the tale.
“Zebedee, you fool! You gossip like an old woman. And then everyone brought their sick to him. And he healed some of them. So, I’ve heard. You know, he was kicked out of Nazareth for trying to do magic. Now, let’s get down to business. Holy man or not, you’ve come into quite a lot and owe me . . .” Levi calculated, “130 drachmas.”
“Levi!” Zebedee protested.
“I suppose you’ll want to name every fish ‘Matthew’ and declare them,” Levi teased in an old woman’s voice, “‘a gift from the Lord’?”
“You would profit unjustly from God’s true prophet?” Zebedee knitted his thick brows together in a deep frown. “Well, you certainly have lived up to your name, Levi. Only I believe Alphaeus meant you to be joined to the Lord. You’ve joined yourself to the wrong ruler. Ruler of demons!” Zebedee weighed out the drachmas from his pouch and threw them on the table before leaving.
Levi looked down at the money, tapping the table. He breathed deeply then began collecting the coins one by one.
Levi walked to the door of his office and drew back the curtain at the doorway. He stepped inside and dropped the curtain after him before light could filter in. The room was swallowed by the darkness until he pulled back the window curtain. He heard the shouts before he saw the crowd. He recognized Simon and Andrew and James and John walking beside a man who threw back his head with laughter. Levi had not seen such joy in years and years. He must be that holy man, Yeshua. Was the entire town following him? Levi stepped onto the porch for a better view. It was only a band of his followers, his apprentices, maybe some others. As the crowd passed Levi’s office, the man slowed and looked at him. At least Levi felt that he slowed. The entire world seemed to slow, and he no longer heard the shouting of the people. The man gazed at Levi and in a frozen instant, Levi recognized the dark curls of his hair. Levi’s breath stopped and his jaw went slack.
Then the world continued.
They were headed to the seashore. Levi watched from the doorway as the people, like bleating sheep, followed the man. He turned and led them up to the hillside by the sea. Suddenly, Levi found himself running after them. He had to hear for himself how this man was bewitching the people. Levi picked his way through the men and women seated on the hillside, ignoring the way everyone moved away from him as if he were a leper. He found a boulder close to the teacher and leaned against it.
Yeshua looked out over the crowd, waiting. When the people became hushed and still, he opened his mouth and said, “You’re blessed when your spirit is in need. That’s when God’s kingdom can rule your heart.” Then, he looked straight at Levi and said, “You’re blessed when you’ve lost someone dear and you mourn. That’s when God can comfort you.” Levi’s heart burned until tears stung his eyes. “You’re blessed when you are content with yourself and humble. That’s when all the earth is yours.” Levi’s knees buckled and he sat down. He listened to the rabbi and heard scandalous ideas. The man affirmed the Law but then went beyond it. Far beyond it.
“You’ve heard that the ancients were told, you shall not commit murder, and they said, ‘Whoever commits murder shall be guilty before the court.’ But I tell you that if you’re just angry with your brother—or sister—you will be guilty before the court. In fact, anyone who says ‘Raca’ to his brother will be guilty before the supreme court. If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be guilty enough to go into the Gehenna of fire.” Levi hung his head and wiped a tear that seeped from the corner of his eye. The air became thick with warmth, and he found it hard to breathe. Then the man said, “If a soldier presses you to go one mile, go two with him.” Levi’s face darkened into a deep scowl. Go two miles with a Roman. Gehenna fires would turn cold before Levi even entertained such a thought.
The man taught his students for hours. He spoke of marriage and divorce, giving alms, and how to pray. He said that nothing is more important than the treasures of heaven. He spoke of worry and judging and doing the will of his Father who is in heaven. He spoke of God as if He were his actual father. Levi looked around for the Scribes. He had not been allowed at synagogue in some time, but he was pretty sure the scribes would not be pleased with this teaching.
The sun was beginning its mid-afternoon descent when Yeshua dismissed the crowd. As they were making their way down the mountain, Levi saw a leper approaching. Instead of covering his face and crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as lepers were required to do, the man ran past Levi. Levi jumped to the side of the path to avoid him. The leper ran up to Yeshua and bowed at his feet, crying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Levi stared at Yeshua. The holy man stretched out his hand and touched the leper. He touched the leper! Someone grabbed Levi and said, “He touched the leper!” He and Levi clung to each other as Yeshua said, “I am willing; be cleansed.” The man stood and Yeshua removed his rags. The leprosy was gone. “See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priests. Then present them with the gift that Moses commanded.” The man ran off.
Levi followed Yeshua up the main street that led to his office. He stretched his neck and moved quickly through the crowd to catch up with the holy man. He had to talk to him. He had to meet him. Levi made his way closer to Yeshua, who was ahead of the crowd. Yeshua stopped in the middle of the street, across from Levi’s office. Levi was about to touch the man’s shoulder when he saw him. The hulk was running toward them. Levi felt cold wondering if he would throw down his pack and demand that Yeshua carry it again. Levi wanted to pull Yeshua into his office to protect him from the centurion.
The hulk ran up to the holy man and said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering great pain.”
And Yeshua said, “I will come and heal him.”
Levi couldn’t believe what he heard. He stepped up to his doorway and held onto the doorpost.
“Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, but just say the word and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
And to Levi, ‘Carry my pack!’ and he does it, Levi thought.
But Yeshua looked as though he were marveling at what this evil man was babbling. “I’m telling you truth,” Yeshua said to the crowd, “I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” A Roman have faith? Levi’s legs weakened, and he leaned against the hard stones of his office. “And I tell you, that many shall come from east and west and dine at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness. In that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then the holy man turned to the centurion and said, “Go your way; let it be done to you as you have believed.” As the hulk turned and ran off to his home, Yeshua turned his head and looked at Levi. Levi peered long into the man’s eyes, then turned and walked into the shadows of his office.
Samuel sipped his wine. “I haven’t seen your brother for days. Where is he?”
Levi bit into the roasted lamb and shook his head. “He’s gone after the holy man. They’ve been gone for some days. He’ll be back.”
“Has he really healed all those people? The centurion says his servant was healed. I saw the man; he’s walking and—”
“Aneta, bring more wine!”
The servant girl brought the wine and filled Levi’s cup.
“You don’t like talking about him, do you?” Samuel asked. “Everyone in Capernaum is talking about him. Everyone but you.”
“Why should I talk about him? I heard him teach. His ideas are . . . not what we need. We need someone to deliver us from the Romans, not heal their servants.” Levi drained his cup and looked out the window. “He’ll be back,” he repeated.
“Just come with me, brother. If you hear him talk—”
“I did hear him talk. I heard him . . . and I saw him . . . that leper . . . I . . . “ Levi put the cup to his lips and drew the wine into his mouth then slammed down the cup on the table. “Welcome back. I must go to work.” He stomped out of the house.
Aneta picked up the platter of food and brought it to James. She poured a cup of wine and silently handed it to him.
James turned the wooden goblet in his hands then took a sip. He looked at the food on the table. Levi’s ill-gotten money would never satisfy the emptiness in James, in both of them. James wanted more. Every time he heard Yeshua speak of the kingdom of God, something awakened deep inside him. If only Levi could understand. James put down the cup. “I’m finished, Aneta.” The girl took the dishes to the kitchen, and James went out.
James walked down the street along the side of the synagogue, which stood in the center of Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. He turned the corner onto East Street and walked along the front of the synagogue. The sea was beautiful and calm today. He passed Peter’s house and in a few more steps found the house he wanted.
When he arrived at the teacher’s house, the room was already crowded. James touched his fingers to the threshold’s mezuzah then squeezed in and stood against the far wall. Yeshua sat on a couch while Jairus and some scribes sat across from him. Two men sat in the only chairs, the rest sat on the floor by the teacher’s feet or stood against the walls. Yeshua and the scribes seemed to be discussing something in Torah from the prophets. James looked out the window and saw more people coming. Soon people crowded around the windows not having any more room in the house.
The teacher was talking about the prophet Isaiah as if he himself had been the scribe who penned the book. Not even a scribe, let alone a common man, could know the scriptures this well. After a while, James heard people walking on the flat roof. The house was so full they must be gathering up there to hear the teacher. Yeshua continued to talk.
Dust began filtering through the air from the mud ceiling. Then flecks of mud and dry straw began falling from the ceiling. James thought the men up there would do well to sit still and listen. The scribes dusted their heads as more debris fell. Thick dust of crushed limestone began filling the room like smoke, and some people started coughing. James looked up to see a hole open in the ceiling of the house. A man’s grinning face appeared in the hole. While James tried to make sense of what he saw, many hands reach in and pulled more of the roof away. The men were removing the roof of the teacher’s house! The scribes stood and began yelling at the men, but Yeshua sat on the couch smiling as he watched their progress.
Then the men began to lower something into the room. It was a long bundle of some kind wrapped with twine. The men lowered it into the room by ropes. One hollered, “Careful! Watch his feet!” It was a long pallet, but something bulky was tied to it. James gasped and choked, realizing a man had been tied onto the pallet. He recognized him as the lame man that he sometimes saw begging alms on his way to synagogue. James often gave him his alms since the pharisees refused to put his money into the treasury because of his brother’s work. They insisted the money had been gained by robbery.
The room was now full of so much noise and dust and coughing that James couldn’t even understand what was happening. Then Yeshua stood, and the room became silent.
He looked up at the four men peering into the huge hole they had made in his roof and smiled. Then, he looked at the lame man lying on the pallet and said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
James could hear the scribes murmuring.
“Why does this man speak that way?”
Even James thought, He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?
Yeshua turned to them and said, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to this lame man ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ or to say, ‘Arise and take up your pallet and walk’? But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he turned to the helpless man and said—“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” The man tried to move, but the twine was still wrapped around him. Some men close to him unwound the twine from the pallet and the man sat up, then stood. He then hastily rolled up his pallet, walked past the gaping scribes, and left the house.
James fell against the wall dumbfounded. The man next to him exclaimed, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” Yeshua sat down on the couch, and the people began to leave. James suddenly came to himself, and reached for Yeshua. “Teacher! My brother, please.” James knelt beside him.
“What is it, James? What do you want?” Yeshua asked.
“My brother. He walks around every day, but he’s as paralyzed as that man—in his heart. I can’t bring him to you. I’d drag him if I could. If you could only go to him. Please!”
Yeshua looked at his feet and was silent. Then he looked up and said, “I’m going to the sea.” And he walked out of the house.
James stood watching Simon and Andrew follow the teacher. Then he joined the group. They didn’t walk around the south road to the sea, but took the road that went back through town to the crossroads. They would pass Levi’s office. Hope jumped up and lodged in James’s throat.
Levi looked at the books and parchments on the table. Numbers and ciphers showed the wealth he was amassing. Joseph was pleased with his work and might soon promote him out of the toll booth to a full tax collector. Then, he wouldn’t have to haggle with these travelers over tolls. He could charge his own fees for all the taxes, not just the marketplace vendors. He only had to make sure he collected enough to pay whatever Caesar’s decree was and then he could keep what was left. Joseph certainly did very well for himself. The businesses were profitable again, and there was plenty of collecting for both of them. But at what price? The unwanted thought came out of nowhere, and Levi tried to push it away.
He looked around the dim office; dust clung to everything but it was barely visible in the scant light of the oil lamp. He remembered his father Alphaeus carrying that same oil lamp into their room when he and his brother were young. Alpheus would sing the evening shema over them. Levi whispered the end of the prayer:
“Open our eyes to Your Torah, help our hearts cleave to Your mitzvot. Unite all our thoughts to love and revere You. Then shall we never be brought to shame. Trusting in Your awesome holiness, we will delight in Your deliverance. Bring us safely from the ends of the earth, and lead us in dignity to our holy land. You are the Source of deliverance. You have called us from all peoples and tongues, constantly drawing us nearer to You, that we may lovingly offer You praise, proclaiming Your Oneness. Praised are You, Lord who loves His people Israel.”
Levi rested his head in his hands. How would he ever get out of this god-forsaken place? Suddenly, the curtain of his doorway was pulled back. Levi looked up. Light flooded the room and blinded him. He threw his arms up to shield his eyes and saw a figure in the doorway. Fear paralyzed him as the figure entered the room. Then Levi recognized the man Yeshua. His brother stood behind him. Simon lingered in the doorway; many others stood in the street behind him. Levi looked up at Yeshua, trembling. Yeshua looked around the small, dark office then at Levi, whose arms were still shielding his face. Levi brought his arms down, his eyes still locked on the teacher. Yeshua filled his lungs and breathed on Levi, saying, “Follow me.”
Then he turned and walked out into the street. The crowd began to move. James looked imploringly at his brother. Levi stood, knocking over his new chair, and stepped into the sunlight. He hurried after the teacher.
Levi walked beside Yeshua in silence, not knowing what to say. Yeshua put his arm around Levi’s shoulder, looked up to the blue sky, and said, “I think I’ll call you. . . Matthew.” Then he turned his face toward the young man and said, “You can call me Jesus.”
Andrew – manly
Bacchus – make a loud noise
Eliezer – my helper is God
Elise – promise of God
Miriam – stubbornness
James – following after
John – God is merciful
Joseph – increaser
Levi – joined
Matthew – gift of God
Paavo – tiny, petite
Rueben – behold a son
Samuel – able to hear God
Simon – God has heard
Zebedee – God is gift
Yeshua – (Joshua/Jesus) God saves