I learned something last week, ironically enough from the unlikeliest of sources.
His name was Levi. I say “was” for two compelling reasons: 1. Levi is no longer with us, having graduated to Heaven a long, long time ago. 2. Levi changed his name to Matthew, and that for one very good reason.
Levi, whose name means “attached,” attached himself not to the God of his people — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his dear and loving parents who conferred upon him that name. He instead attached himself to Rome, as one of their long arms to collect Herod Antipas’ exorbitant taxes from his own people, the occupied and oppressed Jews of Jesus’ day.
From a Jewish standpoint, nothing could be worse. Levi betrayed his own people, overtaxed them in order to pocket the profits, and turned their collected taxes over to the Roman government to fund everything from lavish palaces to crucifixions — potentially of his own neighbors, friends, and even family.
Levi was the New Testament equivalent of a Jew selling his soul to Hitler as a Nazi collaborator.
But when he met Jesus, everything changed. And to punctuate that point of change, Levi even changed his name to correspond to the new life and new start that he received from Jesus. He changed his name to Matthew, which means a “gift from God.” Which was exactly what his new life truly was.
But here’s the problem… the most religious of the people would not let Matthew forget his past, forget what he was. Ever. Even to the point of chiding Jesus’ disciples who dared to dine with Matthew, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”
Yes, they said that. They said that AFTER Matthew left his tax office forever. AFTER Matthew changed his life from despised tax collector to committed Christ follower. AFTER Matthew even changed his name to commemorate his changed life.
In their self-righteous, judgmental minds, he would ever and always be “Levi, the tax collector.”
You can hear Levi’s entire story in all of its dramatic detail by clicking HERE.
But here’s what I learned. This is what Levi-turned-Matthew taught me. A couple of things really.
1. There are some religious people even today (and yes, I’m talking some “Christians” here) who will never forget what we once were. And they will make doggone sure that no one else around us ever forgets. They are quick to remind anyone and everyone that we are flawed, as if they are not.
They may not be as overt as the religious leaders in Levi’s story were. It may not be with harsh-sounding words spewed with obvious scorn. But when our names come up in their hearing, it could be a raised eyebrow, a tone of voice, a slight recoil, a subtle warning that they assure their listeners is given with such sadness that they even need to say something that they surely do not mean to be negative, but is indeed negative.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you. Odds are overwhelming that you, like me, have been on the receiving end of such judgments. More than likely more than once.
“Christians” who will NEVER let us forget, nor let anyone else forget, what we were or what we’ve done, or what they’ve heard about what we were or what we’ve done. No matter that like Levi, we have changed. No matter that like Matthew, we are different now. No matter that like Matthew, we have received a glorious “gift from God” — a new life, a new start, a new beginning.
To “them” we will always be Levi. They will never see us, nor respond to us, as Matthew.
2. It just doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter what the self-righteous think about us. If they somehow make themselves feel any better by elevating themselves above us — which is exactly what judging, gossiping, snubbing, or shunning us is — so be it.
I’ve lived long enough now (to at least begin) to not care what other people say, and really only care about what God says about me. I know, I know, it’s a whole lot easier to write that than to live that. But I’m trying… (I invite you to try it with me. Together, we can do this!)
So in light of Levi-turned-Matthew’s story, I can’t help but to ask you: Do you know any religious people — “Christians” today who think they are righteous, as evidenced by their judging those whom they think are not as righteous as they?
If so, have you personally felt the sting of their judgments? Do you still bear the scars — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — of their criticisms and gossip, their shunning you or scorn?
Here’s the thing: Despite their judgments, their harsh criticisms, their malicious gossip, I’ll tell you what: I’d much rather sit among the judged than stand among the judgers. Wouldn’t you?
I’d much rather be scorned, than be a scorner. Wouldn’t you?
I’d much rather be gossiped about, than be guilty of spreading malicious gossip. Wouldn’t you?
I’d much rather be shunned, than be a shunner. Wouldn’t you?
It was Jesus who said, and Matthew who recorded Jesus saying it, “God will bless you when people insult you, mistreat you, and tell all kinds of evil lies about you because you are my followers. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Can you just imagine the hope and encouragement Levi-turned-Matthew received as he both heard that statement, and wrote it down? Wrote it down for himself? AND wrote it down for us?