There are certain core principles at the heart of Christian life. There is a Latin term that summarises their importance: “sine qua non” or “without this, it is not”. Without living these principles, a person is simply not a Christian.
The calling of Levi (St Matthew) to be a Disciple of Christ is an example of one of those principles. It illustrates the kind of trusting surrender without which no one can truly be called a Christian. Others, more advanced in religious life, like the rich young man (Mark ch.10) failed in this principle and could not follow Jesus. This brought sadness to His heart.
How much did Levi know about Jesus when he accepted His invitation? Had Jesus ‘proved’ Himself to Levi by healing him or working a miracle for him? Neither the gospels nor Church tradition suggest any such thing. The mystery of Levi’s immediate, unquestioning obedience to what amounts to a stranger is the mystery of the human spirit’s surrender to Christ. It is not based on pure logic and appears even to be irrational. It does not grow out of experience alone, nor does it result from the cajoling of others.
True and complete surrender of one’s life to Christ arises out of the person admiring and loving those things that Christ embodies. We can guess that although circumstances led Levi to the greedy, hard-hearted life of a tax collector, deep in his heart he cherished things like compassion, peace, joy and love. When Levi heard the voice of Christ and saw His face, something clicked. He discovered a natural harmony with Him, a harmony so close that he willingly left all he had just to stay near to this Man.
“Follow me” depends as much on the inviter as it does on the invited. Levi must have felt the uniqueness of Christ in order for him to obey so immediately. Indeed, total obedience is too precious a gift to be thrown away carelessly to anyone who asks it. We are asked to obey many people in our lives – from parents to teachers and bosses and of course, the Church, through its clergy. Yet all these levels of obedience must be subject to one higher level: that of obedience to God and to His commandments. We cannot avoid our personal responsibility for our own actions, and “I was just following orders” is never an acceptable excuse for wrongs committed at the request of others. There is always a need for careful vigilance on our part.
But Jesus is special. It is He and He alone who deserves our complete, unquestioning and instant obedience. He alone can command us with the valid expectation that we will obey right away, whatever the command. The Fraction Prayer for the Great Thursday of Passion Week is eloquent in illustrating this kind of obedience. In it, we walk with Abraham and his young son Isaac to the place of sacrifice, we grieve over the scene of the boy tied submissively upon the altar and are shocked at the old man’s hand raising the knife over his long awaited, much beloved son for the death blow. It is a shocking image of the surrender to God.
And yet, it also illuminates for us the nature of the relationship of obedience to God. He is not a selfish master who will use and abuse our trust. He does not seek His own welfare, but our own – in fact, He cares for us more than we care for ourselves. Like Abraham, that care may sometimes not be apparent to us. I wonder what went through Abraham’s mind as he raised that knife? What did he think of God at that critical moment? But a little while later, I think it is easy to guess what was in his mind. With his son released and whole, a ram provided by God near at hand, and a promise to preserve his posterity from the very mouth of God, there could only be love and gratitude filling his heart. THIS is the God He knew from his younger days! And once again, through crisis and solution, his faith, trust and obedience to God was strengthened.
This kind of obedience is very difficult to achieve. There is a part of us that always wants to maintain control, to mistrust everyone else, to be free to choose, even if that choice is a poor one. But it is only those who overcome this very natural instinct who come to truly know God…