Leaving everything behind

There is a lovely tension to explore in Luke 5:27-29, as Jesus meets the tax collector whose name was Levi.

After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” 
And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.

Earlier in the same chapter, we have already met this language of leaving, when two men who fished with Simon Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee, “left everything and followed Jesus” (Luke 5:11).

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Matthew’s account records Peter’s subsequent fear of vulnerability before the Lord. “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” (Matt. 19:27).

Peter’s characteristic wobble follows Jesus’s encounter with the rich young ruler, whose wealth held him in bondage and grief, consumed him so powerfully that he would not follow Jesus (v. 21-22). Peter sees this man return to his wealth, and he wonders, likely with a tinge of regret. What have I done?

But leaving everything behind is something God’s people already know well. In the book of Exodus, as Israel flees Egyptian slavery, the text says that they’d not prepared any provisions for themselves, hurriedly packing dough that hadn’t had time to rise. Leaving quickly in the night, they’d taken only whatever they had at hand (Deut. 16:6). In this physical leaving behind, God was teaching them to trust in His every provision.

God trained Israel in other ways. In marriage, for instance, the husband’s leaving behind of his family finds its fulfillment in Jesus, who left the blessings of heaven and laid down his own life to cling to his wife, the church (Eph. 5:31). We catch another glimpse of this in the story of Joseph, who rejects a fleeting worldly reward, leaving his cloak behind as he runs from Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:12).

But again, the picture is more complex. Immediately after the text records Levi’s surrender to the Lord, the divine author takes us to Levi’s home, where he gives a big reception for Jesus, along with a “great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them” (v. 29).

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Here we learn that God does not call us to deliberate poverty. Rather, what we leave behind is our relationship with our possessions, our property, our family, our social and professional connections. All we have accumulated. All we have, all we own, we must now see through the new eyes Christ gives us, reappropriated into the service of his kingdom. As Levi did, transforming his home into another centre of Jesus’s ministry.

Seen through this lens, we who follow Jesus find that there is nothing worth keeping that also hinders us from drawing closer to our Saviour. There is nothing we might lose that we haven’t already lost when we chose to follow him. This leaving everything behind may be painful. It may break our hearts. We may still look longingly at what we have given up, as Peter did. But ultimately, in letting go, in giving all to Jesus Christ, there is immense liberation.

And more than this, there is the promise that with Levi, we who leave everything behind will one day sit at a great banquet with our Lord, that reception of all receptions. For as Jesus told Peter,

Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 
But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.

Matthew 19:28-30

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