Mary was worried; she tried to distract herself by keeping busy, but deep inside a gnawing unsettling fear had begun to grow. ‘Could it be true?’ she asked herself repeatedly, surely not, not after all they had been through as a family. And yet she knew her son, and she knew in her heart of hearts that it must be true. She could still remember her terror. It had started with a rumour, her neighbour’s cousin had sent an urgent message from the next village to warn them. ‘They’re coming, and they’re not happy!’. The news had sent shivers of fear around the village. Those with treasures, hid them. Those who had had good fortune sent their sons with the animals to the secret caves in the hills above them. A watch was set, and all too soon a billowing cloud of dust across the barren hills signalled their arrival. They were here for one purpose only – to take whatever they could find.
Jesus remembered too, as he sat watching the wiry young man scurry around for his Master, his eyes shifted everywhere as he went about his job, he had already learned to be wary, to take nothing for granted. A lapse of concentration could mean a knife in the back, even sharper than the looks of disgust and hatred that met his weary eyes. Jesus turned his gaze to the Master, and remembered.
The arrival of the tax collector was always dramatic, a company of soldiers surrounding him, an air of cold indifference around the older tax-man, as his apprentices shifted and fidgeted uncomfortably on their horses. He had long accepted his lot and the hatred that came with it, they were still getting used to it, but they would, bitter experience had taught Levi that. Each village hardened the heart as they noted the pathetic attempts of the villagers to hide and deceive. He always knew he had won when their fear turned to raw hatred and they spat their contempt at his feet, and surrendered their treasures.
Joseph and Mary had little, Joseph’s work meant he had to travel far to find work and those who could afford to pay for it. He had even worked for Herod at one point, one of the thousands who helped build his arrogant edifices at Caesarea Phillippi. That had been a more successful time for Joseph, he had been paid well, and taxed too. But for once there was more than enough. Enough to spend some time at home with Mary and their family. Maybe even enough to rest his ageing bones and retire. But where to hide it? He and Mary had not questioned but that they would hide it, the tax collectors were corrupt, always taking more to line their own pockets. The fact that they were fellow Jews was verging on blasphemy. So Joseph created a hollow block in the wall of his house. His skills as stone mason and carpenter helped him make it look just like the others. Therein lay all that mattered to them. Therein lay even the remnants of gold pieces given at Jesus’ birth by the Eastern kings. Therein lay their future and all their plans.
It was quite by accident that Levi stumbled on it. He had seated himself on the best chair in the house, he often did this just to annoy the occupants, but it also meant that he could watch their eyes. As the soldiers ripped and tore through the house, the eyes inevitably flicked to the hiding places. It was a human weakness and one that Levi had exploited many times. But nothing showed on the faces of this old carpenter and his younger wife. They stood silent, strangely dignified, watching their home being ravaged with veiled and clouded eyes. Levi looked around at the sparse surroundings, maybe there was nothing here, well nothing except this fine chair that the carpenter had made. Levi would take that with him, it would go well in his own home. It was as he rose, about to signal his men to leave, that Levi stumbled, tripping over a corner of the worn cloth rug that covered the earthen floor; to steady himself he put out his hand to hold onto the wall. It was as if time itself slowed down. The eyes of the carpenter filling with concern, the mother gasping in alarm. Only the youth standing near the doorway did not react. He watched Levi rather than the crumbling hollow brick even now revealing its treasures. The youth watched Levi’s eyes open with astonishment, then greed. The pleas of his mother had been ignored, the anger of his father had led to the soldiers drawing their swords, but all the time Jesus looked only at the eyes of the tax collector. Levi would long remember that day, it was one of the moments when he loved what he did, he had even taken the chair as a lesson to those people that you couldn’t fool him.
He was sitting on the chair now, distracted by the activities around him, watchful for the zealot’s knife that could end his life. At first he didn’t notice the man staring at him intently from across the street, there was much to do. But when he looked over and saw him, there was something familiar in his eyes. A memory flashed into his mind of a youth many years before who didn’t react when the treasure was discovered, but was upset when the chair was taken. For a moment Levi feared retribution, that somehow the youth had found him again and would take his revenge. He had heard that the carpenter had died not long after that day. A pity really, he was a clever craftsman. But now the eyes of the son were on him, Levi began to sweat, not out of fear, but out of remorse, the eyes seemed to bore into his soul, revealing every single shameful secret of Levi’s heart. ‘How did this man know?’ he asked himself, as tears began to flow down his face. Instead of avoiding those searching eyes, he stared right back, seeing not vengeance but something else, was it forgiveness, was it understanding , was it love? A sob broke from him causing his scurrying apprentice to look at him with alarm. He watched nervously as Levi rose from his favourite chair, he noticed the other man walking towards him, a strange look on his dust covered face. There wasn’t time to warn the soldiers, the apprentice could only watch in wonder as the two men embraced, Levi was weeping openly now, as if every sin had risen to haunt him. The embrace was firm, warm and all consuming. He heard the man’s Voice, filled with emotion, filled with love, ‘Levi, Matthew, Come – Follow me!’
The young apprentice told Mary everything. How Levi had changed before his eyes, how Jesus had gone to Levi’s house, with all Levi’s friends and acquaintances. How every one of them had been moved deeply when Jesus treated them as people of true value and worth. How the reluctant disciples had watched warily, eaten little, and muttered darkly to each other. How the Pharisees and their cohort had arrived, indignant that Jesus was consorting with tax collectors and sinners, entering their house and eating with them. How Jesus had declared that he had come, not for the righteous, but for those who knew they needed forgiveness. He told Mary of how Levi had called him over and instructed him to make a special delivery to the backwater village called Nazareth. How he was to say to Mary that he was truly sorry, and while he couldn’t return the treasure which was long gone; he would return the chair, which he did now gladly, as he, Levi, wouldn’t need it anymore, he was going to follow her son.
Mary smiled as she sat on her chair on the roof of her home, watching the setting sun. She smiled and she remembered.