We’ve rolled around to Psalm 16 again, and I have a confession to make–I always cringe a little when we get to verse 6…”Indeed, I have a goodly heritage.” It’s because of how this was misused, and one of the chief purveyors of the misuse was born and reared where I live. A hundred or so years ago, the King James version, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage” was stamped on medals for “Fitter Family Contests”–an offshoot of the eugenics movement in the early to mid-1900’s. (Imagine something akin to the livestock show at the state fair, and you’ll have a reasonable enough idea of what a “Fitter Family Contest” was.) From the town that I call my home sprang the man who was once one of the bright lights of the eugenics movement in the United States, and very likely contributed to the Nazi race policies in Germany in the 1930’s. It’s not the proudest part of my local history–yet it serves as a reminder of how wrong any of us can be when we believe, somehow, that a goodly heritage means finding ways to feel that we are innately better than the person standing next to us.
Our Gospel today reveals a very different “goodly heritage”, as well as a glimpse of redemption. We see Jesus being with the people that were probably not going to win any sort of “Fitter Family Contest”, and we see Levi getting a very different view of what constitutes a goodly heritage in the economy of Jesus.
Who is Levi? Although we can’t be sure, there is at least an implication that Levi is Matthew, by another name, when we start comparing stories in the Synoptic Gospels. It’s also pretty clear that Levi wasn’t hanging around the tax booth to be with the cool people. Tax collectors were considered in a state of perpetual uncleanliness at worst, and were despised at best. It was a patronage job, given by paying the taxes for a district up front, and then getting the money back (and a mark-up) by whatever means possible, with the assistance of the Roman army. It required a certain level of capital to get the post, which meant that the person likely came from at least the upper middle end of society, and a certain amount of willingness to be despised. I seriously doubt when Levi was a youngster, he announced at Career Day at school, “I want to be a tax collector and fleece people and have a job everyone hates.” He may well have had good intentions–moving up in society to a better class of people, being respected for having some of the good things of life–who knows.
Something, though, was eating on him. Something was telling him life was meant to be better than this. Something motivated him enough to get up from the tax booth and follow Jesus. I imagine Levi was probably hesitant to invite him to his house for dinner. Yet Jesus didn’t blink when he dined with the folks at Levi’s house–more tax collectors and sinners. Imagine his surprise when the Pharisees complained, and Jesus not only had dined with him, but had his back! Levi discovered that the Gospel version of a goodly heritage was to be part of a family where no one was too broken to be in the presence of God. It’s a family where we will be taken back when we’ve been deluded by false notions of what a goodly heritage entails, and want a new start. It’s a family where there are no greater or lesser members, and a family that when we do turn and launch our lives in a different direction, we can somehow let go of the shame and guilt.
What glimpses have you seen of the goodly heritage that can be yours in a life following Jesus?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a transitional Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.
By Pieter van der Borcht (ca. 1540-1608) – Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link