Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Our passage today is Mark 2:13-17. Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)
How did Jesus treat people? If Christianity is correct in its confession that Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal, creator God, then Jesus’ treatment of individuals is perhaps the most important part of the Gospel message. Why? Because this indicates how God feels about me! It is the most personal aspect of what the Gospels have to say to any of us. The scholarly pursuit of the Gospels as literature of a religious movement is important, but even the most objective and skeptical scholar must be impressed with what we see in Jesus treatment of individuals. Only the most crude person could say there is nothing here that is worth imitating.
This passage contains two stories that have been grouped together by Mark because of their similar theme. The first is a brief recollection about the calling of Levi as a disciple. The second is a controversy story preserving a memorable saying. But below and more basic is to the text is the clear teaching that Jesus’ treatment of people broke the religious rules of the time in a way that spoke deeply about the Kingdom of God and the purpose of Jesus. Here was the heart of Jesus as he related to people and the essence of why the “Good News” in Jesus differed from the message of status quo religion.
Mark has informed us that Jesus assertively called disciples, as opposed to most of the religious leaders of his culture who allowed potential disciples to approach them and apply for acceptance as a student. Jesus has sought out disciples in Capernaum among Fisherman and we can safely assume this was his practice, though he certainly may have also accepted the “applicant.” It is interesting that when the Gospels record someone approaching Jesus to ask to become a follower, he is usually somewhat discouraging. (Matthew 8:19-22). Mark tells us that Jesus was being followed by large crowds and eventually selected the twelve from a larger group. (Mark 3:13-19) Luke records that Jesus sent out 72 (Luke 10:1ff) disciples on a “2 X 2” mission. So apparently Jesus had a large group of disciples that either were invited to follow him or simply chose to do so on his own. And it is equally clear that Jesus disciples were not from the religiously educated or the usual pious groups, but from ordinary- even undesirable- people.
Tax Collectors are not popular in any culture. But in first century Palestine, tax collectors were especially despised. This was for a number of reasons. The Romans sold tax collecting franchises to the highest bidder. Once the collector paid his quota to the Romans, he could keep everything else. For this reason, tax collectors were notoriously dishonest and sometimes collected double (or more) what was owed. Also, tax collectors were collaborating with an occupying force. The ordinary Jew may not have been a zealot, but was certainly patriotic and easily hated someone who turned his back on his own people and worked for the Romans. Being in contact with the Romans made the tax collector ritually unclean and tax collectors were numbered with the “unreligious” outcasts or society. It is no surprise that tax collectors are associated with prostitutes and “sinners.” Their social circle was limited to other religious and social outcasts.
The text offers us no clue as to why Jesus calls Levi. The story of Zacheus in Luke 19:1-9 seems to indicate that he was repentant about his dishonesty and earnestly desired forgiveness and restoration. But we have no such information about Matthew. We simply know that Jesus called him on the spot and later was eating at Levi’s home. It is not wild speculation to conclude, however, that such characters were spiritually and morally hungry and heard something in the message of Jesus that was attractive. What was it? It was the good news that God did not despise sinners but loved them and invited them into table fellowship with him, an amazing offer.
It is difficult in our culture to understand the significance of table fellowship. Sharing a meal was the deepest sign of hospitality and acceptance. It was an invitation into friendship and fellowship, going far beyond simply sharing food. Many of the current scholars reinterpreting Jesus believe this action on the part of Jesus was more than just something observed about him; they believe it was an intentional action, done in a public way to proclaim a radically different message about the Kingdom of God and the God of the Kingdom. While I don’t believe Jesus was staging events, I do believe the calling of Matthew and the subsequent eating with “sinners” was quite intentional and repeated for the purpose of including sinners and annoying the religious status quo.
The image of the fellowship meal also touches on the theme of the great banquet at the end of time, an image occurring frequently in the Bible and certainly picked up in the rest of the New Testament as a powerful image of the Kingdom. Jesus spoke of it often, for instance in Matthew 22:2ff. The Pharisees and religious people of Jesus’ time believed that the unrighteous would be excluded from this banquet, but Jesus made it a point to say there would be a great surprise when God invites and includes the outcasts and sinners, and even excludes the usual guests. Such an upside-down turn of this banquet image was part of what Jesus taught in his total approach to the Kingdom of God. It is one of those parts of the teaching of Jesus that is not appreciated by modern Christians, as is evidenced by our treatment of those Jesus would surely include.
Jesus’ saying about who needs the Gospel is basic: sinners need God. God is actively seeking them out and inviting them into His family. Those who consider themselves good are in danger of missing the Kingdom altogether. If we see our total need of grace and help, God is for us. If we believe we have arrived at a level where we are not a “real” sinner we have missed God’s Kingdom. (I recently played Steve Taylor’s song “Jesus is for Losers” for my students. One very religious young man was offended at the song title. I gently reminded him that if we could not see ourselves as losers before God, we would never believe a message that says Jesus lost everything for us.) The best example of this overall message is Jesus parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector told in Luke 18:9-14, a passage that is essential to read with this study. Jesus ends that parable with the question “who went home justified” i.e. right with God- the man who thanked God that he didn’t need help or the man who believed he didn’t deserve it, but still begged for it?
The implications of all this are stunning. Christianity is not a religion that allows us to make ourselves acceptable to God. If we believe we have become acceptable to him, we have missed him. Instead, Christianity is a relationship with a God whose heart is drawn towards the sinful, the broken, the outcast and the excluded. God sides with sinners and eats with them, warning those of us who are religious that we stand in danger- by declaring ourselves well- of not hearing the voice of our creator calling us to himself. This perspective does not dissolve the need of Christianity to articulate God’s holiness and judgement on sin. This is also basic to the Bible. But if we say that we see God as he has revealed himself in Jesus, then we see a God whose mercy seeks out the very sinners who have offended His holiness and personally bears the price of their rescue. This is what the cross is all about, and why Paul says that the cross is foolishness to the world, but beautiful to those who are being saved.
On a practical level, we should be unafraid to look at the tough implications of this passage for our own churches and ministries. I work at a Christian school that accepts mostly lost students, many with legal problems and school expulsions in their background. Every year a certain number of our Christian faculty leave our ministry because they do not see what we do as “Christian” enough! This is typical for how many of us are taught to think; we act as if Jesus would be more likely found in the church than at a bar; that his friends would be preachers not prostitutes; that he sends us to help people find a church rather sending us to find sinners and love them. Our reworking of Jesus into one who would never call Matthew or eat with sinners is sad. Jackson Browne recorded a song on a Chieftains Christmas album and called the song The Rebel Jesus. The song, written from the perspective of a non-Christian, says that the rebel Jesus of the New Testament is far more attractive than the tamed Jesus of church-ianity.
We especially need to treasure this message because at some point, every one of us will be the excluded sinner. We may be the adulterer, the AIDS patient, the prison inmate, the drug addict or the runaway teenager. At that point, when life has fallen apart, when churches do not welcome us, when people talk about us in past tense, when there are no easy answers- where is God then? How do we tell a father who has abused his family or a young girl who has aborted her child or a convicted criminal that Jesus Christ offers hope if we have forgotten that Jesus, from the very beginning, has been the savior of the sick, not of the healthy who need no help? As individual followers of Jesus, we need to faithfully and stubbornly hold to the Christ who preached and practiced “the upside down Kingdom.”
Next week we move on to Fasting and New Wine.
1. Why is it important that we carefully note how Jesus treated people?
2. Why do you suppose Jesus often discouraged those who proclaimed themselves disciples?
3. What is involved in the command “Follow Me?”
4. How would you relate salvation and discipleship?
5. Who, in our culture, is viewed as “tax collectors and sinners”?
6. Someone has said that the problem today is not that people do not know how to be saved, but that no one considers themselves lost. What do you think?
7. Michael says that Matthew was spiritually hungry. Why do we often assume that lost people are not spiritually hungry but religious people are? Is there any evidence that the opposite is sometimes true?
8. Jesus obviously ate with sinners in places where it would become the “talk of the town,” such as Matthew’s home? Should we imitate Jesus in this? What would happen if we did?
9. What is the significance of eating with sinners? Why does God use this image so often in scripture, such as in Revelation 3:20?
10. How do you react to the idea “Jesus is for losers?” What part of us does this message most offend?
11. How could you rewrite the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican for today?
12. Do most of today’s outcasts believe Jesus is more in their corner than in the church corner? Why?
13. Who are today’s outcasts and sinners? Which is the hardest for you to accept?
14. Is anyone willing to share when they were the outcast? How did it feel?
15. If Jesus were on earth today, where might we find him that would offend religious people? Would you be willing to go there?