Scripture: Mark 2:13–17
Jesus called sinners to relationship with Him
Centuries ago Italian workmen transported a huge block of marble from the famous quarries of Carrara to the city of Florence. It was meant to be a statue of an OT prophet. The great sculpture Donatello, saw many imperfections in the stone and he refused to use it. The block lay useless for twenty-five years until another artist saw it and envisioned something of great beauty there. After two years of work, Botticelli, DaVinci and other masters gathered for the unveiling. Michelangelo’s amazing statue of David was met with a chorus of praise and continues to be viewed as one of the greatest works of art over 500 years later.
Jesus saw the flawed imperfect life of Levi, a hated tax collector, but he knew the potential was there for him to become a great disciple and author of the Gospel of Matthew. Scripture says “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Ephesians 2:10
This morning we are continuing our sermon series from the Gospel of Mark titled The Crown & The Cross.
Jesus is presented as a man of decisive action with a clear message and mission, and the reader is called to actively response to the message. Mark’s writing style, with lots of action words like “immediately,” communicates a real sense of urgency. How will you respond to Jesus as we hear His life chronicled and discover who He is?
Mark divides Jesus’ life into two parts: his identity as Messiah and King over all things in chapters 1-8a (the crown) and then we see His purpose in suffering and dying on the cross in chapters 8b-16.
In today’s short text, Mark 2:13-17, we see Jesus walking, and talking and eating with sinners – every day people. And the scribes and pharisees were not happy about it. They could not understand why he would waste his time with them. Let’s find out.
Mark 2:13–17 (ESV)
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.
And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
I. Called a Sinner to be a Disciple vv. 13-14
Jesus has left town and is briefly enjoying a walk along the shore of the Sea of Galilee until the crowds show up and he again begins talking to them and teaching them. His message is repent of your sins, turn to God, because the Kingdom of God is coming soon.
As He walks along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus (just so you know which Levi we’re talking about) sitting at the tax booth.
Tax collectors, also known as publicans (publicanus), charged tolls and taxes on behalf of the Roman and Jewish governments. These private government subcontractors would tax travelers who were carrying merchandise between properties or delivering goods along certain well-defined roads. Rome preferred to hire locals who were familiar with a region’s inhabitants, land, and roads.
It is likely that Levi was a local customs officer, perhaps working for a more powerful middleman who would be responsible to Herod Antipas for the provincial customs revenue. Capernaum was a major fishing village, so it makes sense that lots of commerce and business was carried out there.
What made tax collectors so bad was not only working for the government and the invading Romans, but they stole from their own people. Tax collectors “bought” their position like a franchise. They were given a long lists of taxes that could be collected and then they were free to add on a little extra for themselves. The taxes were so confusing and convoluted few people knew what they actually owed. There was no IRS.GOV site to look up the tax code. The tax collectors simply told people what to pay and they had to pay it or they were thrown in prison.
Tax collectors were obviously despised and hated. If you have read or seen movies about “moles” and informants in Nazi and Communist regimes you will have an appreciation for the loathing that first-century Jews felt for tax collectors. In Jewish culture tax collectors were lumped together with thieves and murderers. A Jew who collected taxes was not trusted to be a judge or witness in court. They were expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family. The touch of a tax collector made a house ceremonially unclean. Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery. Jewish contempt of tax collectors was so extreme that you could lie to them and still be innocent before the religious leaders. Tax collectors were tangible reminders of Roman domination, detested alike for its injustice and Gentile uncleanness. Many Jewish extremists, including one among Jesus’ own disciples Simon the zealot, considered submission to the Roman rule, as well as its system of taxation an act of treason to God. They were considered rotten sinners by just about everyone. And this is the kind of man, Jesus saw and called to be a disciple. A piece of marble that was so flawed it was worthless.
B. Jesus’ Call
Jesus saw Levi sitting in his tax collector booth, knew all of these things about him; the sins in his heart and probably his feeling of self-loathing and worthlessness. And Jesus said “follow me.” As we saw in Mark 1, when Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Him, this meant become a disciple of mine. Come live and learn God’s message from me.
C. Levi’s Response
Verse 14 says and he rose and followed him. In Luke Gospel chapter 5 where this same story is recorded, it says “He left everything he rose and followed him.” Levi gave up his lucrative occupation, his life of lying and stealing from his own people, and followed Jesus. Just as James and John left their father and his fishing boats, Levi left his place with the tax collectors and followed Jesus. The mention of other tax collectors at his house (v. 15) suggests that he did not work alone, so that his abandonment of the tax booth did not necessarily leave it unguarded.
This was a public place. Lots of people were crowded around Jesus. They heard Him choose Levi, the worthless tax collector. And they saw Levi’s response. He was all in.
II. Eating with Sinners vv. 15-17
A. Setting v. 15
Verse 15 jumps right into Jesus reclining at the table in Levi’s home. Again Luke’s Gospel gives just a little more detail. Luke was a doctor and perhaps liked to give more details and be more precise and specific. Mark just jumps ahead with the story. 5:29 “Then Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them.” Scribes and Pharisees who were known for following the Law and their extra laws to a “T” would not associate with known sinners or tax collectors. They didn’t want to be made unclean by common people.
Levi’s response to following Jesus is throwing a party for all his tax collector friends. He wanted them to meet Jesus too and hear his amazing Gospel message. This should be the case for anyone who comes to know Jesus as Savior. Telling your family and friends the Good News. You don’t keep it to your self!
Reclining at Table
We all read the Bible (or any book) with our own unique set of cultural values and ideas. That affects how understand and interpret what we read. In this case, we need to put on a different set of glasses to understand what is happening in the first century middle eastern culture in the time of Jesus.
Gathering together and eating a meal with someone or a group of people was a big deal. Meals in ancient times were significant and often concluded or solidified agreements between people.
Shared meals often expresses the universal value of hospitality. Meals can affirm kinship, friendship, and goodwill, acknowledge someone’s special status, or recognize a desire for peace between arguing or warring parties. Depending on the context and occasion, meal fellowship can convey many nonverbal messages relating to interpersonal relationships.
In NT times guests ate while reclining on couches, supporting their heads with their left hands and eating from a common bowl on the table with their right hand.
So this was a really big deal that Jesus, the proclaimed Messiah, the Son of God, the Righteous One is sharing a meal up close and personal with a bunch of sinners.
B. Pharisees’ Accusation v. 16
v. 16 tells us the scribes of the pharisees saw who Jesus was eating with and asked His disciples “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?
What does this question tell us about the religious leaders?
It’s hard to tell from the passage whether the Pharisees were at the party or simply watching through the windows or maybe even heard about it from someone else. But they spend their lives trying to avoid contact with people like this. They only wanted to be around other Pharisees so they could remain clean and in their eyes righteous and holy. How could they be so hypocritical and judgmental? How could they not see the need these sinners had for God?
We read about the Pharisees and say “Wow!” They really missed God’s message of mercy, love, and forgiveness. But are Christians ever guilty of this? Do we go to Bible studies, Sunday school, prayer meetings, fellowships to be around other Christians? Do we only look for Christian doctors, and plumbers, and mechanics who are also Christians? Do we interact almost exclusively with other Christians? We would definitely not say we are like the Pharisees, but are we living that way practically? Do you go through a typical week without talking to and spending time with unbelievers?
We need to reach out to the people we work with, our neighbors. Go out to dinner. Go to a football game. Have them over for burgers. We need to extend ourselves to help those around us who may be hurting.
In John 17:15 Jesus said Father I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. What was Jesus’ view of this, how did He respond? Let’s see.
C. Jesus’ Response v. 17
v. 17 When Jesus heard their accusations he didn’t make excuses or hide from their judging eyes. He responded “Healthy people don’t usually go to the doctor. You go when you know you are sick and need help.” I didn’t come to call the “self-righteous” those who don’t know they are sinners in God’s eyes. I am calling sinners to repent because they are honest with themselves. They know they need a Savior.
As Matthew shares this same event in chapter 9 He added another response to the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means “I desire mercy (love) and not sacrifice.” quoted from Hosea 6:6 which we studied a few months back. God is looking for us to show mercy or love more than following the specifics of the Law. It’s a compassionate heart that shows people what God is like not strictly following rules.
Jesus did not isolate himself from the needy people, but he also didn’t assimilate with them. Yes, he shared a meal with them and talked to them and cared for them. But he never joined in their sin. He didn’t enjoy Levi’s stolen wealth and figure that was a good way to fund his ministry. He saw people in spite of their social or religious standing. He recognized their needs. He shared the Gospel of repentance and acceptance with them. And as a result more and more came to Him. Jesus came to call sinners. Does that include you?
God loves all people, regardless of social status or position. Our ministries as a church should focus on outsiders: People who need help and know they need the forgiveness of the Savior. Our personal lives should include non-believers who should be able to see our love and care for them. We are called to be salt and light in this world.
God’s salvation is freely offered to all who respond in faith. Forgiveness and eternal life are not earned by our good deeds. Salvation is a free gift from God. The tax collectors and sinners did not need to prove their worth to Jesus before he would fellowship with them and talk to them. He met them where they were and told them the way to acceptance by God is repentance and faith in the Messiah. Are you meeting people where they are or expecting them to get cleaned up and presentable before you will talk to them?
God chooses the lowly and foolish things of this world to accomplish his purposes. Fisherman and tax collectors were not the kind of people we would have expected the Messiah to choose as his disciples, his closest friends. The ones who knew they needed forgiveness and salvation were just the right kind of people to carry the Gospel message of repentance and acceptance to a hurting world. Do you continue to ask God’s forgiveness and see your own sin as worse and the thing you need to be working on most? Or are you really good at pointing out everyone else’s sin and helping them?
Be careful of pride and self-righteousness. The religious leaders of Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah and rejected His ministry because they thought they were in a different class from sinners. Do humility and compassion character your life and your relationship with others? Or do think you really have it all together and there’s really not that much more for you to change or confess? The Apostle Paul said “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourself.
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love and compassion for one another and for all, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s in His name I pray. Amen.