Eating With Sinners (Mark 2:13-17)

Posted on Updated on

Gospel of Mark Title

We’ve already talked about how Mark is introducing Jesus as the one answer to all the important questions in the world. If you recall, we said that the audience he is writing to are a group of persecuted, Roman Christians who aren’t looking for deep theology, long dissertations or genealogies, or a lot of teaching sections – they want proof that Jesus is who He says He is, has the Power they need Him to, and is the One and Only way to be saved.

They were in a pantheistic culture, surrounded by stories of gods of every sort and kind, so there was no need for another fable or religion to go alongside the rest. The claims of the missionaries that had gone through Rome was that Jesus wasn’t one of many gods, but was the Son of the One, True God, same in worth and power as God. They taught the Trinity – that Jesus was begotten from the Father and had sent the Holy Spirit to empower them to righteous living. They taught that Jesus said there was only one choice. He made an exclusive claim to be the only Saviour and the only One who should be worshiped. This would mean abandoning their other gods and religious activities and meetings, and joining a small group of people who were being persecuted because of their radical beliefs.

Authority and Opposition

And so Mark writes to them binocularly – with two lenses, two themes – one focused on the claims and power of Jesus Christ as He demonstrates His authority through teaching and miracles. The other lens is the reaction of the people around him, especially the religious experts, political power players and the wealthy elite — and they all hated Jesus.

Mark 2 gives us two great reasons why these people hated him so much – First, because He claimed to BE GOD, and second because of His relationships with “unclean”, despised outsiders.  Let’s read Mark 2:13-17:

“13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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’?’ 17 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.’”

Doesn’t Make Sense

When you think about this story for a while, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Religious people don’t understand what Jesus is doing here because He’s not acting like a holier-than-thou, stuck-up, religious person. Politicians don’t get it because He’s doing things that damage His reputation. The wealthy elite of this world are offended by it because he’s associating with unseemly, lower classes from the wrong side of the tracks. On some level, unless Jesus has radically changed our hearts, we don’t understand what Jesus is doing here either.

Jesus Chooses Outcasts

Here’s Jesus teaching a crowd of people as He is walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. That area was a port where ships would come in, and at that port was a large table where sat a Jewish man named Levi (also known as Matthew) who collected the taxes from the people in the ships.

Capernaum, Israel

Being a tax collector meant that Levi worked for the government. Not as big deal in the Ottawa area, but it was a huge deal to the Jewish people living in Capernaum. If you were a Tax Collector, that meant you were willingly collaborating with the enemies of the Jews, the Romans who were forcibly occupying the Jewish homeland. You were a traitor. It also meant that you were working with Herod Antipas, a Roman ruler hated by everyone.

Any person who would take a position like that would be excommunicated from the synagogue and shamed by his family and friends. Tax collectors had a reputation of being cheats who overtaxed people and kept the extra money for themselves, and they could do that because their position gave them access to Roman soldiers who would enforce their greed.

How here’s something interesting that may have complicated matters more. One of the major activities at this port was the fisherman who would come and sell their days catch. Levi would almost certainly have taken tax money from the hands of some of the disciples who were standing around listening to Jesus – Peter and Andrew, the first disciples were fisherman on the Sea of Galilee after all! They had no love for this man to whom they had probably forked over a good chunk of their hard earned money.

Can you imagine what was going through the minds of the disciples as Jesus walked up to the tax booth? There’s Peter and Andrew listening to Jesus and then they say to each other, “Hey! There’s that Levi. What a jerk!” Then they see Jesus moving towards him.

I’m guessing they were quite excited about this. I wonder if they thought that He was going to give Him a piece of His mind – or maybe bring down a lightning bolt and fry the tax collector and his table. But instead Jesus uses the exact same words that called them into His service: “Follow me.” That’s interesting.

How Jesus Sees People

Let’s pull a few points out of this interaction so we can learn a bit about the heart of Jesus for people, and perhaps change our own ideas about how we see people:

1. Jesus Doesn’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover

First, Jesus doesn’t judge a book by its cover. The opinions of others regarding the person standing in front of Him have no bearing on his view of them. We like to get our opinions about people from others. We’ve all done it. Someone new comes around and we start asking around about them: “What’s that person like? What do you know about them? What’s their deal?” And if they are special or different in any way we start to judge the book by its cover: “Why do they dress like that? What’s up with that tattoo? Why would they have a job like that? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they like everyone else?”

Jesus cuts through all of that, ignores it, and goes straight for the heart of the person. He loves you and me and every individual person regardless of others opinions. He lets us each stand on our own merit, or our own sin. He isn’t fooled by a slick, clean façade – and He isn’t put off by a troubled, confused, rough exterior either.

When Jesus spoke to Levi – or to any of us there this morning when we met Him for the first time – He knew everything about us. Our greatest sins, our deepest desires, the things we love and hate, how far we have come and how far we still need to go. But He spoke to us anyway. He saw Levi’s heart – not his tax booth – and knew His deepest need.

I think we could all learn this lesson and give people the benefit of the doubt, gather our information about them from them, and be willing to look past their exterior to discover a person’s true heart. This teaches us a lot about the danger of gossip because when we are talking behind people’s backs we are getting a tainted impression of them, untruths and assumptions that another person is making. And then, when we meet the person, we have already drawn conclusions about them which colour our opinion of them.

2. Jesus Chooses Opposites

Second, Jesus goes out of his way to choose someone that is the polar opposite of himself and the rest of his followers. He actually invites the enemy into his camp. That’s interesting, and is something Jesus does all the time!

So often when Jesus is putting people together – whether it’s a marriage, a job partnership, a ministry team, or a church – He pulls together people who have opposing interests, views on life, who can’t agree on almost anything, and then He asks them to serve each other, love each other, and work together towards the same goal. The Lord has put some weird teams together and the disciples are just one of many examples.

I’m sure you have your own stories that attest to this. Maybe your own marriage or your friendships. Have you ever wondered why your kids are so different from you? Ever wondered why God would choose that person to be working beside you? It’s not that they are wrong, or sinful per-se… it’s just that almost everything they do, and the way they do it, somehow gets on your nerves.

God does that on purpose because it is through interacting with those people that we learn most about ourselves, our vices, our temptations, our motivations, our hot-buttons (because they push all of them), our fears and our idols.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17 says, and that is going to cause sparks, heat, shards and dross. It’s unavoidable, but it can be the best thing in the world for our hearts to be more like Jesus, if we allow the Holy Spirit to teach us through our interactions with opposite people.

3. Jesus Goes to “Those Kinds of People

The third thing to notice here is that Jesus breaks with the unwritten rules of society and chooses to associate with outcasts. He actually goes out of his way to talk to Levi. It almost seems like He’s in mid-sentence when Jesus looks over, sees Levi and thinks, “This guy is more important than whatever I was about to say…”

The people surrounding Jesus were no Levi’s “kind of people”. The people Levi hung out with were certainly not the “kind of people” that were standing around Jesus. And by the normal rules of that society, Jesus shouldn’t have even went near Levi because they were exactly opposite “kinds of people.”

Have you ever used that phrase? “Those kinds of people.” What did you mean? I don’t talk to those kinds of people. I don’t go to that place because it is full of those kinds of people. I have no interest in that because only those kinds of people like that kind of thing. What did you mean? You meant people who aren’t like you. And the implication is that people who are not like you are wrong and therefore not worthy of your time and attention. That phrase implies that there is a right way to be a part of your society, and a wrong way – and that you are living the right way.

Again, we’re not talking about sin! We’re talking about style, opinion, class, race, clan, subculture and peer group. Jesus couldn’t care less about a person’s subculture or peer group. He was able to talk to, love, enjoy, meet with, party with, and have deep discussions with “every kind of people”!

To his credit, Levi actually got up and left with these people – I can’t imagine what that would have been like. I’m guessing he stuck close to Jesus (a good metaphor for all of us who are surrounded by people who aren’t like us).

I wonder: What was it about Jesus that allowed Him to rise above being stuck into a certain kind of people and allowed Him to be accepted – and even sought out – by such a broad group of people? Religious experts and prostitutes tracked him down. Tax collectors and fisherman followed him. A rich young ruler and an old, bent, bleeding woman. Jews, Romans, Samaritans – He spoke, ministered, and enjoyed all of them.

Let’s hang onto this while we keep going.

4. Jesus Went to Scandalous Places

We skip forward in the story a little here and found ourselves at Matthew’s House. Now we see that Jesus wasn’t just talking to Levi, but was in fact eating, drinking, sitting with and even befriending him and his friends – in Levi’s house! It would be one thing for Rabbi Jesus to be having a conversation on the beach with an outcast like Levi at his tax booth – that would be scandalous enough. But Jesus goes the distance and actually goes into his home.

Maybe we can understand a bit of the scandal, but in that culture eating with someone in their home showed a personal acceptance of and friendship with the person. For a Jewish religious person, the most intimate thing you could do with someone who wasn’t part of your family, was to eat with them.

One commentary I read explains it this way: “The Pharisees, so strict in their observance of their laws as they attempted to retain their [‘ritual] purity’, refused to eat with the common people because the sins of the commoners might make them ceremonially impure. So when Jesus sat down to a meal with these ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, the Pharisees were quite surprised. Here was a man who seemed to have the entire law at his fingertips, who taught with great authority, yet stooped to the level of the poor, unlearned, common people (even sinners!).” (LAB Mark Pg 59)

Here’s something else that would have blown their minds — Jesus actually invited Himself over!

I think we need to learn from this and remember that Jesus didn’t conduct His life and ministry only in politically safe locations. He didn’t seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of Him, His motives, or His actions.

Now, could He have that exact same talk with Levi somewhere else? Sure He could have. But He didn’t. Instead, He deliberately went to Levi’s home to make a point to show him His love for Levi, His desire to see the household saved, to show that what He was saying wasn’t just good words, but were backed up by loving actions.

I think we need to worry a lot less about the opinions of others and a lot more about the opinions of God. Too many times I’ve known Christians to avoid doing something good, and right, and godly and loving – simply because someone might see them and misunderstand what they were doing there.

Yes, we need to be wise in our conduct, to be sure we don’t cause people to stumble into sin (Romans 14:21), to be sure that we have a good reputation with non-believers (1 Peter 2:12), and a clean testimony (1 Timothy 3:1-3; 1 Cor 4:1) – but I would argue that we are not to do this at the expense of spreading the gospel of Jesus, befriending someone, protecting someone, or sharing God’s mercy and love with others.

One quote I read this week said, “Christians will do anything for Christ, except ruin their reputation.” I challenge each of us to look at ways we have pulled back from obeying God’s will because we were worried about what others would think of us.

A Destructive Question

All of this this fries the Scribes’ and Pharisee’s brain pans. They look at this great rabii and think – “This should be on our team, and playing by our rules! What’s he doing in there with those kind of people?”

Being the cowards that they are, the didn’t have the courage to actually go to the person they were talking about and ask Jesus what He was doing, so they went to the disciples. I can hear the judgementalism in their voice. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

That question – that destructive question – shuts down a lot of ministries, faithful followers, and courageous Christians.

A man’s heart is absolutely captivated by God’s love for the lost, and he feels called to serve people in prison. But before he obeys God people start to tell him how dangerous it is, and how dirty and hard that kind of job is. Doing that can put your family in danger! Plus, everyone knows criminals and addicts never change, and all the conversions in prison are just so they can get out earlier for good behaviour.  Don’t you know that the turn-over rate for prison chaplains is so high because no one can last in that job? Same question: “Why would you go there?” The man starts to question his call… and that question helps him rationalize away what God wants him to do, so he can take an easier, more socially acceptable position.

A woman is converted from a lifestyle of sin. She loves Jesus, goes to church, and loves the people there, but also has friends from her old life that would never set foot in a church. One night her old friends invite her out to a party and tell her that it would be nice if she could come. Her mind starts to percolate at the possibility. She could bring along some of her new friends from church! Her friends could see that Christians aren’t all bad. They could be saved just like she was!

But then another thought enters her mind and the excitement of having the chance to bring a bunch of Christian friends to be a witness to her old friends fades as she’s consumed by worry about what will happen when these two worlds collide.

Will the Christians act strange? Will that make me look like a religious nut in the eyes of my old friends? What if one of my friends goes too far and gets drunk and starts hitting on one of the pastor’s kids? What would that do to her reputation at church? What if one of the young kids in her Sunday school class learns that she was at a party on Saturday night? How would she explain it? And so the night that could have been the beginning of something amazing dissolves into worry and fear.

And this isn’t just an age problem either. It’s not like young people are the only ones who succumb to that kind of question. I hear it all the time in the church. “We can’t do that because so-and-so won’t be happy if we did.” Or “We have to keep doing that because so-and-so will have a fit and leave the church if we stop.” Ministries and ministers are paralyzed because of the opinions of a few people who are like nitro-glycerine – you can’t move around them too much because they might explode.

Fear of Man vs. Fear of God

This is all about our fear of man vs. our fear of God. Check out Luke 12:8-12, a passage all about making sure our fear is in the right place:

“8And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

Here’s the thing. It is impossible to live in this world in a way that honours God and obeys Jesus if we fear man. It is impossible to do ministry and show the love of Jesus to people when we are motivated by the fear of man and not the voice of God and our love for Jesus. Our ministries and our lives will be too small to have any impact if we are constantly seeking the approval of man to get the go-ahead to obey God.

As a father and a pastor it is my duty to cultivate Christians who are dreaming big dreams and whose trust in God is so unshakeable that they are not afraid of other people. As a church we must raise up believers who are not shut down by criticism and whose motivation doesn’t come from human praise, but work for the glory of God and because of their love for Jesus.

That’s how we overcome the fear of man… by our love for God. I’m not worried about what people think because I’m only worried about what God thinks. If bad stuff is happening, I know that God loves me and that He’ll use it to help me be more like Jesus. I know that God has it under control, no matter where I go, and that He has my best interests at heart. I can go anywhere because God is everywhere and I want to spread the love of God to everyone. 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Jesus shows us here that He isn’t concerned in the slightest about pleasing people and bowing to social pressure. His love for sinners trumps everyone else’s opinion.

A fear of man comes from the belief that those people can give us something that God can’t, or won’t. We need their blessing, their acceptance, their love and respect, in order to have any kind of self-worth. Our question is simply, “Who do we fear — God or man? Do we obey Him even when it’s not socially acceptable, or do we shudder and cave in when we think about what other people will say about us?”

Jesus Comes To Us

Finally, let’s close in verse 17 with a  wonderful word of hope as Jesus summarizes His motivations perfectly. He says:

“Listen, I’m a doctor. I didn’t come here to chase around people who don’t think they’re sick. I can’t convince a person who thinks they are well that they are sick. And there’s nothing I can do for demotivated, prideful people who have no problem with their sickness. I can’t convince someone to be well who wants to be sick. I didn’t come for those who declare themselves healthy and try to convince everyone else them that the symptoms of their illness is in fact a sign of good health. I came to help those who know they are sick, and who are willing to submit to my care and be healed.”

Thank God for that today. That Jesus didn’t come with checklist of behaviours to meet before He would have anything to do with us. Thank God He didn’t come to condemn the sick and put His stamp of approval on all who met His standards. No, He came to save those who know they have fallen short, who are lost in sin, who admit they are sick, who know they are living in the dark, and who know they can’t help themselves.

The big deal today that we need to walk away with is that to Jesus – we are all those kind of people. We are different, rejected, sinful, dirty, cast out, unworthy, unlovable, broken, wretched, fallen and demonic. We are the ones who He shouldn’t associate with. But He did… and He does.

I don’t know about you, but I need that message this week. It is amazing to know that I have sinned – I’ve been a prideful, selfish fool this week – and yet Jesus still comes over to my house, sits with me, eats with me, loves me… and I don’t have to clean up for Him. I don’t have to clean up for Him to want to come in. Jesus promises to go out of his way, to invite Himself over, to come in and, in a gentle, perfect, holy, patient and personal way, clean up for me.

I didn’t invite Jesus into my heart. Jesus invited Himself and asked me to open the door. I don’t need to kick all the bad habits, bad people and messy issues out of my life before Jesus will come over. Instead, Jesus comes in expecting those things, sits down right in the middle of my mess, and is perfectly comfortable there. And He’s not tarnished or effected by it! His presence will only make that place better… I will never make Him worse. Even on my most sinful day, Jesus is still there, still with me, and remains just as available.

That’s the Jesus who we love, sing about, and pray to. We don’t need to worry about measuring up because we’re not the one who invited him in. He came to us. He simply says, “I’m the doctor of souls. Are you sick? I can heal you if you let me.” All any of us have to do is say “yes!”

Let us pass that amazing grace on to everyone else.