The scene in Mark 2:13-17 opens with a similar scene that we have seen many times so far in Mark’s gospel: crowds are coming to Jesus. The people in Galilee and the surrounding regions are coming to Jesus. They are listening to his preaching concerning the kingdom of God and people are being healed and unclean spirits are being cast out. So once again Jesus is at the Sea of Galilee and all the crowd was coming to him. Once again we see the mission and purpose of Jesus in verse 13. Jesus was teaching them. Jesus has come to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God (1:14-15). As Jesus walked beside the sea, he saw Levi sitting in a tax booth and tells him to follow him. Levi gets up from the tax booth and follows Jesus. We notice that is very similar to what happened with James and John and Simon and Andrew. They drop everything and follow Jesus.
To understand the rest of the account we need to take a moment to understand what just occurred. Levi is sitting in a tax booth. He is a tax collector. It is likely that he sat at a toll booth where customs would be collected on goods in transit on one of the important roads in Galilee. The toll might be on the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee or some other trade that would be happening near the sea. Capernaum was a major town through which travelers would pass as they came from other territories. As such, tax collectors were despised. But they were not despised like we might despise the IRS in our time. The reason tax collectors were despised was because of their reputation for dishonesty, their exorbitant surcharges, and their duplicity with oppressive rulers. Since tax collectors made their living from the money they could collect over and above the taxes owed, extortion and corruption were rampant. The toll booth worker could charge whatever he determined. Imagine driving on the turnpike and not know what you were going to pay as you came to each booth because the cost was completely left to the discretion of the person working in the booth. Listen to some of the declarations of the Mishnah to understand the Jewish perception of tax collectors.
The Mishnah prohibited receiving alms from a tax collector as his office since the money was presumed to have been gained illegally. If a tax collector entered a house, all that was in the house became unclean. The rabbis went so far as to say it was permissible to lie to tax collectors to protect your own property. Tax collectors were hated because they were so dishonest. So I want us to think about what Jesus just did. Previously we saw Jesus call four commercial fishermen to follow him. But now he calls a tax collector, someone hated by most of the Jewish people, to be his follower. With these things in mind, let us notice what happens next.
Jesus is now in Levi’s house for a meal. But Levi and Jesus are not eating alone. Many tax collectors and sinners were reclining at the table with Jesus and his disciples (2:15). Notice verse 15 closely. Many tax collectors and sinners are the ones who are following Jesus. Jesus does not have just five followers: Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Levi. Jesus comes to Levi’s house and there are many tax collectors and sinners there. Why are there many tax collectors and sinners there? The reason is given in verse 15. These tax collectors and sinners are following Jesus.
The Conflict (2:16)
This presents a conflict for the scribes. We noted in our last lesson that Mark will record in chapters 2-3 the conflicts the leaders will have with Jesus. We are going to read about Jesus coming to his own and his own not receiving him. Jesus is eating with tax collectors and notorious sinners and this is a problem for the scribes. Listen to what they say: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” We must recognize that these sinners are notorious sinners. Just as the tax collectors are not merely doing the job of collecting taxes. They were cheats and dishonest. In the same way, these are not just sinners like we look about the room and say that we are all sinners. Rather, to speak of them as sinners means they are sins that are well known. These are sexually immoral people and other such similar sins so that people are aware that you have greatly sinned. Jesus is eating with these kinds of people and these are the people that are following Jesus. This is why the question arises among the scribes. What is your teacher doing? Why would he eat with these kinds of people? I mean, you can’t help if they follow you. But you are in a tax collector’s house eating with tax collectors and sinners. What is he doing? But we need to see that this is an arrogant question. Only a person who does not think he is a sinner would ask such a question.
Jesus’ Response (2:17)
Listen to Jesus’ answer 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” (Mark 2:17 ESV). “Healthy people do not need a doctor” was a common proverb in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. Jesus takes the proverb and applies it to his own ministry. Jesus has not come to call the righteous but sinners. We probably know this verse but I want us to consider the meaning of what Jesus is saying.
First, the sick are the ones in need of a doctor. Those who are well do not need a doctor. But do not misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not saying that some people are sick and some people are well. The message of the gospel is that everyone is sick. Everyone is under condemnation. There is none who are righteous (Romans 3). Jesus is not saying that some are good and some are not. Jesus is making something clear. Who are the people who go to the doctor? The people who go to the doctor are those who know they are sick. They admit that there is something wrong. They realize that they will not be made well over time. They need help and they know it. This is the point of the picture. What do you want from a doctor? Do you just want some advice? No, you want an intervention. You do not go to the doctor for confirmation that you are sick but for a treatment. But think about this also: can a doctor help you if you do not see one? The doctor has no value if you do not recognize your sickness and then go to the doctor for treatment.
This leads to the second declaration: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Please think about what Jesus just said. The call is not to the people who think they are saved. The call is to the people who are lost and know it. Just as those who think they are well will not go to a doctor, so also those who think they are spiritually well do not seek the spiritual doctor. How often we will presort people into those who think will listen to the gospel. But usually the people we presort for the gospel are those who do not think they are sick. We pick out people who seem to be morally good and try to give them the gospel and they do not receive it because they do not see their sickness. We are often afraid to take the gospel to the people who are notorious sinners. Jesus is declaring that the gospel is for sinners just as they are. The picture is not to find people who are somewhat good and give them the gospel. It is not transformation then the gospel. The gospel is the cause for the transformation.
But notice what Jesus is doing. Jesus is in Levi’s house eating with these tax collectors and sinners. Jesus does not merely preach repentance. Jesus befriends sinners. This kingdom is a kingdom for outcasts. This kingdom is a kingdom for people who know they are spiritually sick and are looking for treatment. The kingdom is not for people who are pretending to be fine and do not need a doctor. The kingdom is not contaminated by sinners. The kingdom brings restoration and healing to sinner, reconciling them to God. The message of sin, grace, and transformation must be brought to the world. Doctors cannot help the sick if they hide in clinics behind locked doors. Self-admitting sinners are the ones who are in this kingdom. How did the Sermon on the Mount begin?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 ESV)
This is the big key that Jesus is teaching. We are reading about the refusal of the self-righteous to see themselves in need of forgiveness from the one who had demonstrated the authority to grant it. Those who are saved are those who are self-confessed sinners. This is the scandal of the gospel that we often can struggle with. Forgiveness is not based on how good you are, but how much you understand who you are in God’s sight.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)
Who did Jesus come into the world to save? Sinners! Jesus came to save sinners. Jesus did not come to save the righteous. People must think about this amazing truth. Jesus did not come to save the righteous. Jesus came to save sinners. If we think we are doing fine spiritually, then we are the ones who are self-righteous and do not see our need. We are never spiritually fine. Jesus does not call the people who think they are doing well. Jesus calls the people who will not lift their head to the sky, but simply say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:13). It is so easy to forget. You are not forgiven because of how good you are. You are forgiven because you realize how terrible your sins are.
Why did Jesus call Levi? Why are tax collectors and sinners following Jesus? Why is Jesus befriending tax collectors and sinners? Why is Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners? Because Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. The righteous think they can heal themselves. The righteous think they are healthy. The righteous think they are doing good. The righteous think they can make themselves right before God. Sinners know how utterly sinful they are, bow their knees to Jesus, knowing that there is nothing we have to offer except our humble sorrow and complete brokenness. It is these that Jesus forgives. Is there one person that we do not want to come to belong to the church here? What person do you not want to sit by? What person do you not want here? We have had some really strange people come through our doors. Did we ever think, “What is that person doing here?” You see that we can fall into the same way of thinking as these scribes. We have become the self-righteous.
When you are broken by your sins so that you think that you cannot do this, that you cannot be good enough or be what the gospel has called you to be, that is when Jesus says to you that you are exactly where he wants you to be. The law is to humble so that we will seek the mercy and grace of Jesus. The law was not given so that you would think that you are good enough. The law came so that you would plead and make your appeal for the mercy of God. If you are trying to be good enough, you need to stop because you can’t be good enough. You are pursuing a path that leads away from salvation. Instead, be cut to the heart by your sins and let God’s grace change you from the inside out. The more we see how much we have been forgiven, the more we will love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as ourselves (cf. Luke 7:47).