Consorting with a Tax Collector

The Text: Mark 2:13-17 – He went forth again by the seaside; and all the multitudes came to Him, and He taught them.  And as He passed by, He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, “Follow me.”  And he arose and followed Him.

And it came to pass, that, as Jesus reclined [at the table] in his house, many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples: for there were many, and they followed Him.

When the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, He says to them, “They that are healthy have no need of the physician, but those who are sick [do]: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Introduction

The Pharisees taught that if you ate with a sinner, it was the same as eating with a Gentile—you were unclean.  They completely rejected an entire segment of society as those who had thrown away their chance to be right with God, and we’re worth rescuing.

In contrast, Jesus, the King, the Son of God, actively sought those kinds of people, inviting them to come back to God in repentance.  It should probably go without saying, but which of the two examples should we be following today: Jesus’ or the Pharisees?

The Text, part 1 – Teaching the Multitude (Mark 2:13)

After healing the paralyzed man in Capernaum, Jesus left the house and went to the Sea of Galillee, where the crowds followed Him.

He went forth by the seaside and the multitude came to Him

In my head, I always imagined a large lake, peaceful and uninhabited.  But Capernaum was a fishing village.  There would have been several boats on the lake, some on the shore, with people buying and selling, little booths set up here and there.  But there was still more room here than in the house, or even in the city itself, for the crowds that wanted to see Jesus.

And He taught them

It seems like Mark is trying to make a point to his readers by this statement.  Jesus had just healed a paralyzed man, and He had the crowd’s complete attention.  Now, He teaches them.  He’s not doing any more miracles right now, He’s telling them about God’s Empire, the Kingdom of Heaven.  He’s telling them to repent.  In short, He’s calling them to join His side—emphasizing the message is more important than the miracles.

The Text, part 2 – Calling Levi (Mark 2:14)

As He passed by

The way this is worded, it seems as though Jesus was teaching the people as He walked along the Sea of Galilee.  If this is the case, it would fit in well with Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as a Man of action, constantly moving and working.

He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office

Both here and in Luke’s account, this man is called “Levi.”  However, we know him by a different name: the apostle Matthew.  In Matthew 9:9, the Bible says:

And as Jesus passed forth from there, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the tax office: and He says to him, “Follow me.”  And he arose and followed Him.

He’s also called the “son of Alphaeus,” which is significant, because in chapter three, we’re introduced to another man who is also called “the son of Alphaeus”—James, one of the twelve apostles.

Levi (we’ll call him Matthew from here on out) was sitting at the tax office, or “toll booth,” near the sea where the ships landed from the other side.  It is said that Herod taxed the things coming in and going out from that port.  It was a place of taxes for merchants who were bringing their things in from Damascus towards Jerusalem or to the port of Caesarea, where it could be taken almost anywhere.  It was a busy place, and a lot of money was brought in.

He…said to him, “follow me.”  And he arose and followed Him.

Here, Jesus uses a different word than the authoritative command “Come now” as He did with Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:17).  To Matthew, a government employee, the King didn’t need to issue a command like that.  He showed His acceptance of Matthew by simply saying, “Follow me.”

Certainly, working at the edge of Capernaum, Matthew was a resident of the city.  As such, there is no doubt that he had heard about Jesus’ miracles, and perhaps even seen some of them himself.  It’s possible that he had family or friends that were healed.  So it is not as though some total stranger was asking him to leave his job and follow after him.  There was a basis, a reason for Matthew to get up and follow the King.

The Text, part 3 – Eating with Sinners (Mark 2:15-17)

After getting up and leaving the tax office, Matthew invited Jesus to his house for a feast (Luke 5:29).  That’s when the antagonism against Him reared its ugly head again.

It came to pass, as Jesus reclined in [Matthew’s] house, that many tax collectors and sinners sat also together with Jesus and His disciples.

Matthew must have had a decent-sized house for “many” tax collectors and sinners to sit at this great feast along with Jesus and His disciples (however many that was at this point).  But take special notice that Jesus was willing to spend time with sinners—and also note that these were children of God, people in a covenant relationship with God, who had gone astray.  But Jesus still spent time with them, and ate with them.  He didn’t endorse their actions, nor was He somehow guilty by association.  He spent time with them because…well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

There were many, and they followed Him

There were many tax collectors who followed Jesus, and many sinners that followed Jesus.  It’s possible that when Matthew left the tax office, others did as well, recognizing Jesus as the miracle-working teacher from God.  And also take notice that Jesus was now recognized as a religious figure—one who was willing to accept them.  They had, for so long, been shunned, neglected, and rejected by the Pharisees and scribes, made to feel like they could never have God’s love of forgiveness.  And now, here comes someone who has proven He was a man of God by miracles, and He’s preaching a message of “God loves you and wants you back; He wants you to repent.”  It’s no wonder they flocked to Him!

And when the Scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with tax collectors and sinners…

These two groups were to be a constant thorn in Jesus’ side the rest of His time on earth.  The scribes, you’ll remember, were the ones mentally accusing Jesus of being a blasphemer in Mark 2:6-7.  Mark accurately portrays them as the bad guys.  And while he didn’t mention the Pharisees specifically in that incident (though Luke tells us they were involved), he does bring them up here.

If the scribes and Pharisees saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they were either (1) also at the feast with the tax collectors and sinners, or (2) they were outside and saw Jesus entering the house.  If you look at the Greek words, it’s hard to conclude that they were outside.  Jesus was in the house, and they saw (literally “saw with the eyes”) Jesus eating.  So when these two groups of people start complaining and questioning about why Jesus would eat with tax collectors and sinners, they’re being hypocrites, for they are at the feast as well.

They said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”

Mark is really driving this point home, repeating the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” thrice in two verses.  By this time, the readers would have caught on that Jesus’ Kingdom is different, and one that is greatly concerned with spiritual preparedness and moral goodness.  So when they see Jesus talk to a tax collector (no one likes tax collectors—unless you’re working for the government), and go to his house to spend time with more tax collectors and sinners, they might have been wondering what was going on as well.  If you’re trying to gather citizens for your Kingdom, Jesus, why would you choose tax collectors—the people no one likes?  And why, if your Kingdom is a moral, spiritual one, would you be spending time with those who aren’t moral or living in a spiritually pure way?

But remember what we saw last time, that the readers would have pictured the scribes as the bad guys because of their mental accusations against Jesus.  So they knew the scribes probably didn’t have honest motives in asking this question.

The scribes and Pharisees asked this question because these groups were outcasts, rejects from the religious Jews.  Some have said that tax collectors were rarely welcomed in the synagogue, being viewed as traitors because ultimately they worked for the Roman government, taking money from the Jews to give to Rome.  They viewed these sinners as people who had abandoned their right to be called children of God ever again because of their sin.  It’s because of this exact attitude that Jesus gave the three parables in Luke 15 (see especially verses 1-2), including the parable of the Prodigal Son.

These two groups thought of themselves as the real religious Jews, the only ones who were acceptable to God.  And if they wouldn’t eat with those groups, then Jesus couldn’t really be from God, otherwise He wouldn’t eat with them either.  It’s the idea of You don’t do things like us, therefore you must be wrong.  Their traditions had become more important to them that the word of God and love for their brethren.

So, as a result, they said to Jesus’ disciples—the ones who were inside Matthew’s house at the feast—Explain why He eats with tax collectors and sinners!

When Jesus heard it, He says to them, “They who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick [do].”

In these words is wisdom, compassion, and condemnation.  The wisdom is seen in how Jesus answered them.  He didn’t say anything about the traditions that the scribes and Pharisees had elevated over God’s word.  He didn’t justify the sins of the sinners, nor did He deny that they were sinners; in fact, quite the opposite.  He admitted clearly that these people were indeed spiritually sick.  So, the way He answered showed wisdom by answering in a way that the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t speak against.

The compassion is seen in how Jesus describes Himself in relation to the tax collectors and sinners.  He is the doctor, the one who cares for sick people, and tries to heal them.  He recognizes the failings of these people with whom He is eating, their distance from God, their need for help, and His answer basically says, “I’m trying to help these people get well.”  Who could possibly have a problem with that?

The condemnation is seen in that the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees was one of “they aren’t worth saving.”  They, the religious leaders of the Jews, should have been the doctors, seeking to heal these sick sinners, bringing them back to spiritual health.  Instead, they viewed these spiritually sick people as spiritually dead and therefore ignored them.  But Jesus’ answer condemns their attitude.  Just like with the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the older brother (representing the Pharisees) knew what the younger brother (the tax collectors and sinners) had done, but did nothing to help; these scribes and Pharisees had done nothing to help these people recover from their sins.

It’s worth noting that the scribes and Pharisees thought they were well, spiritually, but they were among the sickest of all!  Jesus Himself said it in Matthew 23:13-33:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men: for you shall neither go in yourselves, nor do you permit those who are entering to go in.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore you shall receive the greater condemnation.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you traverse sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made one, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Woe to you, you blind guides, which say “Whoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!”  And “Whoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the altar, he is guilty!”  You fools and blind!  For which is greater: the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift?  Whoever therefore shall swear by the altar swears by it and by all things therein.  And whoever shall swear by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.  And he that shall swear by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, but have omitted the weightier matters of the Law: judgment, mercy, and faith: these you ought to have done, not leaving the others undone.  You blind guides, who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but inside they are full of extortion and excess.  You blind Pharisee! Cleanse first that which is inside the cup and platter, that the outside of them might be clean as well.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.  Even so, you outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  Because you build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, and say “If we would have been [living] in the days of our fathers, we wouldn’t have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.”  Therefore you are witnesses to yourselves that you are the children of those who killed the prophets.  Then fill up the measure of your fathers.  You serpents, you generation of vipers!  How can you escape the damnation of hell?

The tax collectors and sinners were better off than the scribes and Pharisees.  They realized they were sick and needed a physician; the scribes and Pharisees were sick and had convinced themselves they weren’t.  Jesus ate with them, because they knew they needed help, and He knew He could help them.  There’s a world of difference in the people who are in willful rebellion to God and those who are trying to live right and struggling mightily.  Can you imagine a Christian acting like those Pharisees; a Christian who looks at a brother who has fallen away and says, “They ought to know better,” and does nothing to try to bring them back?

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

The tax collectors and sinners would have been paying attention to what Jesus was saying here, as He was like a guest of honor.  And in the answer that Jesus gives, He shows great diplomacy by not coming out and bluntly condemning the religious leaders.

Those who were truly righteous were already on God’s side, and thus on Jesus’ side.  The scribes and Pharisees may have thought Jesus was referring to them as the righteous, but their actions exposed them as anything but.  They accused Him of blasphemy; they questioned Him (with bad motives) about eating with tax collectors and sinners; they accused Him of endorsing Law-breaking; they actively looked for things to accuse Him of; they joined together with their own political enemies to try to destroy Him; and accused Him of being a minion of Satan himself!  And all of that takes place in Mark chapters 2 and 3!

But here’s the important part of the message: Jesus calls sinners to repentance.  He loves sinners, and ultimately He died for them, but He doesn’t want them to stay sinners.  He calls them to repent!  He still calls people to repent today.

Application

Who Are You Avoiding?

Jesus ate with the outcasts of society, spent time with God’s children who had fallen away and who were struggling.  I’ve seen it far too often that some Christians refuse to spend time with certain people because of their race, or their politics, or because they’re poor, or they’ve fallen away and “ought to know better.”  Are they any less important to God?  Folks, those are the kinds of people Jesus went to!  It’s the sinners that need us to bring them to Christ.  How can we stand before our Lord and say, “I’ve done everything I could for you,” when we avoid certain classes of people and stoutly refuse to take the soul-saving gospel to them?

Where’s Your Spirituality?

As we saw, the Pharisees had an outward show of spirituality, doing the right things outwardly, but inside they were horridly wicked.  Just because we follow the New Testament pattern in worship and insist on baptism being immersion in water does not mean that we are truly spiritual.  Our spirituality needs to be inward first, a heart yearning to obey God, a heart which aches over sins, a heart that desperately wants to be right with the Lord.  When we have this mind, it exhibits itself in the outward acts of obedience and worship.  Many people warm a pew and go through the outward motions, but inside they are repulsive to God.  Are you one of the ones Paul talked about when he said, “There is now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit”?

Invitation

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).  Today, take an honest look at your soul’s condition.  You know far better than I do what you’ve done, what your attitude has been.  Jesus came to call sinners to repentance.  Those who truly believe in Jesus will do just that—repent.  When you repent, you will acknowledge Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and submit to His command to be immersed for the forgiveness of your sins.

But just like some of the people from our lesson today, you might find yourself fallen away, gone back into sin.  I want you to know—Jesus Himself wants you to know—that God loves you, and He wants you to come back home to Him.  Simply go to Him in prayer, confess your sins, and ask for forgiveness.

He is calling you now.  Won’t you come to Him?

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