Jesus, Friend of Sinners
The Scripture this morning Mark 2:13-17. Jesus has already called four men to follow him; today we will see Jesus call another disciple. We will be looking at the call of Levi. While there are similarities to the call of Simon, Andrew, John, and James, there are differences. If you have your bibles open, I invite you to follow along as I read from God’s holy, inerrant, and inspired Word.
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 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.
15 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. 16 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?’ 17 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.’
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! Help us now to hear and obey what you say to us today. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
One of the most stressful days for most individuals is April 15th. April 15th is tax day. It is the day our taxes need to be filled in and submitted to the IRS. No one enjoys tax season. Taxes are complicated and tax law changes every couple of years. In October of 2017, the Washington Post reported that the tax code was 82,000 pages long. It is easy to make a mistake with taxes when tax code is 82,000 pages long. And if you make a mistake, you get a letter or now an email from the IRS telling you of the mistake and asking you to pay the difference.
If people don’t like interacting with the IRS, how much less do people like people who work for the IRS? Our dislike of the IRS as an institution transfers to those who work for the IRS. When we see someone who works for the IRS, we do not separate them as an individual from the organization.
As we examine this passage in Mark, we’ll see Jesus interact with Levi the tax collector and his call to Levi for him to follow him, we’ll see the Pharisees’ reaction to that call, and Jesus’ mission.
Friend of Sinners
Jesus has just shown his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic man. The town is a buzz with Jesus’ ability to heal and the radical claim he made about being able to forgive sins. And his response is not to hold a press conference or to set up a clinic where he could heal even more people and make his name great. His response is to go out from the city of Capernaum and go to the sea.
And while he’s out walking by the sea, spending some time with God the Father, the crowds were coming to him. They wanted to hear more from this teacher who spoke with such authority; they wanted to experience more of his miracles. So they followed him to the Sea of Galilee and surrounded him. And not missing an opportunity, Jesus continued to teach them. He continued to pronounce that the Kingdom of God was at hand, to repent, and to believe the gospel.
While he’s out along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sees Levi collecting taxes. Just as we’re not overly fond of tax collectors and those who work for the IRS, first century Jews were even less fond of tax collectors. They saw tax collectors as traitors. These were men who had allied themselves with the Roman government, the occupying force in Palestine. They were working for the enemy. And on top of that, the tax collectors often charged more than they needed. To get their position as tax collectors, they bribed Roman officials and needed to collect enough to pay back those bribes and more to line their own pockets. Tax collectors were so despised that they were forbidden from taking part in any legal proceedings. Their testimony as a witness was considered invalid and they also could not act as a judge. Tax collectors were viewed like those who informed on their friends and neighbors during Nazi occupied Germany or communist Russia. They were traitors not to be trusted.
On top of that, tax collectors were considered ceremonially unclean. They regularly interacted with Gentiles, which all self-respecting Jews avoided at all costs. Because Gentiles did not adhere to the strict cleanliness standards found in the Mosaic Law, they were unclean. They didn’t eat the right foods, they didn’t wash in the right ways, so they were ceremonially unclean. And for a Jew to interact with a Gentile meant they would be ceremonially unclean for a period. And tax collectors were regularly interacted with Gentiles. Tax collectors were the most hated group in Jesus’ day.
“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.” Luke adds this, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Levi was willing to leave behind everything he had. He was willing to leave behind his position as a tax collector to follow Jesus.
Are you willing to leave everything and follow Jesus? If he were to call you to follow, would you leave your lucrative job and go where he goes, sleep where he sleep, eat what he eats? That’s the call he gave to Levi and Levi left everything and followed him. The call to follow Jesus is to leave our previous lives behind and follow after him.
Sometimes that’s a radical change in occupation, like with Levi. Sometimes that’s a lifestyle change, like with the woman at the well in John 4. Sometimes that’s a shift in where we do our occupation, maybe we change where we work but not the type of job. Jesus’ call is to leave our previous lives and to follow him and his ways.
And after calling Levi, “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”. Jesus hosts a dinner for his new disciple. We don’t recognize how important eating with someone is in traditional cultures. For many of us, we use a meal as a way to get to know someone but not necessarily make a firm commitment that you are friends. In traditional cultures, having a meal with someone is a statement that those people are eating together are friends, those eating are united.
Do you remember the cafeteria in middle and high school? Go into a middle or high school and you will see the power of having a meal with someone. A new kid walks in and sits down at a table all by him or herself. And that kid feels alone. But then someone else sits down at the table and that new kid doesn’t feel so alone; they feel like they have a friend. But as we get older, we forget the power of having a meal with someone has. But Jesus and those at this dinner knew the power of sharing a meal together.
This dinner Jesus is hosting isn’t just Friday night dinner. This dinner is a banquet. They are all reclining. That was how Jesus and those at this dinner are eating. They’re reclining on their left arms, so they can eat with their right hand. The tables would have been arraigned in a u-shape; the most important table would be the one in the middle that would have been the host’s table. At most weddings, the wedding party is seated at a table where everyone can see them. That’s where Jesus would have been reclining with Levi on one side.
And the guests at this banquet are “tax collectors and sinners”. Jesus is eating with people most Jews considered to be traitors and sinners. Here, the word sinner doesn’t mean someone who hasn’t completely and fully kept the law. Here sinner is a technical word for “a class of people who were regarded by the Pharisees as inferior because they showed no interest in the scribal tradition” who “possessed neither time nor inclination to regulate their conduct by Pharisaic standards”.
Jesus is eating with traitors and those who were had virtually no interest in the moral standards of the Pharisees. These aren’t the people who go to synagogue twice a week; they’re not the people who go to synagogue on Day of Atonement. They are people who disregard the Law. These are the people who don’t care about God and his ways.
But Jesus meets them where they’re at. He invites them in to have a meal, to show them the grace of God, and to teach them there.
A few moments ago, Susan read from Isaiah 25. That’s one of m favorite passages in the book of Isaiah. There Isaiah is given a vision of feast that will take place when Jesus returns and renews all things. Here we have another little glimpse of that. Jesus is feasting with those who he has called to himself. In those moments, they are experiencing a foretaste of glory, even though many of these people have just started to follow Jesus.
Jesus meets people where they’re at but he refuses to them those he’s called to follow him stay where they’re at.
The Moralistic Response
“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?’”
The Pharisees and the scribes are upset when they see that Jesus, a moral teacher, is eating with those who have no inclination to meet their moral standards. He’s eating with the wrong people. To them, it’s unforgivable that Jesus would eat with such people.
See the Pharisees were moralists. The basic principle of moralism is good people go to heaven, bad people don’t, and never the twain shall mix. When the Pharisees see that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, they question whether or not Jesus is actual the moral teacher he claims to be.
There are many Christians who are like the Pharisees. They see groups of people who do not meet their moral standards and they are indignant to see them in the church. They see someone in church and they think, “How can she be a Christian? She voted for that other guy!” “How dare he step foot in a church! If the pastor only knew that he spent Friday night in the casino.”
In high school, I knew this guy had sex with his girlfriend pretty regularly during their relationship. The whole school knew, they were both popular athletes and the fact that they had slept together was headline news the Monday after it happened. They continued sleeping together until they broke up several months later. Around that time, his parents started making him come to our church’s youth group. A couple of months passed and he was coming regularly.
One night, the youth pastor and her husband separated the guys from the girls and we talked about sex from a biblical standpoint. And for the first time in this young man’s life, he saw his sin for what it was; he saw how he hurt the girl he was with, how he hurt himself, and how he hurt his future wife. And at that moment, he became a changed man. His attitude changed; how he interacted with girls changed, and even how he treated his parents changed. A couple of months later, several of the girls found out that he had asked one of girls who attended the youth group out. They were all so upset. They couldn’t believe this girl agreed to go out with this guy who so clearly failed to meet their moral standards. One girl was so upset that she called the girl and yelled at her for accepting a date with this boy. The ironic thing is about half an hour earlier, we gathered hands and sang, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”.
The moralistic response is to see someone who doesn’t live up to your moral standards and to look down on them. It is to despise them and want to avoid them at all costs.
“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.’”
Jesus hears their complaint that he’s eating with people who do not meet their moral standards and he responds. He says “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick”. That’s a pretty common sense answer. Doctors don’t visit someone who is healthy; they visit the sick. Jesus is saying that the reason he is eating with tax collectors and sinners, why he’s eating with people who do not meet their moral standards, is because he wants to make them well.
If you ever meet with someone who isn’t concerned with our moral standards, they recognize that they’re not well; they know they’re not good moral people. They recognize they need someone to make them healthy and moral. That’s why people in prison are more likely to recognize their need for Jesus to make them healthy than your average middle class American. Jesus has come to make the spiritually sick healthy.
When Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”, he was speaking truthfully. We have already seen how the message that Jesus came preaching was “the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (1:15).
But that statement is also ironic. A few weeks ago, Pastor Tim Keller said “no one is too bad for Jesus. A lot of people think they’re too good for Jesus”. Pharisees and moralists think they’re too good for Jesus. They don’t think they are in need of Jesus’ grace, love, and mercy. The Pharisees were just as needy as the tax collectors; moralists have just as much need as those in prison.
The only difference is Pharisees and moralists don’t recognize it. They might occasionally admit wrongdoing and sin but they don’t think their sin is anything more than skin deep; it’s a blip on the radar. What they fail to recognize is that they’re dead in their sin and are in just as much need of Jesus as those who fail to meet their moral standards.
Jesus met the spiritually sick and needy where they were. He ate with them and loved them. But his love never allowed them to stay where they were. Let us be involved here in Murphy with spiritually sick and need; let’s meet the sinners where they are. Let us show them the love of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we condone their sin. It means that we love them as Jesus has loved us. We show them the grace, love, and mercy we have experienced in Jesus. And as we show them the love found in Jesus, they will hear his call and they will follow.
Every week we meet at the nursing home at one on Saturday. Join us in that as we seek to meet people where they’re at; to visit the sick and dying; to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Help us to continue in Jesus’ mission of ministering to the spiritually sick and needy. In the coming months we plan to more ways to minister to spiritually sick and needy here in Murphy.
Jesus’ call to follow is not just for those who meet a certain moral standard. His call is for all people and all types of people. Let us not be like the Pharisees and think it is only for the moral. And let us join in Jesus’ mission to the spiritually sick and needy.
 “Five Biggest Reasons to Hate the IRS Tax Code”, The Washington Post (October 29, 2017).
 Lane, 103.