Posts Tagged ‘tax collectors’

The literary structure of Mark 2:13-17

We’re in the Gospel of Mark today, looking at the call of Levi and the subsequent meal in his home. This is the second in a sequence of five stories of conflict. Last time the conflict was over Jesus’ claim to forgive someone’s sins. Today it’s his practice of sharing fellowship with sinners.

Let’s jump right in –

Mark 2:13-17

v. 13- “He (Jesus) went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”

As we have seen, Jesus was a celebrity, especially because of his ability to heal. Crowds followed him everywhere. He was always getting mobbed. And so here he takes advantage of this to continue to teach them about the coming of the kingdom of God (1:15).

v. 14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. . .”

[Notice the parallels with 1:16-20, the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John: Jesus took the initiative, he was “passing by”; it took place beside the sea; Jesus saw; there is a reference to occupation; the call “follow me”; and an immediate response of leaving their occupation]

It’s interesting that in the first gospel the name of the person in this story is “Matthew,” not Levi. And there’s also a James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the twelve. Most likely Levi and Matthew are the same person. And perhaps Levi/Matthew and the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus were brothers. It’s hard to know how it all fits together with the information we have.

In any case, Levi was a tax collector (technically a toll collector). Specifically he would have been employed by someone to collect customs fees and road tolls. He most likely had a booth along the road through Capernaum, which was a significant trade route (the Via Maris from Damascus to Caesarea). The money would go to his boss, who would give the proper portion to Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee.

Tax collectors were despised and treated as outcasts, for several reasons. I’ll mention just two. First, they were seen as collaborators with Rome, Israel’s oppressive overlord, since they worked for Herod, Rome’s installed puppet leader. And also they were often dishonest and charged too much, to increase their own income. They are associated in the New Testament with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), extortionists, the unjust, adulterers (Luke 18:11) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). None of these kept the Law of Moses and all of them were classified as “sinners.”

So Jesus sees Levi sitting at his toll booth, doing his work.

v. 14 – “. . . and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

When he says, follow me, Jesus is asking Levi to leave his current life behind so that he can travel with Jesus, learn from him and minister with him, just as he has already done with Peter, Andrew, James and John.

It’s possible that Levi had previous interactions with Jesus. Peter did before his call from Jesus, even though Mark doesn’t tell us about them. So it’s possible. Either way, Levi makes a radical break. He leaves his career behind. We will see in a moment that he had a house. But one can also wonder, was he married? Did he have kids? Was he supporting his parents? Whatever his exact circumstances, he had to sacrifice to follow Jesus in this way.

v. 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.”

[Jesus is a bit like David here collecting outcasts to himself – 1 Samuel 22:2].

The references “he” and “his” in the first phrase are vague. But it’s best to say that Jesus is eating in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29). Usually you would sit to eat. It was only for a special meal or banquet (Luke 5:29) that you would you recline, that is, lay on cushions or a couch and eat off of a short table.

“Sinners,” as we saw,  is a broad term that covers Gentiles and also Jews who don’t keep the Law of Moses in significant ways. Maybe they aren’t even trying. It’s a lifestyle of sin.

What’s going on here is that Levi, now a committed worker for Jesus, has invited his friends and coworkers, fellow tax collectors and sinners, to meet with Jesus, and to hear his message of the kingdom.

Many tax collectors and sinners were interested in Jesus and many “followed him,” our verse tells us, perhaps in the crowds that followed Jesus around, or perhaps as repentant disciples. (As Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 21:31, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”)

And Jesus freely joins in with them in this feast.

v. 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?’”

The scribes of the Pharisees, or experts in the Law, want to see what’s going on. A meal like this would’ve been public knowledge in a small town like Capernaum. And they aren’t happy with what they see. They ask Jesus’ disciples, “What in the world is he doing?”

That’s because the Pharisees took a separation approach to sinners. The righteous must be separate from those that are morally or ritually unclean. And the walls of separation must be maintained. And they especially applied this to who you ate meals with.

To be with sinners (especially to eat with them) is to send the wrong message; one of condoning their disobedience to God. And in ancient cultures to eat a meal with someone did convey open fellowship with each other.

And then there is the concern that if you are with them you will be contaminated by them, through ritual impurity for sure, but also by means of bad moral influence.

Perhaps they even said, “if sinners want to repent, they know what to do according to the Law of Moses. Let them get their lives in order first. Then we’ll fellowship.”

So Jesus’ actions were disconcerting and threatening to their way of looking at things. He isn’t playing by their rules.

v. 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.’”

Jesus uses a common proverb to make his point: What good is a doctor who never goes around a sick person? Of course doctors have to be with them. How else can they help them? In the same way Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance and kingdom entrance; he calls them to be made whole. This is precisely why Jesus came. God sent him to do this.

Now, when Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” he acknowledges that there is a difference between a person who seeks to follow God and when they fail, finds forgiveness and moves forward – and a person who isn’t even trying to follow God; sinners who live a lifestyle of sin. And Jesus speaks of those who are righteous (Mark 6:20; Matthew 10:41; 13:17; 13:43; 25:37; Luke 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).

But we also have to acknowledge that with the coming of Jesus even these relatively more righteous ones are called to repentance in light of the fuller revelation of God’s will that he brings. (Just as those with faith in God are called to have faith in Jesus and his bringing forth the promise of the kingdom.) (This saying is similar to Luke 15:7, given in a very similar context, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”) (The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous – Luke 18:9, but Jesus often pointed out the ways that at least some of them failed in this regard.)

Instead of a separation approach, Jesus took a redemptive approach to sinnersYou have to be with them to give them the message of new life. Yes, this can seem scandalous because people might think that you’re condoning sin, or even sinning yourself. But the point is to be able to share the message of the kingdom and repentance and forgiveness and new life. So it’s worth the risk.

Instead of sin contaminating him, Jesus saw his love and truth as able to transform them; to make them well. Righteousness is contagious, not sin. Yes, you risk ritual impurity, and you do have to be careful of moral influence if it’s an area of weakness for you. But other than this, it’s worth the risk.

It’s no wonder that so many people responded to Jesus. They were used to rejection and scorn. And this didn’t lead to their transformation. But now Jesus comes to them, and he comes with grace – “I know you’re sinners, even notorious ones, but God is offering you the kingdom too. Repent and you can enter in and have new life.”

Let’s end with –

Some questions

 How do you treat sinners? Are you more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus? Here’s a test: There was a Christian man who went to biker bars so that he could be with those who needed Jesus. God put them on his heart. He sought to befriend those he could, to show them the love of Jesus. But when others in church found out about it they were shocked! John goes to bars every Friday night! We’ve never heard of such a thing. What’s he thinking? That’s not a place for good Christians to hang out. He should be thinking about his witness!

Do you agree with John or those in his church? Whose concern for witness is more genuine – John’s actual witness to people or the church’s concern for mere reputation?

Jesus calls us to be with sinners, not stay away from them. Unless, of course you have a weakness, that particular people or circumstances might tempt you to give in to. Short of this we are called to be with them, not just to hang out with each other, the “well” ones; those that we are comfortable with in the church building. We are to be with them so that we can share with them about Jesus, his love and his grace.

And this is not just about outside the church. Sinners should be welcome in our church. Do people have to clean up their lives before they come to church? No! Church is the place they need to be, to be able to get clean and be transformed by Jesus.

Do you introduce your friends to Jesus? Levi’s an excellent example. He immediately invited everyone he knew to a banquet so that they could meet Jesus and hear his message. In what ways might you connect your friends and co-workers to Jesus?

Are you struggling with sin? Are you stuck in a lifestyle of sin? If this describes you, Jesus comes to you today and he comes with love and grace. He comes to offer you new life; a new start; forgiveness. He comes to you as the good physician to make you well.

What must you do? Receive his grace. Be like Levi, repent of your sins and give yourself fully, radically and sacrificially to follow Jesus. This is the path to wholeness. I encourage you, respond to Jesus today.

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Stacey and I were at a social event a number of years ago, and we ended up seated for a meal at a table with a couple who were involved in obvious and well known wrongdoing, at least from our point of view as Christians. And they knew about our Christian views and that I was a pastor. So . . . we’re sitting across from each other, knowing all this, but where does it go from here?

Have you ever been in a situation like this? You don’t want to give the impression that you agree with or approve of what they are doing, but you also know that God loves them. So there is a tension. As Christians, sometimes we get ourselves tangled up in these situations and end up either cutting off relationship, staying away or being rude (that is, we don’t act in love) or we end up minimizing or excusing the wrong behavior so that we don’t have to feel the tension anymore. What I want to show you today is that you can be clear about your convictions concerning God’s will and still have a loving and kind relationship with those who don’t practice God’s will.

Let’s look to our example here –

Jesus combined two things

1. He was clear about God’s will and that people need to do God’s will. He preached to all who would listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – Matthew 4:17. And he didn’t do this is a vague way. He talked about some very specific things that people needed to give up in order to do God’s will. And he preached that there would be judgment for sin. There was nothing wishy-washy about Jesus.

But also, and at the same time, 2. he related to those who didn’t do God’s will in a loving way. He didn’t stay away from them or avoid them. He didn’t condemn them or see them as beyond hope. He didn’t hat them, call them names or ridicule them.

Rather, he sought them out; he initiated relationships with them. He was kind to them. And he did this because he was genuinely concerned for them. He was trying to open doors for them to be blessed by God because he knew that they would only find freedom and joy in knowing God and in doing God’s will.

He said in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” How can he help if he is staying away from them? Or if he simply wants to condemn? Or if he is treating them like a leper?

Let’s look now at –

Three examples of this in Jesus’ ministry

1. Jesus associated with tax collectors. Mark 2:13-15 says, “Jesus 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.”

Jesus sought out a relationship with these tax collectors. And this wasn’t a one-time thing. In fact, he did this so often that he had the reputation of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” – Matthew 11:19.

And this was scandalous to many. Tax collectors were considered to be traitors working with the Romans. And they earned much of their money by overcharging, thus enriching themselves.

The Pharisees certainly didn’t approve of Jesus doing this. Mark 2:16 tells us that they asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Their approach was to keep separation from sinners. But Jesus associated with them.

But let’s also be clear that Jesus didn’t condone their behavior. In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus said that “theft” is evil and sinful. In Luke 12:15, Jesus teaches against greed and seeking more and more wealth. And as Mark relates here, they are called “sinners.”

And that’s why Jesus called them to “follow me.” That is, leave your old life behind and learn from me a new way to live. This comes out clearly in the story of Zacchaeus, another tax collector, in Luke 19. He stood up at the meal with Jesus and said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v. 8). He was repenting of theft (he gave back four times as much according to Old Testament law) and greed (he gave to the poor).

So in this example we see in Jesus both a clarity about God’s will, but also, at the same time, a loving relationship with those who don’t do God’s will.

2. Jesus associated with the sexually immoral. Luke 7:36-39 says, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’”

Jesus related to this woman, who was most likely a prostitute. He didn’t scold her or turn her away. He wasn’t embarrassed by her. In fact this encounter is evidence that they had talked before, and she is now returning grateful for his ministry and expressing her devotion and evidencing her repentance.

Well certainly society looked down on prostitutes. And the Pharisees did not approve of Jesus’ association with her, as we see from Simon’s response. One should keep apart from such sinners!

But let’s be clear here as well, Jesus strongly disapproved of her behavior. In Mark 7:21-23 he declares that “sexual immorality” is evil and sinful. And in Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus teaches that sex is reserved for a life-long relationship between a man and woman in marriage.

We find a similar situation in John 4. You know the story. In v. 6 Jesus was weary and sitting beside a well. In v. 7 a Samaritan woman comes and Jesus initiates a conversation with her, asking her to give him some water from the well. And it turns into an opportunity for him to share about the living water that he can give to her.

All the while Jesus knows she is involved in sexually immorality. In v. 18 he said, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” This is probably why she came to the well alone. The other women in her village avoided her.

And as we saw, Jesus does not approve of this by any means. But he related to her anyway. And through this conversation she and many others came to faith in Jesus.

In both of these instances, Jesus has at the same time a clarity about God’s will, but a loving relationship with those who don’t do God’s will.

3. Jesus associated with people that held different religious views. We are staying in John 4 for this one. This time the focus in on the fact that she was a Samaritan.

The Samaritans came from Jews who intermarried with Gentiles after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. They were seen by Jews as “heretical.” They only adhered to the first five books of Moses and had their own temple for a time on Mt. Gerizim.

Once again, Jesus initiates a relationship with her. He is kind to her and engages in conversation. But the woman brings her religious views up in v. 9. “’How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” She goes on to say in v. – 20, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” There are some real differences here.

Yet Jesus was clear about the truth. He responds in v. 22, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” He was clear but still associated with her. And again, she and many others came to faith in him as the Messiah.

Here we see once again a clarity about God’s will and truth, but a loving relationship with those who don’t do God’s will or accept his truth.

Well what about us?

  • How would you respond to the person who just got out of jail for stealing the local little league’s money and now lives down the street from you, when they wave at you every morning on their way to work? (Like a tax-collector).
  • Or how would you respond to the gay couple next door who has asked you over for dinner and games? (Sexual immorality).
  • How would you respond to your new Muslin neighbor who needs help moving in? (Different religious views).

What Jesus kept together – clarity about God’s will and love for and relationship with those who don’t do this, too often we separate. Sometimes we set aside Jesus’ love for those who don’t do God’s will. We take the route of the Pharisees and seek separation from them. Instead of mercy, we condemn. We express disgust, hatred, call names and ridicule them. And I’m sure that they will just be rushing into our church to find out about God’s love after we do all this.

The simple fact is that, when we do this, we aren’t concerned to express God’s love for them, or to open God’s door of healing and help to them through a relationship with them.

Sometimes we set aside God’s will and the belief that everyone should do this and that there is a day of judgment coming. So we get all vague. Or we outright excuse or even bless people’s sin. Live and let live. Let’s all just get along.

The message today is that we must follow Jesus’ example and keep the tension in place, neither setting aside Jesus’ love or his holding to God’s will and truth. We must follow Jesus’ example and have in our lives, at the same time both a clarity about God’s will and a love for those who don’t do God’s will.

A final thought. We are to have genuine love for those who don’t do God’s will. So even if they don’t respond to our relationship or change their views, we still have love for them and their well-being. We are not offering a pretense of love just to get them converted or whatever.

If you struggle with offering genuine love,  remember these things: 1. You are only a forgiven sinner yourself.  2. Your sin was disgusting in the sight of God. 3. God was patient with you in your sin.

William Higgins

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