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MARK 2:13-17
Series:  The Good News of Jesus Christ - Part Seven

Pastor Stephen Muncherian
February 25, 2018

God has once again given us the privilege of coming before His word together.  We are in Mark 2 - starting at verse 13.  If you’re able - please stand with me - as we come together before God’s word. 


He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to Him, and He was teaching them.  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.


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.


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?”


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.”


Over the past few Sunday’s we’ve been looking at the early ministry of Jesus.  Scenes that Mark records for us that demonstrate Who Jesus is - His authority - His credibility - why we should believe Him and trust Him with our lives.  Jesus preaching the good news of God’s kingdom being at hand.  Jesus Who is the good news.


Two Sundays back we began a section of Mark’s account - in which Mark introduces conflict - Jesus getting push back on Who He is and what He’s teaching.  Two Sunday’s ago the scene was the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends.  Jesus declaring the paralytic’s sins forgiven and then healing the paralytic in order to prove His - Jesus’ - authority.


Which didn’t go over so well with the religious leadership.  Especially the part about Jesus having the authority to forgive sin.  Which only God has authority to do.


Which introduces conflict to Mark’s account.  Religious leadership verses Jesus.  Their understanding of God verses Who Jesus is.  Conflict that eventually leads Jesus to the cross.


Coming to verse 13 - we’re coming to the second of those growing conflict scenes.  Where Jesus is again pushing beyond the box of where the religious leadership was at.  Pushing the boundaries of where most people were at in their thinking about God and a relationship with Him.


Jesus stepping into controversy and conflict - maybe even pushing us in our own understanding of how we do our relationship with God.


Because Jesus - knowing our human nature - Jesus is always pushing against any attitude or action that’s limiting what God desires to do in us and through us - for our well being and God’s glory.


Meaning that as we watch this conflict unfold we need to be looking for what God may be telling us about our attitudes and actions and what we may need to allow Him to give us some push back on.


Verses 13 to 15 introduce us to Levi.


In verse 13 Mark begins by telling us that Jesus went out again beside the sea.


Jesus is in Capernaum - which is a fishing village on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Mark records that on this particular day Jesus  steps out of the house He’s staying in and starts out down the road to the sea shore.  And as Jesus is walking there’s a crowd following.  And Jesus is teaching.


As they’re walking they pass by a tax booth and Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting in the tax booth.  Which is Levi’s place of business.  Because Levi is a… tax collector.


One of the main international roads from Egypt up into Syria and the Fertile Crescent - which was the main route people used to go anywhere east - the coastal road up from Egypt through Palestine going north - went through Capernaum.  The main tax booths in this part of the Roman Empire were located in Caesarea, Jericho, and... Capernaum.


Levi was a tax-collector.  Like Zacchaeus - who was a chief tax-collector.


The way the system worked.  Guys like Zacchaeus had authority over larger areas - that they - in a sense franchised - to guys farther down on the totem pole - like Levi - who did the actual tax-collecting.  Meaning that Levi - and others - collected the taxes and paid their cut to guys like Zacchaeus who paid a cut to some Roman official who was getting rich off the money collected.  And ultimately a huge cut of all that went to the Roman Empire - the occupying force controlling Palestine.


The tax collected was whatever the traffic could bear - huge amounts if possible.  Legalized extortion.  Pay your cut and keep the rest for yourself.  Having a booth on the Egypt - Syria Road was very lucrative extortion.  Most probably Levi and everyone else up the totem pole we’re getting rich off the backs of those passing through town.


So Levi - working things from his tax booth - Levi would have been known by the Jews of Capernaum as an extortionist.  Known for his greed and corruption and dishonesty.  He would have been known as a traitor - unfaithful to his own people and to their religion.  He was in the service of their oppressors.  Ultimately the pagan Roman emperor. 


The Latin word for tax-collector is “publicanus” - “publican.”  Which was often used in the same breath as “sinner.”  It would be very hard - if not impossible - to find anyone in Capernaum who was more despised - or more hated - or more vilified than Levi.


Jesus - as He’s walking along the sea there in Capernaum - taking in some fresh air - teaching His disciples that He’s already called - Simon, Andrew, James, and John - Jesus teaching His disciples and the crowd that’s following along - Jesus passes by the tax booth - and says to Levi, “Follow Me.”  And he does.


Reading the other gospel accounts - Matthew and Luke - the immediacy of Levi’s response is sobering.  Luke records that Levi “left everything” and followed.  He didn’t even bother to close up the shop or gather up his profits or turn off the coffee maker.  He just followed.


It’s very likely that Levi had already been exposed to Jesus and His teaching.  Jesus calling him to follow was probably a decisive moment in a process of growth and understanding.


But none of that takes away from Levi leaving his lucrative business and his position with the Romans - stepping out into a community that hates his guts - and trusting that God would provide for his needs.


What Mark is showing us is a decisive change of the direction of Levi’s life.  From living focused away from God - living for himself - to being all in - living trusting in God.


Simon, Andrew, James, and John could have gone back to fishing.  But what’s Levi going back to?  Wherever Jesus is going, that’s where Levi is going.  He’s all in. 


Which may be what’s behind Levi being called Matthew.


How this happens we don’t exactly know.  But, Levi is probably the name that his parents gave him.  Probably it was Jesus who changed Levi’s name to Matthew.  Like Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter.  It was probably Jesus who changed Levi’s name to Matthew - which means “gift of God.”


Jesus isn’t concerned with what people are going to think about Him.  How it’s going to damage His reputation.  Jesus calling Levi to follow Him.  Jesus having a publican collaborator as a one of His disciples.  Jesus calls Levi a “gift of God.”  That’s who Matthew is - how Jesus sees Him.  Matthew - follower of Jesus - gift of God.  Matthew who later writes his own good news account of Jesus - the Gospel of… Matthew.


That is “out of the box” thinking. Yes?  Scandalous.


Some time later - maybe the next day - Mark records that “Gift of God” throws a party in Jesus’ honor.  What Luke - in his account - calls a “great feast” - a banquet at Levi’s house for tax collectors and sinners - along with Jesus and His disciples.  Mark tells us that there were not just a few who showed up.  But many of Jesus’s followers.


Crowded into Levi’s home - reclining on couches around a low table  - are all the tax collectors - all the extortionists from Capernaum.  And the sinners - those who refused to keep the Mosaic Law - the despised - the social outcasts - Levi’s former drinking buddies and gambling partners.


Who are the tax collectors and sinners following?  Jesus.


In the middle of all this - the beer bottles - the cards and poker chips - crude and rude conversation - smell of pot drifting out the windows -  sits Jesus - not lecturing them about what kind of sinful people they are.  Jesus is just sitting - eating and drinking and sharing with them as their friend.  And, they’re following Him - listening - seeking to understand what His words mean for their lives.


Before we move on to verse 16 - hold onto to Levi’s attitude.  He leaves everything to follow Jesus.  And he introduces Jesus to everyone he knows.  He’s all in.  Total trust.  Total commitment.


Going on to verse 16 - Mark turns our attention to The Scribes of the Pharisees.


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?”


Let’s unpack verse 16.


“The scribes of the Pharisees” is an unusual description that’s full of information that’s helpful for us to know in our trying to understand where these guys are coming from.  Their bias in how they’re looking at what’s going on at this dinner.


Scribes were teachers of the law.  Well studied with a deep understanding of the fine points of the law and theology.  But scribes are not necessarily Pharisees.  But these particular scribes are also called Pharisees.  Which is unique.  Which means that their roots were probably from the Hasidim.

Somebody ask:  “Who were the Hasidim?”  Glad you asked.


The Hasidim were pious Jews who had joined forces with Mattathias and his sons during the Maccabean period.  Which is a whole lot of history for another time.


But briefly - because this is important to know - the Maccabees led a revolt in 166 BC against the Seleucids - the Greeks - who at the time were in control of Palestine.  That revolt - at its core - that revolt was about religious freedom and political independence.


Some of the results of that revolt we experience even today.  Hanukkah and the lighting of the Menorah comes out of what was made possible because of that revolt.


The Hasidim were pious Jews that were a part of all that.  During that time they were called Pharisees.


Thinking about what it meant to be called a Pharisee.


We know that the Pharisees held to the belief that keeping the law was a primary religious duty.  And that keeping the law was binding on every human situation. They’d determined that the law contained 613 commandments - 248 “Thou shalts” and 365 “Thou shalt nots”.


To make sure that they kept those 613 commandments in every human situation they’d added a protective fence of other laws - a system of rules and interpretations that was set up to keep people as far away from sin as possible.

Put up a fence as far out from what you want to keep people from inside the fence line.  So if we keep the commandments at the fence line we’re never going to get in and sin by breaking a commandment inside the fence.


Which meant that to be a Pharisee meant commitment to a life of radical separation.  To living in accordance with an enormous list of do’s and don’ts.


These Scribes of the Pharisees - this specific group of Pharisees - with their deep historical generational roots - these men had been ultra pious - deeply committed to God - devoted to the law of Moses - having a well earned reputation for excelling the rest of the nation in the observance of religion - and for being strongly critical against anything that would threaten the religious freedom and the purity of the faith of their nation.


It is understandable that as these religious leaders came and saw Jesus there in the midst of this crowd - a crowd that never in a million years would they have anything to do with - that no self-respecting Jew seeking rightness with God and God’s blessing would ever have any dealings with - it is way understandable that these scribes of the Pharisees were absolutely appalled.


The fence of do’s and don’ts that they’d constructed - part of that fence included who they refused to buy food from and who to eat with - just in case the food they were eating was not tithed - which would mean breaking a fundamental principle of the law. 


Here’s Jesus doing exactly what they refused to do.  Jesus surrounded by a group of people that was probably so unclean in so many ceremonial ways.  Jesus is just hanging - enjoying the fellowship.  


They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Doesn’t He know who those people are?  How can He even let Himself be seen with people like that?  Sinners and tax-collectors and sick people.  Oh My!


For all we know they could have been asking the question out of concern for Jesus.  Mark gives us every indication that some of the religious leaders were beginning to believe in Jesus.  They may have admired some of the things He’d done.  Which is all good.  But the question reveals that at the heart level they’ve got a serious problem.


Before we move on to verse 17 - let’s make sure were together in understanding what these scribes of the Pharisees were struggling with.


The Law of Moses clarifies what it means to live holy before God Who is holy.  The sacrificial system of the Old Testament - with all of it’s regulations and requirements - that system with brutal honesty exposes the hopeless depth of our sin and the magnitude of God’s grace.


Meaning that the endless sacrifice of animals and heaving this and waving that isn’t designed by God to lull us to sleep with some empty exercise in religious self-effort that saves us from our sin and gets us right before God.  That system of sacrifice is there to wake us up to the eternal precariousness of our situation - what the Law of Moses clarifies - what we fall short of.  Our unholy total depravity and hopeless separation from God Who is totally holy.

Born in the image of Adam - each of us is born into sin.  And we sin.  And our sin condemns us.  There is nothing within us or anything that we can do to change that or make us right before God.  No matter how hard we try or how many fences we build.


What the sacrificial system of the Old Testament points to - what these Scribes of the Pharisees had missed or lost sight of or failed to understand was what all that sacrifice was designed to help them understand.  The indescribable all glorious one true God in all of His holiness - knowing the depth and hopeless condition of each of us in our sin - God requires sacrifice.  So that through the act of sacrifice God’s people may come to understand the magnitude of God Who in His grace calls upon them to offer sacrifices - in from the heart faith - that He God will deal with what divides them.


What these Scribes of the Pharisees had fallen into was legalism.  Legalism that emphasized the fine points of the law rather than the spirit of the law.  Legalism which based their relationship with God on their performance of an impossible to keep fence of rules and regulations.  Legalism that was a litmus test of determining one’s acceptability to God and others.  Legalism that they assumed gave them the right to judge and condemn others who failed to live up to their fenced in standard of keeping the requirements of the law.


Verse 17 brings us to Jesus.


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.”

That is classic Jesus.  Isn’t it?  Jesus - as only He can - takes the question the Scribes raised - “How can He eat with those kinds of people?” - and points it back at them.  “I came for the sinners.”


“You’re right!  These are really messed up people.  They are sinners.  And these are the people I’ve come for.”


Jesus’ answer is simple.  It’s brilliant.  It’s devastating to their sense of self-righteousness legalism.  And it’s sad - in that if the Pharisees had taken it to heart their lives would have been changed forever.


That God saves sinners is something that these Pharisees would have agreed with.  That God loves and saves them as sinners was what they missed.  That is at heart of the good news of Who Jesus is.


Sick is more than those who refuse to carry out the details of the law but those who are alienated from God.  That’s what Jesus is focused on.  The disease of sin which leads to eternal death.  Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to salvation.


Beyond their beliefs the religious leaders - the Scribes - were actually more needy than the social outcasts and “sinners” they looked down on.  They were in deeper trouble than the tax collectors.  Jesus tells us that while the Pharisees were caught up in their intellectual arguments and religious practices - while they were avoiding Jesus - the “sinners” realized the emptiness of their lives and were more than willing to follow Him.


Which is the judgment that Jesus pronounced on their lives.  He took their question about being with sinners and turned it around towards them.  They - the self-proclaimed “righteous” needed healing just as much at those who were the more obvious sinners.


The Scribes of the Pharisees were concerned about the glory of God and moral purity - holiness.  Which is all good.  But God’s concern for His glory and for moral purity - holiness - has led Him purposefully and intentionally to act through history - real people - real time - real places -  to visit sinners and to offer to heal them.  If the Pharisees were really all that concerned about moral purity they would have been lovingly committed to the people in that dinner showing them the reality of God’s love for them.


Some kind of pretense of detached holiness - criticizing sinners - is not where Jesus is coming from.  That’s not what God desires.


Jesus compares Himself to a physician who does house calls.


Some of us are old enough to remember when doctors made house calls.  Our doctor actually had one of those black bags that he came to the house with.  That was a long time ago.


Jesus - when He associates on intimate terms with people of low reputation - with sinners and outcasts - He’s not lowering Who He is - He’s not participating with them in sin.  He’s the physician.  Someone who - without being contaminated by the disease - must get very close to those who are sick in order to heal them.  Jesus - the great physician - does house calls.  He’s come to be with those who are sick.  With us.

Jesus who’s not contaminated by eating with these tax-collectors and sinners.  But instead seeks to make them holy too.


“You’re right, these are sick, hurting people - wounded - and damaged by their lifestyle - damaged and separated from God by sin.  They don’t see life correctly.  They’re sick men and they need a doctor.  I’ve come to heal men.  So this is where I need to be.  I came not to call the righteous; but sinners.”


Processing all that…


In thinking about the attitudes of the various people and groups in what Mark records for us there are two takeaways that can be helpful for us as we head out there.


First is that it is really hard but helpful if we can recognize that we all struggle with blind spots when it comes to our sin and the sins of others. 


A long time ago in a church far far away we were praying for the daughter  of a family in the church who was dealing with some issues in her life and really needed to come back to God.  One Sunday she showed up - hair dyed pulsar pink - tatted up - dressed slightly different that most.  We were ecstatic to see her.


One lady took one look at her.  Told her she was dressed like a prostitute.  And to my knowledge she’s never been back.


When I think about what happened - for me it’s sobering.  Because even if I don’t say it - and there have been unfortunate times when I have - even if we don’t say it is easy to think it.  Maybe not in here when we’re more guarded in our thoughts and actions.  But as we circulate out there.


Maybe’s it’s our pure ignorance of Scripture and our own understanding of God’s grace.


Maybe it’s because of peer pressure - where we live and who we live with.  It feels good to be “in” - connected - part of a group that moves in the same direction we feel comfortable moving in.  Relationships we’ve had over time that we value.


Maybe we just don’t like confrontation.  Let’s just make nice and get along.  Don’t rock the boat trying to go in a different direction.


Maybe it’s because of where we’ve been - our traditions and the ways we’ve become accustomed to doing life.  Or the fears we have of where we’ve come from catching up to us again.


Maybe it’s just fear.  Fear of what others think or we think they think or they might think.  Or fear of what it may mean for us to step out of our box - our comfort zone.  Sometimes walls can feel like security.


Maybe we just like feeling like we’re right.  We get it - and they don’t.  Or, in some twisted way we think that our attitudes and actions are going to help others “get it.”


There are reasons why.  Whatever the reason it’s just easy to slip into a mindset of seeking God’s approval through what we do - achieving God’s forgiveness and our justification before God through our obedience - and expecting others to live like we do.  Because “we get it.”


The Scribes of the Pharisees were not religiously ignorant.  They were well studied - reasonably theologically sound - God fearing men - who cared deeply about their beliefs and the practice of their faith.  The Pharisees’ pursuit of holiness was commendable.  Their pursuit of God was admirable.  They were doing the right stuff.  High five - fist bumping - type of stuff. 


But in this matter they were blind to their own prejudice.  Their focus was on their rules and regulations and traditions and prejudices towards people - and not on what God wanted to do in them and through them.  They’d missed God’s grace and gotten stuck in a burdensome parody of life with God that they expected everyone else to conform to.


In the Gospels - Jesus is constantly pushing His followers and the people around Him - pushing them out of their comfort zone - constantly challenging the religious status quo - the accepted traditions and prejudices of those around Him.


Because we need to be challenged.  We need to be pushed out of our comfort zone.


Otherwise it would be easy to come here - to our church - to worship in our way - to serve when it fits our schedule and meets our needs - to do the welcoming thing - and then go on visiting with our friends and our family and spending our time doing whats most important to us and never really accomplishing anything of importance for the Kingdom of God.


It would be so easy for us to read through this familiar scene - to condemn the attitude of the religious leaders as spiritual prejudice - and then to skim past our own attitudes towards others who need Jesus.


It’s kind of ironic.  But it’s reality.  As soon as we say that we’re beyond this we prove that we’re not.


The second take away is what we can learn from the attitude of Jesus.


The religious leaders - self-respecting Jews - saw Levi as a traitor and a thief.  Jesus saw something different in Matthew.  Jesus saw him as a “Gift of God.” 


Remember Genesis?  Chapter one?  In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.”  Then in verse 27 this incredible statement:  So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created Him: male and female He created them.”


Turn to the person next to you and share this with them, “You are the image of God.”


When God sees us He sees His image.  Jesus - looking at sinners - sees past the tax collector - wounded and in sin - sees the image of God.  Levi becomes Matthew.


Do you see yourself that way?


Theres a tremendous comfort for us in Jesus’ answer, “I came for sinners.”  Jesus didn’t come looking for righteous people to be friends with.  He came for wounded people - hurting people - people who have no place to turn - sinners desperate for a way out of their sins.  He came for people like us.  And He offers us healing if well follow Him.


It doesn’t matter how deep the hole we’re in or how far we gone from God - all He asks is that we choose to follow Him and He will lead us to His perfect healing.  Like Levi - Matthew - who choose to leave it all behind and follow Jesus.


Do we see others that way?  As the image of God?


Maybe this afternoon at Paul’s - or sometime this week at J&R’s or Coffee Bandits or wherever.  Grab some caffeine or a Perrier and just watch people.  Go to the Mall or hang out on Main Street - and just watch people.


Ask yourself, “Self, what do you see?”


Beyond what people do to their bodies or what they’re wearing or what they’ve got piled up around them - the easy stuff to focus on.  Do we see the image of God - waiting for someone to tell them that God loves them?

I confess that struggle with this.  When someone cuts me off in traffic - or some guy riding his bike on the wrong side of the road inevitably swerves in front of me - or once again I get hit up for money.  My first reaction isn’t,
“Well, there’s someone created in the image of God.” 


But it should be.  If our attitude is in sync with the attitude of Jesus.  Who are the tax-collectors in our lives?


The image is tarnished - beat up - crumpled - wounded.  But, still the image of God in need of healing.


As we’re passing people - are we praying for them?  When we encounter people - are we looking for ways to share Jesus with them?  As a congregation - as individuals - are we doing everything possible - intentionally and purposefully to reach others with the Gospel?


WWJDW - Who Would Jesus Dine With?


The answer may push us out of our comfort zones.  But, so what!  Isn’t the healing of lives and the eternal destiny of people worth our discomfort?


Who did Jesus come for?  Us?  All of us. 



Series references:

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016).

Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, Volume 2:  Insights on Mark (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2016).


Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®  (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.