“Tax collectors and sinners” are in today’s text. ‘Tax collectors’ were social outcasts because of their reputation for dishonesty and because they represented the oppressive Roman government. They were shunned by the masses as well as the religious elite. ‘Sinners’ was the designation by the scribes (and other religious rulers) for people who failed to live according to their standards and interpretations of the Law. Like tax collectors, the scribes considered them unclean outcasts. The ‘crowd’ around Jesus was made up of such people.
There are two more firsts in this passage. 1) Mark’s use of the term ‘disciples’ to designate the ones Jesus specifically called. 2) The Pharisees. ‘The scribes of the Pharisees’ is an odd phrase, only used in this passage. It introduces a new set of opponents to Jesus, linked with the scribes in the previous story and related to the Pharisees.
Prepare to listen. Be still and silent in preparation to hear the Gospel. When ready, pray: I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. (Psalm 119:15)
Read Mark 2:13-17
13Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. 15And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Like the four fishermen before him, Levi doesn’t hesitate, ask questions, request time to ‘pray about it,’ he simply got up, leaving his business, and followed Jesus. And, as in the first call narrative (1:16-20) when Jesus went to Peter and Andrew’s home, he also goes to Levi’s house for dinner. At table were his disciples (those few Jesus had specifically called), the tax collecting colleagues of Levi and ‘sinners’. In other words, being a disciple of Jesus meant eating at table, an intimate setting, with people who were outcasts and avoided by the devout. The fact that Mark has introduced the term disciples in this story stresses “that Jesus’ disciples may freely mix with ‘sinners’” (Myers. 2015, p. 157). This is both good news and bad news; it surprises those who follow him and annoys those who don’t. It’s good news for the poor and marginalized, whoever they may be. They’re welcomed and not condemned in Jesus’ community (think Church). It’s bad news, but only for those who think they should separate themselves from the people they designate as outcasts because of race, or gender orientation or social status or theology or political leanings.
Jesus’ welcome to ‘sinners’ was bad news to the Pharisees. They were more concerned for their own class and status and not the welfare of the masses. They lacked the courage to confront Jesus and so confront the disciples instead. You can imagine how the disciples must have felt. The Pharisees were, to some extent, their religious leaders and teachers. And here they were with one of whom Pharisees were deeply critical. Since they probably didn’t know what to say, it was a good thing Jesus stepped in. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” This was a direct indictment of the Pharisees, who considered themselves ‘righteous’. There is, no doubt, some sarcasm in Jesus’ use of the word ‘righteous’ in this verse. He boldly claims that ‘sinners’ are welcomed at his table. He has associated himself fully with the ‘outcast’ groups and thus made himself a despised and marked man with the religious rulers. And his disciples are expected to follow him in his rebuke of the Pharisees and his welcome of the marginalized and disenfranchised.
The good news of the gospel is this: Sinners, outcasts, the despised and rejected as they are, are welcome.
This is a challenging story for many of us, especially those of us from white privilege. Who are the ‘outcasts’ and ‘sinners’ in your community and what does Jesus want you to do?
Jesus came to save sinners not the ‘righteous’. Only once we’ve admitted and owned our own sin will we experience full salvation. What sin do you need to name and give up today?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
I love the idea of Jesus welcoming all peoples, but, Jesus, sometimes I find it difficult to follow your example. Help me today be true to your mission, reaching out to those on the periphery of society. Amen