IN THE COMPANY OF SINNERS
Every so often I run into someone who tells me that he doesn’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites. My standard answer is to reply, “Don’t let that stop you, we can always take one more.” And then I go on to explain that a Christian isn’t someone who claims to be better than everyone else, but rather, one who is willing to admit that he IS a sinner and is in need of a savior.
Too many people today have the idea that religion is just for good people. But Christianity is for bad people who realize that they cannot approach a holy God on the basis of their own merit. That is the type of person we are going to see in this chapter.
Up to this point, we have seen the healing ministry of Jesus. He has cast out demons and cooled a fever and cleansed a leper and mobilized a paralytic. Now he does something quite different. He changes the life of a sinner.
Cast out demon
Cleansed a leper
Healed a paralytic
Question of fasting
THE CALL OF LEVI
And He went out again by the seashore; and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. (Mark 2:13-14).
It is no accident that the call of Levi takes place on the heels of the healing of the paralytic. All three of the Synoptic accounts give this same order of events. All three describe the healing of the paralyzed man and then immediately follow it up with the call of Levi (though he is also known as Matthew).
There is a reason for this. It is by way of a contrast. The contrast is between those who did not follow Christ versus this one man who did. You remember the miracle. Jesus had been teaching in a house in Capernaum. It had been a packed house with even the standing room taken. Four men had brought a paralytic to be healed. When they could not approach Jesus because of the crowds, they had gone up onto the roof and had broken up the roof and had lowered the man down. And Jesus had healed the man. This man who had been unable to even move had stood up, thrown his stretcher over one shoulder, and had jogged back home.
There was a response to that miracle. The negative response was on the part of the scribes who sat and reasoned in their hearts. But the positive response is seen in a sinful tax collector.
This man had both a Jewish name and a Greek name. His Hebrew name was Levi. This was a name with a tremendous heritage. He had been named after one of the sons of Jacob. If was from the tribe of Levi that the priesthood was descended.
He also had a Greek name. His Greek name was “Matthew” (Gift of God”). He might have taken this name after his conversion.
I imagine that when Levi was born his parents had high hopes for him. Perhaps he would be a rabbi or a scribe. But somewhere along the line he went astray. And he became a tax collector.
2. A Tax Collector.
As Levi is introduced to us, he is sitting at his tax booth. Tax-collectors don’t necessarily rate at the top of my list of favorite people, but they do not have the stigma today that they had in that day.
Levi was not merely working for the I.R.S. He was an agent for the Romans. He had purchased a franchise from the Roman government which gave him the authority to collect taxes within this district. He was working for the very people who had subjugated his country.
His contract with Rome required that he collect a certain amount of taxes. Anything over that amount he could keep for himself. This meant that he made a profit by overcharging people on their taxes. There was a great deal of abuse involved. He took bribes from the rich and he extorted money from the poor. He was hated by everyone. He was considered to be a turncoat - a traitor to his country. The only people who would have anything to do with him were other tax collectors and prostitutes. He was excluded from the synagogue and the temple. He was forbidden to speak in a court of law. His word would not be believed.
There were two types of tax collectors. They were both hated, but one was despised even more than the other.
a. The first was the general tax collector. He collected three general taxes.
(1) A land tax on property.
(2) An income tax on earnings.
(3) A poll tax that everyone had to pay for the privilege of living in a country that was ruled by Rome.
b. The second type of tax collector was the way-side collector. He was able to collect taxes on imports and exports, on anything bought or sold, on roads, bridges and harbors. He could even invent taxes. He might charge a tax on the axles on your wagon, the number of wheels on your cart, or on your animals. He could even charge a pedestrian tax if he saw you walking on a road. He could tax the fish you caught and he even had the right to open your packages or private letters to see if they dealt with any business that might be taxed. The abuses were unlimited.
Levi was this second type of tax collector. And as Jesus comes up, he is sitting by the road, waiting for people to come by so that he could tax them.
3. A Call to Follow.
If I were looking for a qualified man to be a disciple of Jesus, to be one of His biographers and to be one of the preachers of the gospel, I never would have considered Levi. But then, I probably wouldn’t have considered you, either. Or me.
If you can find one sufficient reason for Jesus calling you to Himself, then you haven’t understood what it means to be called by Him.
There were a lot of surprised people that day. The crowd was surprised. And the disciples were surprised. But the most surprised person of all must have been Levi.
4. A Motivated Response.
The call which Jesus gave to Levi was probably the shortest, least motivated speech ever given to anyone except for one thing - Levi followed.
Sometimes we forget about the supernatural power of the message that we preach. We get so involved in the packaging of that message that we forget the absolute power of the message itself.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16).
James Rand, at the beginning of his career, worked as a salesman for a banking equipment firm. He went to see Frank Muntzy, a publisher and financier who was opening some banks in Washington and Baltimore. In their meeting, Rand was so persistent and so persuasive that Muntzy wrote him a letter of introduction and sent him to his Washington office.
Rand was so excited about his product that, by the time he got to the head of the Washington office, he forgot all about the letter. Exercising that same persistent zeal, he went on to sell $25,000 worth of bank equipment without ever once bringing out the letter. It was only when he got home that he remembered the letter and opened it. This is what it said: “Learn all you can from this man, but don’t buy anything from him.”
We carry a letter from the Father and it is a positive letter. But sometimes we spend so much time trying to give our sales pitch that we forget to give the letter.
Levi’s response was whole-hearted. He didn’t stop to grab a few bags of gold. He didn’t even try to talk to Jesus about helping to finance His ministry. He merely obeyed. Our problem is that we try to take all of our baggage with us when we follow Jesus.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1).
Did you ever see a track star carrying a suitcase? You don’t win races when you carry baggage with you. The only way you win races is by getting rid of anything that slows you up.
This is what Levi did. He had a great business going. All he did was sit around and take money from people. But he left it all to follow Jesus.
IN THE COMPANY OF SINNERS
And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him.
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17).
Levi is so happy with his new life that he throws a big party. Jesus is the guest of honor. Invited to the party are all the friends of Levi. Of course, the only people who would attend a party at Levi’s house would be tax collectors and other social outcasts. This was not the most socially acceptable group. These people were in a category known as “sinners.”
Jesus was notorious for His tacky taste in friends. He ate with renegades and traitors. He spoke with prostitutes. It is one thing to pass out tracts to this kind of person, it is another thing to associate with them. Jesus was accused of being a drunk because He associated with drunks.
1. The Scribes and the Pharisees.
We have already seen the scribes. They were the guardians of the law. It was their duty to make the handwritten copies of the Scriptures.
This is the first time that Mark has made mention of the Pharisees. The word “Pharisee” seems to be taken from a root that describes “the separated ones.” The Pharisees were separatists. They were the Jewish equivalent of the Puritans. They were orthodox in their beliefs. They held to the Hebrew Scriptures and they attempted to obey the laws of God. They held the law in such high esteem that they had invented their own laws as a hedge around the law of God. And number one in their legal system was the separating themselves from anything or anyone who was sinful.
2. They Spoke to His Disciples.
They did not go to Jesus with their criticisms. They have a sneaking suspicion that, if they do, Jesus will rebuke them. And so, they will go behind His back to speak to His disciples. If they can’t attack Jesus personally, then they will attack His disciples. Satan does this today. He really wants to attack Jesus, but Jesus is too difficult a target. So he goes after you instead.
3. Their Question: “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”
I don’t think that they were really trying to find an answer to this question. The is really a rebuke.
“Why on earth is He doing that?”
“How could He think of doing such a thing?”
“Isn’t He more spiritual than that?”
4. The Answer of Jesus: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus uses the analogy of a doctor. Healthy people don’t need a doctor. They do not make hospitals for healthy people. You don’t get up in the morning and say, “My, I’m feeling good this morning! I think that I shall go check into the Emergency Room.”
This is an indictment against the scribes and Pharisees. They are claiming that the tax-collectors and sinners are the sickest sort of people. By their own reasoning, it is these people who need a physician.
The analogy is simple. It is the job of a physician to work with sick people. By the same token, it is the job of a forgiver to work with people who need forgiveness. Jesus went to people who had the deepest need.
The words of Jesus are a rebuke. If effect, He is asking, “Are you a doctor who has no desire to cure the sick? Are you a physician who only accepts appointments with healthy people?”
They have come to point out the disease, but they want nothing to do with the cure. They thought that their job ended with the delivery of a diagnosis.
All too often, this thinking has invaded the church. We see churches which have doctors who don’t want to treat sick people. Can you imagine going to a hospital and having them say, “You can’t come in here! This place is only for people who have overcome their sicknesses. You go home and get healthy and then you can come back.”
You see, the church is supposed to be a place where you come to find help for your hurts. It is the place where you can find strength for your weaknesses. And it is the place where you find forgiveness for your sins.
Jesus did not come for healthy people. He did not come for righteous people. He came for sinners. This is good news. If He had only come for the righteous, then He wouldn’t have come for you. Or me.
The problem is that there are many who think that they are righteous. They will not see their need. And because they can’t see their need, they will not come to the One who can help.
This is the negative aspect of the gospel. The gospel is good news. But before you can appreciate the good news, you have to hear the bad news. The bad news is that you are lost in sin. You are under the condemnation of a righteous God. You are without hope. And it is only when you believe the bad news that you will come to the Great Physician to be healed.