God’s Love for the Vilest Sinners – Mark 2:13-17 (pt. 4)

Mark 2:13-17

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.”

b. The self-righteous criticized Jesus

You can almost picture these self-righteous scribes standing outside the door to Levi’s house like the prodigal son’s older brother.  They simply couldn’t contain their disdain any longer.  Mark tells us that these self-righteous scribes “said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?'”  It is interesting that they did not question Jesus directly, but instead went to His disciples.  Maybe Jesus just had too many people around him, or the disciples had stepped outside for a minute and ran into the scribes.  Whatever the case may be you can hear the disdain in the question.  They are not trying to figure out why Jesus did what He did.  There were criticizing Jesus for what he did.  In fact, by speaking to the disciples about this the scribes were probably trying to discredit Jesus in the eyes of these new disciples.  They may have been testing his new followers, who may have been a little uncomfortable with the situation themselves.   Either way, it is clear that these self-righteous scribes could not stand these sinners, and they could not stand the thought of a Messiah who loved these sinners.

Before we become too judgmental toward these self-righteous scribes we need to be very careful.  In a lot of areas we tend to be just like these scribes.  We are often guilty of making the same mistakes that these scribes made.  We set up our own “rules” and “standards” that do not reflect the explicit commands of the Bible, but rather our own personal preferences.  As well thought and helpful as these preferences may be in our own minds, they are still only preferences.  However, we tend to forget that they are only preferences and we begin to impose them on other people as if they were straight from Scripture.  Then, before we know it, we find ourselves having the same attitude that the scribes had.  We impose our own preferential standards on other people, and then we refuse to associate with those who do not live up to those standards.  This is exactly what these self-righteous scribes were doing to these sinners, but not only that, they were also imposing their preferences on Jesus himself.  They were doing it because they failed to recognize several truths:

  • 1. They failed to recognize that they too were sinners. These individuals were really good at recognizing the sin in the lives of others, but they failed to recognize the sin in their own life. The fact of the matter is that we are all guilty of this. To prove it let me try a little test. Think about all the areas in your own life that might annoy someone. Now think about all the things that annoy you about your sibling/best friend/parent/spouse. Be honest, not only did you think of more things about the other persons but you also got more riled up about those things didn’t you? All this shows is that we, like the self-righteous scribes, fail to recognize that we too are sinners. For those times when we forget that we are sinners Romans 3:23 helps us to remember when it says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
  • 2. They failed to recognize that their preferences were not the ultimate standard. These individuals wanted to judge the Messiah based on their preferences, but they forgot that their preferences were not infallible. Their own standard was not to eat with what they perceived to be sinners, and they wanted to hold Jesus to that same standard. We must be very careful of falling into this same trap. We all have the tendency to want to hold others accountable to our own standards. In fact, if we are being honest, we often define Christianity as the keeping of these rules rather than submission to Christ. The apostle Paul understood this tendency and wrote some very helpful words on the subject in Romans 14:1-12. His basic conclusion, found in verse 12, is that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” In other words, when it comes to preferential issues you are only responsible for your own conscience.
  • 3. They failed to recognize that these sinners may have just needed someone to show them the truth. This is what Jesus did with Levi. He called Levi, and Levi followed Him. Jesus was merciful to Levi and He showed Levi the truth. But these self-righteous scribes had no mercy toward these sinners. It never occurred to them that these sinners may have been living in such a reprehensible way because they did not know the truth. They should have seen these people as spiritually needy and shown them mercy. Instead, they saw these people as spiritual disgusting and they showed them contempt. This should not be a problem for us as Christians-because we have been shown abundant mercy by God-and yet we often struggle to show mercy toward others. This is why James said that we must “speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (James 2:12)
  • 4. They failed to recognize that they could have ministered to these people without falling into their sin. What these self-righteous scribes did not understand is that sin comes from within not from without. Jesus made this clear when he was speaking to the Pharisees in Mark 7:14-23. But the scribes did not understand this. They did not understand that sin comes from within our own hearts, and that to protect yourself from sin is to examine your own heart. Consequently they were so busy protecting themselves from sinners that they were not protecting themselves from sin. In fact, they were falling into sin by hating sinners. We must learn from this negative example and make sure that we are protecting our own hearts from sin rather than protecting ourselves from being in the presences of sinners. 2 Timothy 2:22 puts it this way: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Rather than fleeing sinners we need to flee our misguided passions and pursue a pure heart. I want to be clear that it can be dangerous to constantly surround yourself with rebellious individuals. They will be a bad influence on you. But that is only because your heart is not pure. You will see their sin and you will begin to be jealous of that sin, and you will desire it more than God. That is the danger of bad influences; but it is a danger that stems from a sinful heart.
  • 5. Finally, and most importantly, they failed to recognize that God loves sinners. We saw this clearly in the positive example of Jesus vv. 13-15, yet these scribes have absolutely no love for those whom they perceive to be sinners. They were not like God in any way; they did not have His heart on this matter. This is unacceptable behavior for the people of God. For us as Christians we must demonstrate God’s love for sinners. We must be like God. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:33, “God has put His law within us, and written it on our hearts. He is our God and we are His people.”

If we are going to be like God then we must learn from this negative example, and seek to be like Jesus rather than the self-righteous scribes.  For, in v. 16 the reaction of the self-righteous scribes to sinners is quite clear: they hated them.

God’s Love for the Vilest Sinners – Mark 2:13-17 (pt. 3)

Mark 2:13-17

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.”

II. The Reaction of the Self-Righteous to Sinners: They hate them. (v. 16)

a. The self-righteous were shocked by the crowd
Unfortunately the majority of the people did not share Jesus’ love for sinners. In v. 16 Mark tells us that a new group of people had arrived on the scene: “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors….” So, as Jesus was eating with this rough crowd the scribes of the Pharisees arrived on the scene. These guys were serious business. They weren’t just any old Pharisees, and they weren’t just any old scribes. These “scribes of the Pharisees” represented a small group of “professional scribes, whose concern, even more than that of Pharisees in general, was to ensure correct observance of the law.” These guys were probably the same guys who have been following Jesus around trying to find fault with Him (2:6-7; Luke 5:17). They were specialist brought out to find a charge that could be brought against Jesus. And when these sticklers of the law showed up and saw Jesus eating with these people their jaws must have hit the floor. Twice in this verse Mark records that they either thought to themselves or verbally mentioned that Jesus was “eating” with these guys. This shows us just how shocked they were. They were beside themselves. You can almost hear them, “He is eating with those guys! I can’t believe He is eating with them! Why is He eating with them?”
To make things worse, in the Jewish culture it was very important who you ate with—especially to the religious elite. There are numerous dietary regulations and rules in the Old Testament. But in addition to these rules and regulations the religious elite had added many additional regulations. In other words, tradition was made more important than the teaching of Scripture. This practice is described in some detail by Mark in 7:1-13:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Jesus recognized the sinfulness of this practice in Mark 7, and we see it here in Mark 2 as well. These scribes, being self-righteous men who valued their own standards above Scripture, were appalled that Jesus would break their regulations and eat with this crowd. In fact, they probably did not even enter the house of Levi where the feast was going on. If they had entered the house they would have been unclean by their own standards. They just stayed outside and, as we will see in the second half of this verse, they criticized Jesus.

God’s Love for the Vilest Sinners – Mark 2:13-17 (pt. 2)

Mark 2:13-17

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.”

b. Jesus reclines with sinners

Mark writes, “And as he reclined at table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”  Here in v. 15 we have a new development in the story. (1)  Jesus is no longer out by the Sea of Galilee.  Now we find Jesus in a house reclining at table with tax collectors and sinners.  So what happened?  Well, Luke tells us that “Levi made a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with him.” (Luke 5:27).  Apparently, Levi was so excited to be a follower of Jesus that he had a huge feast for Jesus and invited all of his buddies.  Remember, Levi was a tax collector.  His friends would have been tax collectors not the respectable members of the Jewish community.  Mark calls these friends the “tax collectors and sinners.”  These people were the lowest of the low in Jewish society.  They were viewed with such distained by the community that Jewish literature from about that time compared them to murderers and robbers.  These people would have been the equivalent to what people today call “trailer park trash” or “gang bangers.”  Respectable people simply would not have associated with them in any way.  Yet here in v. 16 we find Jesus and His disciples eating with them at a feast. 

Jesus, rather than shunning these people, loved them and ministered to them.  He was not afraid of being associated with these sinners.  It is also important to note that He also never condoned their sinful lifestyles.  He is the perfect example of the familiar adage that “we are to be in the world not of it.”  We should seek to live up to this perfect standard.  Some people make the excuse that Jesus was able to associate with these people because He was God, but that we should not do the same thing.  But this excuse is just that, and excuse.  Consider this, in John 17:18 Jesus told the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  This means that we must actively love sinners and minister to them just as Jesus did.  As we do this we must protect ourselves from sin in our own heart, but this does not mean that we are supposed protect ourselves from sinners.  There is a difference.

If you are still hesitant about what I am saying, then just look at the outcome of Jesus’ love for sinners.  Mark tells us that “there were many who followed him.”  These individuals were saved because of Jesus’ love for sinners.  If Jesus had only minister in the Temple and in the synagogues where the respectable people were then these people never would have been saved.  If we want to see sinners be saved and follow Jesus then we must be willing to love them and minister to them just as Jesus did. 

So, in vv. 13-15 Jesus reaction to sinners is quite clear; He loves them.      

 


 (1) γίνεται κατακεῖσθαι αὐτόν is a Semitic turn of phrase; in 1:4 and 1:9 a Semitic ἐγένετο (wayehî) was followed by a participle and an indicative verb respectively; here, as in 2:23, an infinitive supplies the real verbal content of the clause, while καὶ γίνεται serves to draw the reader’s attention to this new development in the story. [R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 132.]

God’s Love for the Vilest Sinners – Mark 2:13-17 (pt. 1)

Mark 2:13-17

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.”

Introduction:

In Mark 2:1-12 Jesus made it clear that He has the divine authority to forgive sins.  As one thinks about this authority the question is how far does this forgiveness go?  These men in 2:1-12 were clearly respectable men who had faith.  It is understandable to us why Jesus would forgive them.  But will Jesus forgive just anyone who has faith?  What about when Jesus comes into contact with the vilest of sinners?  How will He react?  What will He do?  These are all questions that Mark answers for us in 2:13-17.  In this passage we have a conflict story that contrasts Jesus’ reaction to sinners with the reaction of His opponents. 

How we are supposed to react to sinners is not an easy issue, but it is one that we face all the time.  Every day we encounter sinners living in constant rebellion toward God.  We must determine how we are going to react to this.  This may be something that you have never consciously thought about, but you need to! 

Let me give you a hypothetical situation to show you what I am talking about.  Let’s say that right after I started teaching tonight a teenage guy walked in the door.  He is rough looking guy with carrying a skateboard, and the only reason that he is walking in late is because he was outside smoking a cigarette.  How would you react to this guy?  Would you be scared, nervous, or would wonder what a guy like that was doing here?  Before you think to much about this hypothetical situation let’s look at this passage in Mark and see how Jesus and his opponents reacted to a similar situation.  As we look it this passage we are going to learn a very important principle; we are going to learn that God loves sinners. 

I. The Reaction of Jesus to Sinners: He loves them. (vv. 13-15)

a. Jesus chooses Levi the Tax collector

This account begins with Jesus returning to the Sea of Galilee.  Mark writes, “He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming out to him, and he was teaching him.”  Jesus would have been quite familiar with the banks of this body of water.  He had minister there on several occasions before, and had even called four of His disciples from this location (1:16-20).  This would have been a nice place for Jesus to get away.  After ministering in extremely tight quarters (2:2) the breeze coming off the water would have been very refreshing.  But despite this refreshing atmosphere, the crowds did not stop coming to Jesus.  You can almost picture wave after wave of people flocking to Jesus to see what He would do next.  This would have been utterly exhausting for Jesus; however He turned no one away.  He was readily available to the people providing them with the teaching that they desperately needed (1:14-15, 21, 38, 2:2). 

As all of this was going on Jesus continued walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee “and as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth….”  At this point, it seems a little strange for Mark to mention this.  Jesus “just happened” to come up on this tax booth, and he “just happened” to see this tax collector named Levi.  Looking back now we can see that this was obviously part of the Father’s plan, but to the people present at the time it would have seemed strange for Jesus to pay any attention at all to this tax collector. 

To really understand what is going on here we need to understand how the taxes worked and what tax collectors did in the 1st century.  Just like today, there were many taxes imposed by those under the Roman rule.  This particular tax booth, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was for collecting a usage tax on imports and exports.  It was like a customs office, or maybe a toll both of sorts.  People bringing goods into the region by boat would have to stop at the tax booth and pay according to what they were bringing in.  These tax booths would be owed by individuals who bought the rights from the Roman government.  Kent Hughes explains how this worked:

The Romans collected their taxes through a system called “tax farming” (similar to farming out franchises such as McDonald’s fast-food restaurants). They assessed a district a fixed tax figure, and then sold the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder. The buyer had to hand over the assessed figure at the end of the year and could keep whatever he gathered above that. The obvious potential for extortion was compounded by the poor communication characteristic of ancient times, so that the people had no exact record of what they were to pay. (1)       

The people hated these tax collectors because they cheated the people out of their money.  Additionally, the Jews who took a position as a tax collector were particularly hated.  They were viewed as traitors who had sided with this oppressive Roman government.  The Jewish tax collectors would not have even been allowed to worship in the temple (Luke 18:10-14) or in the synagogues.  If a tax collector were to walk in the room the people would have responded with utter contempt.  This is how this crowd of people would have looked at Levi.  However, we know a little but more about Levi. 

This Levi is also known as Matthew (Matthew 9:9).  As Matthew we know a quite a bit about this man.  John MacArthur described Matthew as “a Jew who knew and loved the Old Testament.  He was spiritually hungry.  At some point in his like, most likely after he had chosen his despicable career, he was smitten with a gnawing spiritual hunger and became a true seeker.” (2)  You may ask how can we know all of this about this guy Levi.  We know this because Mark says that Jesus saw Levi “and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he rose and followed him.”  Levi became a disciple of Jesus.  This is no small sacrifice either.  A fisherman could always go back to fishing, but once a tax collector left his post there would be no returning.  This is exactly what Levi, also known as Matthew, did.  He became a disciple of Jesus, and eventually he would go on to write the book of Matthew.  In that book He quotes from the Old Testament more than all of the other gospel writers combined.  This proves that even before Jesus called him Levi was a man who knew and loved the Old Testament.  In fact, Levi had probably already heard the reports about Jesus and began putting together the pieces even before Jesus showed up. 

We can learn a lot from this account.  The perception that the people had of Levi as a tax collector was different than the reality of who Levi was.  Yes, he was a tax collector and a sinner.  But in reality he was no worse than any of us.  Jesus saw this sinner and he loved him, and he called him, and he made him into a disciple.  I wonder how we would have reacted to this sinner.  We might have seen Levi and judged him to be a horrible person and walked away.  But that is not how Jesus reacted, and in v. 15 Mark goes on to tell us even more about how Jesus reacted to sinners.  


(1) R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Preaching the Word (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), 68.

 (2) John MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Thomas Nelson Pub, ) 155.

Friday Quote

…unsaved people need a New-Covenant ‘heart transplant.’ If any of us should look upon unregenerate people as sick to some degree but not as being terminally ill and if we should some to them with a box of spiritual Band-Aids, this accomplishes noting except possible to place them at a higher level of accountability in the presence of our holy God. Furthermore, such possibly well-meaning, but theologically errant, medic will also stand before the judgment seat of Christ guilty of spiritual malpractice.

Dr. George Zemek
Doing God’s Business God’s Way: A Biblical Theology of Ministry
pg. 3

Book Review: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

Kent and Barbara Hughes.  Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1987.  204 pp.  Reviewed by Paul Shirley (7/14/2007).

Ministerial burnout is an all too common phenomenon in the modern evangelical world.  It is a trend that is taking quite a toll on the church as pastors are flocking to get out of full-time ministry.  Pastors, young and old, are experiencing this burnout at an alarming rate.  Stress, unfulfilled expectations, and low morale all contribute to this trend.  As this trend continues to grow, the question that pastors must answer is how they are going to deal with the stresses of full-time ministry.  To this end, Kent and Barbara Hughes have written Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.  This book is intended to help pastors deal with ministerial stress and prevent ministerial burnout.  In their own words, “We are concerned about the morale and survival of those in Christian ministry.  Pastors, youth workers, evangelists, Sunday school teachers, Christian writers and speakers, and those in other areas of Christian service often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectations for success.” (pg. 9) 

Using their own experiences in ministry and Scriptural principles, the authors provide their readers with a dose of perspective that prove helpful to anyone battling the stress of ministry.  By allowing their readers to look in on their own mistakes and wrong thinking the authors have given their readers the opportunity to learn from their own experiences and trials.  Ultimately, by sharing their own experiences, the authors reveal that success in ministry must be evaluated by God’s standards rather than the world’s standards.  This lesson is a tough lesson to learn – particularly for young pastors.  The temptation is to gauge success according to the expectations that you have set for yourself.  These expectations usually include accomplishments such as preaching to thousands of people, writing books, and any number of similar dreams.  Expectations such as these do not come from the pages of the Bible; however they are all too common.  In fact, Kent Hughes admits that expectations similar to those listed above were crippling him in his ministry.  His honest admission was that to him “success in ministry meant a growth in attendance.  Ultimate success meant a big growing church.”  (pg. 29)  Upon realizing his true attitude toward success, Hughes “made a covenant to search the scriptures and learn what God had to say about success.”  (pg. 31)  As he kept this covenant what Hughes “learned was [his] liberation from the success syndrome.”  (pg. 31) 

By looking to the scriptures to define success Hughes realized that success is determined by God’s standard rather than the world’s standard.  This realization led Hughes to what may be the most important principle set forth in this book: “A faithful life is a successful life.” (pg. 43)  This is the primary message of this book, and it is the only message that will liberate men from the “success syndrome.”  This means that obedience and devotion are more important than results, numbers, and accolades.  Defining success in this way makes it attainable.  Men do not have to live up to some lofty expectation or dream to be considered a success; they must simply remain faithful to God and His call on their lives.  Not only does this book help pastors define success in a biblical fashion, but it also contains many encouragements for pastors facing the pressures of ministry.  There are even chapters in this book on “How the Pastor’s Wife can Help” and “How the Congregation can Help.” 

Kent and Barbara Hughes have not broken any new ground with this book, but they have provided an encouraging message to pastors at a time when encouragement is desperately needed.