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.”
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.