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.