Jesus, Friend of Sinners (Mark 2:13-22)
The new King had recently taken the throne. His enemies fell before him like wax before the fire. He now returned to his palace and focused on establishing his kingdom. Rumor was that this was no ordinary king, but a king who had received divine approval—heaven itself seemed to be helping him. The year is around 1,000 BC. This is the late Bronze Age, a time marked by brutality. It was common practice when a new king ascend to the throne he would kill the remaining family members of the previous king, so as to prevent any future uprisings or coups. Mephibosheth, the grandson of the previous king, had good reason to fear. Not only would he have been aware of this practice, but his grandfather, Saul, had repeatedly tried to kill this new king. So, if anyone were to exact vengeance on surviving family members, it would be this new king. And just to make this situation even worse for poor Mephibosheth, he was actually a cripple. He had been injured as an infant and his feet were permanently injured, immediately making him a social outcast and pariah for his entire life (2 Sam 4:4). No one would have batted an eye if this new king killed this cripple and blood-enemy.
One fateful day, Mephibosheth’s greatest fear is realized, and he is summoned to the king’s palace where he will stand before the judgment of the king. What would the king do? What does a righteous king do in the face of such a dilemma? One point we have been striving to emphasize as we walk through the gospel of Mark is the kingly role Jesus is playing: He has come to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God and has been identified as the King all of Israel has been waiting for. But Jesus does not act the way so many kings act. And neither does the King, David, whom Mephibosheth is called to. Mephibosheth falls on his face before David and begs for David to just treat him as a servant and let him live. But David will have none of that. He picks Mephibosheth up, proclaims peace to him, and gives him the inheritance as if he is one of his sons, and then brings him to his table, where we are told that Mephibosheth ate with the king always (2 Sam 9:1-13). What kind of kingly authority is this?
As we turn to our text today we will again see King Jesus use His authority in shocking and surprising ways.
Sinning and Saving
While Jesus is still in Capernaum, he goes out again to the sea of Galilee, similar to Mark 1:16 where we see Jesus, “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee…” only this time, Jesus isn’t walking alone. We are told that there is a large “crowd…coming to him, and he was teaching them,” Mark 2:13. Jesus, if we remember from our story thus far, has become very popular as a teacher, miracle worker, and exorcist (cf. Mark 1:32-39). And now, in the story we looked at last week, we see that Jesus has begun to also proclaim people’s sins to be forgiven (Mark 2:5) alongside his miraculous healings, leading all of the people to say, “We never saw anything like this!” Mark 2:12. Not everyone has been thrilled about Jesus’ meteoric rise in popularity, however. The Scribes, while watching the crowds celebrate Jesus, grow more and more apprehensive. They have already accused Him of blasphemy (2:7) and been openly rebuked by Jesus (2:8-10), leading to the whole town excitingly following after Him. It is safe to assume that they are highly suspicious of, if not already antagonistic towards, this strange wonder-working rabbi from Nazareth. And Jesus does not go out of His way to alleviate any of those suspicions. Instead, He makes the problem worse by linking arms with some shady characters.
“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,” Mark 2:14. Levi (known as “Levi” in Mark and Luke, but as “Matthew” in Matthew) is sitting at a “tax booth,” likely collecting toll taxes on ships coming in and out of port on the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus mysteriously approaches him, summons him to follow, and Levi immediately abandons the booth and follows Jesus. The parallels between the calling of Andrew, Simon, James and John are intentional. Both stories take place by the Sea of Galilee, in both of them the disciples are in the middle of their work, in both of them Jesus concisely calls them to “Follow me,” and in both stories the disciples immediately stop what they are doing, abandon their job, and “follow” Jesus (cf. Mark 1:16-20). Why does Mark want us to compare these two calling stories? We aren’t given the stories of calling for the other seven disciples, therefore the retelling of these two specific stories with their specific similarities invite us to compare them. Andrew and Simon appear to be disciples of John the Baptist in some form, eagerly awaiting the Messiah; James and John are their partners in their fishing venture (cf. John 1:35-42; Luke 5:10), thus it is safe to assume that they likely are typical, faithful Jews. Levi, however, is a tax collector who associates with lots of other tax collectors and “sinners” (Mark 2:15).
“Tax collectors” were individuals who (no surprise) collected taxes. The widespread view of tax collectors in the gospels is overwhelmingly negative. They are associated with prostitutes in Matthew 21:31-32 and are assumed to be on the bottom wrung of the moral and ethical ladder in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (cf. Matt 18:15-17). Even though some taxes (such as the poll tax) went to the local municipalities, all local governments were set up by Rome and so were seen to be supporting the Roman oppression. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to Israel, likely ceremonially unclean because of their possible interaction with Roman Gentiles, and would often extort more money from the citizens than was necessary, pocketing the extra for themselves (cf. Luke 3:12-13; 19:1-10). They were seen as a kind of Sherriff of Nottingham of their day—stealing money from the peasants to support an evil government. This is who Jesus decides to make one of His disciples. “Sinners” were a class of people who, alongside tax collectors, were despised by the religiously devout (cf. Luke 7:39). They were those who voluntarily lived lives of open immorality, worked jobs that forced them to break the Mosaic Law (prostitution, slaves, soldiers, etc.), or were simply a class of people who didn’t adhere to the purity traditions of the most religiously devout (Pharisees and Scribes). Therefore, Levi is most certainly a person that would have caused good, honest, God-fearing Jews of his day to turn up their noses upon seeing him.
When I first became a Christian I read a book that imagined a world where Jesus’ first coming wasn’t two thousand years ago, but set in our modern time. In that telling, Levi is the producer of a porn company who associates himself with other people in the adult film industry, and he throws a party and invites these people, as well as gang members and drug addicts. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Maybe. But, the same moral revulsion we would feel about associating ourselves with a person like that would have been what most Jews would have felt by associating with “tax collectors and sinners.” When the Scribes are outraged at the kinds of people Jesus is hanging out with, what is Jesus’ response? ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” Mark 2:17. Why is Jesus hanging out with sinners and tax collectors? Because He is the great physician who has come to bring a deeper healing. This is important, friends, Jesus is not hanging out with tax collectors and sinners as a way of endorsing or approving of their lifestyle anymore than a doctor associating with the sick is intent on leaving them in their sickness. The doctor spends time with the sick in order to heal them! Some Christians (I think with good intentions) will seek to associate with non-Christians, trying to emulate Jesus here, but will then fearfully never call people to abandon their sin and follow Jesus. And what happens, tragically, over time is that the non-Christians begin to have more of an influence on them. Jesus never gives anyone the idea that they can continue in rebellion against God and be saved, and we likewise should never give anyone that impression.
So, what does this tell us? Remember, Jesus has come to bring the kingdom of God, to show us what it is like (cf. Mark 1:14-15). This tells us that those who are invited into the kingdom is a surprising choice. It’s not what you expect. Jesus’ disciples are compiled of Jews who have striven to follow the Torah, remain ritually clean, and Jews who haven’t. The Church is filled with people who have lived fairly quiet, normal lives, and people who have lived very hard, difficult lives. When the ancient Romans conquered an enemy they would construct a shortened doorway of sorts, made out of spears, and force their enemies to hunch under and “pass under the yoke” of Rome (passum sub iugum). It was meant to humiliate their enemies they had defeated. It didn’t matter whether you were the highest general or lowest soldier, all had to pass under the yoke, and all were stripped of their weapons, armor, and status when they did so. The Cross of Jesus Christ is like that, but in reverse; whatever sins you carry with you, whatever clinging guilt you have, whatever you bring, when you pass under Jesus’ yoke, the Cross, it is all stripped from you, but instead of conquering army taunting your failure there is a loving God waiting there, arms wide open. Octavius Winslow, an English preacher from the 1800’s, writes:
Oh blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God! How glorious, how free, how accessible! Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come. Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering. All are welcome here. The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God. It was the outgushing of that ocean of infinite mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet. It was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner. What more could he have done than this? - Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (Banner of Truth, 1962), pages 183-184.
Maybe you’re not a Christian here today because you have assumed that because of your past, because of what you have done or what has been done to you, you would not be welcome at Jesus’ table. Friend, I beg you to reconsider—no abortion, no sexual encounter, no abuse, no addiction, no doubts will disqualify you from coming to Jesus today. The only thing that will keep you from sharing in this good news is your refusal to come to Him. If you want to know more about what that looks like, ask the friend who invited you today about it, or come talk to one of our pastors after the service.
Feasting and Fasting
After calling Levi, Jesus and his disciples go to Levi’s house where a large party is held (perhaps in honor of Levi’s recent conversion?), “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,” Mark 2:15. We know this isn’t a regular dinner party because of the large number of guests we are told are present (note: the twofold repetition of the number of people, “many…many”), and because of the specific word used to describe their meal (κατάκειμαι… συνανάκειμαι in 2:15). “Reclining” at dinner was not the average manner in which Jewish people ate their meals; this was something adopted from the Greco-Roman world and was usually only done at large, celebratory feasts (note: Luke calls this meal a “great feast,” Luke 5:29). And who is invited to this feast? “…many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many [presumably, referring to tax collectors and sinners] who followed him,” 2:15.
So, gathered around Jesus and his disciples is this group of rather unsavory characters. The Scribes of the Pharisees apparently see Jesus eating with these people and are shocked, asking His disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:16. Why is this such a big deal? The importance of hospitality was very significant in this culture. One commentator writes, “Eating with someone had special connotations. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life...Therefore, guests were selected very carefully.” So, in Jesus’ time, for Him to be sharing meals with sinners and tax collectors (something He did often, Matt 5:30; 9:11; 11:19; Mark 2:16; Luke 15:1-2; 19:7), would have been interpreted as Him embracing these kinds of people in a familial way. Luke 15:2 shows us that the Pharisees interpreted Jesus’ eating with sinners as synonymous with “receiving” them into His circle. Apparently, this happened enough that Jesus became infamously known as a, “glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Matthew 11:19. Of course, because of the Scribes’ titanium self-righteousness, they cannot imagine someone like a tax collector or sinner being welcomed into the fold of the kingdom of God, thus they assume that Jesus could not be the Messiah; He must be hanging out with these kinds of people because He is one of them.
You see the irony of the story that follows directly after this feast? What are the Pharisees doing while Jesus and his disciples are enjoying a good meal? They are fasting. In the Old Testament, the only fasting that was required was once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27-29), but by the time of Jesus many religious renewal movements began a practice of regularly fasting to express contrition over sin and pleading for Yahweh to restore Israel. We are told that both the Pharisees and John’s disciples fast, but people notice that Jesus and His disciples do not (Mark 2:18)—in fact, they seem to be living it up! RT France writes, “The Jesus movement was characterised by celebration rather than solemnity, and it was this which some observers found hard to accept.” People are concerned that Jesus and His disciples aren’t taking their religious observance seriously enough.
Before we look at Jesus’ response to this accusation, I want to think more carefully about something in particular: have you ever noticed how often we are told stories about Jesus sharing meals with people? It is surprising if you take some time to think about it. Of all the things, the miracles, the teachings, the encounters that Jesus had, the gospel writers have selected only that which is most important for telling the story of the Jesus. John tells us that if he wrote down everything that Jesus did the, “world itself could not contain the books that would be written,” John 21:25. But we are told repeatedly about Jesus sharing meals with sinners and tax collectors (Matt 9:9-13; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-32), Pharisees ( Luke 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-24), women (Luke 10:38-42), Zacchaeus (a chief tax collector, Luke 19:1-10), with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary (John 12:1-8), with multitudes in the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13) and the 4,000 (Matt 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10), and, of course, His final meal, the Last Supper He shares with His disciples before His death, an ordinance He leaves behind for all of His disciples as a sign and symbol of the new covenant (Matt 26:17-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:18-29; cf. John 13:3). After Jesus is resurrected, twice we are told that He reveals Himself to His disciples through sharing a meal with them (Luke 24:30-31; John 21:13). Further, think of how often the theme of feasting, banquets, wedding meals, and eating comes up in Jesus’ teaching and parables (eg. Luke 14:7-14; Matt 23:6; Mark 12:38-39; Luke 20:46; Matt 22:2-14; Luke 14:16-24).
Why this emphasis on food? On table fellowship? I think it likely has a great deal to do with the cultural connotations surrounding sharing meals together that we discussed, but I also think that Jesus is picking up an image from the prophets to describe what the coming of the new creation will look like. In Isaiah we read, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken,” Isaiah 25:6-8. What happens when Yahweh forgives sin, abolishes death, and wipes away all tears? He throws a party. And not a “paper plate and cheap boxed wine” kind of party, but a luxurious, sumptuous feast with the best wine and the best food. And, of course, this is what we are told happens in the book of Revelation right before the dawning of the New Heavens and New Earth: Jesus hosts the wedding supper of the lamb (Rev 19:6-9). You see, the emphasis on Jesus sharing meals, providing food, teaching about banquets isn’t just a way of inviting people into His circle but is also a picture and preview of the Messianic banquet that we will enjoy at the end of time. This is why Jesus, when instituting the Lord’s Supper with His disciples, explains to them that he will not enjoy the cup of wine again until, “that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom,” (Matt 26:29). He is awaiting till that final day where we will all gather round His table and celebrate the wedding supper of the New Creation with Him.
This is why Jesus’ ministry is marked with story after story of meals; it is also why Jesus’ disciples cannot fast while Jesus is with Him. Why? “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast,” Mark 2:19. What is Jesus saying? He is saying that the heavenly, end-times, Messianic banquet, the wedding supper of the Lamb has broken into history—the future has been pulled back into the past and the new age of salvation has now dawned with the arrival of Jesus—its time to celebrate! In John 2, the first miracle that Jesus performs is the turning of water into wine at a (take a guess?)…wedding. We are told that he did this as a “sign” to “manifest his glory” (John 2:11). Signs point forward to something. What did this point forward to? Jesus’ heavenly glory, the glory of a heavenly banquet. This is also why Jesus immediately explains the little parable of a new patch and new wine (Mark 2:21-22). Jesus has come to bring about something totally new in redemptive history: the dawning of the new age of salvation. Now, of course, that banquet, that New Heavens and New Earth feast has not yet come in its fullness—Jesus explains that, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day,” Mark 2:20. So we now stand in this unique, interesting time. The bridegroom has come, we have been united by faith to Him and He has promised that He will always be with us (Matt 28:20)—so, in one sense, it is “party” time; Jesus IS here with us. But, on the other hand, Jesus is not physically here with us; He has ascended to the right hand of the Father and we now await His return.
So, what do we do?
Jesus explains that when He is taken away His disciples will fast—it is assumed. Jesus explains to us that fasting is an expected part of a Christian’s prayer life in Matthew 6:16-18. Fasting is a prayer that says, God, you’re more important than this thing I am abstaining from right now. What should we be praying for? I think the context of this verse teaches us to pray: Come soon, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20); Let your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). We sense that this world, our lives, are not as they should be and we know that when Christ returns He will set all wrongs right. So, we plead with the Lord to fulfill His promises and to come quickly.
I would like to focus on this aspect more than fasting, mostly because I think it is more likely to be ignored. If you hear about someone fasting as they pray, you will likely think Wow, what a super spiritual person. But, if you see someone throwing a party, you might not think the same thing. I’m hoping to maybe shift our perspective some on that. Did you know that one of the most repeated commands in the New Testament is the command to exercise hospitality? It is so important, must be something that so defines a Christian, that is actually a requirement to be an elder (1 Tim 3:2). I would not be qualified to serve as one of our pastors if me and my family were not hospitable. In 1 Peter 4 we are told, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling,” (1 Pet 4:7-9). THE END IS NEAR! WHAT DO WE DO!?!? Invite some people over and cook a good meal. What does the book of Revelation tell us will be arrival of the New Creation? A wedding party (dinner provided). So, one of the best ways we today can display the kingdom of God here on earth is by hosting meals here and now, anticipating the heavenly banquet that is to come. Do you see the importance of hospitality, Christian? You can literally display a preview of heaven on earth with your kitchen table. Want to show the world what Jesus is like? Bake some bread, clean the house, and go invite your neighbors over. Do you want the church to grow in health, love, and discipleship? Invite another member over for lunch that you don’t know that well.
Friends, please don’t underestimate this. When someone in our congregation gets sick or has a baby and you organize a meal-train or cook a casserole to bring over, that isn’t some junior varsity spiritual gift. You are creating a little pocket of God’s kingdom here on earth with the love of a homecooked meal. Moms who feel like you are not doing anything significant for the kingdom: know that every night you put a meal on the table for your family, you are showing the love of God and the joys of heaven to your family.
Friends, what is your plan for hospitality? Maybe today, during lunch, or this week in your smallgroups it would be good to discuss: How many people do we want to have over a month? Where do we need to reallocate money in our budget to be more generous with our groceries? What members of the church have we not had over before? What neighbors have we not yet had in our home? And maybe you’re thinking, I hate cooking, I hate cleaning, I don’t like having people over into my home, I’m an introvert and I like my privacy. If you know of someone in the congregation who excels at hospitality, go out of your way to ask them what they do, get advice, and strive to emulate it.
A pastor was teaching on the Bible’s doctrine of the different roles of men and women in the home: how husbands are to be leaders in the home, and wives are told to submit to their husbands. He made a passing comment about how backwards and obtuse that teaching sounds to so many in our culture today, but he pointed out that if we had people over for dinner their caricatures and assumptions of what that looks like would vanish. Friends, this is so true of so much of our Christian life. When we open our homes up to one another and to the world around us, the abstract doctrines of our faith put on flesh and can be seen, felt, smelt, and tasted.
Mark has subtly woven into his narrative this gradual increase in tension between Jesus and the Scribes. Back in Mark 1:22, the crowds are amazed at Jesus’ teaching, because He teaches with authority, “not like the Scribes,” something that surely would have bruised the Scribes’ ego. In 2:6-7, the Scribes are offended at Jesus’ proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, but keep it to themselves, “questioning in their hearts…” Then in 2:16 the Scribes, scandalized by Jesus’ fellowship with sinners, ask Jesus’ disciples why He eats with tax collectors, and finally in 2:18 they will ask Jesus directly why His disciples do not fast as they do. When Jesus’ disciples appear to be violating the Sabbath, the Scribes will again confront Jesus in Mark 2:24, accusing Jesus’ disciples outright of violating the Law. The temperature of frustration climbs rapidly; just a few verses later, by Mark 3:6, the Pharisees are convinced that Jesus needs to be killed.
Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26, 103.
France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 137). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.