15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Mark 2:15-17 NIV)
We are in the middle of a two-part story about Jesus calling Levi (Matthew) as one of His disciples. In yesterday’s text, we learned a little about Levi – his occupation (tax collector), his lineage (son of Alphaeus), and his response to Jesus’ command to follow Him (Levi left his tax collector’s booth immediately).
In Mark’s typical fashion, he jumps from one scene to the next. Verse 15 fast forwards to the scene at Levi’s house, where there is a large dinner party going on. Jesus and His disciples are there, along with many of Levi’s friends. When we first read verse 15, we assume that since the party was at Levi’s house, Levi would be the host. In closer reading, however, scholars tell us that Jesus was actually the host, and the venue (location) happened to be at Levi’s house.
Mark makes the point that Jesus was having dinner with “many tax collectors and sinners”. Mark uses this same phrase three times in this story. So who were these people? Obviously, the tax collectors were others like Levi who were outcasts of Jewish society because of their choice of vocation. As we learned yesterday, to take up this profession would make a person rich, but would also automatically tag them as a traitor to their Jewish beliefs and customs. Their choice of trade would also exclude them from participating in Jewish community activities and social life.
Were these “tax collectors and sinners” guilty of breaking God’s moral code? For some, the answer was probably “yes”. However, the majority were probably only guilty of not following the strict ultra-legalistic traditions of the Pharisees. Since the Pharisees were the ones calling Jesus’ actions into question, we can assume that they were using their oral traditions as the basis of their judgments.
To the Pharisee, the person who committed murder was the same as the one who did not wash their hands the right way before eating; the one who was unfaithful to their spouse was the same as the one who did not count out the spice seeds they gathered from their garden and give a tenth of them to the Lord as an offering (tithe).
The Pharisees observed Jesus eating with these tax collectors and sinners, and questioned Jesus’ piety. Surely Jesus could not call Himself a teacher of God’s Law and associate with these dregs of society? The Pharisees prided themselves on living a separate life from the “common people” – those who did not or would not follow their strict oral traditions. They would not be caught dead associating with the likes of these commoners – they lived in both contempt of the “sinners”, and in fear that the sins of the sinners would be contagious and rub off on them, causing them to fall into sin.
But yet, here is Jesus, eating dinner with these outcasts of Jewish society. And to top it off, Jesus was likely laughing and teaching them and having a great conversation around the table! How could this be? The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples why Jesus would do such a thing as associate Himself with these “tax collectors and sinners”. Would this not ruin His reputation as a holy man? If Jesus keeps up this practice, He could never be one of them, a Pharisee, a member of their exclusive sect.
Jesus hears the murmurings and questions of the Pharisees. In true rabbinical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a saying or truth they would wholeheartedly endorse – a quote from the Pharisees’ own oral tradition: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The Pharisees were in complete agreement with Jesus’ statement, as it was a quote from a book called The Mekilta, which was a commentary on the book of Exodus that the Pharisees used as part of their oral traditions.
But notice that Jesus did not stop with the Pharisees’ quote; He continued with the rest of His statement: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The Pharisees could not refute Jesus’ statement. But to agree with Jesus would mean the Pharisees would have to give up their separatist ways, which was also unthinkable in their minds.
Let’s look at a few of the truths buried just below the surface of this story. First, we see Jesus using something as simple as a dinner party to teach willing listeners. The dinner party guests were eager to hear Jesus’ message of repentance and the kingdom of God arriving here on earth.
Second, when Jesus quoted the Pharisees’ oral tradition, He was telling the Pharisees that they were the sick ones but were too proud and self-righteous to admit it. The “tax collectors and sinners” knew they were in need of God’s love, grace, and mercy, and were willing to repent and humble themselves as Jesus was teaching. Only if the Pharisees humbled themselves like these dinner guests could they become well.
Third, let’s not miss the symbolism of Jesus eating dinner with sinners. As Jesus continued His message of repentance, His dinner guests accepted Jesus’ gracious invitation and the gift of forgiveness by their presence. Jesus was pointing forward to a day when there will be a great celebration in heaven when He will have dinner with all the redeemed sinners who have chosen to follow Him (Revelation 3:20 and 19:9). Jesus also gave His disciples and us a reminder of His life, death, and resurrection and promise of eternal life through the symbols of a dinner party – the bread and the cup of communion.
So who do we relate to in this story? The tax collectors and sinners, or to our dismay, the Pharisees? May we realize that like both groups, we are in desperate need of Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness. The question is whether we humble ourselves and admit our need, or we delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t need Him.