Today’s reading is Mark 2:14-17:
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 sinners and tax collectors?” 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.”
Jesus loves the unloved, and he calls them to be his followers.
Jesus does two things that show this. First, he tells a tax collector to be his follower. Tax collectors in first-century Palestine were disliked by many Jews because of their cooperation with the Romans and their tendency to collect extra money for themselves. The Jewish Talmud even describes a tradition in which anyone who touched a tax collector became ritually unclean.1 Jesus abolishes these attitudes, and instead of avoiding a tax collector, Jesus calls Levi to follow him.
Second, Jesus welcomes tax collectors and other “sinners” (people who had committed a well-known, public sin, or were ritually unclean) to dine with him at his home. It is not a small group, either as “many” such people were present.
The scribes of the Pharisees, members of a Jewish sect that stressed strict adherence to an extensive list of commandments derived from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), do not understand this. They are clearly suspicious of Jesus, and appear to rebuke him. The Pharisees believed that associating with tax collectors and sinners was morally wrong and made one ritually unclean. When questioned about his actions by the Pharisees, Jesus responds with something of an analogy. Just as the sick, not the well, need a physician, the sinners, not the righteous, are those Jesus came to call.
Doing this, doing what Jesus did, is hard. Jesus broke with social norms, despite opposition from authority. Even though he had attracted a large following (“for there were many who followed him,” says Mark), he did not aim for the approval of the powerful. Rather, Jesus used his power to attract and welcome the marginalized; he created a new, special community, inclusive of all sorts of people.
Yet, Jesus did not only seek out the oppressed; Jesus’s love extended to those who had done wrong. Jesus sought out the oppressor and the sinner. Tax collectors, while often the subject of persecution in the Jewish community, were also the perpetrators of Roman persecution. They were not merely victims of a system of abuse, they were sinners themselves. Jesus, in welcoming them, extends grace. He offers them unmerited forgiveness for their past.
Jesus does not merely welcome people, however. He calls them. Jesus told Levi to follow him, and he says he came to call sinners. This is significant. Jesus could have come only to heal physical diseases, teach moral lessons, cast out demonic powers, feed the hungry, and welcome the ostracized. Those things themselves would be quite amazing! But Jesus’s mission includes a call, a mission to live a new life in Christ. He wants followers. He does not only want to meet a sinner and show him love: he wants the sinner to follow and show this same love to others.
What does it look like to follow Jesus? We will learn more later in Mark. Fortunately for us, the disciples misunderstand Jesus many times, which means we get to see many examples of Jesus correcting them and showing them the right way to follow him.
At the least, following Jesus includes imitating his example. From this passage, we can see that we, like Jesus, should love the unloved, the tax collectors and sinners in our midst. We should aim to extend grace to all others, regardless of class or past or social standing, and love them even when they have done wrong. We should have a heart for the excluded, for those whom others have given up on, and for those who have been wronged themselves. And, finally, for those of us who aim to follow Jesus together in the Church, we should strive to be the inclusive, welcoming community that Jesus created. And we, too, should extend Jesus’s call to new life in Christ.
Peter Hickman ’16 is an applied mathematics concentrator living in Leverett House, the editor-in-chief of the Ichthus, and the proud roommate of Henry Li.
- Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Eerdmans, 2002. p. 83. ↩