Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents
(Note: Ninety-eight expressions of interest in the book so far! Thank you, thank you! )
Calling the Tax Collector
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
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 2:13-17 – NIV
How did Jesus treat people? If Christianity is correct in its confession that Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal, Creator God, then Jesus’ treatment of individuals is perhaps the most important part of the gospel message. Why? Because this indicates how God feels about me! It is the most personal aspect of what the Gospels have to say to any of us. The scholarly pursuit of the Gospels as literature, within a religious movement, is important. But even the most objective and skeptical scholar must be impressed with what we see in Jesus’ treatment of individuals. Only the most crude person could say there is nothing here that is worth imitating.
This passage contains two stories that have been grouped together by Mark because of their similar theme. The first is a brief recollection about the calling of Levi (also known as Matthew) as a disciple.11 The second is a story preserving a memorable saying. But more basic to the text is the clear teaching that Jesus’ treatment of people broke the religious rules of the time in a way that spoke deeply about the Kingdom of God and the purpose of Jesus. Here we find the heart of Jesus as he related to people and the essence of why the “good news” of Jesus differed from the message of status-quo religion.
Mark has informed us that Jesus assertively called disciples, as opposed to most of the religious leaders of his culture who allowed potential disciples to approach them and apply for acceptance as a student. Jesus had sought out disciples amongst the fisherman in Galilee12 and we can safely assume this was his practice, though he certainly may have also accepted the “applicant.” It is interesting that, when the Gospels record someone approaching Jesus to ask to become a follower, he is somewhat discouraging at times.13
Later, Mark will tell us that Jesus was being followed by large crowds and eventually selected the twelve from a larger group.14 Luke records that Jesus sent out 72 disciples on a “2 x 2″ mission.15 So, apparently Jesus had a large group of disciples that either were invited to follow him or simply chose to do so on their own. And it is equally clear that Jesus’ disciples were not from the religiously educated or usual pious groups, but from ordinary – even undesirable – backgrounds.
Tax collectors are not popular in any culture. But in first century Palestine, tax collectors were especially despised. This was due to a number of reasons: The Romans sold tax collecting franchises to the highest bidder. Once the collector paid his quota to the Romans, he could keep everything else. For this reason, tax collectors were notoriously dishonest and sometimes collected double (or more) of what was owed. Also, tax collectors were seen as being in collaboration with the occupying force. The ordinary Jew may not have been a zealot, but he was certainly patriotic and found it easy to hate someone who turned their back on his own people, all to work for the Romans. Being in contact with the Romans also meant that the tax collector was ritually unclean, being numbered with the “non-religious” outcasts of society. So, it is no surprise this particular group was associated with prostitutes and “sinners.” Their social circle was limited to other religious and social outcasts.
The text offers us no clue as to why Jesus calls Levi. In the story of Zacchaeus,16 we find what seems to be a repentant man for his dishonesty, earnestly desiring forgiveness and restoration. But we have no such information about Levi. We simply know that Jesus called him on the spot and we later read of them eating at the home of Levi. It isn’t wildly speculative to conclude, however, that such characters were both spiritually and morally hungry. They heard something in the message of Jesus that was attractive. What was it? It was the good news that God did not despise sinners but loved them and invited them into table fellowship with him. This is an amazing offer!
It is difficult in our culture to understand the significance of fellowship around a table. Sharing a meal was the deepest sign of hospitality and acceptance. It was an invitation into friendship and fellowship, going far beyond simply sharing food. Many of the current scholars reinterpreting Jesus believe that this action, on the part of Jesus, was more than just something observed about him; they believe it was an intentional action, done in a public way, to proclaim a radically different message about the Kingdom of God and the God of the Kingdom. While I don’t believe Jesus was staging events, I do believe the calling of Matthew and the subsequent eating with “sinners” was quite intentional and repeated for the purpose of including sinners and annoying the religious status quo.
The image of the fellowship meal, occurring frequently throughout the Bible and certainly picked up in the rest of the New Testament, also touches on the theme of the great banquet at the end of time. Such is a powerful image of the Kingdom. Jesus referred to it often, even in his parables.17 You see, the Pharisees and religious people of Jesus’ time believed that the unrighteous would be excluded from this banquet.18 But Jesus made it a point to say there would be a great surprise when God invited and included the outcasts and sinners, also to the exclusion of the usual guests. Such an upside-down turn of this banquet image was part of what Jesus taught in his total picture of the Kingdom of God. This is greatly underappreciated by many modern Christians, as is evidenced by our treatment of those Jesus would surely include.
Jesus’ pointer to who needs the gospel is very basic: sinners need God. God is actively seeking them out and inviting them into his family. Those who consider themselves good are in danger of missing the Kingdom altogether. If we see our total need for grace and help, God is for us. If we believe we have arrived at a level where we are not a “real” sinner, we have missed God’s Kingdom. I once played for my students Steve Taylor’s song, “Jesus is for Losers.” One very religious young man was offended at the song title. I gently reminded him that if we could not see ourselves as losers before God, we would never believe a message that says Jesus lost everything for us.
The best example of this overall message is Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18.19 Jesus ends that parable with the question, “Who went home justified,” or in other words, “Who went home right-with-God?” Was it the man who thanked God that he was not in need of mercy or was it the man who believed he didn’t deserve it, yet still begged for it?
The implications of all of this are truly stunning. Christianity is not a religion that allows us to make ourselves acceptable to God. If we believe we have become acceptable to him, we have missed him. Instead, Christianity is a relationship with a God whose heart is drawn towards the sinful, the broken, the outcast and the excluded. God sides with sinners and eats with them, warning those of us who are religious that, by declaring ourselves well, we stand in danger of not hearing the voice of our Creator calling us to himself. Such a perspective does not dissolve the need of Christianity to articulate God’s holiness and judgement on sin, this also being basic to the Bible. But if we say that we see God as he has revealed himself in Jesus, then we are claiming that we see a God whose mercy seeks out the very sinners who have offended his holiness, while he also bore the price of their rescue. This is what the cross is all about, and this is why Paul says that the cross is foolishness to the world but powerful to those who are being saved.20
On a practical level, Christians should be unafraid to look at the tough implications of this gospel passage for their own churches and ministries. I have worked at a Christian school that accepts mostly “lost” students, many with legal problems and previous school expulsions. Every year a certain number of the Christian faculty leave the ministry because they do not view what we do as “Christian” enough! This is typical for how many of us are taught to think. We act as if Jesus would be more likely found in the church than at a bar; that his friends would be preachers not prostitutes; that he sends us to help people find a church rather than sending us to find people who need love – and love them. Our reworking of Jesus into one who would have never called Matthew, nor eaten with sinners, is sad. Jackson Browne recorded a song on a Chieftains Christmas album and called the song, “The Rebel Jesus.” The song, written from the perspective of a non-Christian, says that the rebel, Jesus, of the New Testament, is far more attractive than the tamed Jesus of church-ianity.
We especially need to treasure this message because, at some point, every one of us will be the excluded sinner. We may be the adulterer, the AIDS patient, the prison inmate, the drug addict or the runaway teenager. At that point, when life has fallen apart, when churches do not welcome us, when people talk about us in the past tense, when there are no easy answers – where is God, then? How do we tell a father who has abused his family or a young girl who has aborted her child or a convicted criminal that Jesus Christ offers hope. How do we tell them this if we have forgotten that, from the very beginning, Jesus has been the savior of the sick, not of the healthy who are in no need of help? As individual followers of Jesus, we need to faithfully, and stubbornly, hold to the Christ who preached and practiced this “upside down Kingdom.”
 Levi is also called Matthew. See Matthew 9:9-13 for comparison.
 Mark 1:16-20.
 Matthew 8:18-22.
 Mark 3:13-19.
 Luke 10:1ff.
 Luke 19:1-9.
 See Matthew 22:2ff.
 The Pharisees were a Jewish sect who were particularly known for having both a very strict observance and interpretation of Jewish, laws, rites, and ceremonies.
 Luke 18:9-14
 See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
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