“Then Jesus went out again beside the sea. The whole crowd was coming to Him, and He taught them. Then, moving on, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him. While He was reclining at the table in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also guests with Jesus and His disciples, because there were many who were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked His disciples, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners? ” When Jesus heard this, He told them, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do need one. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:13-17 HCSB)
Prejudice. It comes in many shapes and forms but it always distorts our view. It distorts our view of others, most obviously, but I believe it starts out as a distorted view of ourselves and leads to a distorted view of others. In our modern culture, it is most prevalent in the distorted racial views that we hold, but that is certainly not the only prejudice we find. Most cultures, ancient and modern, have struggled with “social class” prejudice in which members of one class have held generally negative views of those in other classes. While the “caste” system of India comes to mind, that is NOT the only place where a caste system exists. Whether we want to admit it or not, we have a similar system in America with more and more divisions and groups developing by the minute.
Whenever we look at someone, anyone as being of less value or worth than ourselves, whether that measure is social value, material value, physical value, mental value, spiritual value or any other value by which we might decide someone’s worth, then we have prejudice in our hearts. Why do we do this and what would cause us to devalue someone else’s life as being of less worth than our own? Basically, two things: 1) an greatly exaggerated view of self, 2) or a greatly deflated view of self. Hitler’s message of an “Arian race” is the classic example of this greatly exaggerated view of self that leads to a destructive prejudice. But on the opposite end of that spectrum are those who have a greatly deflated view of themselves. This extreme lack of self-worth can easily lead to the same results. We improve our self-worth by degrading and devaluing the worth of others. By bringing them down we believe that we elevate our own worth. It tends to come out like this: “I may be bad and of little value, but you are far, far worse off than me. You are really worthless!”
So, how does this play out in scripture and how do we find Jesus addressing it? I hope by now you’ve recognized the implications of our focal passage. Jesus had gone back out beside the Sea of Galilee and was teaching the people. While Mark doesn’t give us the specifics of what He was teaching, we can be certain that it was consistent with what He’s already been teaching and will continue to teach them regarding the values, beliefs, demands and expectations of being a part of God’s kingdom. You can find these clearly stated in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 12 and demonstrated throughout the Gospels by Jesus words and actions. But in this passage we get a front row seat for a confrontation with the Pharisees regarding their prejudicial views.
In scripture, tax collectors are not well liked by the Jewish people, as I’m sure you are aware. To be fair, tax collectors aren’t well liked by just about any group of people in any generation. We really aren’t so very different from them, are we? I suspect that most folks who work for the Internal Revenue Service keep pretty quiet about their jobs. What’s interesting is that most young Jewish boys who would have been named Levi would have been destined for service among the Levites. However, this Levi defied the norm and, no doubt, also defied his parents’ wishes and became a hated Roman tax collector.
While Levi was a common name, especially for those destined for service among the Levites, his father’s name – Alphaeus – is a rather uncommon name. Among the list of disciples in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:3, we find Matthew the tax collector and James the son of Alpheaus. It seems rather apparent that Levi and Matthew are the same person (and I will call him by his more common name, Matthew, from here on out) – the only tax collector mentioned among the disciples, but who is this other son of Alpeaus, James, and are the two of them brothers?
While we simply don’t have enough evidence to be certain, it is possible that Levi and James may have been brothers and this would give us three sets of brothers among the disciples: Simon and Andrew sons of John, James and John sons of Zebedee, and now Levi and James sons of Alpheaus. I think the strongest argument against this familial tie between Levi and James as brothers and sons of Alpheaus is that the others are referenced as brothers in each of these lists of disciples and Levi and James are never listed together in that manner. One last comment, I think it is also possible that Levi and James may not have been listed as brothers simply due to the stigma associated with being a tax collector.
One thing that does seem obvious, though not mentioned, is Levi’s familiarity with Jesus’ teaching prior to being called as a disciple. In verse 14, Mark tells us that Jesus saw Levi sitting at his tax office or booth and said, “Follow Me!” Matthew immediately abandoned his position and followed Him. For this to have occurred, it seems apparent that Matthew must have heard Jesus’ teaching and preaching prior to his calling. How would a socially despised tax collector have heard Jesus teaching? Probably from the shadows, the far outer edges of the crowd while trying to remain invisible, unnoticed by everyone else.
It is really important to note that Jesus saw Matthew even though Matthew, no doubt, wanted and tried to remain unseen. Jesus has this unmatched ability to see, love, touch, include and call to service those whom society ignores, casts aside and completely rejected as worthless. Simply put, unworthy of God or God’s forgiveness. Matthew fell into this latter group and Jesus’ actions must have been quite shocking. Tax collectors were not even allowed to participate in Synagogue. They were isolated, alone, regarded as social trash and human refuse by the Jews and even their families, but not by the Messiah. I do believe it is intentional that Jesus calls Matthew while he was “on duty” at his tax booth. No doubt, Jesus is calling Matthew to make a life-altering choice in a very public setting and in a very public way. Matthew gets up, follows Jesus and he knows there’s no turning back, now.
These actions tell us quite a bit about Matthew but they tell us even more about Jesus. Jesus’ love, grace, forgiveness and fellowship are not just for those whom society or the church deems as worthy but they are also for those whom society or the church deems as unworthy of God’s love. You might wonder why I included the “church” in that condemning statement. We are, far too often, as prejudiced as any other group in our communities. It has often been said that the most segregated time in America is at 11:00 AM on Sunday morning. While those words were originally written in response to racial segregation, they are sadly still accurate and we must diligently work to change them. While I don’t intend to gloss over the church’s need to address these words, I do want you to notice how Jesus responds when He is challenged by Jewish religious leadership. So, stick with me…
It appears that Matthew immediately invited Jesus and the other disciples to his home for a dinner celebration. Though we aren’t given any insight as to how the other disciples reacted to Jesus’ invitation to Levi/Matthew to join His band of followers, I’m certain it is safe to assume there was some grumbling. These disciples are hearing Jesus’ challenging words and are experiencing His transforming power, but old habits and deep-seated prejudices typically die a slow death. It’s true for these first century Jewish disciples and it is true for us, too. The strongholds that Satan has established in our lives do not fall easily. However, Jesus is not only powerful enough to tear down these strongholds but He’s also persistent. “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.” (John 14:23 HCSB) He also tells us: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 HCSB)
Finally, I want you to hear the response from the Pharisees and experience Jesus’ rebuttal. While I suspect the disciples grumbled about Matthew’s inclusion, the Pharisees were more outspoken in their disgust with the situation. They wanted to know “why Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners?” Their response is basically, “What are you thinking? You claim to be of God, but God would never associate with these people. He wouldn’t go into their homes, sit down for a meal at their table and associate with them. That’s crazy! Don’t you realize WHO these people are?”
These are the religious leaders charged with the spiritual health of the Jewish people. They are known for their strict adherence to the detailed religious rules and practices they’d developed around God’s commandments, especially the Sabbath. The problem is that their understanding and observance of God’s Sabbath commandment and their rules runs contrary to God’s expressed will in Jesus Christ. To them, their Sabbath rules are everything and are more important than the people. Jesus put it this way: “They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4 HCSB)
Listen to their question, again: “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Think about it, their low view of Jesus is only eclipsed by their even lower view of these men and women. Do you remember what I said contributes to a deflated view of others? Well, one thing that contributes to it is an elevated view of self. In other words, these people are beneath me, unworthy of my attention and could NEVER be worthy of my affection. If these Pharisees feel this way about “sinners” then does God feel that way, too? Doe He, a holy God, despise them even more than the Pharisees?
Listen to the Son of God’s response and then decide: “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do need one. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The healthy don’t need a doctor but the sick do. So, Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous to God but those who are sinners. I’m sure the pride of the Pharisees jumped a notch or two at these words. Not because of how Jesus was going to respond to sinners but because they saw themselves as righteous and, thus, not in need of personal repentance, God’s forgiveness or Jesus’ help and healing. To be blunt, the Pharisees could never focus on the plight and needs of sinners because they were too focused on themselves and their false sense of righteousness.
False righteousness? Yes, Jesus’ words really aren’t about the “sinners” sitting around the table enjoying a meal with Him. It really wasn’t about whether they needed a doctor or not. Jesus’ words were an indictment against the Pharisees and anyone else who takes on their pious, “holier than thou” attitude. Is it possible to understand Jesus’ words as dismissive to the Pharisees because their religious piety and righteousness meant they “didn’t need a doctor?” Well, that entirely depends on what you believe about sin, about man and about God. Is it possible for man to achieve a level of self-righteousness in which he no longer needs God’s forgiveness and redemption? Can we ever be obedient enough to God’s commandments that we can become holy of our own accord, righteous through our own efforts and forgiveness is unnecessary?
“What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9-12 HCSB) See also: Ps. 14, Ps. 53, Rom. 1-7
What do you think? Do you need a doctor? Regardless of what we think about the Pharisees and their self-righteousness – and it really is easy to get focused on them and miss the point – Jesus’ statement should cause us to pause and self-assess. Are we so focused on the failures and mistakes of our culture, our political leaders, our boss, our coworkers or our neighbors that we fail to see our own? The men and women sitting around the table having a meal with Jesus didn’t need to hear His words. They already recognized and were acting on their personal need for Jesus’ help and God’s forgiveness. That’s why they were there. It was the Pharisees who failed to see themselves as being in need of forgiveness, in need of God’s intervention, in need of a doctor.
What about you? Do you need a doctor? Are you sitting at the table with Jesus experiencing His grace and forgiveness or are you standing on the outside looking in, criticizing those sitting at the table, ignoring your own spiritual brokenness and animosity towards God? Come join us. Come taste His grace and experience His love and forgiveness.
Table of Grace:
Hear the good news, you’ve been invited
No matter what others may say,
Your darkest sins will be forgiven
You will always have a place.
At the table of grace the cup’s never empty.
The plate’s always full and it’s never too late.
To come and be filled with love never ending
You’re always welcome at the table of grace.
⁃ by Phillips, Craig and Dean