And He went out again by the seashore; and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (mark 2:13–17; emphasis added)
So much of the popular music I grew up with was about finding love in the midst of class struggle. Phrases like, “The wrong side of the tracks,” “the poor side of town,” and “down in the boondocks” all dealt with love trying to overcome the societal barriers that divide us from each other.
It seems that in every culture there is some kind of caste system. You can verify it at any junior high school. The haves versus the have-nots. The good versus the bad. The in versus the out. Us versus them. These value judgments about other human beings are destructive to others and express a warped (and inflated) self-view.
Israel in the first century was no different. Their categories were the “righteous” versus the “sinners.” The law-keepers versus the law-breakers. And the second “why” question of Mark 2 arises out of these perceptions.
In Mark 2:13–17, Jesus calls the tax collector Levi (also named Matthew) to join His band of disciples. This likely created a scandal among his other followers. Tax collectors were hated for two reasons. First, they collaborated with the Roman government that occupied Israel at that time. Second, they became wealthy at the expense of their countrymen by abusing power given to them by Rome.
In the eyes of the religious leaders, it was unthinkable that a genuine prophet would damage his reputation by associating with a tax collector. Jesus’s own disciples, fishermen on that same seashore, were probably not too thrilled about Matthew either. He had no doubt taken plenty of their money over the years.
Selecting Matthew would have been especially hard for one particular disciple—Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were revolutionaries who advocated the violent overthrow of Rome, so associating with a collaborator would have created palpable tension within the group.
Then, increasing the level of community outrage, Jesus goes to Levi’s house to have dinner with the lowest rungs of Jewish society. “Tax collectors and sinners,” they called them. These people were considered the scum of the earth by respectable society. So the question is raised: “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16).
Again, this question comes from the scribes, the experts in Jewish religious law. According to them, dining was not just about getting nourishment, it had layers that affected the ceremonial purity of each individual. How the hands were washed, how the food was prepared, how the dishes and pots were cleaned, and, yes, who sat with you at the table would all have profound implications about a person’s purity. And your ceremonial purity directly affected your opportunity to participate in temple or synagogue activities.
These leaders are essentially asking, “Who does He think they are?” How could a so-called prophet be so foolish as to associate closely with those people?
Jesus responds by highlighting the need of the crowd. He makes it clear that their need is His priority. And in doing so, He reveals the heart of God the Father as accepting and inclusive, welcoming into His house all who come to Him. This inclusive approach that God takes in reaching out to us is more than just the power of observation, for God looks at all of reality with a different value system.
In the book of 1 Samuel, we read the story of how the prophet Samuel chose a replacement to succeed King Saul, whom the Lord had rejected. God told Samuel to go to Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint one of his sons as the next king. One by one Jesse brought his sons to Samuel, but none of the first seven sons were God’s choice to be king. It was the eighth son, out in the fields with the sheep, whom God had selected. The Lord told Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 samuel 16:7).
Jesus looked at the heart, and He saw people who desperately needed Him. His willingness to be the “friend of sinners” was so tangible, so bold that we must see the heart of the Father in it. To think that the holy God who created and rules the universe would make room for any of us in His family speaks clearly to how He views us. We are fallen, broken creatures; yet we are made in God’s very image (see genesis 1:26–27) and are the objects of His overwhelming, rescuing love. Not because we are healthy, but because we so desperately need Him.
Today, we still live in a world of insiders versus outsiders. We create barriers to protect ourselves and our reputations at the expense of people Jesus died for. When John wrote that God “so loved the world” (3:16), it was not exclusively the world of people we find socially acceptable or morally competent. It was a world of people just like the ones we tend to exclude. Jesus’s deliberate and insistent inclusion of the great unwashed of His generation speaks loudly against the “fortress mentality” maintained by many of our churches and within our own hearts.
Christians often ask, “What would Jesus do?” But that is not quite the right question. What did Jesus do? is the better question. He reached to all, reflecting the heart of His Father and establishing a model for us to follow in our contentious, fractious, polarized generation.
Who Does He Think They Are?