Mark 2:13-17


So far in the Gospel of Mark we’ve seen Jesus in many different roles.   We’ve seen him as a preacher, as a leader, and as a commander to name just a few.  These roles tell us something about Jesus and also something about us.  That Jesus comes as a preacher shows we need to be preached to – we need to be told the truth about God.  That Jesus comes as a leader, saying to his disciples “follow me,” shows us that we need to be led.  That Jesus comes as a commander, commanding even the unclean spirits, shows that we need someone to handle the powers of darkness that dance over our own heads.    In this week’s passage we are introduced to Jesus as a physician.  That Jesus comes as a physician tells us something not only about Jesus but also us.  We are sick and need a doctor.

He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.     Mark 2:13

We find Jesus here doing what we’ve seen him doing throughout Mark’s gospel: preaching to crowds of people.  Of course, this is not surprising as Jesus has said he has come out for this very reason, to preach.

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.    Mark 2:14

Jesus comes across a tax collector’s booth.  The tax collector is yet another example of an outcast in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day.  The leper Jesus previously encountered was an outcast by decree of the law.  The paralytic he had just healed likely lived as a functional outcast as he would have been unable to participate in the “normal” functions of society.  The tax collector here is an outcast as well, though for far different reasons.

Tax collectors are nearly universally despised every time they show up in the Bible primarily for two reasons.  First, they were known to be notoriously dishonest in that they collected from tax payers more than they should.  William Barclay (a Bible commentator) cites a Roman writer who remarks that he once saw a monument to an honest tax collector.  So rare was integrity in this profession that apparently finding an honest tax collector called for the construction of a monument.  Second, tax collectors were despised because of their collaboration with Rome.  They were seen, therefore, as sellouts.

Levi, who is also referred to as Matthew, responded to Jesus by rising and following him.  This required not only a movement of his feet but a movement of his heart.  And so Jesus invites into his inner circle – what will become his 12 disciples – a tax collector.  This is made all the more remarkable when you read the next chapter of Mark and realize that Jesus also called Simon the Zealot to be one of his disciples.  The Zealots were ardent opponents of Rome and some resorted even to violence to overthrow the yoke of their oppressors.  It is unlikely that Levi and Simon would have been friends apart from their deep connection to Jesus.  This is the power of Jesus in our lives.  We can connect deeply with others with whom we disagree or from whom we are different.   This can be a sign for us of the Holy Spirit’s work – when the body of believers in the church are not connected to one another primarily because of similar life circumstances but through Christ.

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.      Mark 2:15

Jesus’ decision to call Levi perhaps surprised those who followed him and likely angered those who did not.  If this decision was unsettling, what Jesus does next takes it to the next level.   He goes into Levi’s house where there are “many tax collectors and sinners.”  And not only does he enter for a quick visit but sits down and reclines at the table as they fellowship over a meal.

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 tax collectors and sinners?”     Mark 2:16

This causes a stir amongst the religious elite.  What is a respectable rabbi like Jesus doing with tax collectors and sinners?!  This, in their minds, is scandalous.  Their line of thinking went something like this, Let the sinner reform himself and then go to Jesus!  Fourth-century theologian and church leader Gregory of Nazianzus defends Jesus’ actions:

“To blame Jesus for mingling with sinners would be like blaming a physician for stooping down over suffering and putting up with vile smells in order to heal the sick.”  (Oration 45, On Holy Easter 26 quoted from Ancient Christian Commentary, p.29)

Of course you would expect to find a doctor with the sick.  Where else would he be?

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.”   Mark 2:17

Jesus responds by saying that he has come for the very reason of calling sick sinners.   Remember that the name Jesus even means “the Lord saves.”  He was given the name Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” Jesus has come for sinners.

Paul explains Jesus’ purpose very plainly in 1 Timothy 1:15 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  It is very important that we understand this.    There are some who would re-write this verse to read:

“Christ Jesus came into the world to reward my righteousness.”  No way! You aren’t that good!


“Christ Jesus came into the world to keep me from becoming a sinner.”  It’s too late!

No, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Consider the words of Charles Spurgeon:

The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness, but my badness! It is not my merit, but my misery! It is not my standing, but my falling! It is not my riches, but my need. He comes to visit His people, yet not to admire their beauties, but to remove their deformities! He comes not to reward their virtues, but to forgive their sins! (Spurgeon, Sermon preached Sept 15, 1878)

I have access to Jesus not because of my righteousness but because of my sin.  Through the ages it has not been our sin that has kept us from Jesus but our righteousness.  He has come as our savior and we have refused to acknowledge that we need to be saved.  Spurgeon continues:

O you sinners! I mean real sinners—not you that call yourselves so because you are told you are such—but you who feel yourselves to be guilty before God, here is good news for you! O you self-condemned sinners who feel that if you ever get salvation, Jesus must bring it to you and be the beginning and the end of it, I pray you rejoice in this dear, this precious, this blessed name, for Jesus has come to save you, even YOU! Go to Him as sinners! Call Him, “Jesus,” and cry, “O Lord Jesus, be Jesus to me, for I need Your salvation!” (ibid.)

The real difference between the tax collectors & “sinners” and the Pharisees was not that one group was righteous and the other not.  They were both sinners, neither group were righteous in God’s eyes.  The difference was that the tax collectors and “sinners” acknowledged their need of a savior.  They knew they were sinners.

Where would you place yourself in this story?

Do you identify with the tax collectors and sinners?  Your sin is ever before you.  You feel the sting of your sin.  The weight of guilt hangs over your soul.  If so, hear again Jesus’ words: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  Rejoice that it is your sin that qualifies you to be received by Jesus.  If you are not counted among sinners, you have no part of Jesus.

Or do you identify more with the Pharisees?  Certainly you needed a doctor when you first came to faith – but not now.  You perhaps ask yourself: Isn’t the mark of Christian maturity a lack of a struggle with sin?  I quoted earlier part of 1 Timothy 1:15.  Here is the verse in its entirety: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  The apostle Paul, many years into his walk with the Lord and his calling to be an apostle, considers himself to be the worst of all sinners.    Far from a lack of  a struggle, the mark of Christian maturity is a growing awareness of my sin and need for Jesus.  For some reason we believe it is acceptable to need Jesus for our salvation but not for our sanctification.  If we are not careful over time we end up growing in our ability to hide our sin rather than  repent over our sin.  Perhaps we find it embarrassing to still be struggling with the same sin.  And if this is you I would remind you that Jesus came as a physician for the sick.  He is not done with you yet!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why might Jesus’ decision to call Levi have been surprising or even upsetting to those knew about it?
  2. How did Levi respond to Jesus?  If you were in Levi’s position what hesitations might you have in following Jesus?
  3.  Jesus does more than enter Levi’s house, he reclined at the table with him and others.  Why do you think this was such a big deal for the Pharisees?
  4. Discuss Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.  What do we learn about Jesus from his response?
  5. What is the difference in how the sinners & tax collectors viewed Jesus versus the Pharisees?
  6. Who do you identify more with in this story?  The sinners and tax collectors who felt the weight of their sin?  Or the Pharisees who seemed to have forgotten that they too still needed a doctor?  How so?
  7. What practical things might we do to remember that we are sick and in continual need of a doctor?


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