You don’t need to have been around church circles for very long to know that when someone uses the term ‘Pharisee’, it’s not a compliment. After all, throughout the Gospels, it is the Pharisee’s and teachers of the law who Jesus all too regularly clashes with. We might read some of these encounters Jesus has with them and think to ourselves, ‘How on earth could they get it so wrong?’. This week’s passage from Mark’s Gospel is a great example of this. But how would you react in the following scenario. A Christian Prophet shows up in your town claiming to preach the Kingdom of God, but his followers are a bunch of completely illiterate nobodies. To make matters worse, the people he chooses to hang-out with are the known drug addicts and dealers, prostitutes, criminals and dodgy councillors. How would most of us react who regularly frequent a place of Christian worship? My guess is that we’d be fairly suspicious at best of the man. If that were our reaction, then we’re more like the Pharisees than we’d admit, and we haven’t really grasped what the Gospel is all about.
Jesus’ Call (v13-14)
A large crowd has gathered because Jesus is in town and he began to teach them. Then Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus in the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” (v14) This is the pattern of the early part of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus acts and there is an instantaneous response. So when he calls the brothers Simon & Andrew and James & John, the fishermen follow him (1:17-20). When Jesus says “Come out of him!” to the man who had the evil spirit, the demon deserted him (1:26). When he went to see Simon’s sick mother-in-law, the fever fled her (1:31). When he said “Be clean”, the leprosy left the man (1:42). And when he tells the paralytic to get up, he does so immediately, not only displaying his authority over disability, but more importantly proof that he has authority to forgive his sin. The conclusion we are to draw from all of this is clear- Jesus has supreme authority, because he is the Son of God. Mark’s given us the heads up about this in his first line- “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1)
Jesus’ Compassion (v15)
But what Jesus does next is nothing short of earth-shattering. “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.” (v15) If we think a tax collector in Jesus’ day was like the average Inland Revenue employee we miss the shock of this story. A tax collector was a despised individual (on a par with a drug dealer, pimp or human trafficker today). Not only were they working on behalf of the enemy, the Romans, in collecting taxes, but they were also notorious for lining their own pockets in the process. Who likes seeing others enriching themselves at our expense? So Jesus is calling this despised individual to follow him. But it doesn’t stop there. He actually sits down and eats with a whole bunch of them (and “sinners”) at Levi’s house. To eat with someone in that culture was far more significant than in our culture. It implied close fellowship. What we have here is a picture of salvation. Jesus calls out-and-out sinners to follow him and makes them fit companions for God and God’s people.
Jesus’ Choices (v16)
Jesus’ choices do not go down at all well with the Pharisees. They’d already had a run in with him in the previous story, accusing Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to forgive the man’s sins. But now Jesus’ behaviour is totally inexplicable- “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked the disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (v16) It raised massive questions for them about Jesus’ holiness as he was defiling himself by eating with such sinners. It made them wonder about whether he was serious about sin. And it made them question whether someone behaving like he was could be who he claimed to be. They prided themselves on their strict adherence to the law and that’s why they objected to Jesus fellowshipping with these scumbags.
Jesus’ Challenge (v17)
“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.”” (v17) If you think you’re healthy you’ll not visit the doctor, simple as that. But if you realise there’s something wrong with you, then you’ll head for the doctor’s surgery pretty quickly. The tax collectors and “sinners” knew they were ‘sick’ spiritually, and so reached out to the Saviour who could deal with their sin, and he did. But the Pharisees thought that they were perfectly healthy because of their own law-keeping and general morality, and so had no need for a Saviour. They were their own saviours. And this is the start point for believing the Gospel. We have to realise we’re sick. Sin is our problem. If we never see this, we’ll never see our need of Jesus. The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee who had his eyes opened to his sin and need of Christ and never forgot it, as he writes- “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim 1:15)
Points to Ponder
-If I think that God will look more favourably upon me because of my good behaviour & avoiding the obvious sins of others, I haven’t grasped the Gospel. I’m like a Pharisee.
-But if I see my sin for what it is, I’ll delight in Jesus, and the grace received in Him.
Dear Lord God, thank you that it is by grace we’re saved, through faith- and this is not from ourselves, but is a gift from you- it’s not by our works, so that no-one can boast (Eph 2:8-9). Help us to remember the pit from which you lifted us out and make us humble, thankful and vocal to others, as we speak of your saving grace. Amen