Introduction: God’s grace is scandalous, calling the despised in society. This passage is rich with God’s grace toward sinners.
Today we will to focus on two truths about God’s grace:
1. God’s grace calls the unlikely
We need to begin by establishing why we are talking about God’s grace here, not simply “Jesus’ kindness” or something like that. Why am I linking this to God? Mark 1:1 introduces the gospel as “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The great coming of God and the revealing of his glory that was promised in the prophets is now here in the coming of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed that with his coming “the kingdom of God is at hand.” So when we see Jesus forgiving sins (as in Mark 2:1-12), or when we see him call a tax collector, Jesus is acting as God. And because he is doing these things for people who don’t deserve them, it is a display of God’s grace.
When I say that God’s grace calls the unlikely, I am getting this from the fact that Levi was not who people would first think of as a good candidate to be a disciple of the Messiah. This is because he was a tax collector.
In the Old Testament, God had given the Promised Land to his people, the Israelites. He told them if they obeyed him, they would prosper and be blessed. But if they disobeyed him, they would be judged and cursed. As it happened, their history was largely one of disobedience and judgment. God judged them by placing them under foreign nations as he had promised. In Jesus’ day, that foreign rule was the Roman Empire. And as all foreign occupations in the Ancient Near East, they wanted some sort of tribute from the conquered peoples under them. The Romans did this through taxes.
The Romans would hire Jewish tax collectors, and would actually give the tax collection rights for a district to the highest bidder. This tax collector would pay the taxes to Rome in advance, and would make his living bringing in the tolls and customs for the area. As you can probably imagine, this system gave a lot of opportunity for dishonesty, abuse, and fraud. As someone traveled through the district, the tax collector had the authority to stop him, assess the value of the goods, and demand what he deemed to be an appropriate portion.
Tax collectors were some of the most despised people in Jesus’ day. They were despised by the religious leaders because their dishonesty meant that they disregarded the Law of God, even though they were Jews. Some people placed them in the same category as robbers, and rabbis of Jesus’ day considered any house entered by a tax collector to be unclean.
But apart from their dishonesty, commoners would despise tax collectors because they were seen as working for the enemy. They were agents of Rome, and every time they demanded a toll or customs tax it was a painful reminder to their Jewish brothers that they had been conquered by a foreign power. Certain people known as zealots considered such submission to the Roman authority to be an act of treason toward God. It is not insignificant that Jesus would call both Levi and Simon the zealot as two of his twelve disciples. Needless to say, tax collectors were despised by the Jewish people, and this is the situation of Levi.
In verse 13 we see Jesus teaching again by the sea. Mark highlights again the fact that the most important component of Jesus’ ministry is his teaching. Remember chapter 1, verses 14 and 15, where Mark describes the ministry of Jesus: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”” And as we have seen, his works of healing and casting out demons confirm the authority of his teaching and his authority to forgive sins.
As a side note, I think it is worth pointing out here that Jesus is teaching publicly. I say this because many religions are dependent upon gaining some sort of secret knowledge or getting to an inner circle. But Christianity is not like that. Jesus mostly taught out in the open to the crowds. All who wanted to come hear him could, regardless of who they were. The same is true today. When it is allowed to be, the Bible is publicly available and is even free in many cases. Christian teaching is for anyone who will hear. The gospel is proclaimed openly and as widely as possible. Listen to what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2–4:
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
This passage says that the hiddenness of the gospel comes when Satan blinds unbelievers from seeing his glory displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the message itself is preached by open statement. Jesus is a public teacher and the gospel is a public message.
Now back to our story, we see that as Jesus is teaching the masses he picks out Levi and calls him (v. 14). This story reminds us of the call of the four fishermen (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus is by the sea, he calls Levi to follow him, and Levi rose and followed him. It is the same call to discipleship, and the same, immediate response of leaving everything to follow him.
But Levi seems to be even more of an unlikely candidate for a disciple at first glance than the other four men. You can respect fishermen as hard workers making a living. But Levi probably has set up his tax booth beside the sea so that he can collect money both from people on the road and in boats. He has a different position in society than the fishermen; he’s the one getting rich off of all the hard-working people toiling in their trades. And in that sense he may have had more to leave behind when he followed Jesus: his job was secure, and prosperous, and he had guaranteed income. But he responds in the same way as the other four we have seen called. Mark tells us that “he rose and followed him.” Here again we see a picture of discipleship. Discipleship is following Jesus by faith.
This is also a picture of the far reach of God’s grace. God’s grace calls the unlikely into his kingdom. Tax collectors were not particularly observant Jews, as you could imagine. But Jesus said to Levi, “Follow me.” Here is an example of Jesus calling a notorious sinner to be his own. And he will do it again many times. Consider Paul, whom Jesus called from a life dedicated to persecuting the church and made him to be the missionary to the Gentiles. God’s grace overcomes the worst forms of human depravity. As Christ Community Church grows, take a look around and learn each other’s stories. You might be surprised at how many unlikely candidates are recipients of God’s grace. And the beautiful thing in this Gospel is that Mark does not stop simply with Jesus calling one tax collector. He tells the rest of the story and shows us that this far-reaching grace is normal for Jesus. Verse 15 says that there were many tax collectors and sinners who followed Jesus. To review, this first truth is that God’s grace calls the unlikely, and this is the normal way of his grace.
2. God’s grace is never without scandal
Our second truth from this passage comes from the conflict that develops over the situation. In verses 16 and 17, we find Jesus in a conflict. We are going to see several more conflicts with the religious leaders throughout the Gospel, leading to their condemning Jesus to death. The first conflict was in the previous passage about Jesus forgiving the sins of the paralytic. But the difference is that there they were questioning Jesus within themselves. Here they come right out and question Jesus’ disciples.
The conflict comes about as the scribes of the Pharisees are scandalized by what Jesus is doing. These scribes have devoted their lives to trying to meticulously keep God’s law. And here they find Jesus, having table fellowship with two groups of people who are “unclean.” The tax collectors are unclean in their making a living by dishonest gain and collaborating with the Roman idolaters. As for the other group, what is meant by calling them “sinners” is that they are people whose lives are characterized by disregarding God’s commands. They are the “wicked” we read about in the Psalms; not those who occasionally transgress God’s law, but those who fundamentally stand outside of it (see Psalm 1 for an example).
This isn’t the first time we have seen Jesus deal with an unclean person. Remember him touching and healing the leper? In a certain sense, tax collectors and sinners are a worse sort of “unclean.” That’s because a leper is unclean by no choice of his own, but tax collectors and sinners of their own will have pursued a life of transgression. And not only is Jesus enjoying a party with these notorious sinners, but he has accepted them as they are. Do you see the scandal here? The Messiah is dining with a group of notorious sinners in the house of one of them whom he has called to be a close disciple.
Isn’t there an obvious objection here? Isn’t Jesus’ whole message to repent and believe? Don’t they have to clean up their lives before he receives them? The answer to this is, perhaps surprisingly, “no.” Jesus receives them as they are. But this does not mean that his message of repentance is gone to the wind: Their radically changed lives provide the necessary evidence that God has graciously worked repentance and faith in their hearts. But the changed lives are not a prerequisite to Jesus accepting them; they are the fruit.
Now if the thought of the Christ, the Holy One of God, eating with all of these unclean sinners is scandalous, Jesus is about to make it much worse as soon as he opens his mouth. He says 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” (v. 17). This is even more scandalous because these scribes are not eating with Jesus; they are standing outside looking in. And Jesus is saying to them, “I am God’s Messiah. This meal I am enjoying right now is a preview of my messianic banquet in my kingdom. Sinners such as these eating with me are those who will dine with me in my kingdom. And those who have dedicated their lives to obtaining the righteousness of God by obeying the law like you, are going to be excluded.” Jesus is saying that they have missed it entirely: the Messiah did not come for them.
Do you see why this is so scandalous? Those who are trying to obey God’s law are actually on the broad road to hell, while those who have lived outside the law are being welcomed in by Jesus.
What in the world is going on here? Has Jesus lost his mind? Well, there are a couple of things we need to say to understand this. The first thing we need to say is that Jesus is showing his authority over the Old Testament law. The scribes of the Pharisees are trying to obey every commandment of the law, but tax collectors and sinners are coming to Jesus. What is happening is that something greater than the law has come, and if these scribes—or anyone else—put their hope in the law when the perfect law-keeping Christ has come, then they are headed for destruction (see Romans 9:30-10:4). So Jesus is showing his authority over the law.
The second thing we need to realize is that Jesus is not saying that these scribes are actually righteous. God does require righteousness—perfect righteousness—for entrance into his kingdom. But the damnable—and I use that word intentionally—problem with these scribes is that they think they are righteous apart from Jesus. They think their law-keeping is going to be good enough to please God. But they are wrong, and if they don’t turn away from this pursuit and come after Jesus, it will cost them their lives.
When Jesus compares himself to a physician he is not saying, “Only a certain group of people are sick, and that is who I came for.” What he is saying, along with the rest of the Bible is that “the whole world is sick with the deadly disease of sin. I am the physician. I have the only cure for your disease. But I have come only for those who realize they are sick and will come to me in faith. These tax collectors and sinners know that they need a Savior. You scribes of the Pharisees think you don’t need me. The physician did not come for those who don’t think they are sick.” God’s grace is never without scandal because it only comes to those who know they deserve his judgment instead of grace.
When Jesus says he “came” not to call the righteous, but sinners,” he is not just giving a clever illustration. He is telling us his mission. We have seen this language of mission before. Remember Jesus’ response in Mark 1:38 to Peter when he goes to bring Jesus to the awaiting crowds: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” He was telling us his mission there. And now we are getting some more detail. Here he tells us that he is coming to cure people who are sick with sin, people who recognize their sin and plight before God, turn from it, and come to Jesus in faith. But what is the remedy that Jesus offers?
We saw it Mark 2:1-12: The remedy is the forgiveness of sins. And this cure will only come by Jesus completing his mission as he tells it in Mark 10:45. There he says that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus was going to give up his perfect life and die in the place of sinners, taking God’s judgment we deserve so that he could give us his righteousness. It is an exchange: our sin for his righteousness. But it is only for people who heed Jesus’ message by leaving behind a life of sin and following him by faith.
So who do you identify yourself with in this story? Do you identify with the scribes, who are scandalized by Jesus hanging out and eating with and calling sinners? Do you see yourself as basically okay before God, able to handle it on your own?
Or do you identify with the tax collectors and sinners, who saw that they lived despicable lives before God and are sick with the fatal disease of sin? Do you see that the only remedy for this guarantee of death is to come to the Great Physician in faith, abandoning everything to follow him?
I pray that our response will all be with the second group. Because if you are the “righteous” by your own efforts, then Jesus didn’t come for you. But if you recognize that you are the “sinners,” then you must turn to Jesus in faith and be saved.