Scandal: Jesus Eats with Sinners

One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.

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A few years ago I had the opportunity to go to Haiti. The church I was working at liked to focus their international ministry efforts on a single spot. We wanted to have a big impact in a single area rather than a smaller impact in a lot of different areas. The country they chose was Haiti.

As a church we had done a lot of great work in Haiti over the years however some of the projects we worked on were coming to a close and we wanted to figure out what was next. So they sent me down to Haiti with a doctor named Brian.

Brian has been down to Haiti a bunch of times. For a while, he would take a medical team down once a year to do some free clinical work in the poorest parts of the country. So a few months before we go, Brian and I are taking and he starts listing off all these vaccines I need to get in order to go down. He says, “Yeah you want to make sure you’re up to date on your basic vaccines like MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) and tetanus. And you also want to get vaccinated for hep A, malaria and typhoid.”

Up to this point, I had never been to a third world country before. I’ve been to Europe a couple times and Karly and I went to Costa Rica on our honeymoon. But I never had to get any vaccines for those trips. And Brian is telling me about all vaccinations that I’ll need to get in order to not die when I get to Haiti.

Now, I would not consider myself a germaphobe or someone who worries too much about getting sick. But the thought of going somewhere where disease and sickness are kind of running rampant doesn’t sit well with me. I also feel the same way about hospitals. I’m not going to pass out or anything. I don’t get grossed out by blood. But there’s something unnerving about knowing there are infectious diseases running around that I can’t see.

While I was down in Haiti, I found myself a little more nervous about eating the food or drinking the water. In fact, the house we stayed in bought some of those 5-gallon jugs of clean water. It turned out fine; I didn’t get sick, but I was definitely nervous the whole time.

We’re in week three of our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus. Last week, we looked at Luke chapter 4, the story of Jesus returning to his hometown of Capernaum. We talked about how the people of the time were expecting the Messiah to come and bless them while judging the rest of the world. We talked about how Jesus message was good news for those at the bottom, but how the prejudice and assumptions of the people of Nazareth caused them to miss it. This week we’re going to continue the series, looking at Mark 2:13-17 which says this:

13Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15While 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. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17On 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.”

In order to grasp the magnitude of this passage, we have to start with some historical context. The passage starts out by saying “Once again Jesus went out beside the lake.” Jesus is still up in Galilee at this time, which is in northern Palestine. The lake Mark is talking about is the Sea of Galilee and right on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee is the town of Capernaum. Capernaum is a pretty important town for a couple of reasons.

First of all, Capernaum acted as the centre or the headquarters of Jesus ministry in Galilee and quite a few of his disciples were from there. But the town had more significance than just for Jesus and his disciples.

When Jesus was born, the entire region of Palestine was ruled by Herod the Great. But when he died in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided between his three sons Archaleus, Antipas, and Philip. The southern region, which includes Idumea, Judea and Samaria was given to Archaleus. Galilee and Perea, which is just on the east side of the Jordan river between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee were given to Antipas. While the northern region, including what is now parts of Syria, went to Philip. And the border between the territories of Antipas and Philip was the Jordan river that ran north from the Sea of Galilee into Lake Hula.

Now, just like today, it was not uncommon back then for you to have to pay a toll when you crossed from one country into another. When Karly and I went to Costa Rica, we had to pay a customs fee at the airport before flying out. Capernaum was only a few kilometres from the Jordan river and the closest town to the border between Antipas’ territory and Philip’s. So, when the text in verse 14 says that Levi was sitting at the tax collector’s booth, a more accurate translation and understanding would be that this is a toll booth or a customs station. Anyone who wants to travel between Galilee, under the control of Antipas, and Syria, under the control of Philip, had to pay this toll.

There was also a major highway that ran from Damascus in the north all the way to Egypt and it ran through Capernaum. So any traders or caravans also had to pay this toll just to pass through.

Capernaum, as we mentioned before, was on the Sea of Galilee. Meaning fishing was a major business there; it was their primary export. Any fish leaving Capernaum for Philip’s territory had to pay this customs fee as well.

So Levi is this tax collector or toll collector who takes the customs fee as people pass between these territories. However, what makes this even worse is that he’s collecting this tax for Antipas as governor and ultimately for the Romans who have a military garrison there in Capernaum.

The way these tolls work is that Levi had a set minimum he had to collect as people passed by but there was no upper limit to what he could collect. The Romans made sure they got their cut, but if Levi were to charge above and beyond that amount, he could keep whatever was left over. This made tax collecting or toll collecting a very lucrative business. There is archeological evidence that these toll collectors actually had to bid and pay Rome for the privilege of collecting these customs fees.

This was essentially state sponsors extortion. This was Levi charging insane customs fees with the entire Roman military-industrial complex backing him. Which would be bad enough if Levi was a Gentile. If Levi was a Roman citizen doing his duty for the empire by stomping on the little guy here in Israel, that would be terrible. But Levi is a Jew. Which means he’s taking money from his own people. Levi is profiting off of the subjugation of his own people, stripping them of what little money they have and either keeping it for himself or sending it off to the authorities who will just use that money to hire more soldiers and make more weapons in order to oppress the Jews that much more.

Let’s call Levi what he is. Levi is an extortionist and a traitor, colluding with the enemy and profiting off of the misery of his own people. To say that Levi and the tax collectors were disliked is an understatement. For the Jews of the time, tax collectors were the absolute, bottom of the barrel, scum of the earth.

Okay, so we have Levi and the tax collectors on one side of this conflict; those actively helping the Romans oppress their own people. On the other side, we have the Pharisees. Within Jewish religious life, you primarily have two large groups. You have the Sadducees, who were more liberal, and the Pharisees, who were more conservative.

The Pharisees, as a group, most likely arose during the time of the Maccabean revolt in 167 BC. The Maccabean Revolt had a lot to do with what’s called Hellenization, which was the spread of Greek culture and influence to the rest of the known world. Many Jews at the time were concerned that Palestine was losing it’s Jewish way of life in light of this new Greek influence.

So essentially, the Pharisees got their start by rejecting the influence of the outside world. By the time of Jesus, this rejection of outside influence had morphed and evolved into a desire for separation. Not separation from society, but separation within society.

The Pharisees also believed in a strict observance of the law. There are parts of the Law of Moses that seem only to apply to the priests, but Pharisees advocated that all Jews should try to live by that priestly standard.

Centuries before Jesus, God had allowed the Jews to be taken from their homeland and exiled in Babylon. He did this because they had been living sinful, wicked lives. So the thought was, if wicked living caused us to lose the land, righteous living might get us our land back. As Ben Witherington III says, “They [the Pharisees] believed in the priesthood of all believers concept, and they believed if all Jews would be observant of the laws of clean and unclean and the Sabbath and the food laws, then God would be better pleased with them, holiness would spread throughout the land, and they might even get the land back.”

The Pharisees were concerned with all people living righteous lives in strict observance of the law of Moses. Specifically, they were concerned with cleanliness, Sabbath laws and dietary restrictions. (As an interesting aside, this story in Mark chapter 2 is part of five stories that Mark groups together where we see Jesus and the Pharisees clashing specifically over cleanliness, Sabbath laws and dietary restrictions.)

Part of the complex understanding of cleanliness and dietary laws that the Pharisees maintained was the importance of table fellowship. First century Palestine was an honour-based society, which means everything you do and say—the people you associate with and who associate with you—have the ability to increase or decrease your social status. Which means, who you chose to dine with makes a huge statement and can have ramifications moving forward. It’s basically like lunch in every high school cafeteria.

Kent Brower says this about table fellowship, “Evidence from the second temple period shows just how important meals were as occasions when boundaries were drawn… Dining created an intimate setting in which one nurtured friendships with the right kind of people, eating the right kind of food. Unclean people and objects constantly threatened to corrupt God’s holy, elect nation and individuals within it; we may think of ritual impurity as contagious.”

So the Pharisees want everyone to live up to the standard they believe will allow them to et their land back. Furthermore, they look at people like Levi, the tax collectors and the sinner in Israel, as the very reason why God hadn’t yet intervened. In fact, there’s a section in the Mishnah (the oral commentary about the Law of Moses) that essentially says, “If a tax collector enters your house, everything immediately becomes unclean.” For the Pharisees, Levi wasn’t just a traitor or an extortionist, by choosing not to live righteously, he was actively keeping all of Israel from experiencing the blessing of God.

This is the context of our Mark 2 passage. These are the two groups who are squaring off. We have the tax collectors who are actively working against their own people for the benefit of their oppressors and making a killing doing it. And we have the Pharisees who believe God will bless them and give the land back if everyone can just live as righteous as they do.

But the Pharisees also want to keep their distance from ‘sinners’ because they’re worried their sin will make the Pharisees impure and unclean. And so it creates this context where the Pharisees want everyone to live like them, but they don’t want to get close enough to help. They blame people like Levi for keeping God from blessing them, but they aren’t willing to do anything that might jeopardize their own standing.

And in this context, Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus and says, “Follow me.” This is a call to discipleship. This is a call to join Jesus, join the community he’s creating and to actively become like him. No one treats Levi like this. No one speaks to Levi like he’s a human being; like he’s loved and valued and believed it. It’s no wonder Levi got up and followed him. And what does he do next?  He throws a party.

Verse 15 says, “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.” Jesus calls Levi to join his group of disciples and Levi leaps at the opportunity. Then he invites Jesus to a party at his house with—who else?—other tax collectors. Those are his friends.

This obviously causes confusion for the Pharisees, because in verse 16 we read, “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Remember, these guys are all about strict observance of the law. They care about dietary restrictions, cleanliness and table fellowship. Who is this Jesus? Isn’t he a rabbi? Isn’t he supposed to be holy? Shouldn’t he care about these things too? Why is he eating with tax collectors? Doesn’t he know they’re going to defile him?

Furthermore, why isn’t he condemning them? Why hasn’t he told them it’s their fault the Romans are here? Doesn’t he know associating with those people will cause him to lose status and honour? I love Jesus response in verse 17, “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.’”

“I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.” This speaks to the heart of the Pharisees’ expectations. As we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks, there was this prevailing belief among the Pharisees and among a lot of the Jewish people, that God would reward them while punishing their enemies. The Pharisees believed God would reward them first and foremost when the Messiah came and inaugurated the new age. “I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners” is not something they would have wanted to hear.

Their expectation was that because they’ve lived so pure and righteous, they would be first in the kingdom of God. But the reality is Jesus calls Levi, the traitor and the extortionist to be his disciple. He welcomes Levi into his closest circle while leaving the Pharisees on the outside. The belief was that impurity and uncleanness are contagious. The idea was that when the holy mixes with the unholy, that the one brings down the other and makes it all impure.

Instead, Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, never worrying about what they might do to him. And that’s because like he says in verse 17, “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus came to heal the world. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to spend his time with healthy people. And what the Pharisees missed is this, Jesus wasn’t worried about eating with sinners and tax collectors, because their sin didn’t infect him. Rather his holiness cleansed them.

Our sin doesn’t infect Jesus, instead, his holiness cleanses us.

I think for a lot of us today, we don’t have a problem with that first part. Of course, our sin can’t infect Jesus. It’s a little weird the Pharisees ever thought it could. But how many of us believe the second part? Can Jesus really cleanse us? Can Jesus really heal us?

This speaks to the core of what Jesus is doing in the world and how we understand it. Do we think Jesus can cleanse us and actually make us into people more like him? Do we think Jesus can make us people who love more authentically and manifest the fruit of the Spirit more regularly. Or do we think he just forgives us? Do we think he endures our sin and wishes we could do better?

If I can show my Wesleyan background for a little bit, this is what they call holiness—not that Jesus looks at us and pretends were clean but that he actually makes us clean. Jesus didn’t come for the healthy, he came for the sick. Which means he needs to do more than simply diagnosis the issue, he needs to fix it. But this is the good news of the Gospel! The good news is not simply that we’re forgiven (although that’s certainly part of it).

The good news is that Jesus can and will cleanse us, heal us, fix us, restore us, renew us, fill us with his Holy Spirit, give us a greater capacity to love him, serve him, worship him and work with him. You don’t have to sin anymore. You don’t have to let sin reign in your body anymore. You don’t have to live the way you’ve always lived. Tomorrow can be different than yesterday was. And that is great news!

And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t want to just cleanse us and heal us, he’s already in the process of renewing and restoring everything in the universe. He’s making all things new. As Colossians 1:20 says, through Jesus, God is “[reconciling] to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”

And while I don’t understand why, Jesus actually wants us to play a part in that ongoing process. Jesus is cleaning up the world, making all things new, and we get to play a part in that. Jesus makes us new so we can partner with him in the ongoing redemption of the world.

But the Pharisees missed it. When Jesus said he came for sinners, not the righteous, he wasn’t saying they’re already good and don’t need him. He was calling them out for their pride and arrogance, believing they were already righteous. The truth is that all of us are sinners. None of us are righteous. Jesus wasn’t saying he’s here to call only those who are sinners, but rather only those who are willing to admit their lack of righteousness are ready to be healing by him. Only when we come to him and admit we’re sinners can he start to heal us and cleanse us. Levi and his friends were more than ready. The Pharisees weren’t.

Who are you in this story? Where do you see yourself in this narrative? Are you the tax collectors and sinners? Or are you the Pharisees? Are you ready to admit your need for healing? Who are you in the story?

Where do you need to admit your sin and allow Jesus to cleanse you? One area for me, I’ve found, especially now that I living somewhere that requires driving more often, I’ve found myself getting increasingly frustrated by other drivers. I’ve found I’m impatient and easily annoyed by other drivers. And I think it would be easy to brush that off and blame it on circumstances or act like it’s no big deal, but I think it speaks to a deeper layer of irritability and impatience in my life. And that’s not something that Jesus wants for me. I know Jesus doesn’t want me to be quickly angered or impatient with other drivers. That’s something I need Jesus to fix in my life. I can’t just stuff it down. What areas of sin do you need to let Jesus into and be cleansed from?

Who are the sinners and tax collectors in your life? Who are you eating with? Another way to ask this is, how are you personally part of Jesus work to heal the world? If Jesus is working to heal the world—if he’s working to reconcile all things to God—how are you personally involved in that mission? Who are the people in your life who need to hear the good news of Jesus? What are you doing not just to tell them about Jesus but actively bring the good news to them? How are you actively showing love to your neighbours? How are you personally part of Jesus work to heal the cosmos?

Jesus didn’t come for the healthy, he came for the sick. He came not for the righteous, those who think themselves good enough already, but for sinners, those who know they need a saviour to heal them, cleanse them and restore them. Our sin doesn’t corrupt or infect Jesus, rather his holiness can and will change and transform us.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? In what areas of your life do you need Jesus to heal you? How are we partnering with God in his ongoing work of redemption?

2 thoughts on “Scandal: Jesus Eats with Sinners

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