He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 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.
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. 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?” 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.”
Recently I went to the dentist for the first time…in a while. I have a bad habit of avoiding dentists and doctors. Ultimately, I don’t want someone telling me that something is wrong with me or that I need to change something about my life. I want to live my life how I am living it, and I will ask for help if I really need it. However, as the ancient philosopher Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
One of the fruits of reading the gospels is that it gives us a fresh opportunity to have our unexamined or partially examined life of following God adjusted or even over-hauled. In Mark 2:13-17, Jesus calls a new disciple, Levi (aka Matthew the Gospel writer). Levi was a tax-collector. This means that he voluntarily signed himself up to be viewed as a social outcast by his own people as well as by the Roman ruling over Israel in exchange to “climb the corporate ladder” of financial gain.
The key to understanding this passage and applying it to our lives is for us to remember the exhortation from the apostle Paul in Romans 12:3: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. Do not remove yourself from the story by assuming you are not like the antagonist of this narrative, the scribes. If there is someone in this world that you think is beyond the saving grace of Jesus (or at least doesn’t deserve it like you do) then you are a scribe of the Pharisees.
The purpose of this story is to show the heart of Jesus for the lost, the outcast, and the corporate sell out. We see Jesus not only calling the tax collector Levi to follow Him, but also hosting a dinner party with Him and his tax collector buddies. The people who get a seat at the table of King Jesus are not the most righteous, but rather the filthiest of sinners. Why? Because we are ALL the filthiest of sinners in need of a Savior. The problem is some of us have forgotten where we came from and are now pretty selective in who we think deserves this grace, as if it could be earned at all.
As Presbyterians, we are excellent at catechizing our children in the faith and sitting under the teaching of the Word of God. But the risk of having a sensitivity for precise doctrine is that our eyes can drift from the God whom the doctrine is about to the doctrine itself which is the cardinal sin of the Pharisees. This leads us to neglect those outside the walls of the church, those who do not know this doctrine, those who may be categorized as pagans or unbelievers. This is to avoid the sin of antinomianism (the law doesn’t matter). But then we exchange one sin for another: legalism (the law is all that matters). We may know a lot about mercy, but we can struggle to live out and extend that mercy to those who are different from us, even “more sinful” than us for fear of their sin rubbing off on us. Levi had forsaken the faith and was hanging out with a rough crowd of sinners. When Jesus comes on the scene He runs, not to the seemingly righteous, but rather to those sinners. Why? Because, when they have their sin exposed they see their need for a Savior. When religious people hear about sin and the need for a Savior, they assume the preacher or Jesus must be talking about someone else.
Essentially, the dust and the dirt must always exist. The dust and the dirt of sin-stained people (you and I and the lost in our city) coming through these doors like you and like me must never be forgotten. God is a transcendent and holy God who hates sin. However, we must not forget that He is also imminent, near, and willing to rub shoulders with our humanity. We see this in Genesis 2 as God the potter molds Adam out of the dust of the earth and in the Gospels as the God-man, Jesus Christ, takes on flesh to rescue us from the grip that sin and death have upon us because of our rebellion against Him. Let us not avoid the depth of this passage for our hearts (like I avoid the dentist); not wanting to have the sin of judgment and condemnation in our hearts exposed. As we have our Pharisee heart exposed by Jesus in this story as He loves on and calls Levi the tax collector, we need only look to Jesus’ final words in v. 17: Those who are well (which none are) have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.