Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Given that it pops up three times in these few verse, I think we can safely conclude that the key phrase in this passage is “tax-collectors and sinners.” So a quick word on who they are.
Tax collectors – these are persons from the Jewish community that the Romans recruited to collect the taxes funding the Roman Empire from their neighbors. That’s bad. They were given quotas and whatever they collected above their quotas they could keep. That’s even worse, as it meant not only that tax collectors were considered traitors to their people but also that the good ones profited from the losses of their neighbors.
Sinners – Mark’s not using the term the way we might, to designate anyone who has sinned, but rather to describe a class of persons who are at the social and moral bottom of the ladder. These are the bandits, and the prostitutes, and the murderers – those considered the absolute low-life of society.
Now imagine that your pastor has been hanging out with these folks almost entirely…and you’ll get a vague picture of how Jesus was perceived by the first-century equivalent of the church council or vestry. No wonder they wondered what in the world was going on. You see your pastor come out of the Adult Bookstore as you drive through a seedy part of town and you’ll start wondering too.
Except we always imagine these people as faceless, nameless, without families or histories, kind of like the two-dimensional villains of a comic book. But what if, instead, they are trapped, persons who never imagined growing up extorting their neighbors or selling their bodies and who know that they’ve disappointed their parents and siblings and are despised by their neighbors and, truth be told, despise themselves?
Then we might be able to imagine the impact of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and mercy, acceptance and grace, not only preached from the pulpit but lived out in his eagerness to spend time with them, to eat with them, to accept their hospitality and actually be seen with them. And suddenly it makes sense why they are attracted to him and follow him and why, ultimately, he chooses to go to them, not to the ones who have it all figured out. Only the sick, after all, need physicians, and only those who know they are in need are eager for help.
Prayer: Dear God, create in us an awareness of our need matched only by an awareness of your acceptance. In Jesus’ name, Amen.