“Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As 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. 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. 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’?’ 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.’”
Tax collectors were despised in Jesus’ day. After all, they were not only representatives of the occupying power but also they were overreaching in their collection procedures. And yet Jesus calls Levi, a member of this despised brotherhood of tax collectors, to follow Him.
Jesus is not merely expressing a momentary greeting to this despised member of the community (which would have been more than he received from the religious establishment). Jesus is asking Levi to join Him on the journey of discipleship. He is asking Levi to walk with Him and talk with Him. Jesus is asking the despised Levi to be one of His people. Jesus does not hold Levi at arm’s length. Instead, He boldly enters his world. Jesus goes to Levi’s house and enjoys a meal with more tax collectors and other sinners.
In relating this event Mark presents a stark contrast between Jesus and the religious leaders of their day.
- Jesus’ way is different from the religious community that thrives on condemning sinners.
- Jesus’ way is different from the religious community that keeps sinners at arms length.
- Jesus’ way is different from the religious community that offers sinner little more than a surface greeting.
- Jesus’ way is different from the religious community that builds walls rather than bridges.
- Jesus’ way is different from the religious community and His way is not deterred by their protests.
The question for us to ponder is whether our religious community looks more like the religious establishment of Jesus’ day or Jesus Himself. Do we thrive on condemning sinners or reaching out to them? Is our contact with sinners mere surface interaction or do we enter their world? Do we allow the protests of the religious establishment to prevent us from building bridges? Do we call them from their world to a life of walking together as disciples?
Who are we? The answer rests on the question Mark’s gospel wants us to answer, “Who is Jesus?” If we believe He is the Christ, we will look more and more like Him and less like the religious establishment. May God help us do just that.