Commentary on Mark 2:13-17
Jesus certainly chose some very strange people to be his followers. Levi was a tax collector, one of a much despised group of people. The Romans did not collect taxes themselves from their subject people. Local people paid a lump sum to the Romans and they had the right to recoup their deposit in taxes. Of course, they had to make a profit and this laid the system open to widespread abuse and corruption. They were regarded as both traitors to their own people in collecting taxes for Rome, the hated colonial power. They and their families were social outcasts. No self-respecting and observant Jew would have anything to do with such people.
Yet, here is Jesus offering one such person an invitation, “Follow me.” We need to know that Jesus never goes by stereotypes. Nor does he judge people by their past behaviour. He is only interested in what they can be now and in the future. There and then, Levi drops everything and goes after Jesus. That is what following Jesus means. It is what Peter and Andrew, James and John had also done.
Later, when Jesus is dining at “his” house, several known sinners and tax collectors are at table with Jesus and his disciples. The ‘his’ is (deliberately?) ambiguous. Is it the house of Levi or the house of Jesus? In either case, it is very meaningful. Jesus eats in a sinner’s house or he invites a sinner to eat in his house. Perhaps they are celebrating Levi’s becoming a follower. And who else could Levi have invited if not the only people who would mix with him – other tax collectors and outcasts? But, in addition the Gospel comments that, “There were many of them [tax collectors and their like] among Jesus’ followers”.
This is was a real source of scandal for the scribes and Pharisees. If Jesus really was a Rabbi he would have had nothing to do with such people. To sit down and eat with such “unclean” people was to be contaminated oneself. Jesus replies: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners.”
As we have already seen, Jesus’ whole mission is one of salvation and redemption of restoring people to wholeness. And how is he to help sinners change, unless he is in direct contact with them? By being with sinners, Jesus is not approving or condoning or turning a blind eye to their behaviour. He describes them as “sick”; they are in need of healing and rehabilitation. This can only be done by reaching out to them.
Of course, one can ask if those judging Jesus were not also sick and in need of healing themselves. The difference was that the ‘sinners’ approached Jesus; while the
Pharisees could not see or acknowledge their particular kind of sin and consequent need of healing.
Perhaps our Church should look more closely at this passage. So much of our Church work involves “servicing” the already converted or the semi-converted. We are often not present where people are most in need of hearing the Gospel message. We tend to side with the Pharisees and feel we should keep away from the ‘sinful’ and the ‘immoral’.
We also need to learn the ways by which the Gospel message and the Gospel vision can most effectively be communicated to those who have lost touch with God and the meaning of life.