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The Scandal of the Company He Keeps (Mark 2:13-17)

Category Articles
Date February 16, 2004

When I was in my first months of campus ministry, two young men came to my house one night to tell me that a student was pregnant and was going the next morning with her boyfriend to New Orleans for an abortion. To make a long story short she ended up not having the abortion. However, like all decisions, this one had consequences. She was attending a certain church. One day the minister of that church asked me to come to his office. He told me he needed a favor. His son was a friend of the girl, and he was afraid that the people of his congregation might make some association of the girl, the pregnancy, and his son. So he asked me to get her to go to another church.

It was very difficult for me to tell her that she needed to find another congregation because of the minister’s discomfort, but I did, and she became happily settled in a congregation that supported her through her pregnancy. I understand the minister’s concerns. Here was a young woman, who had acted immorally, and she attended his church, and his son was her friend. He was afraid of the scandal that might come from the company his son kept. But, on the other hand, I felt the greater scandal was a church not willing to minister to a sinner who needed to be helped to carry on her repentance and to find forgiveness.

That experience of more than twenty-five years ago helps me to understand what happened when Jesus started keeping company with the wrong kind of people.

I. The Call

Jesus was out by the Sea of Galilee, not far from Capernaum. His ministry was still enjoying great popularity, so a big crowd gathered around them. Again Mark notes that Jesus acted consistently with His priority for He “was teaching them.” For Jesus the miracles were signs that in Him the Kingdom of God had come, but the first thing was always teaching or preaching. We must always keep before us that Jesus priority must be the church’s priority.

But, following the teaching, Jesus was walking along the shore of the sea, when he came to a tax booth. An important road ran near Capernaum, and the purpose of the tax booth was to collect taxes on merchandise that moved along the road. This area was governed indirectly by the Romans through a king name Herod Antipas. The Jews did not like Antipas for he was half-Jewish and half-Edomite, and the hostility between the Jews and the Edomites went all the way back to the time of Jacob and Esau. They saw Antipas as a puppet king who supported the domination of Rome.

Now tax collectors are never popular, but the tax collectors of Jesus’ time in Palestine were especially disliked. The way the system worked was that the potential tax collectors would submit bids guaranteeing the government a certain amount of money. But, beyond collecting the money for the government, the tax collector had to collect enough to cover his expenses and profits. There was no regulation of this practice, and some of the tax collectors were quite greedy and dishonest. Jewish tax collectors were seen not only as corrupt but as collaborators with a hated government. So, though a tax collector might be wealthy, he was not accepted in good company. He was ostracized.
It was a tax collector, named Levi and whom we also know as Matthew, to whom Jesus said, “Follow me.” This means much more than, “Get up and walk behind me.” It is a call to discipleship. It means, “Attach yourself to Me. Put yourself under My teaching. Commit yourself to Me. Become a disciple.” This shows us that following Christ, and becoming and being a Christian, means more than, “Say the right words and show up at church once in awhile.” If we are called to Christ, we are called to so entrust ourselves to Him that we commit ourselves to becoming and remaining His disciples.

The result of the call of Jesus is that Levi got up, walked out of the tax booth right then, and followed Jesus. This, too, is involved in following Christ. We do not negotiate terms or conditions; we simply follow with a “whatever it means and whatever it takes” attitude. The call of Levi shows also the power and effect of Jesus’ call. When we hear Jesus call in the way that Levi did, we will without doubt follow Him. This is what we mean when we speak of the “effectual call” and of “irresistible grace.” We can hear Christ’ s call many times with our ears, and even with understanding, but when Christ issues the kind of call He did to Levi, we will surely follow.

II. Celebration

Soon after Levi left the tax-collecting business to follow Jesus, he entertained Jesus in his home. He invited his friends, other tax collectors and those who were identified as sinners to a dinner with Jesus.

The dinner he gave had a festive atmosphere. We know that from the fact that the guests reclined on couches for the meal. If you grew up in the church and went to Sunday school you may have learned that this was the way the Jews ate their meals. If you did not grow up in the church, you may wonder why people were lying on couches as they ate. As it turns out, what some of us learned in Sunday school was not correct. Reclining at the table was not the usual Jewish posture for meals. This practice was something they learned from the Grecian culture. The Jews had adapted it to their life, by choosing the reclining posture for festival occasions and celebrations. Reclining was for special occasions.

We still have special things we do on special occasions. Most of us seldom eat turkey as an entrée except at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s interesting that we go all year without roasting a turkey, and then, we roast one twice within about a month. Many reserve the china, crystal, and if we have it, silver for festive occasions. We like to make some meals special ones.

So Levi threw what we one preacher (Sinclair Ferguson, p. 29) calls a “conversion party.” He had responded to the magnetic call of Jesus by leaving behind his old business and old life to devote himself to Jesus and to following Him as a disciple, and he was happy about it. He wanted to honor Jesus and share his joy with his friends, so he gave a festive dinner. I think we can learn from Levi.

Too many Christians live as though they had just lost their best friend. We act as though the Christian life is drudgery at best and misery at worst. There does not seem to be much celebration. Now celebration does not have to mean mindless frivolity. There can be solemn celebrations that have great meaning. The point is that there should be celebration in the Christian life, both really and metaphorically. In our church we do some special things at Christmas time, some in worship and some outside worship, so that there can be communal celebration. Of course, Easter is the greatest of festival days for the Church. Some churches have special receptions when new members are received. Some parents like to invite guests to a luncheon after a baptism. These are good things.

But, we also have a “celebration attitude” as we live. Not that there are not times of sorrow and tears and grief, but we should not give to people the impression that Christians are the most miserable people on earth. There should be a joy, not empty and shallow giddiness, but joy as we go about our lives. Jesus has called us, as He called Levi, to follow Him. He has promised the forgiveness of all our sins, complete salvation, and in the end the righting of all wrongs, the defeat of death, and the glorious victory of the resurrection. Those are things to celebrate.

There is also something about company that Levi invited. Of course, he invited Jesus and Jesus’ disciples, but he also invited his old companions – fellow tax collectors and others who were more or less outcasts from religious society. It can be said, and rightly so, that he didn’t know anybody else to invite since he lived his life as a man classed with the tax collectors and sinners. But, while some of us are embarrassed about our faith when we are with those we work with or may socialize with outside of work, but for Levi it seemed the most natural thing in the world to invite these people to dinner with Jesus whom he had begun to follow. And these were surely people who needed to be introduced to Jesus and to find in Jesus the salvation Levi had found. There is a challenge there to us, not to be ashamed of Jesus, but to seek to introduce our co-workers, and friends, and relatives to Him. We can invite them to church, and we might even have dinners and throw parties with the goal introducing people to Jesus and sharing with them the joy we have found in being found by Him.
III. Criticism

Jesus’ participation in this meal was found scandalous by the scribes of the Pharisees.

We have to learn or remind ourselves about who the Pharisees were. Within Judaism of the time they were always a minority group. Their spiritual roots were in a group called the Hasidim, who, when Greek philosophy and religion started to have an influence on the Jewish faith and practice, stood strong and firm for God’s Law.

The Pharisees shared this commitment to the Law and saw law keeping as a primary religious duty. The scribes among them were specialists in showing that the Law applied to and was binding on every situation. They analyzed the Old Testament and found that there were 613 commandments, 248 positive, 365 negative. But they went on to make rules that were meant to put a hedge around the Law, so that a person might not even get near to breaking the law.

We can understand this because something like it arises at times within Christianity. For instance, someone might look at the Bible’s condemnation of lust and decide for himself that in order to avoid lust he must not watch any television at all. He even removes his television from his house so that he will not be tempted to watch it. Now he goes a step further. He decides that all need the protections he has put in place in his life. So he asks his church to make a rule that no one who is a member may own a television set. He started with what is clearly the will of God – not to lust after a woman who is not your wife. He then put two hedges around the law for himself, and he ends up trying to put those same two in the lives of all God’s people. That is what we call “legalistic,” and it is the kind of thing that the scribes of the Pharisees did as a calling.
These folks were separated from the rest of Judaism first by their devotion to the Law itself, and then by their lists of do’s and don’ts that were meant to keep people well away from violations of the Law.

These scribes said to some of Jesus disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The sinners who were attending with the tax collectors were people who might be open and notorious sinners – immoral people, prostitutes, drunkards, dishonest businessmen. They could be people who weren’t careful about keeping themselves ritually clean. They and the tax collectors were ineligible to participate in the life of the synagogue, and good people did not mix with them for fear of becoming defiled morally or ritually.

So they wondered how Jesus, Himself a teacher, could sit down to a meal with such people. He could become unclean Himself and so temporarily disqualified from the religious life of the Jews. They could not understand how any religious man could do that. But, eating at the same table with these people also communicated some kind of acceptance. After all, then even more than now, sharing a meal was an act of fellowship. Was not Jesus having fellowship with these people who were indifferent to God’s Law at best, and flagrant breakers of it at worse?

We well may be criticized, especially by those who make legalistic rules that go beyond God’s Law, if we associate with the wrong kinds of people. Remember we may never participate in the sins of people who break God’s Law. But that does not mean we should cut ourselves off from contact with them. Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they had misunderstood him to teach that they should cut off all contact from unbelievers. Paul said, no, that he was warning to break off fellowship with anyone who professed to be a believer but lived as an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 5:9 -11). That is the guidance for us. We should withdraw Christian fellowship from a believer who persists stubbornly in sin. But we must of necessity be among unbelievers if we are going to live in this world, and, just as important, if we are going to get them to Jesus whom they need.

IV. Conclusion

When Jesus heard the criticism, He responded in way that, though it did not change the minds of the scribes, nevertheless brought the matter to a conclusion, for He spoke with His characteristic authority.

He showed them the truth first indirectly by using proverbial statement. “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick.” Where do you expect to find a physician? Well, you might say, “On the golf course!” But the point Jesus is making is that you expect to find a physician among sick people. That is his job. Those who are well have no need of him, and he does not have anything to offer them. But the sick need him, and he has something to offer them. A man whose mission in life is to heal the sick must be among the sick.

Now the point is obvious, but Jesus drives the point home, by stating the matter directly in reference to the criticism that He was eating with tax collectors and sinners.
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Perhaps Jesus is speaking in an ironic way when he speaks of the righteous. He is, as it were, saying to the scribes. “You consider yourselves righteous. These people know themselves to be sinners. I came to call those who are sinners and know it.” But it is likely that Jesus does not intend for us to identify who the righteous are. His point was simply that, just as you should expect to find a physician among the sick rather than the well, so it should not be surprising to find Him among sinners. A doctor’s mission is to the sick. Jesus’ mission is to sinners.

He calls sinners. He does not call them to remain in their sins. As Luke’s account of this event makes clear, Jesus calls sinner to repentance, to reorientation of their lives. When He called Levi, He called him to turn his back on the tax both and to turn his face to Jesus. So He calls sinners to turn away from their old way and to follow Him into the life of forgiveness and discipleship.

This is good news for all us sinners. We are the kind or people Jesus calls to follow Him in faith and repentance. He is not ashamed to be found with us, for He came to save us from our sins. He sits down with us now in the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper. He invites us not because we are righteous but because we are sinners who need His salvation. One day He will sit down with us, and all kinds of sinners from all over the world, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. A numberless host of redeemed sinners will then feast forever on the rich food of salvation.

Sinner, who has never come, sinner who has come, come to Jesus who welcomes you, who came to look for, to call, and to save people just like you.

WILLIAM H. SMITH

HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA

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