If you were with us a few Sundays ago when last we looked together at Mark’s gospel, you will remember how with the healing of the paralyzed man, which is the story in the opening twelve verses of Mark chapter 2, a controversy begins between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Lord Jesus pronounced a word of forgiveness over the paralyzed man and the Pharisees were deeply offended. They considered Him to be blaspheming because in their logic only God can forgive sins. Their logic broke down, of course, because in their spiritual blindness they could not perceive that Jesus, the Man, was also the living God against whom we have sinned and to whom belongs the prerogative of forgiveness. And so they were deeply offended.
We’re going to be reading together Mark 2 verses 13 through 17 this morning, which is the second episode in which we see the Lord Jesus at loggerheads with the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. There is a growing controversy that continues as Mark’s gospel develops between Christ and the religious leaders. So do go ahead please and take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands, turn to page 837 in Mark chapter 2, verses 13 through 17. Mark 2:13-17 is the call of Levi the tax collector.
I preached in a church some years back – it was not a large church but it was a somewhat affluent church; they were very proud of their pedigree, their background. Many of the members came from the upper tier of the community and, but like many churches, there were people who were more needy on the fringes of things and they had become a part of the congregation too and the congregation generally cared for them. But on this one Sunday when I was there, the patriarch of a prominent family in the church took one of these more needy people aside, we’ll call him “John,” and said to him, “John, don’t you think it’s time you went to a church for your kind of people?” “Don’t you think it’s time you went to a church for your kind of people?” What an ugly thing, what an ugly thing to say. He was being told that his face didn’t fit, that he wasn’t really welcome, that he perhaps never really could belong among them.
Can we be honest enough with ourselves to say that while we probably are smart enough not to say those things out loud, there have been times when we’ve felt them in our hearts, when someone’s come and sat with us because of their difference, their ethnicity, their education, their social standing, some failure of social graces perhaps, and we felt uncomfortable. And inside, we’ve really rather hoped that they might move on. You know, “We’ll sit somewhere else. You’re disturbing me. I don’t like it.” That’s what we feel. Our text this morning sort of exposes that, because that’s precisely what the Pharisees think when they see Jesus enjoying a meal at the home of Levi and his friends. And so the controversy advances. It continues. And so our passage is really going to expose the Pharisee in our hearts, but it’s also going to show us what it will take for us to find mercy and grace from the hands of Christ, the great Physician.
We’re going to consider two aspects of the teaching of the passage. Very simply, we’re going to think about Christ’s call. He invites Levi to come and follow Him. And then we’re going to think about the called. So the call, verses 13 and 14, and then the called, those who do respond and follow Jesus, in verses 15 through 17. Before we read the passage together, however, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
O Lord, would You grant grace now that the reading and preaching of Your Word might not come with words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the Holy Spirit and in power, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Mark chapter 2 at the thirteenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“He,” Jesus, “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.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
Let’s look together at verses 13 and 14 first of all. Shall we? The call of the Lord Jesus. Verse 13 says that Christ was once again on the shore of the Sea of Galilee preaching. That “once again” invites us to think about the last time He was in that circumstance. Chapter 1 verse 16, He was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee preaching when He called Simon and Andrew, James and John to “follow Me.” And so began the gathering of the disciples, the apostolic band, the inner circle of the followers of the Lord Jesus. And so immediately we are being told by Mark, we’re being invited to understand what’s happening here with Levi in those same terms. Levi, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, is being called by Jesus both to a life of discipleship and into the apostolic band that Christ had gathered around Him.
Levi the Tax Collector
What is striking is that at some point as Jesus was coming in or out of the city of Capernaum, we’re told that He passed Levi sitting in his tax booth. Levi is a tax collector, which is, as you may know, immediately places him in a despised class in Jewish society. Levi’s booth was likely situated somewhere on the thoroughfare between the provinces of Herod Philip and Herod Antipas, situated strategically to collect tariffs, you know, customs on trade that is passing between them. Taxation was established in those days as you would expect by the Roman imperial system and it permitted local collaborators – that’s what others in Jewish society would have seen them as being – collaborators with the Romans not only to gather the tax assessed by the imperial governors but to add on top of that a cut to line their own pockets as well. And so if you were a tax collector in those days you could make a significant living; you could become a wealthy man lining your pockets from those you are gouging in your greed. Certainly in the case of Levi, if verse 15 is of any indication, Levi has done rather well for himself, albeit on the backs of his countrymen and at the expense of others.
He lives in a house large enough to have a significant gathering, to have a great banquet. There is apparently some sort of courtyard where the Pharisees could look on in judgment from outside. So this is a wealthy man who’s become a man of means, albeit by unscrupulous methods. It’s a kind of legal protection racket that Levi is running. So people like Levi were deeply resented by the common people. In fact, they were considered unscrupulous even by the Romans for whom they worked. One commentator reports that in Rome there was a tax collector by the name of Sabinas whose reputation was so unusual that after his death it was commemorated with an inscription – “Here lies an honest tax collector.” What an unusual creature! If the friends Levi gathers at his home to meet with Jesus later in this story in verse 15 is an indication, the only people who were willing to give him the time of day were other tax collectors and people at the fringes of polite society. The name “tax collector” as we see a couple of times over in our passage, is generally breathed out in the same sentence alongside “sinners.” When Levi walked down the street, no one would meet his eye, and then they would mutter about him behind his back as they passed, you know just loud enough for him to hear.
The Summons of Jesus
But on this day, we’re told, verse 14, “Jesus saw Levi.” I don’t think it’s too much to linger over that for just a moment. “Jesus saw Levi sitting in the tax booth.” People were coming and going all day long at Levi’s tax booth paying their taxes, gouged by Levi’s greed, doubtless leaving angry and resentful but nobody saw Levi; no one had a breath to waste on Levi, until Jesus. “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.” The turning point for Levi, the turning point for any of us for that matter, is the summons and invitation of Jesus Christ to come and follow Him. This wasn’t a selfish calculation that Levi made when Jesus walked up to the tax booth that day. “Which will benefit me more? Following Jesus or staying here at the tax booth?” That’s not what’s going on at all. No, this was an authoritative call from the Lord Jesus Christ that couldn’t be resisted. Luke, when he recounts the same events, tells us that at the summons of the Lord Jesus, “Levi left everything and followed Christ.” It’s the pivot point in Levi’s life – the call of Jesus Christ.
There is no new direction, no change of heart, no renovation of life apart from Christ’s sovereign call in the Gospel. Maybe you’ve tried to turn over a new leaf, you’ve perhaps even tried to pray. You’ve done better and tried harder, and after a while you’ve found that actually your heart remains unchanged. What's the explanation? The explanation is that it is the call and only the call of the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ that changes the heart. But take comfort, find hope in the fact that He does call Levi, after all. You see, that means that there's really no one beyond the reach of His grace. Doesn't it? There's no case so unlikely that the call of Jesus Christ can't reach them and change them. He calls a Levi. He takes a Saul of Tarsus, a hate-filled persecutor of the Church, and makes of him Paul the great missionary-apostle to the Gentiles. He takes a Simon, impetuous, quick to speak, slow to understand, a "ready-fire-aim" kind of guy, and makes him Peter, "and upon this rock, He builds His Church." He takes a John, a son of thunder, and makes him John, the apostle of the love of God.
Levi Becomes Matthew
He takes a Levi, despised, running a protection racket at the behest of the imperial Roman oppressor, making a few fast bucks on the backs of his countrymen, and He makes Him Matthew, remember. When he recalls this story himself in the gospel that he wrote, that’s the name he uses for himself – not Levi, Matthew. Matthew, the name Matthew, means “the gift of Yahweh; the gift of God.” That’s a beautiful thing. Levi’s other name is “the gift of God.” It speaks about grace. Levi had been taking, taking, taking, taking, but now as the extravagant grace of Jesus Christ erupts into his heart, he is a changed man, you see, and he devotes himself, as he follows Jesus, to the service of others. He who once stole from them now becomes himself the gift of God to them because of the call of Jesus Christ.
The Helpless Cases
Let me say this to you as plainly as I can, because I know my heart and your heart, our hearts lie to us and they tell us, “It’s too late. You’re a helpless case. Jesus may be for others, but He’s not for you.” Well isn’t it clear from our passage, isn’t it clear – Jesus loves to rescue apparently hopeless cases! He calls Levis, you see. There is nobody beyond the reach of His grace. Jesus is for you. And if you’ll hear Him, He issues the same invitation to you He issued to Levi long ago. He’s asking you to follow Him. He wants you. He wants you, so stop ruling yourself out and come follow Jesus. There are no lost causes, no hopeless cases.
That also means there is no heart so hard, no loved one much prayed for and wept over, so spiritually indifferent that the call of Christ can’t still reach them and bring them from their tax booths into a life of discipleship. Please don’t stop praying. Please don’t stop bearing testimony to what Jesus has done in your heart when His call reached into your life and became the pivot point for you. Please don’t stop inviting them to church. They may seem to you such unlikely cases, improbable converts. “They’ll never become Christians. Perhaps I ought to just give up praying and move on to, you know, an easier target.” No, no, let Levi’s story encourage you, that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. The call of Jesus Christ loves to rescue apparently hopeless cases. And who knows, you may yet be the instrument the Savior uses to call a Levi to come and follow Christ. The call.
Then look with me at verses 15 through 17 for a moment. Let’s think about the called. Who is it that Jesus invites to follow Him? Who answers His summons? In verse 15, if you’ll look there for a moment, you’ll see Levi throws a party, a conversion party. He invites all his friends to come and meet Jesus, this Man who has changed him forever. He invites the only people who will associate with him, and so his house is full of tax collectors and sinners. It’s a house full of outcasts, isn’t it – the dregs of society; a veritable rogue’s gallery. They’ve all come, no doubt they’re curious to learn what in the world could have made Levi leave his tax booth behind him so willingly. And Jesus, we’re told, is right there in the middle of it all, in the thick of things, celebrating the marvelous grace of God that has erupted into the lives of so many of them, Levi chief among them.
The Presence of the Pharisees
There is, however, another group present. They have gatecrashed the party; almost certainly they were not invited, and even had they been invited they likely would have refused. The scribes and the Pharisees are somehow aware of what’s going on. Perhaps they have been able to gain access to the outer courtyard and can see what is happening inside. In ancient Jewish custom, you know, who you ate with was full of significance. It was a way to express or to establish a profound social bond, communion, union, intimacy. And so these Pharisees and scribes never would have eaten with tax collectors and sinners. There’s an ancient rabbinic regulation that says, “If tax gatherers enter a house, all that is within it becomes unclean.” And so you see, there’s just no way these strict and devout adherents to the traditions of the rabbis would ever have thought to defile themselves by reclining at table with this lot. Instead, they’re outside, scandalized, and they ask the disciples a question. It’s interesting that they don’t ask Jesus the question. When you have a problem with somebody it’s always easier to go talk to someone else about your problem than to talk to the person you have the problem with. Isn’t it? That’s what’s happening here. The Pharisees don’t go to Jesus; they go to the disciples.
And notice their question. It's not really a question; it's an expression of outrage. "Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?" The expression "tax collectors and sinners" in the original is earlier on in that phrase, positioning it in a place of emphasis – "Tax collectors and sinners! What is He thinking?" is the force of it. They're scandalized. In their view, this is not at all what is to be expected of a rabbi, of a man of God. And notice Jesus' reply. Verse 17, "Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." If you don't realize you're sick, you never will visit the doctor. Among what sort of people ought you to expect to find a physician hard at work? Well, you look for them among the sick, don't you? "Where else would I be?" Jesus is asking them. "Righteous people don't need a Savior; only sinners. So here I am with tax collectors and sinners while you folks, so sure of your righteousness, remain outside."
When I was in high school, at exam time every year they would convert the school dining hall into the examination center. We had to be there fifteen minutes early and line up quietly outside, in the corridor, waiting for the doors to open and then we could go to our seats and turn the paper over and get started on the examination. I remember how awful those fifteen minutes were waiting outside the door. There was always some super-smart kid exuding an air of confidence, you know, that did not help me at all swatting, reading over my notes in the last seconds before the doors opened! It was a terrible, terrible moment waiting those fifteen minutes; they seemed to drag on forever.
Here’s the difference between Levi and his friends celebrating with Jesus around the banqueting table and the scribes and Pharisees on the other hand. Here’s the difference between people who will come to Jesus and receive His grace and those who do not. The Pharisees think life is like waiting in that school corridor for a math exam. They think there’s some sort of test they have to pass, some display of personal righteousness that will qualify them for the kingdom. They’re not looking for a Savior; they don’t think they need a Savior. They are looking to be more righteous than everyone else. But Levi and his friends, they have come to realize they are desperately sick. They were waiting too, but they were waiting in the doctor’s office, unable to cure themselves, when Jesus the great Physician called their names and made them whole.
What are you waiting for? A cosmic math exam, tallying up your own righteousness, hoping to pass the test? Or are you looking for a Physician because you know you are sick beyond your ability to remedy? If it’s the former, you never will come to Jesus. You’ll rest in your own moral accomplishments, so-called; your own goodness to get you through. You might look with disdain and discomfort on tax collectors and sinners as they come to Jesus and take a John aside and say, “Don’t you think you ought to go to a church for your kind of people?” But if you won’t face the truth that you are in fact desperately sick, the arrogance of your self-reliance, the clearest symptom of your soul-sickness if ever there were symptoms to see, if you won’t face the truth that you need a doctor, a physician, the great Physician, you never will come to the One who can make you whole again. But if today you know you’re beyond hope, beyond fixing, beyond remedy, if you know today you’re not good, not clean, not righteous, our passage says Jesus came for you, Jesus came to call you, to rescue you. Jesus is for you. He’s always to be found among the soul-sick who urgently seek the great Physician.
Picture of the Church
It’s actually a great picture of the Church. Isn’t it? That’s who we are. We are Levi and his friends – tax collectors and sinners celebrating our deliverance together with Jesus in the midst of the great feast. That’s the Church. It’s not at all a place for the good and the great. It is a place for your kind of people, a place for sinners who have come to the Savior; not for the healthy but for the sick who have come to the doctor for cure. It’s a place for you, here at Jesus’ banquet table. So, “Come ye weary, heavy-laden, bruised and battered by the fall. If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all. Not the righteous, not the righteous, not the righteous, sinners Jesus came to call.” He calls Levis. He calls apparently hopeless cases. If you see yourself sick beyond all earthly remedy, Christ invites you to follow Him. Won’t you come and follow Him?
Let me say this as we close. I think as we see the separation between the scribes and the Pharisees out in the courtyard and Levi and his friends with Jesus celebrating around the banqueting table, there’s something solemn there because that is eventually a separation that will be permanent and fixed one day. Those who hear the invitation of Jesus Christ issued to sinners and see themselves in that description and flee to the Savior, who see themselves sick and go to the great Physician, the Lord Jesus, they’re the ones who are gathered around the banquet table and celebrate in glory forever. But those who resist His call, thinking they have no need of a doctor, who depend on their own righteousness, who think themselves good enough, “thank you very much,” remain in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth forever. So which will be your destiny? Will you stay outside with the scribes and the Pharisees or will you hear Jesus’ invitation, “Come and follow Me,” and join Him in the great celebration around the banquet table with tax collectors and sinners, saved by grace?
Let’s pray together.
Lord Jesus, there is not a person in this room who does not need the great Physician today. So please, will You strip away all our boasting and all our self-reliance? Show us not just how empty but how soul-destroying our self-reliance and self-righteousness really is. And then would You help us, as You invite us to come follow You, to come and find at Your hand the healing our hearts need, the cleansing only You can provide and enter with Levi and his friends on that great celebration. For we ask it in Your name, amen.
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