Jesus and A Tax Collector

On Sunday, I preached Mark 2:13-3:6 in which we saw three different collisions that Jesus had with the religious exclusivist Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who seemed to have a problem with most of the things that Jesus did… I mean, can’t the Messiah of Israel get something right… Nope! Not according to the Pharisees. We see this dual start off last week when the paralytic came before Jesus, and Jesus not only healed him, but forgave his sins. This led the religious establishment to perk their eyes and ears to what Jesus was doing, because only God can forgive sin… Let’s open up to Mark 2:13-17 and see what the first collision looks like:

Collision #1 – A Tax Collector
In Mark 1:16-20, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him. In verses 2:13-17, Jesus calls a man named Levi to follow Him.

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 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.

Who is this Levi tax-collector dude? What was he doing collecting tolls at Capernaum? Who was he working for? I think it’s vitally important that we understand how Levi would have been received among his people in the first century.

The Job of Levi
Well, the chances are he was working for Herod Antipas, a Roman “king-type” person over Israel. At this time, Israel was a part of the Roman empire broken up into three territories. Herod Antipas was the ruler over the southern kingdom of Rome, which included Israel. To travel to and fro with in the Roman empire, there were tolls that you would have to stop and pay to keep on traveling much like many freeways in some big cities.

This was a change from the days of the kingdom of Israel where they could travel freely within their own land, now they are slaves (financially at least) to Rome. These tolls had toll workers who demanded payment or else you couldn’t go through, and guess who got shouted at, grumbled at, and sworn at because of it? Levi, son of Alphaeus, the money-hungry, Gentile-loving, dirty-rotten-scum-of-the-year… probably the equivalent to the attorney’s who put up those cheesy billboards with their faces on them, catering to the person who wants a cheap divorce or to sue someone for some kind of accident, etc…

We don’t know whether he’d chosen the job or not. Maybe it was all he could find. But we do know that most ordinary Jews disliked and resented anyone who worked for Rome, the great enemy, and therefore, Levi was an outcast, a trader, a great enemy, and worthless as a Jew.

This is what was unique about Levi’s calling as a disciple as opposed to Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s calling in chapter 1. Levi was a wealthy Jew who partnered with the Roman aristocrats. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, although they were on the margins of society as fishermen, they were as least respectable blue collar workers making an “honest” living. So Levi, the Jewish trader, knows of no kindness from his own people.

Enter Jesus the Christ
So here we are, Jesus encounters Levi, son of Alphaeus, and He doesn’t shame him. He doesn’t shout at him. He doesn’t tell him he’s a worthless scumbag or cuss him out. He doesn’t ignore him or gossip about him to others while in his presence. This was new territory for Levi when being confronted with a Jewish “religious” leader.

Jesus did something that He wasn’t supposed to do. First of all, He greeted Him with kindness. “Don’t you know who this is Jesus? This is an Israeli scumbag not worthy of your time.” But Jesus not only cordially greets him, He also says: “Follow me”, or “Come belong with me.” And it say that Levi arose and followed Him, and I’m sure he arose with a puzzled look on his face saying, “Does Jesus know who I am? Does He understand the relational risk that I bring to the table?” This may well have been the first time in a long time someone had treated him as a human being with dignity, instead of a piece of trash.

We shouldn’t miss the deeper meaning of Jesus’ call to Levi. Levi had been working for the man who thought of himself as King of the Jews, Herod. Now he was going to work for someone else with royal aspirations. Mark, who’s telling the story, is leading us up to the point where Peter, speaking for the Twelve Disciples, will declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews (8:29), which is the turning point in Mark’s narrative.

Throwing a Party
15 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. 16 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?”

Now Jesus goes to a party with sinners and scumbags! “This is great, Jesus is not only with sinners, but He is eating with those political and religious liberal-type, who support big government (Rome), Herod, and fornication! He clearly isn’t with us!”, remarks the Pharisees. Mark continues to show how Jesus stirred the social, cultural, political and religious pot. This will all contribute to His eventual arrest, trial, and crucifixion. But for now, it’s a glimpse into the heart of God.

The Physician’s Response
And so in response to the Pharisees, Jesus says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

And it’s very interesting here, if you read closely, you will see that Jesus uses the word “righteous” as a negative word, and the word “sinners” as a positive word. Once again, Jesus is doing things backwards.

Not only is He doing everything backwards, but He actually warns the religious type, that if they trust in their pedigree (status, education, knowledge, wealth, etc.), then He didn’t come for them since they seem to be their own savior and have it all together.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees cut to the chase. Jesus is the “Great Physician” and was using His scalpel to cut precisely where He needed to. A good physician associates himself with the sick, to bring health to those who want it. We would all do well to make an appointment with the Great Physician, 1) so that we can be worked on by the best, and 2) so we can learn what it looks like to love the broken, the outcast, and our seeming enemies.

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