Jesus came to save sinners, among whom you and I are chief. Today Mark recounts the conversion of the tax collector Matthew and a subsequent dinner for Matthew’s sinful friends. Members of the religious community scorn Jesus for having fellowship with the lost, but Jesus responds by teaching them and us a powerful lesson about the grace of God.
The Text (Mark 2:13-17)
13 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. 14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
15 Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. 16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Jesus’ fame has spread to the point that He now must do a lot of His teaching in isolated areas to allow room for the huge crowds that come to see Him. During one of His travels to or from such a secluded spot, Jesus passes the tax collector Matthew. Like with the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus extends to Matthew a simple but demanding call: “Follow Me.” And like with the fishermen, we see obedient, immediate faith from Matthew. Tax collecting was an inherently sinful profession in the New Testament world. Matthew, known here by his Jewish name “Levi,” would have been both a traitor and a thief before coming to Christ. He was a Jew working for the hated Roman government, collecting high taxes for the foreign oppressors as well as something extra for himself. And then Jesus came to him and offered him redemption and a new life as His disciple; Matthew accepted the call to follow Christ.
Like the converted tax collector Zaccheus (see Luke 19:1-10 for the story), Matthew was overjoyed to meet Jesus and hosted a great dinner for Him. And like the dinner at Zaccheaus’ house, the dinner at Matthew’s house was filled out with his unbelieving friends, various tax collectors and other notorious “sinners.” And just like with that dinner, the religious community grumbled and complained that Jesus would extend fellowship and friendship to such people. Didn’t Jesus know who these people were? They didn’t dress the right way, talk the right way, or act the right way. They were outsiders to the ways of God. But there was Jesus, breaking bread with them. In fact, He even rebuked the religious leaders, though not all understood the real meaning of His bold statement. For not only did Jesus say that He had come to save sinners like these if they repented and turned to Him, but Jesus would not (in fact could not!) save those who already thought they were righteous and did not need to repent and be forgiven.
There are two important applications from this event in Jesus’ earthly ministry. First, no one is too sinful to be saved by the grace of God. Tax collectors (called “publicans” in Roman times) represented one of the most despicable, evil types of people known to the Roman world. If they could be saved, then anyone could be saved. We have to look at lost, unchurched, unbelieving people through Jesus’ eyes. Yes, He sees their sinful lifestyles that come from their hearts that are in rebellion against Him and His holy Law. But He also loves them just as much as He loved you and me before we were saved. He wants to offer them the same chance to repent and believe that He offered us. Our lives are filled with family, friends, and teammates who do not know the Lord. On the outside they may look happy, and they may actually think at times that they are happy. But if they do not know Christ, the Bible says that they are slaves to their own sinfulness and on the path to eternity in hell. They are without God and without hope. We were in the exact same situation until God in His incredible mercy woke us up to see our need for Him. We have a divine duty to be evangelists and ambassadors for Jesus. There are people in your life right now who need to hear the gospel and see it lived out before them. You could be someone whom God uses to reach their hearts with His truth and love. What an awesome privilege and opportunity!
The second application is that no one is righteous enough to be saved without the grace of God. This is actually the main point of Jesus’ concluding statement in verse 17. Don’t get proud! Anything good that you do as a Christian is only by the power of Christ in you. It is by His grace and His grace alone that we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. God did not save you because you were a good person or better than others. He saved you because He loved you. Period. Even your faith was a gift from God, too (see Ephesians 2:8-9). The cross of Jesus Christ leaves no room for boasting in ourselves. We boast in Christ alone. Praying that God reminds us all of the joy of our salvation today.