My father had a close friend who cheated on his wife, divorced her, and then married his lover. I’m going to refer to this friend as Alex. I was in college at the time. I remember riding down our red-dirt road with my dad shortly after this happened, still reeling from the shock. My dad was talking about Alex as if nothing had happened. He was planning a trip with him and was still in a working relationship with him. I was confused.
My dad had raised me to believe in the authority of Scripture and taught me to base my life on its teachings. As a young adult, I was struggling to understand how to apply a few of those teachings. My father always encouraged questions, and I had a big one for him that day. It took some courage for a daughter to admonish a father, but that was what I felt I had to do.
“Dad, I’m confused.” I started. “How can you continue to hangout with Alex as if nothing has happened? Doesn’t 1 Corinthians say that you should not even eat with a Christian living in sin?” I had much more to say, but that was the gist of it. My dad let me talk and get out all my shock and anger. Alex and his family were a large part of my childhood, and I was hurt by his actions.
I don’t remember my dad’s words exactly, but they had a tremendous impact on the course of my life. His voice shook with emotion as he said, “I know 1 Corinthians says that. But, Kay, Jesus ate with sinners. Alex is my friend. He got a divorce and remarried knowing what I thought about it. I do wonder if he is a Christian. If he is not, then I know Jesus can save him. I can’t turn my back on him. I love him.”
My father taught me about the scandal of Jesus welcoming sinners that day. It humbled me and I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that it shaped how I treated people for the rest of my life. My father lived the tension of loving sinners and still acknowledging that sin hurts and defiles others. My father’s decision to remain Alex’s friend came from a place of humble self-awareness.
My dad understood that Jesus only saves sinners.
Let’s read Mark 2:13-17.
And he [Jesus] went out again beside the sea and all the crowd kept coming to him and he kept on teaching them. And while going on, he saw Levi Alpheus sitting at the toll booth and he says to him, “Follow me.” And getting up, he [Levi] followed him. Then it happened that he was reclining in his house and many tax collectors and sinners were also reclining with Jesus… also his disciples… for there were many who were following him.
And the scribes of the Pharisees, having seen that he eats with the sinners and tax collectors, were saying to his disciples, “Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?”
And Jesus, having heard, says to them, “The healthy have no need for a doctor, but the sick do. I came not to invite the righteous, but sinners.”
Throughout Mark 2, the scribes are scandalized by Jesus’ behavior and ask a series of four questions. In Mark 2:1-12, they question how Jesus could forgive sins unless he was claiming to be God himself? Jesus affirmed their insinuations that he was claiming divinity by healing a disabled man who could not walk. In our passage today, the scribes question Jesus again. This time they ask about his reason for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.
The Scandal of Sinners
To begin, it might be helpful to define and explain who all the different people are in this story in context with the first century Judean culture. Even though Mark does not give us the exact location of this meal, most likely it is Levi’s house with all his friends in attendance. They are reclining around a low table, as was the custom for dining parities in the Roman era.
Verse 15 says that “many who were following him” were reclining and eating with Jesus. The word used for these followers is from the same word Jesus said to Levi, Peter, James, and John. “Follow.” Levi, a tax collector by trade, follows Jesus to become a disciple, an adherent, or a student of Jesus. Levi recognized Jesus as his Rabbi or his Master. He was committed to leaving his old life and learning how to be like Jesus. Levi (or Matthew as he is sometimes called) is recognized after this story as one of the Twelve and an apostle.
However, we have seen elsewhere in Mark, that people followed Jesus for different reasons. Were these “many followers” all devoted students of Jesus? We don’t know exactly who was in this group, but it is likely that many of them were included in the larger group of disciples who were committed to Jesus but were not called to follow him in his itinerant ministry around Galilee. It is significant to note that this group of followers included tax collectors and those labeled as sinners.
The word “sinner” was used as a label to designate a person who should be shunned by others. It was a person who did not affirm the ethical nature of Israel’s faith and who failed to perform some moral duty. These were people who did not act according to acceptable standards of behavior. Elsewhere in the gospels, sinners include drunks, prostitutes, men who visited prostitutes, and over-indulgers.
In the highly religious culture of Israel, a sinner was considered not just wrong, but unclean. Like the leper in a previous passage (Mark 1:40-45), a person labeled a sinner suffered social ostracization. To eat with sinners implied that a person condoned the activity. Association assumed blessing. If a good person eats with bad people, the good person loses her social standing and was considered bad herself. In this climate, one sinner can multiply to many at one meal. Sinners spread defilement and shame to all who interacted with them. As a result, many Jews believed that God wanted them to stay away from sinners to remain pure themselves. Sinners were excluded from acceptable society to preserve what was good and right. Of course, good and right in Israel was based on God’s Law, which was interpreted differently depending on which sect of Judaism you followed, so the “sinner” label could be a bit fluid depending on interpretation.
During the time of Jesus, Israel was under the realm of Rome. Rome, like all previous empires, demanded tribute from its conquered peoples. They taxed the land and transported goods. Tax was collected not for the benefit of the Jewish people but was sent back to Rome. Rome also meddled in the religious spheres. Only Rome could appoint the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple, and many believed that the priesthood had been thoroughly corrupted by this pagan empire.
Naturally, this political climate created many tensions and divisions. Some factions of Israel believed the only response was to resist Rome, either through words or swords. Other factions were more pragmatic. They believed they could appease Rome through collaboration. The tax collectors took collaboration a step further and used the Roman system for personal gain at the expense of their fellow Jews. They were considered traitors and were hated. They were unwelcome at synagogues, and they brought shame to their whole family. It was even considered honorable to lie to tax collectors. Tax collectors were a class of sinners all their own.
The scribes had a diversified role in first century Israel. They were educated officials, who were often employed just for their ability to read and write. They could argue in legal matters and could rule on what the Jewish law required. They were teachers who explained what the Scriptures meant for everyday life. Some were priests with considerable influence at the temple, and others were village scribes who mediated local matters. In this passage, Mark associates this group of scribes with the Pharisees, a particular school of Judaism.
The righteous are those who do what is right. The are innocent of law breaking. They are correct in their behavior, and they are a good person.
Let’s review Mark 2:15-17 again with these definitions in mind.
Then it happened that [Jesus] was reclining in [Levi’s] house and many tax collectors and sinners were also reclining with Jesus… also his disciples… for there were many who were following him.
And the scribes of the Pharisees, having seen that [Jesus] eats with the sinners and tax collectors, were saying to his disciples, “Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?”
And Jesus, having heard, says to them, “The healthy have no need for a doctor, but the sick do. I came not to welcome the saints, but sinners.”
My hope in defining these terms is to give a clear picture of the tensions that arose from Jesus’ actions. When he invited sinners to spend a few hours with him around a meal, he was not only acting contrary to the established practice of religious teachers, he was flouting the message that exclusion taught.
Excluding the sinner teaches that good behavior brings favor with God. Jesus did not teach the law as the scribes did, he brought his own authority from God. Jesus’ authority did not condemn and exclude. Instead, Jesus’ divine authority forgave and welcomed. The scandal of Jesus inviting sinners to eat with him is that he was proclaiming that God does not exclude sinners from his table, and neither should we.
Jesus invites sinners to the table. If there is no other takeaway, it is this. We must eat with sinners if we are to be like Jesus.
The Scandal of Welcoming
The second scandal of this story is that there are only sinners at Jesus’ table. There are no saints who follow Jesus, only sinners. The scandal of salvation is that all of us need it, not just for the hope of eternal life but to re-order our own lives according to Jesus’ example. We need salvation every hour of the day because each of us comes to the table as a sinner.
But, for those of us who have based our lives on studying what the Scriptures teach, it is easy to become a scribe. In a metaphorical sense, when I come to the table as a scribe, I tend to get nosy and want to pry into the sins of those around me. I am tempted to argue my opinions on their sin. I want the authority to rule on what is right and wrong. I think I should have a say about who can and can’t eat with me. I am viewing the table through my own understanding, and I am tempted to push away in disgust at the others who I am dining with.
However, when I recognize my place as a fellow sinner at Jesus’ table, my attention remains on my personal need. I am also a sinner who is invited to hang with Jesus. The people at this party are just like me.
The Scandal of Jesus
The last scandal of the story ultimately brought Jesus’ execution. Jesus claimed that he spoke, acted, and embodied God. Jesus showed that God welcomed sinners and they killed him for it.
As the scribes followed Jesus around through Mark 2, they continued to question his words and behavior. With each scribal question, Jesus answered them in the same manner each time. His answer was grounded in his own identity.
I am a doctor, he says. I can heal the sick.
Jesus heals. Jesus cleanses. Jesus forgives. Sinners do not defile Jesus. Jesus purifies sinners. Jesus claimed the ability and the right to do what the scribes could not do, what a perfect law could not do, what personal desire could not do. Jesus saves. Not moral reformation, not rule keeping, not behavior altercation, not shaming, not merit. Jesus.
Those whom the law and law-keepers exclude, shame, and shun, Jesus welcomes. That is what he came to do. Jesus was righteous, yet he ate with sinners.
The Scandal of Following Jesus
It would be naïve of me to ignore all the complications and nuance a simplistic understanding of Jesus’ behavior causes. I will close acknowledging the tension between how each of us decides to follow Jesus in his practice of welcoming sinners. Mark presents Jesus as someone who creates dissonance. He prompts questions. Jesus does not conform to our ideas, but requires our ideas conform to his authority. Good news is packaged in paradoxes. Mark does not present a feel-good, easy to follow Christ.
How do we follow Jesus in our own lives, with our own set of circumstances and our own circle of sinners and scribes? It will be different depending on context, harm to others and relational difficulties. But this scandalous story can help us personally reflect as my father taught to me twenty-five years ago when he chose to include his adulterous friend in his life.
To my fellow scribes, we must remember that we suffer from the same disease as the sick, and that there is only one doctor. And to my fellow sinners, Jesus welcomes you.