MARK 2:13-14. THE CALL OF LEVI
13He went out again by the seaside. All the multitude came to him, and he taught them. 14As he passed by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed him.
“He went out again by the seaside” (v. 13a). Mark 2:1 specifies Capernaum as the location of the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12), the story immediately prior to our Gospel lesson—so it is likely that this visit to the seaside is in or near Capernaum. Capernaum is at the north edge of the Sea of Galilee, is Jesus’ home (Matthew 4:13; 9:1), is located in the region ruled by Herod Antipas, and has one or more tollbooths where people coming into Galilee from Herod Philip’s territory or the Decapolis would pay a toll. It is at such a tollbooth that Jesus encounters Levi, a tax collector, at his post.
“All the multitude came to him, and he taught them” (v. 13b). Jesus teaches not only his small group of disciples, but also the whole crowd. Mark portrays him as doing so later in his ministry as well (10:1; 14:49).
“As he passed by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office” (v. 14a). See also Matthew 9:9 (where the tax collector is called Matthew) and Luke 5:27 (where he is called Levi). The name Matthew is Greek, while Levi is Hebrew. Matthew’s name appears in lists of apostles (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), but Levi’s name does not. Most scholars assume that Matthew and Levi are the same person.
Tax collectors work for the Roman government collecting various taxes and tolls. Jewish people think of them as sinners of the first order. It is easy for tax collectors to inflate the amounts owed and to pocket the difference—so people believe them to be guilty of extortion. As agents of the Roman government, tax collectors are part of the system that keeps Israel in subjugation. Tax collectors also come into frequent contact with Gentiles, rendering them ritually unclean. Jews don’t feel it necessary to deal honestly with tax collectors, since tax collectors are assumed to be guilty of dishonesty themselves.
Jesus sees Levi sitting at his tax booth, and says “Follow me” (v. 14b). This is a remarkable act that will offend every patriotic Jew. However, it is in keeping with the way that Jesus treats marginal people—lepers, women, widows, beggars, and sinners of every stripe.
• Jesus will sit at table with tax collectors, prompting Pharisees and scribes to ask, “Why is it that (Jesus) eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16).
• Jesus will make a tax collector the hero of his parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14).
• He will also honor Zacchaeus by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home—and by pronouncing salvation on Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:1-10).
Levi gets up and follows Jesus. This is a very spare account; Mark does not provide much detail. It is significant that Jesus takes the initiative in this call. Levi did not ask to be included or forgiven. There is no mention of repentance—although we can assume that this is a turning point in Levi’s life—a true metanoia(repentance as a change of mind and direction).
“And he arose and followed him” (v. 14c). For Levi to abandon his tax office to follow Jesus is an act almost as remarkable as for Jesus to call him. While tax collectors are pariahs in the general population, we can be sure that they socialize with each other—and probably their Roman masters as well. They are well-to-do financially, and have the backing of Rome and its soldiers. But Levi walks away from everything that he has known as decisively as the first four disciples left everything to follow Jesus (1:18).
People often make that sort of break with their previous life at the call of Jesus. Rotten sinners become rock-solid Christians. Middle-aged people quit their jobs to go to seminary—or to go to some far corner of the world to tell people about Jesus. Our souls ache for purpose, and Jesus gives us something worth living for—even worth dying for.
MARK 2:15-17. DINNER AT LEVI’S HOUSE
15It happened, that he was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many, and they followed him. 16The scribes and the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why is it that he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” 17When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
“It happened, that he was reclining at the table in his house” (v. 15a). While people sit at ordinary meals, they recline at formal dinners, their heads near the table and their feet away from the table. Given that the original Greek text does not specify whose house this is, some scholars wonder if it might be Jesus’ house. Luke, however, says that it is Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).
“and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and his disciples” (v. 15b). “Tax collectors” are despised as agents of Herod. “Sinners” could refer to grossly immoral people—or to people like Levi whose association with Gentiles makes them unclean—or to ordinary people whose busy lives do not permit them to observe the law and the traditions of the elders as thoroughly as the scribes and Pharisees would like.
“for there were many, and they followed him” (v. 15c). The word “followed” implies discipleship.
“The scribes and the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax collectors” (v. 16a). We tend to think badly of scribes and Pharisees, because they opposed Jesus. We must keep in mind, however, that they were devout men dedicated to honoring God by the faithful keeping of the Jewish law. However, they made two mistakes. First, they became prideful—a spirit that quickly becomes an obstacle to spiritual growth. Second, they studied the law in such fine detail that they often got lost in the minutia and found themselves distracted from the law’s main purpose. We might say that they could no longer see the forest for the trees.
“Why is it that he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16b). The scribes and Pharisees do not confront Jesus directly, but instead direct their concern to his disciples. The scribes have only recently felt the lash of Jesus’ tongue (2:8 ff.), so it is no wonder that they express their objection timidly.
Their question is a good one though. In Semitic society, table fellowship implies friendship—even approval. Does Jesus approve of tax collectors and sinners? Does he endorse their behavior? Has he no concern for holiness? Does he care nothing for Torah law—God’s law? Doesn’t he understand the bad example that he is setting by his association with these sinners? Won’t his actions contribute to the moral decay of the nation? All of these concerns are wrapped up in the question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
It is natural that Levi would invite tax collectors and sinners to his table. They are his only friends and the only ones who would accept his invitation. The question is why Jesus would grace such a gathering with his presence.
Even though this is only the second chapter of this Gospel, Mark has already recounted several instances where Jesus acted in ways that Pharisees would regard as offensive. He healed people on the sabbath (1:21-34). He touched a leper (1:41). He said to a paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (2:5). These provocative actions challenged the religious status quo. Ironically, we are always tempted to tame Christ—to remove the offense—to make Christianity compatible with social norms—to make the church a place where people come to be comforted rather than challenged.
“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v. 17). A physician determined to avoid sick people would be of little use. Jesus came to serve those who need him and those include, first and foremost, sinners. Of course we are all sinners, but some of us count ourselves as righteous and are therefore unlikely to recognize our need for Jesus. Those who acknowledge their sin are more likely to welcome his ministry.
This was an important story for the early church, which sustained criticism for its failure to exercise high standards. Celsus, an early critic of the church, sneered at its ragtag and bobtail membership—who would want to be associated with such people? But Origen replied, “Yes, but Christ does not leave them ragtag and bobtail. He transforms them by his presence.” And so he does. We, the church, need to remember that it is important to love the unlovely and to encourage them to let Christ move them toward loveliness. We would be remiss if we refused to eat with sinners. We would also be remiss if we did not encourage them to go and sin no more. (The story of Origen and Celsus is from memory, so the quotation is not exact.)
As we assess this story, we need to remember that we live in a very different culture—an anything-goes kind of world where people reject the idea of sin and the need for repentance. We need to welcome sinners, but we also need to encourage them to experience rebirth and to practice spiritual disciplines.
Today we are less likely to be critical of sinners than of other Christians (charismatic, non-charismatics, liberals, conservatives) with whom we feel uncomfortable. We reserve our most potent venom for our brothers or sisters who see things somewhat differently than we do.
MARK 2:18-22. WHY DON’T YOUR DISCIPLES FAST?
18John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and they came and asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?” 19Jesus said to them, “Can the groomsmen fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they can’t fast.20But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then will they fast in that day.
21No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, or else the patch shrinks and the new tears away from the old, and a worse hole is made. 22No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine will burst the skins, and the wine pours out, and the skins will be destroyed; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins.”
“John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting” (v. 18a). Fasting involves abstinence from food (and sometimes drink) for a period of time to express grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 12:20-23) or penitence (1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27)—or to prepare oneself for prayer (2 Samuel 12:16-17; Psalm 35:13) divine revelation (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; Daniel 9:3; 10:3), or the Lord’s favor (Judges 20:26; 2 Chronicles 20:3) (Myers, 377).
The only fasting required by Jewish law has to do with the observance of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27). In at least one instance, God also commanded fasting as an act of contrition (Joel 2:12).
Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights as preparation for his temptation (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2), but condemned fasting done for the purpose of drawing attention to one’s own piety (Matthew 6:16-18; see also Isaiah 58:6-7), just as he condemned almsgiving and prayer done for self-serving purposes (Matthew 6:1-8).
Fasting is mentioned twice in the book of Acts as spiritual preparation for important decisions (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23), but there is no mention of fasting in the Epistles. There is no mandate for fasting in the New Testament.
“Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?” (v. 18b). Mark doesn’t tell us the identity of these questioners. They address their concern to Jesus, assuming that he should take responsibility for the behavior of his disciples.
John the Baptist was an ascetic, and his disciples emulate him when they fast. They also might also be fasting to express their distress at his arrest (1:14).
While the law requires fasting only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34; 23:26-32), Pharisees also fast on Mondays, Thursdays, and certain other occasions.
Jesus responds to the question with three analogies:
1. “Can the groomsmen fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they can’t fast” (v. 19). The people are accustomed to celebrating weddings for seven days with abundant food, wine, song, and dance. Fasting is a solitary and somber activity, inappropriate for that sort of festive occasion.
In this metaphor, Jesus is the bridegroom. His disciples are enjoying the pleasure of following an exciting teacher who also heals desperate people. Why would they fast when things are moving so rapidly in the right direction?
The Old Testament does not speak of the messiah as bridegroom, but it does use that image for God (Isaiah 54:5; 62:5; Hosea 2:19). Jesus is therefore appropriating a Godly metaphor for his own use.
“But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then will they fast in that day” (v. 20). It is only the second chapter of this Gospel, but already Jesus is alluding to the crucifixion.
Jesus does not eliminate fasting as a spiritual discipline. In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples not to use fasting as a display for piety but, instead, to do their fasting in private before the Father, who will reward secret fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). The early church fasted on important occasions (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).
2. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, or else the patch shrinks and the new tears away from the old, and a worse hole is made” (v. 21). A new patch will shrink when washed and tear the old garment. Note the concern here for the preservation of the old garment. Jesus represents a new way, but one that is deeply rooted in his people’s history.
3. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine will burst the skins, and the wine pours out, and the skins will be destroyed; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins” (v. 22). Old skins have already been stretched and are no longer flexible. If you put new wine in old skins, the new wine will ferment and expand, breaking the inflexible skins. The concern here is both for the skins and the wine.
Jesus’ teachings are the new wine. The scribes, Pharisees, and priests represent the old way of doing things—the old wineskins. Jesus and his teachings cannot be bottled in the old wineskins.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan