Calling All Sinners!

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Mark 2:13-17 (Jesus Calls Levi)

INTRODUCTION: We are continuing our series through the gospel of Mark, and today we come to the calling of Levi as one of Jesus’ disciples. In the previous passage, the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive. Now in this passage, we see Jesus offering that forgiveness to the tax collectors and sinners of his time. (Read Mark 2:13-17 and pray.)

Have you ever wondered if you were good enough for God? There are a lot of people who stay away from God because they figure they are just not good enough for him. And if you are thinking in terms of performance, you are absolutely right. God is perfect. God is holy. None of us measures up to his standards. We all sin and fall short of God’s glory.

But what if God is not primarily interested in performance? What if God is interested in something else, like relationship? That would change things. What if you didn’t have to be good enough for God? What if God took care of that for you? What if God called sinners to himself rather than perfect people?

That’s what this passage in Mark 2 is all about. Jesus calls sinners. And that is good news.

I. Jesus calls sinners to follow him (verses 13-14)

First of all, Jesus calls sinners to follow him. Look at verses 13-14:

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)

Here we see Jesus continuing his teaching ministry. Notice that Jesus didn’t wait for the people to come to him at the synagogue, but he went to the people. He went out beside the lake, the Sea of Galilee, and he taught the crowds there.

And as he is walking along, he sees Levi sitting at the tax collector’s booth. This Levi is the same person called Matthew in scripture, and he is the same Matthew who wrote the gospel of Matthew. Levi’s job was to collect a tax or a toll from the people entering the city, and so this booth was really a type of toll booth. And as Jesus passes by, he calls Levi to follow him, similar to when he passed Peter and Andrew, James and John at the beach and called them to follow him.

Now Jesus calling Levi to follow him might not sound all that extraordinary to you, but you have to realize how people viewed tax collectors in that day. Even today, most of us are not overly fond of bill collectors or the IRS, but in those days it was even worse. Tax collectors were some of the most despised people in the nation. They were in a position of power to extract money from the people for the government, and they were allowed to keep a piece of the pot for themselves. As a result, there was widespread corruption among the tax collectors of that day.

It is similar to the situation we have in Mexico today. Now I am sure there are plenty of honest policemen in Mexico, and I know many of them are fighting a pretty tough battle down there right now, but unfortunately over the years the Mexican police have developed a reputation for corruption. They are in a position of power, and they are known for taking bribes or extorting money from travelers. This was a similar situation in Israel with the tax collectors. Tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, cheaters, and extortionists.

And if you were a Jew who became a tax collector, that was even worse. You were considered a traitor by your fellows Jews. You were working for the enemy! William Lane writes: “When a Jew entered the customs service he was regarded as an outcast from society: he was disqualified as a judge or a witness in a court session, was excommunicated from the synagogue, and in the eyes of the community his disgrace extended to his family.” (William Lane. The Gospel According to Mark, pp. 101-102) Levi was a Jew who was a tax collector. And so for Jesus to call Levi to follow him was completely unlikely, completely unexpected.

There are a lot of people today who believe God would never call them to follow him. They think, “God doesn’t want anything to do with me. I could never become a Christian.” They talk about how if they even walked inside a church, the roof would probably collapse on them. Maybe you feel that way yourself.

Let me tell you this morning, your sin is not an obstacle to God. Some of the most dedicated, sincere followers of Jesus came from some of the worst backgrounds. The apostle Paul was a murderer and persecutor of the church. He called himself the chief of sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15) And as a matter of fact, the church is full of sinners. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Don’t think for a minute that anyone here is better than you. They are not. Don’t think for a minute that you are better than anyone else. You are not. We are all sinners, and the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Levi was a sinner. Jesus called Levi, and Levi got up and followed him.

There was a lot at stake for Levi here. If things didn’t work out for Peter or John, they could always go back to fishing. But a tax collector’s job was hard to come by. When Levi left his tax collector’s booth, it was a one way ticket and he knew it. But he got up and followed Jesus anyway. Luke’s gospel tells us that Levi left everything to follow Christ. (Luke 5:28)

You see, you don’t have to be some type of super spiritual person to follow Jesus. Jesus calls even the least likely candidates to join the kingdom of God. He calls sinners like you and me.

II. Jesus calls sinners to fellowship with him (verse 15-16)

But Jesus not only calls sinners to follow him. He also calls sinners to fellowship with him. Look at verses 15-16:

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and `sinners’?” (Mark 2:15-16)

Levi was so excited, he called up all his friends and invited them over to a big banquet with Jesus as the guest of honor. And guess who Levi’s friends were? More tax collectors and sinners! The word “sinners” as used here refers to people of bad reputation in the community, people who were well known as sinners – other tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, social outcasts. And Mark tells us that there many of them there.

I love the way sinners flocked to Jesus in the gospels. They obviously felt comfortable with Christ. They felt loved and accepted by him. They were attracted to his teachings. And Jesus was obviously glad to be with them. But the Pharisees weren’t too happy with all of this. They pull the disciples aside and ask them, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

This was not an innocent question on their part, but an outright accusation. We mentioned before that in these opening chapters of Mark there is a growing escalation of hostility towards Jesus on the part of the Jewish religious leaders. In verse 6 of this chapter the teachers of the law simply thought accusing thoughts about Jesus in their minds. (Mark 2:6) Now here in verse 16 they speak out, but just to Jesus’ disciples. (Mark 2:16) In verse 24 they address Jesus directly (Mark 2:24), and by the time you get to chapter 3 they begin plotting to kill him (Mark 3:6). There is a progression here, and you can see the opposition to Christ rising.

Well, when the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they went nuts. This was a scandal worthy of the gossip columns! I mean, the Pharisees had certain rules. You didn’t eat with Gentiles. You didn’t associate with sinners. This was as big a scandal to them as your pastor hanging out at the local bar.

By the way, what would you think if your pastor actually did that? How would you react if your elders started hanging out at the local bars in town? Would that make you uncomfortable? It would probably depend on what they were doing there. But if the mere fact that they were there would make you uncomfortable, then you may need to do a heart check and ask yourself why. Are you falling into the same trap as the Pharisees?

Jesus welcomed sinners, and the Pharisees were disgusted by them. Jesus accepted those whom the Pharisees deemed unacceptable. You know, the Pharisees had the same problem as Jonah did in the Old Testament. Do you remember why Jonah got so upset? Because God had mercy on the Ninevites! Jonah didn’t want God to have mercy on the Ninevites; he wanted God to judge them. But God’s mercy and grace are for everyone, and therefore we have no right to withhold God’s mercy and grace from anyone.

And if we are going to do that, that means we need to spend more time with non-Christians. Dr. James Kennedy in his Evangelism Explosion materials talks about how once we become Christians, it is easy to get “lifted out” of our relationships with non-Christians. We get more and more involved with church and less involved with people outside of church. And so we need to be intentional about building relationships in the community with people who do not know Christ.

I learned a new term this year that I have been thinking about called the “third places.” Most people’s lives revolve around three places. We have work, and we have home, and then we have the “third places” where we hang out outside of work and home. For many Christians, the church and church activities become their third place. But our non-believing friends in the community have different third places. And if we never intersect with them in their third places, how will we ever communicate Christ to them?

It seems the longer you are a Christian, the more you get lifted out of your relationships with non-believers and the more difficult this becomes. But that just means we have to work at it that much harder. If you are a new believer, you probably have all sorts of relationships with non-believers. Let me encourage you, hold on to those relationships! If you abandon your non-Christian friends when you become a Christian (and I know we would never actually think or speak these words), but it is almost as if we are saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t be your friend anymore. I’m a Christian now!” What a terrible thing to say! And yet how many of us have said as much by our actions?

We need to meet the people of our community where they are at work and in our homes and in their third places and share Christ’s love with them in friendship. Jesus is a friend of sinners. He not only calls sinners to follow him. He calls them to fellowship with him. Isn’t that awesome? I mean, an army general can tell you to follow him. But Jesus also wants to have fellowship with you. He wants to befriend you.

III. Jesus calls sinners to repentance (verse 17)

Jesus calls sinners to follow him. He calls sinners to fellowship with him. And thirdly, Jesus calls sinners to repentance. Look at verse 17. The Pharisees asked why Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

A doctor who avoids the sick isn’t much help to anyone. A good doctor will jump right in there with those who are ill and work to help and to heal them. If you’re healthy, you don’t need a doctor. But those who are sick do. That’s what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees. Just as the sick person needs a doctor, so the sinner needs a savior. That’s why Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous.” The word “righteous” is ironic here. In reality there are no righteous. There are the self-righteous, those who think they are righteous, those who think that they do not need Christ. But the truth of the matter is we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. We all need Christ. Jesus came for those who recognized their need for him, not for those who think they don’t. And so this word of Jesus is a word of grace and acceptance to sinners who recognize their need, but also a word of judgment to the arrogant and proud.

Jesus calls sinners to repentance. A good doctor doesn’t leave someone in their illness. If he can cure them, he will cure them. That is his job. In the same way, Jesus loves you too much to leave you in your sin. Jesus calls sinners not to stay in their sin but to leave their sin and to follow him. I think of the woman who was brought before Jesus because she was caught in adultery. Jesus did not condemn her for her sin, but he also told her, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)

Jesus is a friend of sinners, but he is not a friend of sin. We come as sinners to Jesus for healing, and then Christ calls us to leave that sin behind.

Remember we started out this morning by asking the question, “Am I good enough for God?” I hope you can see by now that is the wrong question. That’s like asking, “Am I healthy enough for the doctor?” You don’t need the doctor if you are healthy! You need the doctor if you are sick. In the same way, you don’t need to be good enough for God. You need God if you are a sinner.

CONCLUSION: Let me close this morning with a word to the sinners and then a word to the saints. And just so there is no confusion, remember, we are all sinners. The saints are simply sinners who have already been forgiven.

    1) A word to the sinners – So, first, a word to the sinners. You need Christ. Plain and simple. You need Christ. You need salvation. You have a sickness called sin that only Jesus can heal. The good news this morning is that Jesus died for sinners like you and me. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, so that you could come back to God. Jesus is calling you to come to him today. Will you answer his call?

    2) A word to the saints – And then secondly, a word to the saints. When Jesus was here on earth, he spent time in the company of sinners, sharing God’s love with them. He didn’t judge them. He didn’t condemn them. He befriended them. We are just sinners who have been saved by grace. And we need to spend time with other sinners that we may share God’s grace with them.

Jesus calls sinners. He calls them to follow him. He calls them to fellowship with him. And he calls them to repentance. Calling all sinners – come home! Come home to Christ today.

© Ray Fowler

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