8 January 2016

Mark 2:13-17 (Jesus calls Levi)

“When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (vv. 16-17)

Psalm: Psalm 5:1-8


The theme of forgiveness continues from yesterday's passage about the healing of the paralytic. Both passages are full of surprises that subvert common assumptions about how forgiveness works:

  • God forgives the penitent
  • those who are notorious 'sinners' might be tolerated in the life of the church but certainly cannot be part of the inner circle.

However we find that in yesterday's reading Jesus offered forgiveness to a man on the basis of the faith of his friends (verse 5) and not of his own confession of sin; today Jesus is found choosing as disciples people that no self-respecting person would be seen dead with (verse 14).

It is hard for us to comprehend the force of the term 'tax collector'. Collaborator is part of it; extortionist is another. Tax collectors, though, also have emblematic status in the Gospels, like the 'harlots, publicans and thieves' of Charles Wesley's 18th-century hymn, 'Where shall my wondering soul begin?'. What would the equivalent phrase be today? 'Scroungers, junkies and politicians'?

The difficulty with finding any such terms to sum up what we think sin might be in our own social context is that we locate it outside of ourselves and not within. The difficulty also is that we fail to notice the inverted commas around the 'sinners' with whom Jesus is associating. Jesus' somewhat ironic point in verse 17 is not that the people he was eating with were without sin, nor that those who think themselves righteous or even behave righteously are a different category of person who can be tainted by contact with the rest of humanity, but that:

  • all of us are in need of God's grace
  • God meets us even in our sin - even before we can identify whatever it is that we might need to repent.

In the contemporary Methodist hymn book,Singing the Faith (no 454) the phrase about harlots, publicans and thieves has been replaced. Now it reads: "Outcasts to you, yes, you I call, Christ's love invites you to believe". Changing the language perhaps makes some things clearer whilst it obscures others, but how do we recognise the truth that some of those we think of as 'sinners' might be nearer the kingdom of God than some of us who struggle to know what our sins might be?

To Ponder

  • Who are the groups of people that get cast as 'sinners' in our culture and how fair are those labels?
  • What sense does it make to you to think of yourself as a sinner?
  • What or who helps you to find your repentance and change your ways where that is needful?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..