Jesus, a Friend to Sinners | Mark 2:13–17

Good morning, church!
We know Jesus as a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mt 11:19)—an expression meant to be deride our Lord, but one of great hope to those who see themselves as sinner. Jesus won’t be satisfied to leave sinners as they are; He calls them to transformation.
He calls all who have sin to repent and believe in the gospel. With that said, we have a simple outline this morning. First, Jesus calls sinners (vv. 13–14), and second, Jesus doesn’t call the self-righteous (vv. 15–17).




Jesus, a Friend to Sinners | Mark 2:13–17
Shaun Marksbury | Morning Service | 19 March, 2017

Heavenly Father,
We thank You for sending a true friend to sinners.  May we see Him today in Your Holy Word.

I. Introduction
It’s an oddity that believers become self-righteous, but it happens.  We forget what lowly point from which the Lord plucked us, or we never honestly evaluated just how deep our sin was.  Whatever the case, sometimes we can think of ourselves more highly than we ought.

Imagine a group you despise and this makes more sense.  Perhaps the Republicans or the Democrats.  The social justice warriors.  Your skin crawls just to think about it.  And now that we’re getting a bit closer to April 15th, maybe you’re adding the IRS to whoever is on that list.

Imagine now certain spiritual considerations with this.  What if someone visited our church who you knew had an abortion?  How about a person obviously involved in sexual sin?  Your first instinct may not be to thank the Lord that being here, they would be exposed to the truth of God.  It may be to give that person a wide berth so they would not accidentally brush against you, or so that you may not be caught in a conversation with them.  

That would be the mindset of the stuffed-shirted scribes in relation to tax collectors and Jews who didn’t follow their ways.  As the religious leaders, they followed the biblical breadcrumbs Jesus dropped as to His true identity.  They were already forming a negative opinion of Him as their supposed Messiah before He went and associated with these low-lives.  How could He associate with those people?  How dare He?

JC Ryle said this about self-righteousness: 
Oh, let us beware of self-righteousness! Open sin kills its thousands of souls. Self-righteousness kills its tens of thousands! Go and study humility with the great apostle of the Gentiles. Go and sit with Paul at the foot of the cross. Give up your secret pride. Cast away your vain ideas of your own goodness. Be thankful if you have grace—but never boast in it for a moment. Work for God and Christ, with heart and soul and mind and strength—but never dream for a second of placing confidence in any work of your own. 

We need to remember that we all have sin and that even our righteousness is filthy.  We have no hope outside of Christ.  Thankfully, last week, with the healing of the paralytic, we saw the authority of Christ made manifest.  He has the authority on earth to forgive sins completely and instantaneously.  

So, we see Jesus here as a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mt 11:19).  That expression may have been meant to be deride our Lord, but it’s one of great hope to those who see themselves as sinners.  He comes to us.  And Jesus won’t be satisfied to leave sinners as they are; He calls them to transformation.  

He calls all who have sin to repent and believe in the gospel.  With that said, we have a simple outline this morning.  First, Jesus calls sinners (vv. 13–14), and second, Jesus doesn’t call the self-righteous (vv. 15–17).

II. First, Jesus calls sinners (vv. 13–14)
13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

Jesus isn’t far from the Sea of Galilee, and so He goes for a walk on the shore.  If He’s out there to simply enjoy the sea breeze or to pray, He’s soon interrupted.  People begin to come to Him and He is continually teaching. 

This is also where He called Simon, Andrew, James, and John in Mark 1:16, and we’re going to see Him calling someone else.  There’s a toll gate established near the shore, a convenient spot for tax collectors to catch both boats coming in and travelers coming down the Great West Road, which extended from Damascus to the Mediterranean.  They could charge duty on goods and on the number of wheels rolling down a Roman road.  So, Levi was most likely collecting customs; other places would charge income taxes.

The Romans used a system for collecting taxes called tax farming.  It’s a bit like operating a franchise.  Since the Jews had to pay taxes to them, Herod Antipas appointed the highest bidder to be his tax collectors for Rome.  Those individuals would hire people like Levi to man their booths, so Levi was probably not alone in at this station.

Many hated them, seeing them as traitorous collaborators with oppressive Roman regime and thieves—and they were.  Tax collectors saw lucrative employment.  They didn’t have to post their rates, so they overtaxed their own people and pocketed the surplus (cf. Lk 3:12–13).  

One of their booths would be beside the Sea of Galilee, with Levi (a. k. a. Matthew).  It’s possible that he’s a Levite based on his name, but he is not serving the people.  Afterward, Jesus walked by this booth and told him to follow.

Christ transforms sinners.  Sadly, many of those amazed by the healing of the paralytic will find another distraction eventually, but Christ came to Levi and transforms him.  The proof is in what happened after Jesus called Levi to follow Him.  Levi knew that abandoning his post to follow Jesus meant an opportunist would rush to his seat.  He’s leaving it all behind, choosing unemployment by following Christ.  This isn’t a profession like fishing to which one can simply return. If he follows Jesus, it’s a choice to renounce the wealth and authority he has for the sake of Jesus.  

Thus, Mark’s simple statement communicates volumes about his conversion.  Levi arises from the table because he’s no longer a tax-collector; he’s now a follower of Christ.  Someone said, “Starke, Quesnel:—Grace draws Matthew from the love of gold, and makes of him an apostle; the love of gold drew Judas away from Christ and his apostleship.” 

After becoming a disciple, he began going by Matthew, and both Luke (Lk 5:27) and Mark here apparently try to save him embarrassment by saying “Levi.”  However, in a display of humility, Matthew names himself as the despised tax-collector in his Gospel account (Mt 9:9).  To be even clearer, he calls himself “Matthew the tax collector” in his list of the Apostles (10:3).  His name means “gift from the Lord,” so it commemorates Jesus’s gracious call.  

He’s been changed by the call of Christ, but he knows who he used to be without Christ.  He heard Christ preach “repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 11:5), but now he knew it is time to leave his former life behind and trust in Christ for new life.  He didn’t need to stop tax-collecting for Jesus to come to him; Jesus came to where he was and transformed him.  Once Christ gets ahold of a man’s heart, He replaces it with a new one (Eze 36:26)—and he stops by sinners’ booths every day with the gospel call.  

III. Second, Jesus doesn’t call the self-righteous (vv. 15–17)
15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A friend of tax-collectors and sinners!  This is the accusation the self-righteous would hurl at Jesus (Mt 11:19).  It may not make sense to us, but you must consider the world in which the Jews had been living.

After the Greeks had swept through the world and imported new temptations to sin, the faithful successfully fought for the cause of righteousness.  That priestly class came to be the Pharisees, and they became the standard of righteousness for the people.  Their traditions became as important as the Law of Moses, and they stated that no one should fellowship with compromised people.  And Jesus ate with them.

Specifically, we see Him reclining with them.  According to Lk 5:29, Levi had prepared this feast for Jesus.  The tables of the ancient world were low to the floor, so people did not sit upright in chairs to eat.  There would be couches and pillows set up around the table, and Jesus would be reclining on His left arm while eating with His right hand.  Sinners and tax collectors would be on either side of Him.

Understand that these were not what we would call church-going folk.  In fact, they were probably excluded from the synagogues.  They may have been loud and crass.  They may have made us uncomfortable because we’re used to a tamer bunch.  They may have offended our Lord’s holiness multiple times, but He stayed.

Sinners are Christ’s mission.  He’s not offended by the title, “friend of sinners,” because He’ll call all who come to Him to repentance (Lk 5:32).  The Great Physician treats the sick, and back in 1:15, we saw His mission was preaching repentance.  Because these people had been excluded from the synagogue, Jesus couldn’t have reached them there.  And the wonderful truth is that v. 15 says that they followed Him.

This brings to mind the men who surrounded David while he was on the run—“everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Sm 22:2).

The irony is that, no one would have disagreed with what Jesus was saying—sinners need to repent.  If these present scribes cared for the people of Israel as they claimed to be, though, they would be doing exactly what Jesus is doing.  Matthew 9:13 adds that Jesus had one more rebuke for the scribes: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  The scribes were so fastidious that they had no mercy in their hearts for those who needed to repent.  Sadly, that’s not the only irony here.

People are not as righteous as they think themselves to be.  They may have been professionally righteous, but they were not positionally righteous before God, as evidenced by their greater care for the letter of the Law than for its Spirit.   Jesus isn’t affirming their righteousness over the tax-collectors (though they may think so in their pride—cf. Lk 18:14).  He’s also not affirming the sinners’ righteousness over the scribes.  The Pharisees aren’t righteous enough, and we all need a personal righteousness that surpasses theirs (Mt 5:20).   

We all practice self-righteousness, not realizing we have much need of repentance.  We even need to repent of our repentance—but Jesus will have fellowship with those seeking Him (Js 4:6).  Indeed, God grants us righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (Rm 3:22).  Praise God for unmerited grace in Christ, and by it, be a friend of sinners who also want to learn repentance.

IV.  Final Thoughts
If you are a Christian, how Christ-like are you in this regard?  Do you avoid certain people simply because you don’t want the filth of their sin to get on the clean robes of reputation?  Or, do you engage in spiritual half-measures and compromise by befriending sinners without calling them to repentance?  Neither case is a true friend of sinners.  If you are a believer in here, you must remember that you are also a sinner who needs Christ, and that He will judge unrighteousness.

When we talk about Jesus as a friend of sinners, we must do so while keeping His holiness in view.  When you think of Jesus as a friend to a sinner like you, don’t mistake His intentions.  It’s not because He’s down in the slums, trying to see how the other half lives or feel like He’s more connected to your background.  It’s not because He’s okay with your sin of choice and just wants to give you a spiritual high five.  And it’s not that He’s awkwardly standing by you, just hoping that His friendship will one day mean you’ll give Him some consideration.

No, He’s holy and He calls you from your sin.  He’s your friend because He tells you the truth about yourself.  He calls you to come to Him and believe in the good news of His gospel—that you are not so bad that He can’t save you and cleanse you from all your unrighteousness.

Holy and Righteous Father,
We confess that we are also sinners, no better than the sinners mentioned here.  So, we thank You for sending Your Son to save wretches like us.
We thank You, Lord Jesus, that You’re willing to associate with the low and base of this world, with us. 
Forgive our self-righteousness, our arrogant assumptions that we are better than others simply because we don’t sin like they do.  

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