Summary: What are we responding to? Is it Jesus as Lord or is it some human religious system? Is our behaviour going to help others discover the good news of Jesus Christ? Will it help us proclaim forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name?
Most people dislike change. Some people think it’s a necessary evil; but evil nevertheless. But there are times when change is absolutely necessary; when the old ways won’t work; when the old ways will actually hinder the thing that’s coming.
One such moment in time was at the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament from start to finish points to his coming, but with his coming the days of the Old Testament are finished. The way God had taught his people to live as they waited for Jesus was about to be made redundant. The means by which they gained righteousness was about to be overtaken, replaced by a righteousness by faith alone. And the very identity of God’s people was about to be changed.
And we see all of this in great clarity as we read through the end of Chapter 2 and the start of ch3 of Mark.
A Nation of God-Fearers?
The old order established very strict boundaries of righteousness. These were largely built upon the 10 commandments but the rules had been widened to cover a host of situations that weren’t mentioned, in fact probably not even thought of, in Exodus 20. Similarly the old order was built around a belief that the Jews were God’s chosen people and everyone else was excluded. That exclusion meant that faithful Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles: no business dealings and certainly no social dealings.
So here in 2:13-15 we find a very difficult situation for Jesus followers.
Jesus is walking along beside the sea and he sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at his booth collecting taxes. Levi was the lowest of the low: a traitor, working for the Roman occupying forces. He was probably a thief, ripping off the people whose taxes he collected, skimming off enough to make himself rich at their expense. And in both his business and social life he would have mixed freely with Gentile merchants so he was obviously the type who ignored God’s law. So when Jesus stops and speaks to him there would have been surprised looks on everyone’s faces, but when he tells him to get up and follow him they would have been totally amazed. And then he goes a step further. He goes to Levi’s house for dinner, and all the lowlifes from the tax-collecting fraternity are there as well.
What’s happened to the idea that Israel is this exclusive community of God’s faithful people? If Jesus is supposed to be a respected rabbi how can he eat with such sinful types?
The scribes put that exact question to his disciples. Their question is as much a criticism of them for following Jesus as it is of Jesus himself. How can you follow someone who’s obviously a man of doubtful judgment?
But do you see how Jesus answers 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.” The scribes have forgotten what their job is. They think their job is to keep their people on the straight and narrow by teaching them how to apply the law to their lives; but in fact their job is just as much to call sinful people back to life with God. Certainly that’s what Jesus sees his mission as being. He’s come to call sinners to follow him, to come back into relationship with God. Just as we saw last week that the paralysed man needed forgiveness before everything else, so this tax-collector needs to repent and receive the forgiveness that God has for him. This is the same message that Peter was given in his dream of a sheet covered in unclean animals coming down out of the sky. God is the one who makes people clean. He does it through faith in Jesus. So no matter who it is they need to hear the gospel. The old order of exclusiveness is now gone. Jesus came to fulfil Israel’s role in being a light to lighten the Gentiles.
Immediately Mark draws our attention to another instance where the new clashes with the old. He tells us that John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting at this time. Perhaps it was a particular religious festival they were observing or perhaps it was just one of the regular fasts that the Pharisees undertook. Whatever it was, it highlights the way ceremony and ritual play a central part in most religious practices. Fasting is an age-old method, in a wide range of religions, for achieving a sense of spiritual connectedness. Abstaining from food was meant to be a discipline that allowed the mind to concentrate on things above. Moses fasted before receiving the law on Mt Sinai; David fasted when Bathsheba’s son was dying, Joel called for the people to fast to show God they were serious about following him, the people of Nineveh fasted as a sign of repentance and so forth. So Jesus is coming into a setting where the behaviour of his disciples seems out of place.