The Kingdom of God is for Sinners
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.
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.”
Jesus goes down by the sea and calls Levi the tax collector to follow him. Soon after, Jesus is sitting in Levi’s house, reclining at table with his friends. The Pharisees want to know “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ answer is simple. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” It’s a common-sense answer, a proverbial quote known far and wide. A doctor must go to the sick. What good is a doctor who never does? But coming from the mouth of Jesus to the Pharisees in front of his new tax collector and sinner friends, it had a different slant. It posed a question even as it affirmed a truth. It was as if he was saying, “Do you understand your sickness? Do you understand the sickness of sin? Do you understand the illness of the soul? Do you understand that no good you’ve done or could ever do will remove the evil of sin from your heart? Do you understand my salvation?”
We are all—everyone us—diagnosed with a sickness unto death. And the sinners and tax collectors he sat among saw it. They saw their sickness. So they welcomed the Physician.
But the Pharisees didn’t. They were concerned with the optics of it all. How could a rabbi sit with those people? Jesus says he can because it’s the entire reason for his coming: to call not the righteous, but sinners. In reclining with the tax collectors and sinners, while it proved to be bad optics for his budding ministry, was the precise reason for his ministry. He was not there for those who had no need of him. He was there for those who had a great need for him.
So here’s the question we need to answer: Do we sense a personal need for Christ or do we think we’re doing just fine? Do we need a Physician or can we heal ourselves?
The Bible makes it quite clear that no one is righteous. But there is a difference between affirming that biblical truth and feeling the need for a rescue. A religious person can recognize the evil inside while thinking better behavior will atone for it. But the one for whom Christ came recognizes no good from within can atone for the sins of the heart. The Bible is screaming to us from Genesis 3 onward that we need a rescue, we need a Savior.
There are really only two types of people in this world, no matter the religion. There are those who know their need for a savior and those who see no need for one. And the kingdom of God exposes both.
We see the difference in the narrative. There are two sets of people. We have Levi and his buddies on the one side and the Pharisees on the other.
What do we know of Levi? We know from other parts of the Bible that he’s also called Matthew, the author of the gospel. We also know from this passage that he was a tax collector. Tax collectors in that day were seen as unclean people. Many of them around there were Jews, and to get the job, they bid the amount of tax revenue they could take in to the Roman government. The open jobs went to the highest bidder. Some taxes were fixes and you couldn’t charge more than the going rate, but others had looser definitions. Tax collectors would take advantage, collecting their quota and pocketing the excess. They were traitors to the Jewish people they extorted.
The Pharisees would have nothing to do with such men. They avoided fellowshipping with such people to maintain their ritual purity. And they considered reclining with those unversed in the Law, such as these “sinners” to be a disgrace. But Jesus didn’t seem to mind. Apparently, they were the ones for whom he came.
The Pharisees didn’t like that. They are the bad guys in this story, no doubt. But is there not a Pharisee in us all? Somewhere, deep in our heart, there is a prejudice against others. Yes, the Pharisees didn’t associate with sinners and tax collectors, but the sinners and tax collectors didn’t associate with them either. They were of separate worlds, and that was fine with each. In every one of us, there is a world in which we live and world in which “those people” live, isn’t there? And if “those people” were to come in this room right now, their presence would make us uncomfortable.
But in God’s kingdom, there aren’t us and them. There’s just us and Jesus, and we have to deal with the mercy he’s shown to all. Notice Mark says the disciples were with Jesus in Levi’s house. I wonder what they thought about Levi when Jesus called him? I wonder what they thought about entering his house with all those tax collectors? Remember, the first disciples of Jesus were fishermen. They worked hard to make a living. Remember, too, that it was beside the sea working in his booth that Jesus called Levi. That must have taken the disciples back to their fishing days when they would come to shore, and a man like Levi—maybe even Levi himself—sat in his booth, taxing the fish they caught. And now here is this man among them—one who, if he had not extorted them, his certainly friends had. What would they do with this? What kind of rabbi is this Jesus?
Well, it turns out, he’s the kind that saves sinners. What we see in the calling of Levi is Jesus’ continued call of the unclean, unwanted, even despised people into his kingdom. Levi was not a man any other rabbi would have wanted. The Pharisees didn’t. But Jesus did! So he went and got him.
In response, Levi invited Jesus home for dinner. When you realize Jesus doesn’t just tolerate you but wants you, it changes everything. For a man cast outside the religious circles of his day, a rabbi who wanted him to follow him was unthinkable. When Jesus came along, Levi couldn’t help but invite him among his friends. And Jesus wasn’t above attending.
Years later, another sinner, this time a Pharisee, would understand Jesus. In speaking to his disciple, Timothy, the Apostle Paul said that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom—notice this personal pronoun—“of whom I am the foremost.” Charles Spurgeon notes that between that world saves and that word sinners, there is no adjective. It matters not that you are a tax collecting sinner or a murderous sinner or an obedient-to-tradition sinner. All that matters is that sinners are in the world and you are among them. That’s what Jesus is saying! He came for the sick, are you sick enough for Jesus?
We need not simply better behavior; we need a rescue. We need a Savior. We need one who will dine with sinners and befriend them. And that’s who we have in Jesus.
We have two options before us. We can stand at the door questioning Jesus’ methods or we can join his party raging inside. We can be like the elder boy in the parable of the prodigal son, angry that we’ve always obeyed but never received, or we can be the prodigal enjoying the welcome home. Jesus is saying, “Your brother has come. It’s fitting to celebrate and be glad. The dead are alive! The lost are found! Come, join the party.” Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Are you sick enough for the Good Doctor, Jesus? If so, rejoice! The kingdom of God is at hand, and it’s coming for you!