Our Lord has many titles that highlight glorious facets of His character, nature, and ministry. Lord, Savior, King, Master, Vine, Son, Messiah, Bridegroom, Judge, and Angel of the Lord are just some of the wonderful names that reveal to us precious jewels of His identity and work. But one title that is sometimes overlooked is “friend of sinners.” In a sense, this is one of the most important because it highlights His personal attention to and relationship with those who most need it.
In Mark 2:14-17, we see our Lord embodying this name as He reaches out to Matthew and responds to those who would criticize Him for exercising His saving office. Specifically, we will see Him both demonstrating and explaining His grace.
A. He Demonstrates His Grace by Calling Levi (v. 14)
Recall that our Lord has demonstrated His ability and right to forgive sin in His treatment of the paralyzed man, and that this demonstration has vilified the Jewish leadership. Jesus will continue to undermine their false authority and ministry in the days ahead, and His interaction with Matthew and his friends is the next installment.
After the event in Peter’s home, the Lord continues teaching, with many crowds coming to hear Him. Wouldn’t you love to know what He shared with them? I am sure He drew many to Himself during these times of proclamation, and planted seeds for others to come later. After this, He is walking back to Capernaum, and comes upon Levi (whom readers of the first gospel know as Matthew), sitting in his tax booth.
The Jewish people found themselves under occupation by the Romans. Feared and hated, they served as a daily reminder that the Jewish people were not free. And some, like Levi, prostituted themselves spiritually to Rome for financial gain., In that culture, Rome sold tax franchises to whomever could pay (and they were not cheap). The tax collector would then impinge upon the people to pay money to Rome—but would do so in an unadorned extortionist way, not merely collecting cash for the oppressors but taking some for themselves. Thus they were intensely hated, because the money was ill-gotten in collusion with the enemy.
Tax collectors were lower than prostitutes on the social ladder. Lepers may even have been higher than them. They were not respected; contempt for them filled the heart of the average Jewish person because of the sheer immorality and betrayal that was involved in taking the job. So for Jesus—who was a respected and popular, if controversial, teacher—to even interact with Matthew was the razor edge of scandal.
But Jesus has come to identify with, pursue, and save sinners—and He cannot do so if He does not touch and speak to them.
He stops at Matthew’s booth, looks him in the face, and says two words: “Follow Me.”
This, of course, is a call to both salvation and service. The Christian life is the life of a disciple—that is, the life of one who learns from Jesus as authoritative Teacher and Lord. Thus, there is no salvation without some degree of discipleship because to be a Christian is to be a student of Jesus. We then live out what we learn from Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is amazing that Jesus would talk to Him, more so that He would do it with compassion and invitation. But the more amazing thing, perhaps, is that Mathew immediately—immediately!—gets up and follows Jesus. Of course, this is a physical following of our Lord wherever He goes; but we know from the rest of Scripture that Matthew’s heart followed, too. He is going after the Lord Jesus and willing to learn and obey whatever He says. Indeed, this former traitor will one day be used to write the story of Jesus for Jewish men and women to know their Messiah as he has done.
The ceremonial and legalistic understanding of the world imposed on the Jewish mind by the leadership has made this exact kind of uncompromised but intensely loving outreach to the precise people who need the gospel not a glorious, sparkling display of grace but a scandalous impropriety. But our Lord gladly rebels against the traditions of His people when they obscure and contradict the Word of God and prevent sinners from hearing the only message that saves. The Holy One reaches out to a blatant sinner to save him—exactly what He came for, and what He does with each one of us.
B. He Demonstrates His Grace by Eating With Sinners (vv. 15-16)
Excited and encouraged by the salvation and reception he has received in Christ, Matthew (who is still called Levi at this point) throws a dinner party at his home for Jesus and the other disciples. And he invites to it all of the lowlife friends he has. Recall that as a hated traitor of the nation, Matthew’s friends and associates would only have been other ungodly people—whores, drunks, other tax collectors, and irreligious Jews who flouted the commands of the Law. But Matthew has the right idea—these people need the Messiah’s forgiveness and transforming power too, and Jesus is more than happy to spend time with them to demonstrate it!
The point, I think, is not that Christians ought to have intimate contact with drug dealers, pedophiles, heroin addicts, rapists, abusive parents, and the like (though if done wisely and uncompromisingly this can be effective in reaching people). Rather, the point is a picture of what the unutterably Holy One has done to reach a world of ungodly sinners. For in the light of His perfect holiness, none of us are better than tax collectors! If you think the modern equivalent of this dinner would have guests of sex traffickers and murderers but not you, you have missed the point! All of us would have been at that dinner! Jesus reaches out to the worst to demonstrate the power and extravagance of His grace, not to draw some kind of distinctions between sinners. When compared to the holy incarnate God, all of us would have been at this dinner, and all of us would have been writhing in the muck of our ungodliness contrasted with the blazing purity of His perfection and holiness.
Of course, it is this demonstration of grace that infuriates the religious leadership. Unaware and unwilling to acknowledged that they are just as in need of grace as the “obvious” sinners, they ask the disciples why Jesus is eating with “those people.” It is to our Lord’s wise and profound answer we now turn.
C. He Explains His Grace (v. 17)
Some of the most profound and deep statements from the mouth of Christ come in response to criticisms from the Pharisees. He bests these religious professionals every time with answers that are profound, faithful, and stemming from a heart that is utterly consecrated to God and His ways in great humility and adoration. (Would that God give us a double portion of this heart!) And this answer is no different. Comparing the three Synoptic accounts is instructive to get the full force of His reply. First He says that it is not healthy people that need a doctor but the sick (Matt. 9:12). This is in a sense so obvious one has to be willfully blind to not see it! Where else would a doctor go? Doctors exist because people get sick. Who could blame a doctor for interacting with a sick person to make them well? Similarly, and infinitely more importantly, where else would a Savior of sinners go but to sinners? To criticize the Savior for pursuing sinners so He can save and transform them is the zenith of arrogant foolishness. For He says He did not come to call those who have no sense of their need (the “righteous”), but those who see their ugliness of sin and know their need (“sinners”).
Luke adds one word to Matthew and Mark’s accounts: “repentance” (5:32). Jesus is not spending time with the worst sinners to enable, encourage, excuse, ignore, or rationalize their sin (and He will not help anyone do any of these things today, either). He does so rather to call them authoritatively and uncompromisingly to repentance—to a radical, transforming, root-to-branches shift in how they perceive themselves, God, and everything. He is calling them to a total surrender to His authority that will give them a new heart and mind with new affections, goals desires, priorities, and thoughts, flowing from new mindset and worldview. As with them, our Lord calls every breathing man, woman, and child to this same radical, decisive, lifelong repentance. He is after surrendered worshippers and citizens of God’s everlasting kingdom, and they are only made through humble repentance.
Finally, in Matthew our Lord adds, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice’” (9:13). “Go and learn” was a common rebuke from a teacher to a student who was responsible to know but did not know the content that followed. For the Jewish leadership to not grasp this was the real scandal! The Lord follows this statement with a quotation from Hosea 6. Written at the high point of Israel’s rejection of covenant relationship and fidelity for box-checking externalism (which thought outward conformity was all there was to pleasing God, rather than the much harder, more costly consecration of the heart), the Lord applies it to the Pharisees to strike at the very nerve of their religious enterprise. Their whole superstructure was built on meticulous, even obsessive, observance of the minutiae of both the Mosaic Law and rabbinic tradition, while neglecting the whole point of the Law. Yet none of it was good enough, both because it was done out of unbelief in the Word of God (Mark 7:13) and because it made them neglect both faith and faithfulness (Luke 11:42; cf. Matt. 22:34-40). Their rebuke of our Lord stems from them not understanding His Word, character, and heart. And rather than repenting of that judgment, they dig in their heels!
The good news is this supper, at which our Lord demonstrated His dogged commitment to pursue sinners with transforming grace, is a picture of the great banquet we will enjoy in the future kingdom. Sharing a table with God Himself incarnate and all of the redeemed of all ages will at once be a literal, physical meal and an overwhelming portrait of redemption and restoration. Have you accepted the invitation to the wedding feast of the great King? Or have you turned it down by looking to your own works, your own thinking, or anything other than the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? I pray this Christmas you will answer the Lord’s call and know experientially He came to save sinners—and that He will lavishly welcome any and all who come to Him in faith!