People don't like tax collectors, even today! In Jesus time they were part of the structure of the Roman occupation, so people hated them. There were "sinners and tax collectors;" tax collectors were bad enough to have their own special category! From the perspective of the Pharisees, who are clearly the main opponents of Jesus in Mark's time, tax collectors were also unclean because of their constant contact with Gentiles. This makes the calling of Levi utterly offensive to the religious establishment. It issues an enormous challenge to the disciples of Jesus. We are not called on the basis of social standing or reputation. In fact, there is a kind of perversity here. Jesus does help those in authority; there is the ruler of the synagogue whose daughter is raised when he comes to Jesus, for example. But he ignores the rich and respectable, and calls the outsider, and even the ostracised.
Despite this, there is no pandering to the social disadvantage of these people. Levi's call is outrageous even compared to the call of the fishermen. His "outside nice society" factor is far higher. But the call is the same bare, uncompromising call as the fishermen's. He gets up and leaves everything just as quickly and totally.
We often talk about Jesus relationship with the poor, but he does not call the poor in this story. He called the outsider. Being an outsider can make us very poor, but this is not always so. I am intrigued by who is chosen. They are not the poor. Probably the leper, who in fact came to Jesus, was poor- although the disease struck all people, as the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1) shows. Being physically sick was, and still is, a recipe for financial disadvantage. But the people we see Jesus calling were (relatively) financially quite well off. Not fully rich, certainly , but financial enough to have employees. He called small business people!
If Jesus was shown to us calling the destitute, we could see discipleship as a "what have I got to lose?" thing. Instead we see discipleship that costs. There are certainly great benefits, but there is a cost. This call of Jesus is not some glib consumer "life style choice." It is all of life; we see the fishermen and Levi leave the trappings of their current life behind.
In Australia we are largely unaware of how rich, on a world scale, most of us are. There is a healthy disrespect for the very rich. But the relative comfort of the well off and the small business person, is something to which we aspire, and which we admire. Indeed, much advertising not only implies, but tells us directly, that this kind of life is our right.
Jesus next words tell us this understanding is sick! "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" asked the scribes. Jesus said, "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." He equates sinning and sickness.
This is interesting because of who asks the question. Habitually, we think of the scribes and the pharisees. This is the one place it says the scribes of the pharisees. In other words those who questioned Jesus were theocratic lawyers who were members of the Pharisees' Party. The pharisees understood the Law to require strict adherence to the rules and regulations of the religion. There was nothing half baked or relaxed about their practice of the religion or their devotion to God. They were obsessive about the observance of the minutiae of the Law.
We also habitually think of Jesus theology being hostile to the Pharisees. It often was. But here he does not simply criticise. In answering the question in the way he does, he implicitly agrees with the Scribes. There is something wrong with these people. They are not righteous- to be well off in Australia is to be righteous!- they are sick.
Perhaps we need to rearrange our prejudice a little! Illness is not simply a physical thing And illness is not just the mental disturbance he calls evil spirits. People who are focussed on money are ill! Self satisfaction, the self-made man, middle class comfort and complacency... Are these things the sign of illness?
Perhaps I have stretched the point to far already, but let me go further. The pharisees called these people sinners; people who did not keep the law. This implies that if they wanted, they could keep the law. Jesus is more gentle. The people are sick. This implies the need for healing. Healing is not something we do to ourselves. We are healed; there is the implication of outside agency. Jesus is clearly presented as one who heals.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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