Mark 2:13-17

The Kingdom Challenges the Pharisee Culture (1) – Table Fellowship

The confrontations continued, this time with Pharisees.

Mark 2:13-17 – Jesus Eats with Levi and Sinners

13 He went out again to the lake.
The whole crowd came up to him
and he taught them.
14 As he was going along,
he saw Levi son of Alphaeus seated at the tollbooth.  
He said to him, “Follow me.”
He stood up and followed him. 
15 Jesus went and reclined at table in his house.
A number of tax-collectors and sinners
joined in the meal with him and the disciples.  
Many of them followed him in fact.
16 When they saw him eating with sinners and tax-collectors,
the scribes among the Pharisees said to his disciples,
“Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”
17 Jesus heard this and said to them,
“People who are well do not need a doctor;
those who feel unwell do, however.
I did not come to call just people but sinners.”

The narrative began beside the lake, a congenial spot for positive encounters.

Out there beside the lake Jesus called Levi to follow him. Levi responded immediately, as had Peter and Andrew, and James and John. Surprisingly, the name Levi did not figure again in Mark, and was not listed among the names of the twelve to be especially nominated later.

The chief tax collectors were generally wealthy Jews. They were hated not just because of their oppressive tactics, but also because they were seen as cooperating with the Roman authorities to whom the taxes were eventually paid. As collaborators with a pagan regime, they were generally regarded as sinners.

Levi may have been a major cog in the taxation machine or perhaps only a minor pawn under the direction of another chief collector. Given his location, his specific brief was possibly to collect taxes on the fish taken from the Sea of Galilee and then dried for export. This was a major local industry. Since fishing had been the job of Peter, Andrew, James and John, there may have been little love lost between them and Levi.

The scene changed to the town and to the house of Levi where Jesus and his disciples were invited guests, along with an assortment of tax collectors and others generally termed as sinners.

In the culture of the time the sharing of a meal was a significant social and even religious occasion.To share a meal was to align oneself to some extent with the host and the other guests. People thought carefully about those with whom they were seen eating.

Jesus was criticised for this by a group whom Mark called scribes among the Pharisees. Jesus’ first encounter with people who belonged to this group occurred in a situation of criticism and conflict.The criticism and conflict would deepen as the narrative continued. 

Who were the Pharisees?

Pharisees were one of several movements within the Judaism of the period.They were a lay movement, which generally held itself at some distance from the priestly caste. 

Much of the early information about the Pharisees comes in fact from Christian sources. Many scholars now believe that the Christian view may have been somewhat jaundiced because of bitter strife that developed later between the early Christian communities and the pharisaic movement. In many ways Christians and Pharisees had similar attitudes, though in Mark’s view their basic intentions diverged.

Individual Pharisees represented a broad range of commitment and approach. It could well be an injustice to judge a whole movement by the actions and attitudes of particular groups among them.

Their Origin. The Pharisee movement had a noble origin. During the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in the middle of the second century before Christ [at the same time that Daniel was writing of the Son of Man], faithful Jews under persecution came to appreciate the importance of keeping together and supporting each other. They detached themselves from the Jerusalem priestly class, many of whom were prepared to collaborate with the pagan ruler. When the reign of Antiochus was eventually overturned under the effective military leadership of the Maccabee family, changes were made to the Jerusalem priestly hierarchy. A member of the Maccabee family was installed as High Priest, much to the continuing dismay of many pious Jews. The Pharisees distanced themselves from the priestly leaders, and undertook to reform Judaism from the inroads of Hellenism, without the leadership of the priests.

Synagogues. They made great use of the synagogues that had become part of the Jewish scene since the Babylonian captivity.Faithful Jews gathered regularly in the synagogues to ponder the Scriptures, to debate their meaning, and generally to support each other. Usually they met on the Sabbath.

Shared Meals. In addition to the synagogue gatherings, Pharisees made much of smaller gatherings where they ate together regularly and observed strictly the kosher regulations. 

Asceticism. In addition to the Torah they also taught what they called the “Tradition of the Elders”. They were personally very devout and, according to their traditions, undertook a variety of extra pious practices, including regular fasting and prayer.

In their efforts to spread a more exact observance of the Torah among the general population, they endeavoured to interpret the practical directives of the Torah in the light of their traditions and to apply them to changing situations. Their rules and regulations aimed to clarify the practical obligations incumbent on the small landholders and tenant farmers of Galilee.

Generally they were much respected by the population, even though their rigour was not always emulated.

Later History. Being a lay movement, they were less affected by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple forty years after Jesus’ death, and were able to spearhead a religious revival without necessity of priests. In their freedom from the Jewish priesthood, they were in a similar situation to the Christian followers of Jesus and became the main source of opposition to the blossoming Christian movement. The deep hostility shown in the Gospel to the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees gathered much of its colouring from the later experience of the Christian community, though there is no doubt that even in the lifetime of Jesus some Pharisees opposed and condemned him.

Mark’s Concern. In his narrative Mark’s primary concern was not to provide historical detail on the specific approach of the Pharisees (though that was important in the unfolding story) but to warn against the pharisaic attitudes unconsciously present in the minds and hearts of his Christian community.

(What tends to happen whenever there is an emphasis on precise rules and regulations is that the very concreteness of rules makes it easy to concentrate on them and their careful observance, and in the process to lose sight of the value that the rules and regulations were originally intended to protect and encourage. As situations inevitably change, the continued meticulous observance of precise regulations can be at the expense of the original value. A genuine appreciation of value sometimes requires a deeper level of human and moral maturity, but will inevitably be seen by the strict observer as a softening of attitude or selling-out to other life-styles.)

In the section of the narrative under consideration one practice of the Pharisees was particularly relevant. Their table-fellowship was one of their distinctive characteristics. In line with so much of the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures they were careful about whom they kept as friends and whom they shared their meals with.

There was clear precedent already in mainline Judaism for this attitude:

I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
and go around your altar, O Lord... (Psalm 26:4-6)

Not surprisingly these scribes of the Pharisees criticised Jesus for the company he kept, though in this instance they did not make their criticism directly to Jesus but to his disciples. Without denying the needs of his own table company, Jesus attacked the danger of elitism in the attitude of the Pharisees.

Their elitism led them to judge, condemn and marginalise people. It declared some as “in” and others as “out”. It failed to see the God-given dignity inherent in human nature, even in people who might not always have respected it themselves. Yet that sense of human dignity was basic to life in God’s Kingdom and was one of the insights on which the Torah had originally been formulated.

It was precisely the needs of tax collectors and sinners that led Jesus to consort with them. Turning the accepted wisdom on its head, he replied: “People who are well do not need a doctor; those who feel unwell do, however. I did not come to call just people but sinners”.

Jesus was under no illusion about the real sinfulness of the tax-collectors. They were significant cogs in the oppressive Roman imperial system (administered in Galilee by the local ruler, Herod). The Roman “peace” may have been a congenial experience for the powerful and well-off, but it was certainly not so for those lower down the scale. The rich and powerful enjoyed their position due to their exploitation and oppression of the poor and powerless. The Roman “peace” was inconceivable without the enslavement of millions of people, and the effective disempowerment of millions of others.

Jesus was as anxious to secure the conversion of the tax-gatherers as of any other oppressive or oppressed group in society. But his approach to them was respectful. Engaging with them from a sense of their human dignity, he was able to secure their openness to listen and so to enter into dialogue with them. Undoubtedly the outcomes of his dialogue would have been as varied as they were with people generally. There would have been those who listened and whose conversion was fruitful, those who listened initially but who found the on-going process too difficult, and, no doubt, those who were not even interested in listening, either because they felt no need, were content to be where they were or possibly found the stakes too high.

A significant difference between them, however, and some of the Pharisees was that they were not in denial. They made no pretence to being paragons of virtue. Jesus could engage with them.

Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees may also have signified that he saw the sin of the tax collectors as an expression of sickness, perhaps even of felt need. Certainly any individual injustice perpetrated by them was their own responsibility. But simply being in the system was part of a wider malaise of which they were also victims. The whole Roman imperial network of oppression and coercion was a vast dysfunctional system that was able to operate only by dishonesty, denial, ruthless self-interest and brutal force. It would have been difficult to disengage oneself from such a network, requiring nothing less than a deep inner conversion. (Their complicity was not unlike the present situation of the world where those in Western nations enjoy a standard of living possible only because of the exploitation and virtual slavery of two-thirds of the world’s population.)

Levi apparently was able to make the break.

Next >> Mark 2:18-22