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Calling a Tax Collector and Eating with Sinners - An Excerpt from A Theology of Mark's Gospel

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a theology of marks gospelA Theology of Mark’s Gospel is the fourth volume in the BTNT series. This landmark textbook, written by leading New Testament scholar David E. Garland, both covers major Markan themes and also provides readers with an in-depth and holistic grasp of Markan theology in the larger context of the Bible.

James reminds us to “keep oneself unstained from the world”; yet God placed us in the world on mission to the people around us. In an age where the Church is trying to walk the line between condoning sin around us and appearing judgmental of others, we must be reminded of Christ's example from this text, and who he spent time with.

*** Calling a Tax Collector and Eating with Sinners (2:13 – 17)

Another dispute arises after Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, who immediately abandons his toll office to follow him. Levi then hosts him in his house with what can only be understood as a celebratory meal to which he has invited “many tax collectors and sinners” (2:15). Tax collectors were renowned for their dishonesty and extortion. They habitually collected more than they were due, did not always post up the regulations, and made false valuations and accusations (see Luke 3:12 – 13). The teachers of the law, who were Pharisees, observe this scene and believe that Jesus has ignored purity boundaries by breaking bread with sinners who were beyond the pale.

The name “Pharisee” basically means “separatist,” and the Pharisees were known for trying to avoid associating with sinners and evildoers, as Ps 1:1 advises. The Pharisees figure significantly in the narrative as Jesus’ opponents. They are mentioned along with John’s disciples as being known for their fasting (2:18). They alone are concerned about Jesus’ disciples’ violations of the Sabbath (2:24), and they plot with the Herodians to kill Jesus (3:6). In 8:15, Jesus lumps them together with the Herodians in warning his disciples against their leaven. In 12:12 – 15, they and the Herodians are sent by the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders to try to trap him into saying something that would incriminate him in some way, and they pose the set-up question about paying taxes to Caesar. They are mentioned with the Jews as concerned about the washing of hands (7:3). They test him about a sign from heaven (8:11). They also test him with the question about divorce (10:2).

In this incident, their penchant to separate themselves from known sinners surfaces. Those identified as sinners, according to the standards of the Pharisees, were those who lived contrary to their interpretations of the law; and godliness, as defined by the Pharisees (see Luke 18:11 – 12), was unachievable for most. An extreme expression of this sentiment is found in a rabbinic commentary on Exodus (Mekilta Amalek 3.55 – 57 to Exod 18:1): “Let not a man ever associate with a wicked person, not even for the purpose of bringing him near to the Torah.”

Another expression of this attitude is found in the Mishnah: “Keep thee far from an evil neighbor and consort not with the wicked and lose not belief in retribution” (m. ʾAbot 1:7). These monitors of virtue assume that “birds of a feather flock together” and are offended by Jesus’ choice of associates. They are not simply aggrieved that his fraternizing with sinners gives the impression that he condones their sin. The fear was that their impurity and rebellion might contaminate the righteous observer of the law, since godliness was considered to be “an abomination to a sinner” (Sir 1:25). It is telling that they think that Jesus should agree with them that sinners and tax collectors should be shunned.

Jesus responds with proverbial wisdom that it is those who are sick who need a physician. By eating with sinners, Jesus embodies God’s love and mercy. As Dodd puts it:

His championship of the disreputable is not to be interpreted as the kindly tolerance of a broadminded humanist. It expresses the sovereign mercy of God in calling whom He will into his Kingdom, as in the parable the king’s messengers gather his guests from the highways and hedges [Matt 22:9; Luke 14:23].

The power of God will take away their sins and their shame and heal their infirmities and sin-sickness. (Pgs. 113-114)


To explore the rest of Mark, pick up a copy of A Theology of Mark's Gospel from Zondervan Academic today.

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