The crowd couldn’t get enough of Jesus, so the disciples found the largest venue around, which was an open area by the sea. He taught them for hours and hours. Afterwards, walking down a busy road, Jesus passed a tax booth, which was strategically placed there to collect as much revenue as possible from the multitude of travelers.
The riled crowd who followed Jesus couldn’t wait to see what he would do to the tax collector sitting there, who happened to be a guy named Levi, also known as Matthew. Levi was considered a traitor, because, although he was Jewish, he was working for Rome. Levi not only collected taxes for Rome, but he would also collect a little extra and keep it for himself; after all, if anyone messed with him, he had the Roman militia to back him up. Yes, everyone hated Levi, part swindler and part sell-out. Guys like him were so hated that they were lumped together in the common expression, “tax collectors and sinners.” In everyone’s eyes, there was no difference between the worst criminal and a tax collector!
So what would Jesus do to make things right? Would he demand that Levi give back all the people’s money? Would he flip over Levi’s table and drive him away, just like he did to the howling demons? Jesus obviously had power and authority, so how would he leverage it against Levi?
The crowd went slack-jawed at what happened next. Jesus invited Levi to become the fifth of his twelve chosen disciples! Then Jesus went over to Levi’s home to hang out, as if they’d been best chums since grammar school. Soon Jesus was at the table with Levi and all his buddies. There were many tax collectors and sinners kicking back with Jesus. They told jokes. Jesus taught them. They listened. The only thing to surpass the strength of his belches was the strength of his love for this marginalized rabble sitting around the table.
Then there was a knock at the door. Some of the religious leaders of the day, known as the scribes of the Pharisees, heard about what was going on and wanted to put a stop to it. You see, although they claimed to know God and follow the Scriptures, their hearts were actually very far from Yahweh. The proof of this wasn’t hard to see, for they rejected almost everyone. Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to accept everyone! And this drove them crazy, because they hated the parts of themselves that they had in common with these ordinary tax collectors and sinners, though they never would admit to it.
But Jesus knew that those who reject others are really rejecting things they don’t like about themselves; put another way, those who do not accept others, do not accept everything about themselves. For whatever logical or illogical reasons, they have an idea of what a righteous person should be like, so they carefully cull and toss aside the parts of themselves that don’t line up with their idiosyncratic self-glory projects.
Seeing those rejected parts of themselves show up in others only reminds them of who they really are. They are trying to make themselves into a manufactured ideal, also known as an idol. So, truly, the self righteous person is really rejecting God, for all the parts of the self that we reject are actually good gifts from God. The Pharisees didn’t know that true holiness looks more like wholeness, rather than man-made religion.
Knocking at the door, one of them said, “Jesus, you glutton and drunkard, are you in there?” Andrew looked out a small window to see who it was. “Rabbi,” Andrew yelled across the room, “Your buddies, the church police are here again.” Jesus rolled his eyes and smiled.
A scribe at the door shouted inside, “Jesus, why are you hanging out with tax collectors and sinners? Don’t you know they will make you ceremonially unclean? Their spiritual sickness will rub off on you! Don’t you know that a righteous person, as many say you are, would never associate with such unrighteous people? —Unless, of course, you’re just like them!”
Jesus pulled the pork chop away from his lips and licked BBQ sauce from his thumb and forefinger. The raucous table grew quiet and all eyes landed on Jesus. He slurped some foam off the dark lager in front of him and wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. Smiling at the tax collectors and sinners around him, with a twinkle in his eye, Jesus shouted to the religious leaders at the door, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The motley crew around the table erupted with shouts and applause. The scribes of the Pharisees gnashed their teeth and stormed off into the night.
“Jesus,” the disciple named John began to ask in a serious tone, for John had a sensitive spirit, “Is it true that the Pharisees really are righteous? Yes, they seem to keep all the laws, but they seem to neglect the greatest two commandments, as you taught us, to love God and your neighbor.” The table grew expectant once again, and everyone focused on Jesus.
“John, my beloved, the kingdom of God is full of surprises! In the kingdom of God, those who think they are righteous are actually wicked and those who think they are wicked are actually righteous.” He paused to let his words sink in.
James rubbed the back of his neck, then asked, “But how will the Physician make us well?” Jesus smiled and took another sip of beer. He paused, then asked Levi to pass him a small loaf of bread.
He slowly tore it apart.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, Jesus would tell them about how he would be beaten, handed over, and put to death—and then how he would rise again on the third day. Then they would realize that Jesus was not only the Physician, but also the Medicine. In fact, he would become the sick Patient, too, for the infirmities of the world would be laid on him.
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.” —Mark 2:17
- Take a moment to read Luke 18:9-14, which is the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee. How does the parable help explain the idea that those who think they are righteous are actually wicked and those who think they are wicked are actually righteous?
- The scribes and Pharisees were prejudiced against tax collectors and sinners; whom do you find it difficult to accept? Why do you think this is the case? Could it be that they represent something you don’t like about yourself?
- If Jesus is the Great Physician, how can you be a better “patient” this week? (Hint: a good patient doesn’t keep his symptoms a secret from the doctor!)