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Jesus Eats with the Sinners, Publicans, Tax Collectors (Mark 2:13-17)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus with Levi, the Tax Collector

Jesus with Levi, the Tax Collector

    13 And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.
    15 And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. 16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? 17 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
    Compare: Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32

Jesus & Levi

Jesus is depicted here preaching again and there are many people listening. It isn’t explained whether this crowd also gathered in order for him to heal people or whether by this point the large crowds are attracted by his preaching alone. It also isn’t explained what a “multitude” is — the numbers are left to the imagination of the audience.

At this time, though, Jesus sees someone named Levi — is this someone whom Jesus already knows or was this person just picked out at random? In Matthew’s gospel, the man is identified as Matthew and he’s “sitting in a tax office” (which doesn’t mean that he was a tax collector, though that’s what Christians have traditionally assumed). The Levi here is commonly identified as Matthew and this is the “call” to be a disciple of Jesus, but Mark’s text doesn’t say that at all.

Where does Levi follow Jesus to — Levi’s house or Jesus’ house? Traditionally it’s been read as Levi’s house, but isn’t it odd for Jesus to lead a man to his own residence? The pronouns in the following verse makes just as much sense as if they eat at Jesus’ house.

Levi is a tax collector — not a popular job, although presumably it paid well. In addition to taking people’s money, tax collectors were working for the Roman occupation forces; it wasn’t uncommon for the Roman authorities to auction off the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder.

In order to pay the Romans and still earn a profit, tax collectors and their publican employees could use vicious tactics to extract money from people — not that the Romans cared, so long as they got their share. In addition to the perception of tax collectors as being dishonest, they were also regarded as impure because of the constant contact with Gentiles.

Despite the unpopularity of tax collectors, Jesus sat to eat a meal with Levi — and not only him, but also with other “sinners.” What kind of house did Levi have? Was his entire family rotten with sin? Did he simply have a lot of raucous parties? Or is this perhaps just literary device: there was no Levi with a house full of “publicans and sinners,” but rather just the author‘s way of explaining how Jesus sat and ate with undesirables from time to time?

More: Jesus, Sinners, and Modern Day Christians

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