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Jesus, Sinners, and Modern Day Christians (Mark 2:13-17)

Commentary on Modern Christians and Jesus

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One wonders how the story of Jesus eating with sinners would translate into the modern era. Asking what sorts of “sinners” Jesus was spending time with is, by extension, a question about the sorts of people Jesus would spend time with were he around today. Prostitutes? Drug addicts? Thieves? CEOs? Politicians? Evangelical Christians today often call themselves “sinners,” and insofar as they only imperfectly follow the moral standards they believe in, this is probably an accurate assessment.

Are they, though, really “sinners” of the sort that Jesus spent time with and would they be the sort of person Jesus would spend time with today? Jesus’ eating with unpopular and ritually impure people is treated as a sign of his mission to overturn traditional social conventions and religious assumptions, but Christianity has created its own religious categories and has been quite comfortable with a variety of divisive social conventions (racial segregation, for example).

When was the last time Christian leaders attempted to emulate behavior like this? How often do Christian priests and pastors try to actively minister to racists, child molesters, and drug dealers? Some do, certainly, but in most cases a priest sitting down to have a friendly meal with such people would cause a scandal in the church. Imagine if a registered child molester moved into a neighborhood and a local pastor visited to have dinner with him — or invited him to the pastor’s house for dinner. It’s hard to think of something like that happening, isn’t it?

Scribes and Pharisees complained to Jesus’ disciples about this nasty habit — not to Jesus himself mind you, but to his disciples. Were they afraid to confront him directly? Were they trying to sow discord between Jesus and his disciples? One wonders what message the author of Mark was trying to convey with that.

Jesus responded, but it is not clear whether he was explaining himself to his disciples, rebutting the Pharisees, or both. According to Jesus, it should be expected that he spend his time with sinners like tax collectors. Why? Because his purpose is to help them — they are the ones who are “sick” (spiritually) and therefore need his help. Doctors don’t spend all their time with healthy people, so why should Jesus spend all his time with righteous people?

The Pharisees tend to be portrayed negatively in the gospel stories, worse than prostitutes and tax collectors. If they are so bad and if Jesus considers himself a “physician” who must spend time with the “sick,” then why doesn’t he try to spend more time with the Pharisees? They certainly appear to need “healing” pretty badly. Why does the story suggest that the Pharisees are among the “righteous” who have little or no need of Jesus?

Verse 15 mentions “Jesus and his disciples,” even though the calling of the disciples has not yet happened in Mark’s account. True, Jesus has called two sets of brothers, but they aren’t identified as disciples at this point — that doesn’t happen until later. This suggests that Mark has collected together traditions that are somewhat out of order.

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