Who needs a doctor? (Mark 2:13-17)

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We now begin to see why sharp divisions were growing between Jesus and the Pharisees.  There was a clear line drawn between “us and them”. That line was between those who were considered to be faithful or at least trying to be faithful to YHWH by keeping Torah, by seeking to be pure, clean, hol and those who were unfaithful and unclean.

The latter group included tax collectors.  These were Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect revenue from the Jews.  Tax collectors could become wealthy by franchising out their responsibilities. Taxes would be collected at customs booths and that’s where we find Matthew.[1]  We get a feel for how this group were viewed from Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.  Their reputation was that they were traitors but they were also seen as fraudsters, not only taking what they legitimately should but manipulating the books to make further money at the expense of the people.

Yet here we find Jesus first of all calling one of the tax collectors, Levi (Matthew) to follow him and join his disciples. Then we see Jesus having dinner with a group of tax-collectors and others that would have been considered sinful and impure -an outcast class. Those who in different ways were compromised because of their lack of faithfulness to the Law. Their association with the Roman overlords may well have resulted in them becoming classified as unclean.  Therefore, once again we see Jesus confronting that perception of uncleanness. By sitting down to eat with them he doesn’t become unclean but brings purity to them.

The scribes/pharisees are shocked. Notice that it isn’t to Jesus that they go. Instead, they ask his disciples why he is keeping company with such reprobates. However, it is Jesus who responds.

“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

Jesus is making clear again, who it is that he has come for, what his mission is all about. He hasn’t come to reward those who consider themselves righteous and holy.  He has come specifically for those who like sick people need a doctor, as sinners need a saviour.

There are some important implications here from this. First of all, if Jesus hadn’t come to reward the righteous then that overturns the whole theology of the Pharisees. They believed that God would intervene and send the Messiah in response to their purity and holiness.  Jesus makes it clear here that their rituals, rule keeping and fasting have not moved God to act. You see, if God acted in response to our goodness then we would be waiting for ever because the Bible makes it clear that no-one is good and righteous. We all fall short. We cannot earn God’s love.  This also means that we must not see our good-works or our worship as forcing God’s hand today.

Secondly, it meant that those who did want that encounter with Jesus, who did want to be close to him needed first of all to recognise their need. This is the heart of the Gospel. I must recognise that without Jesus I am hopeless and helpless. I need grace.

This is sobering and humbling. At the same time this is powerful good news. There is neither anything that I can do nor that I need to do in order to earn God’s love. God chooses to love me unconditionally in Christ.

[1] See France, The Gospel of Mark, 132.

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