I Came Not to Call the Righteous, But Sinners | Mark 2:13-17

He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 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 2:13-17 ESV

David’s life was meant be a story. As the youngest and smallest of his brothers, he shepherded the sheep while his brothers went away to war. Yet it was he who slew the giant champion of the Philistines, even when King Saul, Israel’s own champion, would not fight him as challenged. Indeed, before that act of valor and faith, God had already sent the prophet Samuel to anoint David as the future king. And after his victory over Goliath, everything seemed to be moving in David’s favor. He was brought into the king’s house. He became the king’s son-in-law. The king’s son became his best friend.

Yet just as the avenue for David’s ascension to the throne seemed clear, a plot twist emerged. Saul tried to murder David out of jealousy. Forced to flee into the wilderness, Saul sought to kill David and even murdered priests who gave David and his men food to eat. Yet it was during the wilderness, when David appeared to be cast forever away from the throne that he truly became truly kingly. For even in exile, David still led a people, and 1 Samuel 22:2 describes his first band of followers:

And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.

Walter Chantry comments on this verse:

These were outcasts from the camp of Israel. To Israel’s leadership they were a useless people. As Jesus later was to gather sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes as followers, David became a warlord over hundreds. From this ‘rabble’ came David’s chief officers when he later rose to the throne of the kingdom. With these who joined him outside the camp, David the captain began to do exploits.[1]

Jesus, as the Son of David, came as an unlikely king into the wilderness of our world. Like David before Him, Christ’s kingship drew a motley group of followers to Him, yet both began their kingdom with those very ragtag sinners and outcasts, which is exactly what we see from Jesus in our text today.

FOLLOW ME // VERSES 13-14

After healing the paralytic and having His first of many showdowns with the scribes, Jesus “went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.” Here again, we see the flexible single-mindedness of Jesus as He took the opportunity with the crowds that flocked to have Him heal their sick and cast out their demons to teach them about the arrival of His kingdom into the world.

Next, we see that Jesus passed by a tax booth and calls the tax collector there, a man named Levi (who refers to himself as Matthew in his own Gospel and is called by that name in chapter 3), to follow Him, just as He called Simon, Andrew, James, and John. We should consider how this calling is both similar to and different than the calling of the fishermen.

First, let us consider that it is fundamentally the same calling. The fishermen and now this tax collector were all called to leave behind their former occupations and livelihoods in order to go where Jesus would lead them. This remains true for us still.  All who would be disciples and servants of the Lord receive the same command: “follow me.” And we each must either obey and disobey, follow or stay. To follow Christ means treasuring Him above all else, above careers and even family. The scene from The Pilgrim’s Progress comes to mind where Christian learns that he must flee from the City of Destruction in order to be rid of burden and to be saved. And though his family and friends all beg for him to stay with them, he runs out of the city, yelling, “Life, life, eternal life!”

However, although following Christ is a kind of death to everyone, a sacrificing of former desires and delights in order serve Jesus, the cost does vary from person to person. For Simon and the other fishermen, they did not leave wealthy and lucrative occupations, but they did leave behind their families. Levi was in a different situation. As a tax collector, he was almost certainly wealthy. Even though he may have not been employed directly by Rome[2], all tax-collectors were generally assumed to be extortioners. As William Hendrickson says, they “generally charged whatever the traffic would bear, huge amounts.” They would then send whatever was required to the government and keep the surplus for themselves. “With every coin collected, tax collectors weakened Israel and strengthened Rome. They made themselves rich by taking more than they needed.”[3] For nearly everyone, tax-collectors and sinners go hand-in-hand. Levi was, thus, being called out of a wealthy life yet a despised life as well, a life of hatred and scorn. Worst of all, a lot of that hatred was relatively justified.

And still Jesus summoned him: “follow me.” Levi did so. As Luke 5:28 says, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” No two persons leave behind the exact same things to follow Christ, but everyone must leave behind everything in pursuit of Him.

EATING WITH TAX COLLECTORS & SINNERS // VERSES 15-17

Pressing onward, the scene shifts into the home of Levi, where Jesus is having a meal with many tax collectors and sinners. Mark notes why they were with Him: “for there were many who followed him.” Although Levi is only the fifth disciple whose calling has been described (and John notes that Philip and Nathaniel had already been called as well), we must keep in mind that many more followed Jesus than just the twelve disciples. As we cited from Luke 9 last week, Jesus sent out 72 of His followers at one point during His ministry. Furthermore, in Acts 1, the eleven remaining apostles sought to replace Judas, and they only chose from those who had been with Christ from the beginning. Therefore, it is not simply that crowds keep gathering about Him; rather, Jesus apparently had a miniature crowd of disciples about Him almost all the time. Like David before Him, many of Jesus’ followers were from the lower portions of society, yet they found something magnetic in Christ.

In verse 16, the scribes of the Pharisees see this feast of lowlifes and ask Jesus’ disciples why He was eating with such company. These were traitors to the people of Israel and scoffers of God’s laws and commandments, and Jesus was having dinner with them. After all, to share a meal with someone in those days was to have communion with them, to be associated with them. A teacher of the Scriptures like Jesus should not defile Himself by spending time with such people.

During such a meal, the guests would typically have been seated in a large U-shape around the room, feet stretched back toward the walls and heads toward the tables at the center. The guest of honor would have been seated with the host at the center of the U. It is likely, therefore, that the scribes simply poked their heads in the door and rather than calling Jesus’ attention (along with the entire room), they were asking this question of some the disciples on the outer parts. Jesus, however, made their question an open discussion. He took their whispered mutterings and brought them out into the open. Jesus merely practiced here what He will say in 4:22, “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” Here Jesus brought their whispered complaints into the light of day, as He will do of all such words on the last day. In other words, He made explicit the implicit notion to the entire room of tax collectors and sinners, revealing exactly what their religious teachers thought of them.

Our Lord’s answer then is swift and deep: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” This is a powerful rebuke to the supposed holiness of the scribes. A doctor who only spends time with those who are well is a lousy doctor, for the doctor’s calling is to treat and tend to the sick. Jesus uses this metaphor to describe His time with the tax collectors and sinners. He came not for the righteous but the sinners.

Notice the progression here. In the previous passage, Jesus answered the scribes questioning within their hearts about how Jesus could have the authority to forgive sins. Jesus then used the healing of the paralytic to display to them His physical authority that they may also believe in His spiritual authority. Now, however, Jesus is taking His point further by explicitly saying that He came to call sinners, to forgive their sins. He does not simply claim the authority to receive repentant sinners to Himself; instead, He is actively pursuing sinners to redeem.

This is gloriously good news! As Ryle rightly said, “without a divine call no one can be saved. We are so sunk in sin, and so wedded to the world, that we should never turn to God and seek salvation, unless he first called us by his grace.” If Christ had not come for us, we would not have gone to Him. Indeed, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, many of those who simply chose to follow Christ on their own without receiving His divine call eventually turned away when His teachings became too hard for their ears to hear. Let us rejoice then that we serve our Lord who came to us whenever we were incapable of coming to Him.

Yet Jesus’ words, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” is also another rebuke to the scribes. As diligent students of the Scriptures, they should have known the words of David:

The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

Psalm 14:2-3

They should have understood what David clearly did: no one is righteous, not even one. Yet Jesus’ words bite precisely because they thought that they were righteous. In their view, they were already holy before God by their good works, so they only needed a savior to liberate them from Rome, not a savior who would have dinner with Jews who had sold themselves out to Rome. Their righteousness was only a charade, a pale imitation of God’s piercing holiness; nevertheless, they trusted in it.

The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” And it certainly is worthy of our full acceptance because as Spurgeon once truly said,

Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.[4]

That should be true of each of us as well. I know no one else’s sins quite so well as I know my own. Many sins in others must be presumed, but our own stare us squarely in the face. And it is far better news than we even now fully comprehend that Jesus knows the depths of our sins even better than we do and yet still came to save us from them by dying in our place.

However, as we will see more clearly in chapter 3, the only sin that Jesus will not forgive is the resolute belief that we have no need of forgiveness. Christ’s arms are open to all who repent. Even Manasseh who was the very worst of Judah’s kings and who offered his sons as burnt offerings to false gods repented and was forgiven. 2 Chronicles 33:10-13 reports:

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon. And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.

Or, of course, we could look at Saul the persecutor of the Christian faith who then became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. The reality is that no sin is mightier than God’s mercy and grace. Only those who refuse to receive mercy will have it withheld from them. James is right to quote Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (4:6), for only those humble enough to submit to God will receive His favor. The proud who are fully convinced of their own superior righteousness will only find opposition. The LORD will not give them what they obstinately refuse to have. All of this gives us great reason to marvel at the goodness of God, “for everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:8). Therefore, all who are ultimately found graceless upon the day of judgment will be clearly shown to have rejected His grace at every point.

And to all who freely admit their sickness of the heart and their inability to fight the infection of their sin, Jesus is the great physician who gives us a new heart and, one day soon, a new body like His own. We gladly boast, therefore, that while we are nothing more than sinners, tax collectors, and fishermen, people whom in the world’s estimation are of little value and even of scorn, yet our King is building His kingdom through us, to bring those who are bitter in soul and indebted to sin to Him that they might be healed. Through we who are foolish, God will shame the wise. Through we who are weak, He will shame the strong.

Are you, therefore, a sinner? Are you in need of repentance? Take heart. We serve the Great Physician. But if you cling proudly to your own righteousness, you will ultimately be denied His grace. Cling, instead, to the cross. Let us come to our Lord, openly acknowledging that we are tax collectors and sinners who have now been adopted as sons and daughters of God by Christ.


[1] Walter J. Chantry, David: Man of Prayer, Man of War, 71.

[2] With his booth set up in Capernaum, he likely collected directly for Herod.

[3] Russ Ramsey, The Passion of the King of Glory, 62.

[4] If Someone Thinks Ill Of You, They’re Right – S. D. Smith (sdsmith.com)

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