Jesus Eats With Publicans and Sinners

Commentary On Mark 2:13-17

Mark 2:13–17 (ESV)

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 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.
15 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. 16 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?” 17 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.”

I. Christ preaching by the sea-side (v. 13),

Whither he went for room, because he found, upon second trial, no house or street large enough to contain his auditory; but upon the strand there might come as many as would. It should seem by this, that our Lord Jesus had a strong voice, and could and did speak loud; for wisdom crieth without in the places of concourse. Wherever he goes, though it be to the sea-side, multitudes resort to him. Wherever the doctrine of Christ is faithfully preached, though it be driven into corners or into deserts, we must follow it.

II. His calling Levi;

The same with Matthew, who had a place in the custom-house at Capernaum, from which he was denominated a publican; his place fixed him by the water-side, and thither Christ went to meet with him, and to give him an effectual call.

This Levi is here said to be the son of Alpheus or Cleophas, husband to that Mary who was sister or near kinswoman to the virgin Mary and if so, he was own brother to James the less, and Jude, and Simon the Canaanite, so that there were four brothers of them apostles, It is probable that Matthew was but a loose extravagant young man, or else, being a Jew, he would never have been a publican. However, Christ called him to follow him.

Paul, though a Pharisee, had been one of the chief of sinners, and yet was called to be an apostle. With God, through Christ, there is mercy to pardon the greatest sins, and grace to sanctify the greatest sinners.

Matthew, that had been a publican, became an evangelist, the first that put pen to paper, and the fullest in writing the life of Christ. Great sin and scandal before conversion, are no bar to great gifts, graces, and advancements, after; nay, God may be the more glorified. Christ prevented him with this call; in bodily cures, ordinarily, he was sought unto, but in these spiritual cures, he was found of them that sought him not. For this is the great evil and peril of the disease of sin, that those who are under it, desire not to be made whole.

III. His familiar converse with publicans and sinners, v. 15.

We are here told,

1. That Christ sat at meat in Levi’s house, who invited him and his disciples to the farewell-feast he made to his friends, when he left all to attend on Christ:

Such a feast he made, as Elisha did (1 Ki. 19:21), to show, not only with what cheerfulness in himself, but with what thankfulness to God, he quitted all, in compliance with Christ’s call. Fitly did he make the day of his espousals to Christ a festival day. This was also to testify his respect to Christ, and the grateful sense he had of his kindness, in snatching him from the receipt of custom as a brand out of the burning.

2. That many publicans and sinners sat with Christ in Levi’s house (for there were many belonging to that custom-house); and they followed him.

They followed Levi; so some understand it, supposing that, like Zaccheus, he was chief among the publicans, and was rich; and for that reason, the inferior sort of them attended him for what they could get. I rather take it, that they followed Jesus because of the report they had heard of him. They did not for conscience-sake leave all to follow him, but for curiosity-sake they came to Levi’s feast, to see him; whatever brought them thither, they were sitting with Jesus and his disciples. The publicans are here and elsewhere ranked with sinners, the worst of sinners.

(1.) Because commonly they were such;

So general were the corruptions in the execution of that office, oppressing, exacting, and taking bribes or fees to extortion, and accusing falsely, Lu. 3:13, 14. A faithful fair-dealing publican was so rare, even at Rome, that one Sabinus, who kept a clean reputation in that office, was, after his death, honoured with this inscription, Kalōs telōnēsanti—Here lies an honest publican.

(2.) Because the Jews had a particular antipathy to them and their office

They were an affront to the liberty of their nation and a badge of their slavery, and therefore put them into an ill name, and thought it scandalous to be seen in their company. Such as these our blessed Lord was pleased to converse with, when he appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh.

IV. The offence which the scribes and Pharisees took at this, v. 16.

They would not come to hear him preach, which they might have been convinced and edified by; but they would come themselves to see him sit with publicans and sinners, which they would be provoked by. They endeavoured to put the disciples out of conceit with their Master, as a man not of such sanctity and severe morals as became his character; and therefore put the question to them. How is it, that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? Note, It is no new thing for that which is both well-done, and well-designed, to be misrepresented, and turned to the reproach of the wisest and best of men.

V. Christ’s justification of himself in it, v. 17.

He stood to what he did, and would not withdraw, though the Pharisees were offended, as Peter afterwards did, Gal. 2:12. Note, Those are too tender of their own good name, who, to preserve it with some nice people, will decline a good work. Christ would not do so. They thought the publicans were to be hated. “No,” saith Christ, “they are to be pitied, they are sick and need a physician; they are sinners, and need a Saviour.” They thought Christ’s character should separate him from them; “No,” saith Christ, “my commission directs me to them; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

If the world had been righteous, there had been no occasion for my coming, either to preach repentance, or to purchase remission. It is to a sinful world that I am sent, and therefore my business lies most with those that are the greatest sinners in it.” Or thus; “I am not come to call the righteous, the proud Pharisees that think themselves righteous, that ask, Wherein shall we return? (Mal. 3:7), Of what shall we repent? But poor publicans, that own themselves to be sinners, and are glad to be invited and encouraged to repent.” It is good dealing with those that there is hope of; now there is more hope of a fool than of one that is wise in his own conceit, Prov. 26:12.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible

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