The Scandal of Grace – Mark 2:13-17
Good morning! If you can grab a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. This morning, we are continuing in our sermon series on Mark, looking at Mark 2:13-17.
I’m just going to read the passage, and then we will dive in. Mark 2, beginning in verse 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.’”
Today is Helena and mine’s wedding anniversary. Seven years ago, today, we promised to love each other in sickness and in health, being faithful to each other alone, as long as we both shall live.
Going into marriage, we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. When you bring two sinful people together, you’re going to face some issues. But the thing is, you don’t realize how hard it will be until you’re in it.
All of a sudden, things that were hidden or things that I had become blissfully ignorant about, while we were dating, were exposed. Our sinful tendencies quickly came to light. The vows that we made were going to be put to the test.
And the temptation in these moments is to think that I’m not the problem. She has some things that she needs to work on, but I’m alright. He has some issues that he needs to work through, but I’m quite the catch.
And what happens, when we fall into this temptation, is that we begin to think that the problem with the world is external—the problem with the world is out there—and that internally I’m not that bad.
And what Jesus is going to say in our text, this morning, is going to confront this notion that I’m not that bad. Jesus is going to show us that we are actually that bad, and that our problem, first and foremost, is not external, but internal.
We don’t need to look very far to see what's wrong in the world. We don’t need to be married for seven years to see that we are the problem. All we need to do is spend time with other people for our sinful tendencies to quickly come to the surface. Goodness, all you need to do is stick two babies in a room full of toys for them to start grabbing toys out of each other’s hands.
And so, what we’re going to see, for our time together, this morning, is that we need to have a proper view of our own sinfulness, in order to come to Jesus and be saved. We need to see our need, in order to receive the solution.
We maybe have no problem with admitting that we have a sin nature that often comes to the surface, but maybe we think that we aren’t that bad—that this person over here is worse than us—or maybe we are quick to point out all the ways that everyone else needs to change but we’re not the problem.
Jesus is going to show us this morning that, if this is where we are at, then our hearts are in a dangerous place and ultimately we’ve missed who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do.
Let’s look at our text. In verse 13, it says that Jesus “went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”
Last week, we looked at the curious crowd who are now following Jesus around wherever He goes. They are enthusiastic about Jesus and like to be around Jesus, but they’re not turning to Jesus in repentance and belief. They’re curious, but they’re not converted. Yet, Jesus continues to preach the gospel of God to the people.
And as Jesus is preaching, verse 14 says that 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.”
Now, just to give us some cultural context: Tax collectors were some of the most hated and despised people, in Jesus’ day. Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes from other Jews, in order to give to the Roman government to pay for their wars and their expensive infrastructure and so on.
The Jews wanted out from under Roman oppression; they didn’t want to financially support it. So, tax collectors were often viewed as traitors in the eyes of the people, because if you worked for Rome, you were working for the enemy.
Now, that sounds pretty bad, but here is how they would collect the taxes: The Roman government would require a certain amount of money to be collected from the people, but the tax collector could ask for whatever he wanted on top of that in order to pocket it, himself.
This meant that tax collectors couldn’t be trusted. They were crooks, who were known for their dishonesty and extortion. And as a result, they were social outcasts. You couldn’t get any lower in society than a tax collector. This was not the kind of person that they would invite to their dinner parties.
And what is astonishing is that Jesus calls this man to follow Him. Out of everyone in that crowd that Jesus could have called, He sees Levi, the tax collector, and calls him to follow Him.
This is the scandal of grace, and you see it happen all throughout the Gospels: Jesus calling people to follow Him, regardless of their reputation or their status in society. Jesus doesn’t call people based on their performance; He calls them based on His goodness and mercy.
But then, look at the response of Levi. It says that he rose and followed Jesus. Notice how risky this would have been for Levi. This is now the second time that Jesus has individually called people to follow Him. The first instance being the four fishermen, back in Mark 1.
But what makes this call to follow Jesus more risky for Levi than for the four fishermen is that, unlike the fishermen, Levi has nothing to go back to if he follows Jesus. The fishermen can go back to their nets, but Levi can’t exactly go back to collecting taxes.
There is a cost to following Jesus. But just as quickly as Jesus calls him, Levi responds by following Him. And in verse 15, Levi has gathered together all of his tax-collecting friends and other people who were looked down upon in society, and they’re eating with Jesus and His disciples.
Now, how amazing is it that Jesus can be the common denominator in that room of people? You have the fishermen who have been following Jesus for a little while now and many others who followed Jesus, in the same room as tax collectors and so-called sinners. There would have been no reason for this group of people to be in the same room, together, other than that they were all there because of Jesus. He is what binds them, together.
The church is a good example of this. In what other context, would all of us be in the same room, together, other than that we are all here because of Jesus? It doesn’t matter what kind of past history we have, or what kind of work we do, or what status we have in society, Jesus is what binds us, together.
It’s the scandal of grace. We can be a Christian for 60 years or we can be a Christian for 60 minutes, and we can be on the same level, because of Jesus. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful picture of what Jesus came to accomplish.
But then, we read this, in verse 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?’”
Now, do you notice that the religious leaders don’t ask their question to Jesus, but to His disciples? The tax collectors and sinners invite Jesus to dinner, but the scribes who are on the outside looking in, with judgment, can’t even ask Jesus Himself about why He does what He does.
Now, maybe the religious leaders are upset with Jesus, because He’s eating with this lowly group of tax collectors and sinners, instead of eating with them. Maybe they’re jealous. But I think it’s even more sinister than that.
You see, the scribes aren’t upset with Jesus, because they want Jesus, but because they don’t want this other group to have Jesus. They don’t want this other group to receive the good news about Jesus. Why? Because they don’t believe they deserve it.
You see, the religious leaders had become very good at separating themselves from sinners. They couldn’t imagine that Jesus, the Son of God, the One who claimed to be the Messiah, would be comfortable with sinners.
But here, Jesus is illustrating the radical nature of grace. We would expect Jesus to be eating with the morally superior, but instead, He’s eating with the morally bankrupt. They’re the ones who get Jesus.
And the religious leaders can’t understand this, so they’re response is to say that these tax collectors and sinners don’t deserve Jesus—they don’t deserve grace. And they’re right. They don’t deserve it. But they also never could. The gospel of Jesus is not based on whether or not we are deserving. If that were the case, grace would cease to be grace. The point of grace is that we don’t deserve it.
It’s why we don’t see Jesus telling them to repent before He will eat with them. He doesn’t make repentance a prerequisite of His love and acceptance. Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are. And if they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so, not in order to gain Jesus’ favour, but because Jesus has shown them undeserved favour.
It’s what causes Jesus to say to the scribes, in verse 17, “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 grew up with frequent ear infections. My ears wouldn’t drain properly when I was younger, so every couple of months there would be this build-up of wax in my ears that would result in me getting these ear infections. By the age of 9, I had had five ear surgeries, where they would put tubs in my ears to help them drain the wax.
But whenever I had an ear infection, my parents would take me to the hospital, because typically the pain would hit me in the middle of the night and the only thing open in the middle of the night is the hospital.
And so, we would see the doctor and he would look in my ears and confirm that I did, in fact, have another ear infection, and they would prescribe me antibiotics for me to take until the infection went away. This happened so often that I memorized the antibiotics that I was normally prescribed. And so, it would actually catch the doctor off guard when 5-year-old Brenden would start requesting Amoxicillin. That’s not a word that many 5-year-olds know.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t go to the doctor because I was sick; I went to the doctor because I needed outside help. There came a point when the pain was so unbearable, and when Tylenol and heat from our wheat bag was no longer helping, that I needed to go to the doctor for help.
This is what Jesus is saying here. Jesus is saying that all of us are sick with sin, but the only ones who will come to Jesus are those who realize that they need a doctor—that they need outside help for themselves.
Romans 3:10-12 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
That’s all of us. We are naturally sick with sin. Jesus isn’t saying here that there are some people who need a doctor and there are some people who don’t. We all need a doctor. We all need outside help from the great Physician. Jesus’ point here is that the only ones who will come to the great Physician are the ones who realize that they need outside help to heal them.
But then, Jesus says something really interesting that fleshes this out even more. He says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that there are two categories of people in the world—there’s the righteous and then there’s sinners—and that only sinners need to be saved. We know that all of us are sinners and fall short of the glory of God, so what is Jesus saying here?
Jesus is saying that there are those who see no need for a Saviour from their sins and there are those who do, but the only ones who are going to be called by Jesus and saved from their sins are the ones who realize that they need the outside help of a Saviour to heal them.
And this makes sense to us, right? The righteous don’t think that they are the problem, or that they need to be saved from anything, or that they need outside help. There’s a reason why the scribes weren’t the first ones to invite Jesus to dinner. It’s because they didn’t see their need for Jesus.
And Jesus is saying, “That’s fine. I’m not calling you, because you don’t see your need. And until you see your need, I’m going to call all these other people who do.”
I mean, think about the tax collectors and sinners at the same table as Jesus. They know that they’re outcasts. They know that they have no moral currency. They know that they have nothing to offer Jesus but their sin-sick souls.
And yet, the scandal of grace says that those are the ones who get the gospel—the ones who know their need for outside help. The righteous don’t get it, because they’re trying to earn something that they think they have the ability to earn. Even those who know their need struggle with this.
Because here’s the picture from Scripture that we see that best describes our predicament: We are dead in our sins. Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.”
This is who we are by nature. We are unable to come to the great Physician for outside help from our sin, because we’re dead. Dead in our sin. And dead men can’t go to the doctor. When you go to the doctor, there aren’t going to be any dead men there. They’re dead. They’re not seeking outside help. There is nothing they can do for themselves.
The reality that we are faced with is that we can’t come to Jesus apart from the enabling work of God’s Holy Spirit in us. Unless Jesus tells us to come and follow Him, we’re not moving. And worse, we don’t think there's a problem with us. If there's a problem, it’s out there, not in here. That’s how we naturally think.
And Jesus is saying, “I did not come to call those who think that they can come to Me with their works-based righteousness that points to all of the good things they do and all of the bad things they don’t do. I came to make the dead in sin come to life. I came to call those who come to Me with nothing but their faith.”
Turn over to Luke 18. It says that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” I love it when the writer lets us in on where Jesus is about to go with His parable.
Verse 10 says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
How tragically ironic is it, that we are actually closer to God when we begin to see our own sinfulness than when we claim that we are not the problem. It’s sinners who are more aware of their need of the transforming grace of God than those who trust in themselves that they are righteous.
When we feel the weight of our sin and know the depravity of our condition, then we begin to see our need. When we understand our sin, that what we naturally do is an afront to holy God, then we begin to see Jesus for who He is and what He came to do.
Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, writes this, in his book, Surprised by Grace: “The gospel doesn’t make bad people good; it makes dead people alive.”
The church of Jesus Christ is not made up of good people; it’s made up of alive people who were once dead in their sin. It’s not made up of people who think they are righteous; it’s made up of people who know that they’re not. It’s not made up of people who have achieved righteousness on their own; it’s made up of people who have received righteousness from God as a gift. This is the gospel. Do you believe it?
I started off by saying that Jesus was going to confront the notion that we aren’t that bad. The reality is that we are far worse than we think we are. We are more than just sick with sin. We are dead in our sin. Each one of us is in need of the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.
Has Jesus found you in the depths of your sin and your need, and has He called you to Himself where your sins can be forgiven? Have you become aware of the depravity of your sin compared to the surpassing holiness of God, and have you experienced the scandal of grace in your own life?
There is coming a day when each one of us will be called into the presence of God to give an account of ourselves. And unless you are believing and trusting in Jesus and Jesus alone for your righteousness, there will be no hope for you.
What is the state of our hearts, this morning? Do we struggle with giving grace and mercy to others? It might be because we don’t know what we’ve been forgiven of, ourselves. Are we looking at the good stuff we do and the bad stuff we don’t do, and comparing ourselves to other people, or are we on our knees asking God for mercy? You see, when we understand what we’ve been saved from, we’re not looking around at other people, we’re looking at God for mercy.
You don’t have to get your act together to come to Jesus. Levi was in the middle of his sin when Jesus called his name, and he got up out of his tax booth and followed Jesus.
The question is: Do we see our need for Jesus? If we haven’t, my hope is that we would see our need, today. And if we have, my hope is that we would never forget that every day of our lives we are living by the grace of God and the forgiveness of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray…