Forgiveness links the call of the tax collector to the preceding story, the authority of Jesus to discharge sins – Mark 2:13-17.
When Jesus pronounced the paralytic’s sins “discharged,” he offended the religious sensibilities of the scribes and Pharisees. In this next story, he alienated the men from Jerusalem further by associating his ministry with “sinners,” men who were considered especially ritually unclean by many of the more religious leaders of the Jewish nation.
Jesus called ordinary men to follow him, not scribes and priests. His disciples included fishermen and tax collectors. Observing him eating with the latter, his opponents insinuated that he was a notorious sinner.
Tax collectors or “publicans” were despised in first-century Jewish society. They handled a variety of currencies from pagan and Jewish sources and interacted with men from all walks of life. Physical contact with pagan symbols and Gentiles meant that tax collectors were frequently in a state of ritual impurity. And many patriotic Jews considered them to be collaborators with the Roman authorities.
- (Mark 2:13-17) – “And he went forth again by the sea, and all the multitude was coming to him, and he began teaching them. And passing by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting over the tax-office, and he says to him: Follow me! And arising, he followed him. And it came to pass that he was reclining in his house, and many tax-collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many, and they began following him. And the Scribes and Pharisees seeing that he was eating with the sinners and the tax-collectors began saying to his disciples: He is eating with the tax-collectors and sinners! And hearing it, Jesus said to them: No need have the strong of a physician, but they who are sick, I came not to call the righteous but sinners” – (Parallel passages: Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32).
Most likely, ‘Levi’ is identical to the ‘Matthew’ named in Matthew 9:9. It was common for a Jewish man to have two or more names. He was in the service of Herod Antipas. The Romans collected poll and land taxes directly. Taxes on transported goods were farmed out to local tax collectors who would bid on contracts with the Roman authorities to gather preset amounts of tax revenues. What they gathered over the contracted amount became their profit.
Observant Jews avoided that kind of employment since it required them to engage in transactions with Gentiles, putting their ritual purity at risk. The actions of Jesus were scandalous; he was associating with politically objectionable and ceremonially unclean men. He compounded his offense by eating with the tax collectors and “sinners.”
Table fellowship was of great importance to observant Jews and eating with less than observant men put the devout Jew’s ritual purity at special risk. “Sinners” might include immoral individuals, but in this case, the term referred to individuals considered ritually impure.
The sect of the Pharisees adhered strictly to the Mosaic Law and to the developing body of oral traditions that interpreted the regulations of the Torah. And they were concerned especially with ritual purity, so much so, they went beyond what the Law required.
The priests that officiated in the Temple lived under stricter purity requirements than the rest of Israel. The Pharisees were striving to implement that same level of ritual purity in their daily lives.
The concluding statement by Jesus emphasizes that his mission was about redemption – He came to redeem that which was lost. The version found in the gospel of Matthew adds these words to his saying – “Go and learn what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” – (Matthew 9:13).