Church Write-Up: Jesus Eats with Sinners

The LCMS church service this morning focused on Jesus’s outreach to sinners in Mark 2:14-17. That is unusual for the first Sunday of Lent, which tends to focus on the story of Jesus’s temptation in either Matthew 4 or Luke 4.

Here are some items, from both the church service and the Sunday school class:

A. Levi was a collector of either tolls or tariffs. Tariffs were for goods that went through Capernaum from abroad.

B. Mark 2:15 states that, not only was Jesus eating with Levi and the tax collectors and sinners, but also with his disciples, for there were many who followed him. These were not only the Twelve, but numerous other people who were following Jesus.

C. There was a little skit in which a prosecutor was interrogating Matthew about Jesus. The prosecutor was saying that tax collectors were scorned because they collected taxes and a little for themselves on the side. But they were willing to endure the sneers of others because their job provided them with a materially comfortable life. I would not mind that situation: “I have my needs and wants met. I do not care if you like me or not.”

D. Romans 5:7 states that one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though for a good person one would dare even to die. The class was playing off the readings from each other, identifying common themes and possible tensions. Someone was trying to read Romans 5:7 in light of Jesus’s statement that he came to call not the righteous but sinners. Romans 5:7 says that one will scarcely die for a righteous person, and Jesus in Mark 2:17 states that he did not come to call the righteous. I was unclear about what his point was: it may have been that Jesus died for sinners and not the righteous or the self-righteous. People were then saying that Jesus died for the Pharisees, too, but they did not recognize their need for Jesus and thus did not benefit from his death. That student’s point did intrigue me, though. The point of Romans 5:7, of course, is that Jesus did something wonderful and amazing in dying for sinners, since few people can muster the love to die for even a righteous person. Romans 5:7 does seem to distinguish the righteous from the good, however, as if righteousness falls short: perhaps the righteous are those who dutifully follow the externals of the law, whereas the good are those who go beyond the letter of the law and help others even when it is not required, or are good on the inside and not only in their external actions. I am reminded of Romans 4:2: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (KJV). Even if Abraham could be righteous by works, he would not be able to glory before God.

E. Romans 5:6 states: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (KJV). The teacher said that “without strength” means totally helpless. But, at the right time, Christ did for the ungodly. God knew when he needed to step in. I was wondering if the teacher was connecting human weakness with when God decided to step in. By the first century, had humans arrived at an acute sense of their spiritual weakness? Well, in a sense. Israel had a history of sin and exile, and righteousness could appear to be a high standard that could confront people with their weakness. But a number of people were not conscious of their spiritual need, such as the scribes of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized. I am reminded of a version of Christ-mythicism, which asserts that Paul treats Christ’s death and resurrection in terms of a personal spiritual experience rather than as a historical event: when we personally arrive at a sense of our weakness, Christ enters the picture and dies for us. I am not saying Christ’s death was not a historical event, but, in a sense, it is something that takes place at a personal spiritual level, as well.

F. The teacher asked if the church is like the Pharisees. One person said that she always told her children to be careful about what friends they chose. Their friends could influence them and define them: we are known by the company we keep. When Christians gather together, they do so to build each other up in Christianity. But she said that she hopes to become more compassionate. After the service, she said that she has a problem with the concept of forgiving everybody, and I certainly identify with that. The controversial nature of Jesus’s association with sinners stood out to me throughout the service. Of course, Jesus did not forget who he was and what he was about when he associated with sinners, yet he associated with them. On a related note, our church is hosting an auction to help a group that reaches out to people in the adult entertainment industry, providing workers there with other jobs.

G. The teacher defined “sinners” in Mark 2:14-17 as people who blatantly disobey the law, or as people who may not find the time to scrupulously observe the Mosaic law, as it was interpreted by the Pharisees. This stood out of me because I have been studying Numbers 15, which distinguishes between unintentional sin, which receive atonement, and deliberate or defiant sin, which despises the word of God and does not receive a sin offering.

H. People complain that the church is full of hypocrites. One of the teacher’s responses was, “You’re right. Come sin and receive forgiveness with us!” Another of his responses was, “If you’re letting hypocrites stand between you and God, then the hypocrites at least are closer to God than you are!”

I. The class talked about how Jesus was a physician. He makes people well. And people go to the doctor, not only when they are sick, but to maintain their health, or to check the status of their health. The law shows us where we fall short, but Jesus is the remedy. The teacher said that he personally falls short of forgiving people: of not allowing his memory of past misdeeds to impact negatively the quality of his relationship with people. The reason this discussion stood out to me is that I often find myself saying to myself, “Okay, I fall short of God’s law, big deal. Nobody’s perfect! I am not going to beat myself up!” It is easy for me to acknowledge that I need grace and forgiveness on account of my sins; I struggle, somewhat, with the idea that I go to church, or to Jesus, to be transformed and healed of my sins. Yet, that may still be a part of my personal spirituality: maybe I figure that I am better inside of a relationship with God than I would be outside of it.

J. The class talked about prioritization. Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners. He came for a purpose. Those who failed to recognize their need for Jesus would receive another message at another time, one that challenged them for their sin (I think of Matthew 23). Similarly, the church only has so many resources, so it needs to figure out how to prioritize: what does the most good, where is there most need, or what needs do we encounter? Paul was told not to go to Asia but to spend his time and resources in Europe (Acts 16:6-10).

K. Another of our texts was Hosea 6:6, in which God declares that he desires mercy and not sacrifice. Jesus quotes this in Matthew’s version of the story in which he eats with sinners and the Pharisees criticize that (Matthew 9:13). The Pharisees here were thinking about righteousness but lacked compassion for the sinners. Hosea 6:6 stood out to me because I responded with negative thinking: my churchgoing does not matter if I cannot like or get along with people. And, sure enough, Matthew in that trial (see item C) talked about people getting along and loving each other and Jesus showing them that way of life! I suppose I admire that way of life. Putting it into practice, in the realm of real-life people and conflicting personalities, is much more difficult, such that I barely even bother.

L. The teacher said that the people who criticized Jesus were not the Pharisees but the scribes of the Pharisees: those who wrote things down for the Pharisees. He said they were like the media of the day. The Matthean parallel, however, identifies them as Pharisees. I looked up Joel Marcus’s comments in his Anchor Bible commentary on Mark 1-8. What he says is that some scribes were Pharisees, and some scribes were not. The scribes of Mark 2:16 were Pharisees. Few of the Pharisees worked as scribes, since they had other jobs, but maybe some of the priests and Levites, interpreters of the law, were in the Pharisaic party. I am sure there is more that can be said about this, in terms of scholarly discussion, but I will stop here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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