Pastor David B. Curtis


Matthew's Call

Mark 2:13-17

Delivered 01/08/2006

In our last study of Mark we examined the miracle of Christ healing the paralytic man who was brought to the Lord by his four friends. You remember the miracle. Jesus had been teaching in a house in Capernaum. It had been a packed house with even the standing room taken. Four men had brought a paralytic to be healed. When they could not approach Jesus because of the crowds, they had gone up onto the roof and had broken up the roof and had lowered the man down. And Jesus had healed the man. This man, who had been unable to even move, had stood up, thrown his stretcher over one shoulder, and had jogged back home.

And we saw the reaction of the religious leaders to the grace of our Lord in forgiving this man's sins. They were amazed, but certainly did not attribute what occurred to the power of God in Christ. That was the first of five confrontations with the religious leaders that Mark selects as he works towards the revelation of a plot by the Pharisees and Herodians to kill the Lord Jesus Christ:

1. Mark 2:1-12, healing of a paralytic

2. Mark 2:13-17, controversy over ritual law

3. Mark 2:18-22, dispute over fasting

4. Mark 2:23-28, controversy over Sabbath law

5. Mark 3:1-6, Sabbath healing of man with withered hand

These disputes begin with the healing of the paralytic and end with a plot to kill the Lord:

Mark 3:6 (NASB) And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

Up to this point, we have seen the healing ministry of Jesus. He has cast out demons and cooled a fever and cleansed a leper and mobilized a paralytic. Now He does something quite different. He changes the life of a sinner.

Mark 2:13 (NASB) And He went out again by the seashore; and all the multitude were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.

Once again Mark draws our attention to Jesus' popularity with the ordinary people. His growing outward success is one of his themes. And he does not fail to draw our attention to the fact that Jesus' preaching ministry went on, for this was why He was sent:

Mark 1:38 (NASB) And He said^ to them, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for."

Jesus came to proclaim the truth.

Mark 2:13 (NASB) And He went out again by the seashore; and all the multitude were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.

The tenses indicate that the people were constantly coming, and that He was constantly teaching them. It was an ongoing process.

The word "teaching" is from the Greek verb didasko, which is in the imperfect tense, showing continual action in the past. Didasko refers to doctrine. Here Jesus was teaching doctrine, formulated messages, to the people.

Mark 2:14 (NASB) And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He said^ to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose and followed Him.

Here we see the calling of Levi - the name Levi would indicate that he was probably from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. Levi has traditionally been identified with Matthew because in the gospel of Matthew; in the parallel account, this man is called Matthew:

Matthew 9:9 (NASB) And as Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office; and He said^ to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose, and followed Him.

When Matthew speaks of the choosing of the twelve disciples, he lists one as "Matthew the tax gatherer":

Matthew 10:3 (NASB) Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-gatherer; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

It seems that Mark and Luke wished to disguise the fact that Matthew was a tax collector.

This man had both a Jewish name and a Greek name. His Hebrew name was Levi. This was a name with a tremendous heritage. He had been named after one of the sons of Jacob. If was from the tribe of Levi that the priesthood was descended.

He also had a Greek name. His Greek name was Matthew. He might have taken this name after his conversion. Or possibly the Lord changed his name as He did Simon's:

John 1:42 (NASB) He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).

It's possible that Jesus gave Levi a secondary name after His call to reflect the person he was to become (translated as "Gift of God").

I imagine that when Levi was born his parents had high hopes for him. Perhaps he would be a rabbi or a scribe. But somewhere along the line he went astray. And he became a tax collector. Our text says he was, "Sitting in the tax office."

Tax Collector -

To say that in Jesus' day no one was more looked down upon than tax collectors is probably an understatement. Jewish thought refused to accept the reality that they could no longer exist as a theocracy. Living under the Roman government and paying taxes to Rome struck a raw nerve in every zealous Jew. They resented supporting a government that catered to idolatry and accepted immorality without problem. Since tax collecting was dirty business, the Romans gave this job to locals with their authority and arm backing them.

Alfred Edersheim explained that there were two types of tax collectors, the Gabbai and the Mokhsa. The Gabbai collected the regular income tax, one-percent of the income, and additional taxes on grain, produce, as well as a levy on each person. The Mokhsa, of which Matthew was likely a part, contracted with Rome to deal with other matters of taxation. They actually had no limit to the type of things they could tax. They would tax the boat used for fishing, the fish caught, and the use of the harbor for unloading the boat. They would tax the axles on wagons, the animals pulling the wagons, and the goods on the wagons. They would even open packages and letters, rifling through to see if there was anything taxable.

Travelers passing through their toll booths would have to unload all their goods, facing the humiliation of the tax collector sifting through all he had and adding a tax to the collector's liking. Rome had a basic amount that they received, while the collector added whatever he deemed desirable for his trouble. Matthew's place in the collection house posits him as a Mokhsa that profited exorbitantly from his position. Edersheim remarks of the Mokhsa: "They were a criminal race" [The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 515-516].

The feeling of the first century Jews toward the tax collector would be similar to how our society feels about drug dealers or child molesters. We don't like the IRS, but tax collectors in Jesus day were despised; they were hated.

Notice what Jesus says to this despised tax collector:

Mark 2:14 (NASB) And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He said^ to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose and followed Him.

Did Jesus say to this hated tax collector, "Get a life," "Change your vocation"? No, He simply says to him, "Follow me!" We already know that Jesus called four fishermen: Peter, James, John and Andrew. We would have to say that these were odd choices. They were relatively uneducated men. They would not have had a lot of influence with their fellow Jews. We think that is an odd choice to call these fishermen to be part of the leadership team for this movement. But now, as we move to the calling of Matthew, the tax collector, this is not an odd choice. This is absolutely scandalous! This seems foolish. This seems unimaginable. There was nobody in the culture of Jesus who was more hated than the tax collectors. To choose a tax collector to be part of His team to reach the Jewish people seems absolutely unimaginable. The tax collectors were referred to by one historian as "social pariah." They were outcasts. They were off-limits. The tax collectors were the ultimate traitors. They worked for the Roman government in order to extort money out of their own people. The choice to be a tax collector would have shamed Matthew's parents. It would have immediately labeled his wife and children. They would have been excommunicated for life. He literally sold out for the almighty dollar, because tax collectors had the potential to become quite wealthy. Most likely, Matthew was working for Herod the king. The job of the tax collector was to collect the required amount of tax that would go to the king. Whatever he could collect on top of that, he was able to pocket. Some tax collectors taxed an enormous tax rate in order to make themselves wealthy, and the people resented it.

This area would have been prime territory. One historian said "Judea is on the way to nowhere; Galilee is on the way to everywhere." This meant all of the international travel came through Galilee and it was a prime place for a tollbooth. Matthew had it made financially.

The term "follow" leaves no doubt as to the meaning. It is a call to follow as a disciple. The disciple no longer claimed that his life belonged to himself; he now belonged to Another. His rights were laid before his master. His one passion was to obey the One that called. Whereas before, Matthew had great passion for amassing more and more things regardless of whom he cheated, now his one great passion was to follow after Jesus Christ as Lord.

Jesus picked him out ­ a man that would have been unwelcome at the synagogue and avoided in public gatherings. Jesus deliberately called a sinful man to become His disciple! If I were looking for a qualified man to be a disciple of Jesus, to be one of His biographers and to be one of the preachers of the gospel, I never would have considered Matthew. But then, I probably wouldn't have considered you, either; or me.

If you can find one sufficient reason for Jesus calling you to Himself, then you haven't understood what it means to be called by Him.

Mark 2:14 (NASB) And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He said^ to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose and followed Him.

Matthew's response was whole-hearted. He didn't stop to grab a few bags of gold. He didn't even try to talk to Jesus about helping to finance His ministry. He merely obeyed. How do we know this? Mark doesn't tells us, but Luke does:

Luke 5:28 (NASB) And he left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him.

Luke tells us that Matthew "left everything behind." Given the choice between the service of Herod Antipas and growing riches, and the service of Jesus and poverty, he did not hesitate. He followed the authority of the greater King, the Servant of God. Matthew's action was total. The difference between the fishermen and Levi, in terms of what they left behind, is significant. The fishermen, at any moment in time, could have gone back to fishing, and several times in the Gospels they do. Matthew did not have that option. There were people waiting in line for these jobs. Matthew understood that the day he walked out of his tax booth, he will never get it back. He is saying goodbye to it for the rest of his life. What he gave up to follow Jesus was significant. In one move, he risked everything.

In calling Matthew to be a disciple, and in Matthew's following of Jesus, our Lord demonstrates that He has authority and power to cleanse, to forgive sins, and save even the most horrible of people.

Mark 2:15 (NASB) And it came about that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him.

Whose house is "his house"? Luke 5:27 specifically mentions that the man Jesus is calling to follow Him is a tax collector and:

Luke 5:29 (NASB) And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them.

Matthew's delight in being accepted by Jesus is demonstrated immediately in that he throws a "big reception." Jesus is the guest of honor. Invited to the party are all Matthew's friends. Of course, the only people who would attend a party at Matthew's house would be tax collectors and other social outcasts. This was not the most socially acceptable group. Matthew reasons that Jesus won't be offended to be with those of his colleagues who also need to hear and accept this Teacher's words.

Mark 2:16 (NASB) And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?"

Note also that these were "'Scribes of the Pharisees" (there were also Scribes of the Sadducees and more independent Scribes). And they were almost certainly comparatively local (the Jerusalem Scribes would be called in later - 3.22). They were the local legal experts, well versed in the teachings of the Elders; that oral law that they so prized, which had taken the Law of Moses and added to it hundreds of regulations to ensure that it was properly kept. And they were Pharisees.

There were only about six to seven thousand Pharisees in all. They were generally "good living" men, but often self-righteous, and strove to please God by keeping the hundreds of regulations laid down by their Scribes. By this response to the covenant they hoped to achieve eternal life. They not only accepted the Law of Moses as Scripture, but also the prophets. And they believed in the resurrection from the dead.

The people in general looked up to them and listened to and respected them and their teaching. They taught in the Synagogues and were regularly consulted, especially their Scribes. But as such people will, many of them had begun to feel themselves superior to everyone else. Many of them overlooked the fact that true goodness consists in the attitude of heart, and instead, concentrated on "doing the right thing," a large part of which consisted of ritual acts such as various washings at different times of the day, careful tithing, and observance to the letter of the traditions of the Elders, which were often clever ways of avoiding the force of the Law; "making the word of God void through their tradition" (7:13). Thus their sense of superiority increased, and the result was that many became hypocritical. They ignored justice and mercy and the central demands of the Law and concentrated on making great demands on people in lesser matters; demands which they could not meet satisfactorily themselves. They often became ultra-critical, separatist and intolerant. And it was of this kind that the opposition to Jesus was mainly made up.

In essence, these Pharisees cried: "Separation!" There are those today who hold a doctrine of separation. They call it "separation from the world," but in essence, it is not that at all. There are some in ultra-fundamentalist circles who believe it is wrong to associate in any way with sinful people. To see just how wacked out this separation doctrine can get, look at this statement from the Christian Separatist Church:

We the Christian Separatist Church Society do not believe or accept the pagan, Catholic doctrine of Universal Salvation. We do not believe that God's favor was extended to any but the sons of Adam. We do not believe that uncreated beings, such as racial mongrels, and other non-whites can "be saved" and/or have any part or lot in the Government or Kingdom of Almighty God.

These are modern day Pharisees who separate along racial lines. This is so sad, because one of the clear teaching of the New Testament is that salvation has nothing to do with race - it's all about faith. Let's get back to our text.

Mark 2:16 (NASB) And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?"

"Sinners" is often used as a term for those who take no pains to observe conscientiously the prescriptions of the Torah as understood and taught by the Pharisaic scribes and rabbis.

People in Palestine were divided into roughly two groups: the orthodox Jews who rigidly kept the law and all its petty regulations, and the rest who didn't keep all the minute regulations. The orthodox treated the latter like second class citizens. They scrupulously avoided their company; refused to do business with them; refused to give or receive anything from them; refused to intermarry; and avoided any form of entertainment with them, including table fellowship. Jesus' association with the latter, especially with tax collectors and sinners, shocked the sensibilities of these orthodox Jews.

"Sinners" was also commonly used for female prostitutes. Prostitution was considered immoral, but it was not illegal in Israel, Rome, or Greece. Rather than a legal problem, it carried a personal and social stigma. Prostitution was very common in the ancient world. Most inns had resident prostitutes. In order to avoid that temptation, Jesus instructed his disciples to find their lodging in private homes (Matthew 10:11).

The one thing a prostitute was not allowed to do is worship God, they were prohibited from the Temple until they decided to break with their profession and be ceremonially cleansed at the Temple (Deuteronomy 23:18). Tax-collectors and prostitutes were both prohibited from Temple worship.

In the New Testament, tax collectors are linked with "sinners" on more than one occasion, and the use of the phrase indicates just how little honor they held (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1); even being linked by Jesus with harlots when in conversation with the chief priests and the elders (Matthew 21:23,31-32).

Undoubtedly, Jesus was notorious for associating with persons and classes scorned for one reason or another by the priestly aristocracy and respectable law-observant Jews. Remember from our study of Galatians the dispute between Peter and Paul over table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile Christians? Paul, in Galatians 2:11ff, complained that Peter was violating the spirit of Jesus, who "ate with sinners and tax-collectors."

So if we are going to be like Jesus, who should we be willing to associate with?

Mark 2:17 (NASB) And hearing this, Jesus said^ to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Jesus uses the analogy of a doctor. Healthy people don't need a doctor. They do not make hospitals for healthy people. You don't get up in the morning and say, "My, I'm feeling good this morning! I think that I'll go check into the Emergency Room."

This is an indictment against the scribes and Pharisees. They are claiming that the tax-collectors and sinners are the sickest sort of people. By their own reasoning, it is these people who need a physician.

Notice carefully what Jesus says, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." What does He mean by that? Is there anyone who is righteous? NO!

Romans 3:10 (NASB) as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;

Jesus was not saying that there actually were some who were so righteous that they did not need His teaching; only that there were some who THOUGHT they were. But rather, He was pointing out that His words were for those who had a conscious need, who were aware that they were sick. And those who acknowledged that need would come to Him and find wholeness. It was open to all, including the Pharisees, once they were willing to acknowledge their basic need.

Here is Christ's confession of hope for sinners. He came for sinners ­ just like us. But until one comes to the stark reality of his own sinfulness before God, he will not come to Christ. Notice who it was that Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged to:

Matthew 5:3 (NASB) "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The word that Jesus used for "poor" is the Greek word ptochos. The verb form in the Greek text means: "to cower and cringe like a beggar." In classical Greek, that word referred to someone who was reduced to begging in a dark corner for alms. It doesn't just refer to someone who is poor, but to someone who is reduced to begging. The Greek word penes was used when talking about normal poverty; It referred to a person who was so poor that he could barely maintain a living from his wages. Ptokos means that a person was totally dependent on the gifts of other people. Beggars were usually crippled, blind, or deaf. They couldn't function in society and had to plead for grace and mercy from others. They had no resource in themselves.

The person who is blessed - entering the kingdom - is the person who is ptokos. He understands that he is absolutely incapable of improving his spiritual condition, and that he is totally dependent of God's grace.

A person who is poor in spirit has no sense of self-sufficiency. He recognizes that he is spiritually bankrupt. We see an illustration of this attitude in:

Luke 18:9-14 (NASB) And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13 "But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

This tax collector was poor in spirit. He realized that he had no merit with God, and cried out for mercy. The Bible tells us that he was justified, declared righteous. Then it says this, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." In order to receive God's grace, we must come to God in humility-- that is in total dependence upon Him.

Now, you may have never thought of it this way, but you are spiritually bankrupt. You and I and every person in the world are spiritually bankrupt. Paul teaches this in:


This is spiritual bankruptcy. We have no assets, nothing we can turn over as partial payment for our debts. And all our efforts to earn favor with God are considered as filthy rags:

Isaiah 64:6 (NASB) For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Man owes God a debt that he has no means whatsoever to pay. Man, every man, is spiritually bankrupt. Salvation is a declaration of bankruptcy. But what kind of bankruptcy did we declare? In the business world there are two options, popularly known as Chapter 7 and Chapter 11. Chapter 11 deals with what we could call a temporary bankruptcy. This option gives you time to work through your financial problems. It gives you time to pay your debts, to work yourself back into a position of good standing.

Chapter 7 is for the person or company that has reached the end of their financial rope. You are forced to liquidate your assets and pay your creditors what you can. This is the, "I'm broke and can never pay off my debts" type of bankruptcy.

So, what kind of bankruptcy did we declare when we came to God in faith? Was it Chapter 7 or Chapter 11? Was it permanent or temporary? It was permanent! We have nothing that we can give to God to pay off or reduce our debt.

As devastating as permanent bankruptcy is in the business world, it at least means that you are free from your past financial debts. Your debts weren't fully paid, but at least they were canceled. You are free from your past debts, but not any that you incur in the future.

But the good news of the Bible is that, in the spiritual realm, there really is total, permanent bankruptcy. Our debts were paid in full by Jesus Christ. And not only has the Christian's debt been paid in full, there is no possibility of going into debt again. Jesus paid the debt of all our sins: past, present, and future. This is GRACE!

Colossians 2:13 (NASB) And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

The Greek word for "forgiven" here is charizomai, it means: "forgiveness as the result of grace or an act of love." It means to bestow a favor unconditionally. The favor bestowed unconditionally here is the remission of debt against God.

Do you hear this declaration? How many of our sins are forgiven? ALL. Not just the past sins, not just the present sins, not just the big sins, not just the little sins, but ALL of them. Do you get it? It means those times in your past that plague you with guilt; He forgave those sins. And those times when you let others down and hurt them; He forgave those sins too. And all those times you promised you did something for the last time and then you fell again; God forgave those in Christ too. He forgives the hidden sins and the public sins.

JFB commentary has an interesting comment here: "Forgiven you - the oldest manuscripts read, 'forgiven us,' passing from the particular persons, the Colossians, to the general Church." This forgiveness applied to ALL believers.

Here's the problem, we think God is like other Christians, He is waiting for you to fail, and then will never let you hear the end of it. Thank God He is not that way! What would your life be like if you believed this truth?

The only way to enter God's Kingdom is to confess your unrighteousness and your inability to meet God's standards. You must see your need before you can receive His grace. You must realize you are sick before He can heal you.

Notice what Jesus said about this issue while he was teaching in the temple courts. He said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:

Matthew 21:31 (NASB) "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said^, "The latter." Jesus said^ to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax-gatherers and harlots will get into the kingdom of God before you.

What an amazing statement to make to these proud leaders! But it is always true. Wherever the gospel is preached, only the poor in spirit enter into the kingdom of God. Why? They come to God with a clear consciousness of their own lostness and sinfulness. They readily confess that they are full of guilt and are totally unqualified to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 21:32 (NASB) "For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.

The tax collectors and prostitutes readily agreed with John the Baptist and with the Bible and confessed that they were sinners. But you see, the Pharisees were full of self-righteousness, just as Saul of Tarsus was full of self-righteousness, which he later identified to be dung and loss. The publicans and prostitutes did not claim any righteousness, so they got it. The Pharisees claimed their own righteousness and received no righteousness from God.

The poor in spirit are those who are in agreement with the doctrine of total depravity and total inability.

The gospel is for sinners. It is only when we come to the place of recognizing, "There is none righteous" that we value the gospel of Jesus Christ. Until we become "poor in spirit," recognizing our own spiritual bankruptcy and hopelessness before God, we will continue to ignore the gospel. My friend, the call of Jesus Christ to be His is not for the righteous, but for sinners. Those considering themselves righteous have deceived themselves into thinking that the gospel message is for everyone else. Sinners find constant refuge in the gospel, and I don't mean just at the beginning of the Christian life.

All too often, this pharisaical thinking has invaded the church. We see churches which have doctors who don't want to treat sick people. Can you imagine going to a hospital and having them say, "You can't come in here! This place is only for people who have overcome their sicknesses. You go home and get healthy and then you can come back"?

The church should be a place where you come to find help for your hurts. It is the place where you can find strength for your weaknesses. And it is the place where you can be encouraged and comforted.

Jesus did not come for healthy people. He did not come for righteous people. He came for sinners. This is good news. If He had only come for the righteous, then He wouldn't have come for you. And He wouldn't have come for me.

The gospel is good news. But before you can appreciate the good news, you have to hear the bad news. The bad news is that you are lost in sin. You are under the condemnation of a righteous God. You are without hope. And it is only when you believe the bad news that you will come to the Great Physician to be healed.

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