Should Christians Hang Out With Sinners Like Jesus Did?
We must put up firewalls against evil influence; yet, we don’t shun sinners as a plague. Instead, we offer them the humble summons of the gospel. We invite them to see Christ as the doctor of salvation and to repent as sinners. Wisely, we do not sit with scoffers, but we do plead the gospel to them in order for Christ to be glorified in everything.
What shapes our character and personality? Well, one of the most significant influences is other people. Parents mold us. Sisters and brothers affect our personality. Friends pull and push us in this or that direction. Teachers inspire our ambitions and interests. And since peer pressure has such horsepower, we want our influences to be good, positive.
Basic wisdom tells us to avoid bad characters. It is foolish to expose yourself to prolonged sinful company. Sadly, we all know people who got mixed up in the wrong crowd and went south. Good kids were corrupted away from the path of truth and faith. And this is in part why we create communities, to form an arena of positive influences and to defend against wicked ideas and practices. The apostle Paul’s warning, “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals,” is a red-flag waving.
And this is not just a Christian thing; everyone does it to some extent. It is both biblical wisdom and natural law prudence. And yet, when it comes to this common grace principle, our Lord didn’t conform. He looked the fool and not the sage. Though, as we will see, Jesus had the best reason for his exceptional practice.
Jesus calls a tax-collector named Levi, who is an Israelite employed by a pagan overlord.
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 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. 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. 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?” 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.” (Mark 2:13-17)
So, our Lord is back on the road again. After staying put in the city of Capernaum for a handful of days, Jesus must keep moving and continue to preach and bears east towards the sea of Galilee. The crowd of people are following Jesus while he is teaching them and the group comes to a check-point. This is likely a border crossing; the officer on duty is named Levi, the son of Alphaeus. The regular practice was to name your child after a distinguished ancestor. To pick Levi most likely means that this man is a Levite.
He belongs to the famous tribe of Levi. The high-priestly line of Aaron belonged to the Levitical tribe, and all the other family lines were temple servants to assist the priests. When the family business is temple service, this comes with a higher expectation of piety. Levites were supposed to be experts in the Old Testament, masters of ritual holiness, and devoted servants of the temple. With a name like Levi, we expect a Bible-thumping, goody two-shoes, but then we are told his job. He is a tax-collector. His office is a toll-booth on the road. Instead of working for God, he is employed by a pagan overlord.
Now, there were numerous types of taxes levied on Galilee by Rome. At this time, Rome didn’t collect taxes firsthand in Galilee. Instead, Rome imposed its sovereignty through a tetrarch, or governor. The governor of Galilee was Herod Antipas, and just east of Capernaum was a border with another region governed by Philip. Herod and Philip had the privilege of taxation, a healthy portion of which did go to Rome. And at the border crossing, there would be a check-point to pay a toll. This was a tariff, a custom, a denarius for the tax-officer to pass.
Levi was supposed to be a pious servant in the temple of God, but instead he signed up for a lucrative career with the enemy.
The business of taxes is key to appreciating the reputation of Levi. In order to get his tax, Herod would offer contracts on which private businessmen would bid. The highest bidder got the contract. These private “tax-farmers” most often did not belong to the local population. They were foreigners, and they would turn around and hire natives to do the actual collecting. This was the first sting against tax-collectors: Levi is a Jew working for a foreigner to confiscate taxes from his own people. Socially, this was nearly an unforgivable betrayal.
Next, there was how the tax-men got paid. They earned their salary by charging higher rates. For example, Herod may set the toll at one denarius per person. The businessman orders his collector to charge one and a half denari to get the half for himself. Then, the collector may levy the toll at three denari to keep one and a half for himself.
In such a system, there is unlimited opportunity for corruption. When you paid the 3 denari toll, you had no idea how much went to Rome and what percentage was skimmed off by greedy middlemen. Additionally, tax-collectors were often wealthy, and they hired muscle to wield violence against you to pay up.
Levi was supposed to be a pious servant in the temple of God, but instead he signed up for a lucrative career with the enemy. Rather than helping you with your holy offering, Levi was squeezing cash out of you to pay the man and to live in the mansion down the street. Instead of suffering with his fellow Jews, Levi was feasting with greedy Gentiles.
When Christ calls, the person comes.
As a tax-collector, Levi was essentially categorized as an apostate. He had been corrupted by keeping bad company and he was a lost cause. The pious name and the immoral job are meant to make you sick to your stomach. Yet, Jesus speaks kindly to Levi, “Follow me.” And with no drama, Levi gets up and follows. There is no two-week notice. Levi immediately quits his job to follow Jesus and not look back. Nothing is said about Levi’s faith, repentance, or any other emotion. Jesus speaks and Levi complies. The stress here falls on the power of our Lord’s Word.
When Christ calls, the person comes. The Shepherd knows his sheep, and they know his voice to fall behind him irresistibly. The Lord comforts and assures our faith by the effective force of his call. Yet, this call of Levi is structured to match that of Simon and Andrew in chapter one. Next to the sea, Jesus called Peter to be both a disciple and an apostle in training.
In the same manner, he summons Levi as disciple and apostle. Christ saved Levi, and he made this tax-collector part of his inner circle. Thus, in his version of this story, Matthew calls Levi by the name of Matthew. It was common for people to have two names. So, Levi’s other name is Matthew, and in all the lists of the twelve apostles, they include Matthew the tax-collector.
Those we deem to be lost causes are not beyond the power of our Lord’s gracious calling and words.
Christ is the cornerstone, and the apostles are the foundation for the church. This tax-collector is part of our foundation as members of the church. Our Lord used sinners of the worst sort to lay the bedrock footing for the gospel. Those we deem to be lost causes are not beyond the power of our Lord’s gracious calling and words.