Tax collectors were disliked, even despised by many in ancient Palestine because they were considered unclean, as were lepers and sinners. They were cast in this net because there were those who abused their position. A tax collector had a responsibility to pay a fixed amount to the occupying power of Rome, but then could keep as a commission anything he collected over and above that fixed amount. The majority of the population, already just getting by, paying a temple tax, and the Roman tax, then finding out their local tax collector was taking more than their fair share, did not make for feelings of endearment.
Jesus surprises all who had come to hear him teach when he not only invites Levi, also known as Matthew, to follow him, but then they have dinner together. We are witnessing yet again another healing miracle. Jesus provides an opportunity of bridging divides by inviting someone to his inner circle to turn away from one way of life to begin anew, to: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (cf. Mk 1:15). The Pharisees question his choice of table fellowship companions. It is not clear if the Pharisees are eating with them or are on the outside looking in. The other curious point is that the Pharisees are conversing with Jesus’ disciples. So both groups are together witnessing the communal exchange.
Whichever is the case, that they were engaged in the meal together or observing from afar, not quite sure if they were wanting to participate, they could not have been at too great a distance because Jesus could hear their concerns and responded to them: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17). The Pharisees, and possibly some of his disciples, were not a part of the intimacy of this communion because of their own unwillingness to accept those that Jesus invited to share a meal with, to accept that they were sinners also in need of healing.
Jesus forgives and offers mercy to all who are willing to be aware of his invitation to fellowship. In the surrendering our finite freedom over to his divine freedom, we receive healing and transformation, then develop a relationship of intimacy and communion with the one who is ushering in the kingdom of God. Our relationship continues to grow and deepen as we accept the love and light of Jesus in our life, which helps us to be more aware of our fear, pride, and sinfulness. In our turning away and letting go of our self absorbed posture, we are further healed, experience his joy, and come into the fullness of who God calls us to be, so to share the invitation of blessing, healing, and joy we have received with others.
As with many Gospel passages, this one offers a wonderful opportunity to place ourselves in the scene. Mark presents Jesus teaching the people though he does not tell us anything about what Jesus shared. Knowing what follows, we might ask ourselves, “What might Jesus have taught about before going directly to Levi at the custom’s post?” Could he have been talking, as Matthew adds in his parallel account, about how Amos preached that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt 9:12)?
Let us sit with the opening line for a time and see what Jesus shares. Then as Jesus moves to the custom post, follow him and the others. What is our reaction to Jesus calling the tax collector Levi to follow him as one of his Apostles? Are there sins that others commit that we find easy to forgive, others that we find hard to forgive? Do we accept the invitation to table fellowship with the motley crew, stay at a distance, or walk away? With the gift of these readings that we have been graced with, it is important that we make the time to ponder them, to invite Jesus into our reading, and to encounter him as did those we read about. This is a wonderful spiritual practice that can bring us much joy and bring us into communion with the Physician. No RSVP needed, just come, open up your Bible and join the feast!
Photo: Last year celebrating the Christmas break at Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Oceanside, CA