What Does Mark 2:17 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

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 2:17

The Use of Interrogative

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all? Anybody home, McFly? O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? What’s up, Doc? Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon? What has it got in its nasty little pocketses?

From classic literature to famous books, movies, shows, and advertisements, questions are used to draw our attention, reveal character, invoke laughter, create suspense, incite conflict, and intensify tension. The Bible, like all good literature, is full of questions. It includes over 3,000 of them—questions that are intended to make us ponder the person and powers of God and our relationship with him. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? What is man that you are mindful of him? What must I do to be saved? If God is for us, who can be against us?

The Gospel of Mark features over a hundred questions. Jesus asks questions, such as “Who do you say I am?” The twelve ask questions, such as “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The demons ask questions, such as “Have you come to destroy us?” And the religious powers of the day ask Jesus questions, such as “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Expository Reflections on the Gospels, Volume 3

Douglas Sean O'Donnell

Drawing from his years of pastoral experience, pastor-theologian Douglas O’Donnell provides deep exegesis, engaging illustrations, and relevant applications of the Gospel of Mark.

Two Critical Questions

In Mark 2:13–22 Jesus is asked two critical questions. I use the word critical in two ways. First, in the sense of negative criticism; second, in a positive sense of obtaining important, or critical, information. The scribes ask the first question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16); the people ask the second, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18). Notice that both of these are food-related questions. Why eat with sinners? Why not fast from food? Notice also that what is recorded in verses Mark 2:15–22 takes place on one day, in and around one place—the dinner table in Levi’s house. Levi, you might remember, was a tax collector called to Christ earlier that day: Jesus “saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Mark 2:13). Tax collectors were sinners despised by pious Jews, which is why the Mishnah states that when a tax collector “entered a house, all that was in it became unclean.” So, for Jesus to walk in Levi’s direction and right up to his tax booth, eye him, and ask him to follow him shows us that Christ loves and calls sinners into his kingdom. It also shows us that Christ’s call is sovereign. Levi’s little resurrection (“he rose”) is caused not by his own self-determination. Rather, life is breathed into dead bones! With two words, Levi—a man “dead in [his] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1)—rises to new life.

From that provocative prelude the Evangelist whisks us away to a dinner party: “As [Jesus] reclined at table in [Levi’s] house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15). On this life-changing day Levi’s first step is to leave the past, his second is to follow Jesus, and his third is to introduce his bad company to his good Lord. (These are some good steps for us to follow as well.)

Now, grasp the scandal of this scene. This is a formal meal. We know that from the fact that the men around the table are reclining. A short table is in the middle. They are lying on sides or stomachs, with their feet stretched behind them. They lean on one elbow as they use their other arm to feast on what is in front of them. Table fellowship in the ancient Near East was the most intimate and personal expression of friendship. Levi is now Jesus’s face-to-face, food-to-food friend. (What a friend we have in Jesus!) And Levi’s purpose for this party is to invite his friends to meet the friend of sinners, if they have not already done so. Why? Because he knows firsthand that anyone—even the most uninterested or undeserved sinner—is but an instant away from experiencing the sovereign call of Christ.

Do you know that in verses Mark 2:15–17 the two most repeated words are “tax collectors” (3x) and “sinners” (4x)? Jesus reclines at table with “many tax collectors and sinners.” The word “many” is striking, especially in context. The last time the word was used was in verse 2: “And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door.” Mark gives the impression—with the word “many”—that Levi’s house is packed too. And the word “sinners” here does not mean your regular sinful human being (“we are all sinners”). Rather, it implies a criminal class of people. In the Gospels the term “sinners” is usually connected with “tax collectors” or “prostitutes.”

Now, this background should make sense of the critical question that comes from the purity police: “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?’” (Mark 2:16). The “scribes of the Pharisees,” as experts in rabbinic oral traditions, are genuinely shocked by the situation. They wonder why Jesus would recline with the reprehensible, dine with the detestable, communicate with the unclean, and sip wine with such swine. Jesus will tell them why. In Mark 2:17 he provides a proverb with parallel contrasts: “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.’” Here Jesus depicts himself as a doctor who is not serving those who have no need (“the righteous” or the spiritually healthy) but “sinners” (those who are spiritually sick). This is why Jesus has accepted Levi’s invitation to dinner. He is happy to use Levi’s dinner table for his operating table, to perform some surgery of the soul.

Three Ways to Live It Out

What Jesus says in Mark 2:17 is so important not only for us to grasp but for us to apply. And we can live out this verse in at least three ways. First, we shouldn’t be spiritual snobs. Like the Pharisees, we too can neglect the weightier matters of the law—such as justice and mercy (love for others, even the unlovely)—for our own human-made traditions. Do we have unspoken church codes (such as no coffee in the sanctuary) that, if someone breaks, we stare at him and whisper among ourselves? Do we care more about the grand piano than we do the great many poor? Do we have a class system for sins—the respectable sins (such as worry) are permissible and the disrespectable ones (such as swearing) are not? We must remember, and constantly remind ourselves, that Jesus was no respecter of persons. That is, he did not choose from the religious class or the upper class when he formed the twelve apostles. And, while it is true that some from the religious and rich have followed and do follow him, his pattern throughout history has been what we see here in our text. God chooses the unlikely, the despised, and the weak so as to shame the smart and strong and successful, and so that no one may boast before him.

God chooses the unlikely, the despised, and the weak so as to shame the smart and strong and successful, and so that no one may boast before him.

Second, following our Lord’s lead, let us employ incarnational tactics. That is, let us be intentional about the places we go to minister. Admittedly, Jesus spent the majority of his time in holy places—synagogues, the temple, and the homes of pious Jews. But he also, as he demonstrates here, hung out with the unholy. Missionary C. T. Studd once reflected, “Some want to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” Jesus, on this day, was running a rescue shop in Levi’s house. We need to follow that pattern, as best we can.

Most church’s mercy ministries target some of the best places to meet people—people in need physically and financially, but also so often spiritually. So, think about serving at a homeless shelter, visiting those in prison, or helping on the HIV/AIDS ward at the hospital; in these places and with such people you will find a receptivity level far higher than that of the soccer moms by the field or the business tycoons at the country club. Why? Because those who are messed up or have messed up usually know and admit something of the mess, whereas those who have never been convicted of crime, served time, or lost loved ones due to foolish decisions do not see the need for help. Why go to a doctor if one is (seemingly) healthy?

Third, and most theologically foundational, let us remember that Jesus alone sovereignly saves. The word “I” in the statement “I came . . . to call . . . sinners” (Mark 2:17) looms large. We must go out into the world with the message of salvation, but our only hope of success is that we believe in irresistible grace, that the Lord of the universe, who said “Let light shine out of darkness” at creation, is the same Sovereign who shines in the human heart at re-creation “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell is the author of Expository Reflections on the Gospels, Volume 3: Mark.

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