In this story of the call of the tax collector Levi and Jesus’s eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus breaks two commonplaces of Judaism. First, he’s feasting, not fasting, which was one of the traditional three pious practices of Judaism, the other two being prayer and almsgiving (see Tob 12:8); Catholics are familiar with the same three (see Matt 6) and practice them especially during Lent. Second, he’s not just feasting, but feasting with lowlifes like Levi. Tax collectors were considered as good as traitors, rapacious rascals who took money from Jews and gave much of it to Rome, keeping a lot for themselves. (Did you ever wonder if Jesus left Levi and Simon the Zealot alone together? Levi’s lucky to have been left alive.) The “sinners” Jesus feasted with weren’t simply sinners like everyone since Adam and Eve are sinners, born into original sin. Rather, “sinners” in the Gospels are people who have basically given up their Judaism altogether and live degenerate lives of debauchery and licentiousness.
Like the first four disciples Jesus called (1:16–20), Levi obeys immediately here, with the text giving no indication of any questions, any considerations, any hesitation. Levi simply rises and follows him (2:14). And the scandal compounds, for now Jesus eats with him and others mired in notorious sin. Now, in our day, like many things, eating has become casual. From TV dinners of a prior era to the drive-thrus of today, eating has become a matter of individual and often solitary indulgence. But traditionally, and often still today, eating is an occasion of friendship and intimacy. Indeed, it’s said that eating with someone is the second most intimate thing you can do with another person. And so, certain Pharisaic scribes protest, asking Jesus’s disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16).
Jesus’s response is radical: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (2:17). Now a certain reading of this assumes Jesus is engaging in a sort of irony: none are righteous, thanks to original sin and as evidenced in many verses of Scripture stating that everyone is a sinner, Jesus means here that only those who recognize their sin—unlike the scribes and Pharisees—will wish to come to Jesus. Another reading is possible, concordant both with Judaism and Catholicism, that assumes that it is indeed possible to be righteous in this world and that Jesus is reaching out to the unrighteous—those mired in notorious sin who have effectively given up on their religion and relationship with God—to reconcile them to Israel and, thus, to God. In either case, the scribes stand apart from Jesus, whether they refuse to recognize their own sin or w simply reject Jesus as God’s agent of reconciliation.
More important are the parallels the passage suggests. In the prior story, Jesus has declared his power to forgive sins and proven it by healing the paralytic, and now, in this first eating story, Jesus shares table fellowship with sinners. Indeed, in the prior story, Jesus linked healing from sickness with forgiveness of sins just as he here speaks of sickness and healing in parallel with sin and forgiveness. And so, too, is the pattern with the Eucharist. The Eucharist, the sacrificial meal in which Jesus’s blood of the new covenant is poured out for many (14:24), is for the forgiveness of sins and is the privilege of forgiven sinners. In the first and last meals in Mark’s Gospel, forgiveness culminates in a communion meal with Jesus himself.
Excerpted from Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark