Following the Great Physician (Mark 2:13-17)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Mark 2:13–17
I. How Are You Feeling?
How are you feeling this morning? Healthy... or unhealthy? Good... or not so good? Well... or sick? Now you might think, Pastor Bryce, if I was feeling sick, I probably wouldn't be sitting here. And many of you have experienced that kind of absence recently, right (?), and some of you are experiencing that right now. But the healthy and unhealthy I have in mind, the well and the sick that I believe God wants us to consider this morning, is not about your temperature, your blood pressure, your heart rate, your level of pain, or any other physical or medical metric. This morning God wants us to focus on our spiritual health. Let's do that by turning over to Mark 2, from Our [new] Bible Reading Plan from this past week. We're looking at verses 13-17.
II. The Passage: “Need of a Physician” (2:13-17)
A little bit about the context here: Mark 2 introduces us to the Jewish religious leaders with whom Jesus often clashed throughout his ministry. It presents leaders like the “scribes” and “Pharisees” through a series of five conflicts or confrontations: first in 2:1-12, then in our main text (2:13-17), then in verse 18-22, 23-28, and finally, in 3:1-6. Now, keeping that context in mind, listen to what the account we find in 2:13-17 reveals about their opposition:
He [Jesus] 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 [i.e., Levi's 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.”
So notice this right away: this section parallels what we saw at very beginning of Jesus' ministry in the previous chapter, specifically in 1:14-20... Jesus preaching and teaching publicly, followed by an account in which Jesus specifically calls an individual or individuals to follow him. In chapter 1, that was two sets of brothers: Andrew and Peter, as well as James and John. But here, the story is focused on how Jesus called just one man, a man named Levi. Why highlight Levi's story? Well, for one, we believe Levi was also called Matthew, a disciple later appointed to be an apostle. But in this context, what's emphasized about Levi is not who he would become, but who he was when Jesus called him: he was a tax collector.
Tax collectors have never been popular, have they? Now add to that the fact that tax collectors like Levi are collecting taxes for an occupying, imperial power like Rome. Now add to that the fact that many tax collectors demanded more money than they needed to collect (a kind of theft that John the Baptist rebuked in Luke 3:13). So yeah, that Jesus would call a tax collector to be his disciple would have been troubling to many people. But please notice what Mark tells us in verse 15. After joining Jesus, Matthew (probably to celebrate his discipleship) opens up his home to Jesus and the other disciples who were following him at that time.
But Mark is clear about the social standing of many of those Christ-followers at the end of verse 15: [in addition to the fishermen we know about, we read that] “...many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” Who were these “sinners”? And isn't everyone a sinner? Well, the only other other pairing like this in the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) is with the term “prostitutes”. But that's enough to give us a sense of what “sinners” means here. It means simply, people of ill repute; those held in very low esteem by the public. Scandalous people. Ignominious people. What is Mark telling us here? That Jesus crossed social boundaries in order to minister to people like this.
But highlighting this about Levi's story is not an end in itself. You saw where this leads in verse 16. “...The scribes of the Pharisees (that is, scribes attached to the party or school of the Pharisees) were shocked that Jesus would associate with such people, especially through sharing a meal with such disreputable characters. Here's a interesting fact: one scholar studied the rabbinical traditions that appear to come from the Pharisees, and noted that of the 341 rulings that can be traced to them, 229 concern table fellowship (this very thing!). For these Jews, to share a meal with people like this was 1) not only opening oneself up to possible ritual defilement, but also 2) possible moral defilement, and 3) communicating to others that you seem to be okay with such behavior. Therefore, they believed Jesus was undermining his whole ministry through such compromise... and in addressing this with those closest disciples, I believe they expected them to see how problematic this was... and hopefully reject Jesus.
But Jesus knows what's being said. Maybe as He talked and laughed with others at the table, they believed he was not listening. But he was. And the response he offers in verse 17 contains such precious and powerful truths; we simply can't miss these:
The FIRST is this: like an ill person desperate for a doctor, these men and women were honest about the soul sickness that afflicted them. Though they seemed far from God's word, they seemed to have understood better than many an OT verse like Jeremiah 17:9–10...
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Accepting that truth about their heart sickness as sinners, and the reality of the judgment to come, these men and women were absolutely eager, profoundly hungry, deeply open to the radical message of forgiveness and inclusion that Jesus was preaching. He was like a divine physician among them, calling them to himself for healing. Or as one commentator expressed it,
[Jesus] eating with the social and religious misfits meant more than a gracious acceptance of their hospitality. Each depicted the gospel of God’s activity in calling together a new people of the Kingdom, the promise of wholeness of the age of salvation and the forgiving reconciliation of God with his alienated people. (Robert A. Guelich) [Amen!]
But SECOND, in the immediate and the broader context of this section, the response of Jesus in verse 17 also reveals something extremely troubling about these religious leaders: like a person who wants to appear healthy, the condemning spirit of the Jewish religious leaders simply confirmed their soul sickness.
What these leaders seemed unable to grasp was what the Second Century church father Justin Martyr explained in his First Apology: “For the heavenly Father desires the repentance, rather than the punishment, of the sinner.”
A more recent commentator explained the point this way: “Unfortunately, some of the “healthy” showed their inherent “illness” in their attitude toward Jesus’ ministry to the “sick.” But until they recognized their need, they could not utilize the help of the Physician and thus [they] excluded themselves.” (Robert A. Guelich)
III. Finding Real Wellness
So let's return to our opening question: how are you feeling this morning? Are you well... or are you sick? What has God revealed to us (or reminded us of) in this text? That though we can be tempted to tell ourselves were 'well', real wellness only begins when we acknowledge our sickness. Real wellness flows from recognizing our desperate need for the Physician's care.
Thankfully, it's not often that I'm physically unwell. Thankfully, I've never been admitted to a hospital, or even an emergency room. But when I was in my late teens, I was with a good friend and we stopped at his parents' house so I could use the bathroom. My stomach was doing very strange things. When I entered that bathroom, I had no idea that it would be several hours before I came out again. I had become so ill, that I ended up laying on the floor of that bathroom, almost unable to move. And hours later, when I was able to get up, I ended up in my friend's room, in my friend's bed, for several more hours. My sickness was so severe, I could do nothing for myself but gratefully accept the care offered to me (2x). Brothers and sisters, that is our salvation. Those without Christ, that is your hope. Acknowledge your soul sickness, acknow-ledge your deceitful and desperately sick heart, and then... accept the Great Physician's healing touch. Jesus died, he went to the cross, and then, rose from the dead, to make us truly well.
So is this only a salvation or conversion issue? Not at all. A saving acknowledgment of my soul sickness should set the pattern for my walk with Jesus. As Paul would ask the disciples in the Galatian churches, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3) Though a truly born again believer will never again belong to “the sick”, he or she will always struggle (in one way or another) with that sickness of sin. But thankfully, wondrously, the Great Physician is our constant companion. His healing is always available and never not effective. In what ways do you need his healing today?
In light of these precious truths, let me leave you with this important application: if we are followers of the Great Physician, we will (unlike the scribes) be his physician assistants in the lives of others. Matthew Henry warns us about temptations to dismiss this call: “Those are too tender of their own good name, who, to preserve it with some nice people, will decline a good work. Christ would not do so.” (Matthew Henry) Commenting on this very same story, French pastor John Calvin offers us this good advice when temptation to be like the scribes:
Why then was Christ himself made a sacrifice and a curse, but that he might stretch out his hand to accursed sinners? Now, if we feel disgust at being associated by baptism and the Lord’s Supper with vile men, and regard our connection with them as a sort of stain upon us, we ought immediately to descend into ourselves, and to search without flattery our own evils. Such an examination will make us willingly allow ourselves to be washed in the same fountain with the most impure, and will hinder us from rejecting the righteousness which he offers indiscriminately to all the ungodly, the life which he offers to the dead, and the salvation which he offers to the lost.
Brothers and sisters, for the glory of the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, let us look for and go to “the sick”; ignoring the social boundaries drawn by men (or drawn by our prideful or fearful hearts), may we be inspired by His example, may we testify of His healing, and may we offer each person a place at the Table, at the banquet of his amazing grace.