The Danger of Self-Righteousness

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 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.

15 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. 16 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?” 17 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 ESV

Jesus has just displayed His power and authority over the physical realm by healing the paralyzed man. But, more importantly, His astonishing ability to restore the man’s health was a demonstration of His God-given authority to forgive sin. As the Son of God, Jesus had come to earth in order to set men free from their slavery to sin and their condemnation of death. The formerly paralyzed man, while physically whole and forgiven, would still end up committing sins and face the ultimate penalty for doing so: physical death and eternal separation from God.

But Jesus had become a man so that He might serve as the substitutionary atonement, the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His death on behalf of sinful humanity would satisfy the just and righteous wrath of God, and provide all those who placed their faith in His atoning work with a way to be restored to a right relationship with His Father. And, as a result of Jesus’ selfless sacrifice, they would enjoy forgiveness of all their sins – past, present, and future. The author of Hebrews describes it this way:

…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. – Hebrews 9:26 ESV

And the psalmist provides us with a powerful reminder of the sin-forgiving power of the Son of God.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
 – Psalm 103:12 BSB

Mark transitions his narrative from the crowded confines of Simon and Andrew’s home to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. But will maintain his emphasis on Jesus’ power and authority to forgive sin, and continue to reveal the growing divide between Jesus and the religious authorities.

While walking along the seashore, Jesus continued to teach the crowds that continued to follow Him wherever He went. And as they made their way along the roadway that ran from Capernaum to Damascus and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they came across the tax booth of a man named Levi. This was not some chance encounter but a divinely-scheduled appointment. When Levi woke up that morning, he had no idea that his day would include a one-on-one meeting with the Messiah of Israel.

Luke describes Levi as a “tax collector” (Luke5:27). His chosen profession would have made Levi highly unpopular with his fellow Jews. He was an employee of Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed puppet king of Israel. And his job was to collect all taxes having to do with trade and customs. Because Capernaum was located on a major trade route from Damascus, Levi would have been responsible for collecting export and import fees, sales and customs taxes, as well as tolls. But what made men like Levi particularly unpopular was their tendency to extort additional fees and surcharges from the fellow Jews. Tax collectors were seen as social pariahs who worked for the enemy and took advantage of their own people to line their pockets.

So, when Jesus issued Levi an invitation to follow Him, the Jews would have been shocked and appalled. In their minds, Levi was a traitor to his people and the epitome of a godless sinner. And to make matters even worse, Mark reveals that Jesus decided to share a meal with this social outcast. Luke records that Levi threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited a large number of guests.

Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. – Luke 5:29 ESV

And Mark provides the added detail that “many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Mark 2:15 ESV). It seems that Levi was forced to invite his friends, who like him, were considered to be the dregs of the community.

Yet, Jesus accepted Levi’s invitation to dine at his house and willingly chose to associate with those whom the Jews considered as unclean and unacceptable. And Jesus’ actions did not go unnoticed.

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” – Mark 2:16 NLT

They were shocked and disgusted by this shameless display of poor judgment on Jesus’ part. He should have known better. By entering Levi’s home and sharing a meal with this motley collection of sinners, Jesus had made He and His disciples ceremonially unclean. They had contaminated themselves.

There is a clear us-versus-them vibe going on. The Pharisees viewed themselves as righteous because of their meticulous adherence to both the written and oral laws of the Jews. They were the law-keepers and the law-enforcers. And, as far as they were concerned, Jesus had chosen to associate with the scum of the earth. By entering Levi’s home, Jesus had done the unthinkable and unforgivable.

The Pharisees had no compassion for people like Levi. They had no desire to reach out to those whom they considered sinners. They bore no sense of responsibility for the spiritual well-being less fortunate, whom they considered to be unworthy of mercy. In the minds of the Pharisees, it was the sin-prone common people who held back the nation of Israel and kept it from enjoying the full favor of God. To the self-righteous Pharisees, it was the sorry likes of Levi and his friends that kept Israel from being all that it could be. They were a blight on the nation and now, Jesus had clearly revealed His love for the unloveable and His heart for the irredeemable.

But Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was fully aware of the disgust and distaste His actions had caused, and He chose to address the issue head-on.

“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 ESV

With this simple statement, Jesus exposed the glaring difference between Himself and His accusers. They considered themselves to be spiritually healthy and whole. They were well and had no need of a Savior. But what they failed to understand was that their good deeds were of no value to God. As the prophet Isaiah had written hundreds of years earlier: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

Jesus was not impressed by the Pharisees and their outward displays of righteousness. He would later call them out for their hypocrisy and lack of compassion.

“…they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Matthew 23:3-4 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

These men considered themselves to be the cream of the crop, the religious elite of Israel whose unblemished behavior guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom. But Jesus let them know that their self-confidence was misplaced and mistaken. He had come to minister to the sick – those who recognized their spiritual malady and sought help. Like the paralyzed man, the tax collectors and sinners gathered in Levi’s home were in need of assistance. They knew they were sinners and were fully aware that they lacked what was necessary to “heal” themselves.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). The sinners reclining around the table with Jesus were just the kind of people Jesus came to save. They were sinners in need of a Savior. And if they would only confess their sin, they would know the joy of having their sins forgiven and their spiritual sickness healed.

But the Pharisees, riddled with pride and a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, were unable to see their need and unwilling to confess their sins. But their self-confidence would ultimately result in their own self-destruction. Their stubborn insistence that they were well would be their downfall. And the apostle Paul describes the dangerous path they had decided to take and the deadly destination to which it would lead.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. – Romans 1:21-22 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson