Mark 1:16-20; 2:13-17 NET
We have seen from Deuteronomy 13 that the LORD expects us to follow him loyally. We are not to allow anyone to tempt us to forsake our allegiance to God no matter what credentials they have, no matter how close we are to them and no matter how many are backing them – even if it is an entire city.
When the New Testament talks about Following God, the emphasis is on following Jesus – the king of God’s coming kingdom. When you join a club, it is usually because the club is doing something you want to be involved with. But when you become part of the kingdom, you are pledging loyalty to a king. From that point on, it is not what you want that matters. From now on, it is what the king wants that matters.
That is why following Jesus always means more than being a fan of him. When he calls us, the call requires that we follow him sacrificially.
The story of Jesus’ call of the four fishermen is an example of this fact.
Jesus challenged the four fishermen to follow him sacrificially (1:16-20).
16 As he went along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). 17 Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” 18 They left their nets immediately and followed him. 19 Going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
These four men were not just out for a weekend of pleasure fishing. They had their own boats, their own nets, and they even had some hired men along. They were professional fishermen. They did this for a living. Being fishermen was the family business for them. It was the means that God had given them for providing for their own families. We learn from the early chapters of the book of John that at least three of these four men had already met Jesus, and probably accompanied him on his preaching tour in Judea (John 2:2, 12, 17; 3:22; 4:2, 27).
Now, these men were back in Galilee, and they were back at work. That short-term ministry trip was wonderful and all, but they have to get back to work now. So it is here in their normal setting that Jesus comes and visits them. They had already committed themselves to Jesus as the Messiah. Now their king comes to them and tells them that he wants them to do something else.
Let’s just stop there for a moment and ask that all-important question. Could Jesus be calling us to do something else besides what we normally do? He didn’t call Zebedee that day. He didn’t call the other hired men. He zeroed in on these four and specifically challenged them to rejoin his preaching tour. This time, it would be in Galilee. This time it would be in their home region. Except that this time they would have to sacrifice more than just a short time away from family and friends. This time he was challenging them to change their occupation. They would have to train to preach the gospel. They would have to begin at ground zero and relearn how to work at that new job.
Later, Mark describes another disciple who was challenged by Jesus to give up his current job and become a trainee disciple. We know this disciple as Matthew, but Mark called him by his Jewish name – Levi.
Jesus challenged Levi to follow him sacrificially (2:13-15).
13 Jesus went out again by the sea. The whole crowd came to him, and he taught them. 14 As he went along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 15 As Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s home, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
The last time Mark had Jesus by the sea it was to recruit four new trainees. Now he is back there, and there is a whole crowd with him. He had just healed a paralytic, and so there was a huge crowd following him around, waiting to see what he would do next. What he did next was in a sense even more remarkable than the healing. He approached the tax booth.
Now, it’s one thing to approach a group of fishermen. They might not smell great, but they are generally likable. The only ones who don’t like fishermen are fish. But everybody tried to stay away from people like Levi. They were traitors. They had sold out to the evil Romans. They took money from good Jewish people to give to the hated Romans. Worse than that, they had a reputation for cheating people by taking more than was lawful. Becoming a tax collector was a way to get rich.
But that choice came with a price. Levi was the son of Alphaeus, but Alphaeus probably didn’t acknowledge Levi. Probably one of the reasons Levi changed his name was because he had been appointed tax collector. He had a new family. He had become a tax collector, so now he associated with two groups. One group was other tax collectors. The other group was a general group of outcasts in society – simply called “sinners” here.
The very next thing we see after Jesus calls Levi is Jesus and his disciples in Levi’s home, having a meal with him. Alphaeus is not there. But Levi has invited some of his fellow tax collectors to the party, and a number of those outcast “sinners” as well.
Levi’s initial contribution to Jesus’ ministry is his connection to these outcasts. He has an “in” with these people. There are a lot of people in Capernaum who are spiritually sick and they need a doctor. Levi brings the doctor and the sick people together.
But Jesus calls Levi to change his vocation again. He challenges him to sacrifice all his clout with Rome and all his potential riches and become a trainee like the four fishermen. Before he could become Matthew, the apostle, he had to become Matthew the disciple. Once again, the Lord is calling on his follower to sacrifice for the master.
Jesus even challenged the religious leaders to follow him sacrificially (2:16-17).
16 When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The news got out about the party in Levi’s house. The religious leaders in Capernaum found out about the meal Jesus and his disciples shared with the tax collectors and sinners.
This was a real problem for those religious leaders. They considered such a meal not just a breach of decorum. They taught that if you ate with such people, it would defile you, so you could no longer be around the good folks. There is an “us” and a “them.” If you want to be around us, you have to stay away from them.
Somebody (probably the one who drew the short straw) was delegated to ask the disciples why Jesus chose to associate with the riffraff. Jesus responded himself by saying that it is the sick people who need a doctor, and the doctor is in.
Now, Jesus is not saying that these religious leaders were already righteous, so they didn’t need him. He’s not saying that he chose to concentrate on the tax collectors and sinners because the experts in the law and the Pharisees were strong enough to take care of themselves.
Broadus points out that in verse 17, “The righteous is, literally, ‘ righteous (persons),’ without an article, thus not implying that there was an actual class of persons really righteous, not saying whether there were such persons or not.”1
The religious leaders considered themselves righteous people already. But Jesus implied that they were only hypothetically righteous. At any rate, it was just that hypothetical righteousness that excluded them from the party. Jesus was in Levi’s house to reach new people for his kingdom. To join Jesus, these religious leaders would have to sacrifice their presumption of innocence. They would have to sacrifice their status as the spiritually elite of Capernaum.
The crowd who met in Levi’s house all had something in common. They came to see Jesus because they knew he had something they didn’t have. They were curious. They wanted to know why Levi was packing his things.
Weidner suggests that this feast was a going-away party. He says “Matthew made this feast in honor of Christ, and probably by way of farewell, invited many of his old associates, ‘for there was a great multitude of publicans and of others that were sitting at meat with them’ (Luke 5: 29)”2
They didn’t consider it beneath their dignity to come to Jesus. They might not have considered themself “sick” of anything, but they would be honest enough with themselves to admit that they could use some improvement. They were there to say goodbye to their friend. But since he was their friend, they were open to listening to him explain why giving up his job and taking up with Jesus was important to him. Because Levi was loyal to Jesus, they were interested in what he had to say.
But the crowd of hypothetically righteous people outside did not want to come in. They were not interested in defiling themselves, even if it meant seeing Jesus. There is always a crowd outside who will refuse to come inside. There is always a group of people who think that they don’t need Jesus. They can take him or leave him. There will also always be enough Levis on the inside to keep the people on the outside from coming inside. What Jesus told the Pharisees that day was that as long as they looked down on the Christians that are they will never become actual Christians themselves. As long as they let their prejudice and self-righteousness determine their loyalty, they will be staying away from his kingdom.
Following Jesus requires change, and change never happens without sacrifice. Sometimes that sacrifice is letting go of the things you expect to happen in your life. You train all your life to be a fisherman, and then you discover that Jesus wants you to be a fisher of men. Sometimes that sacrifice is leaving your stability for a less secure and uncertain future. You just get settled as a tax collector, and Jesus calls you to leave that post and become a trainee disciple. Sometimes that sacrifice means admitting that you are not as healthy as the world thinks you are. You are on the outside, looking at the party, and you realize that the doctor is in there, and you need him.
Wherever you are in your walk with Christ, don’t be afraid to sacrifice for him.
Listen to these words from a former Pharisee who realized that he had been only hypothetically righteous, so he sacrificed all his assets for Christ. They are the words of the apostle Paul:
“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:4b-11 NET).
1Broadus, John Albert. Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1905. p. 23.
2 Weidner, Revere Franklin. Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. Allentown, Pa: Brobst, Diehl & Co, 1881. p. 79.