“Not The Righteous, But Sinners”      Mark 2:13-17       October 22, 2006



The passage we studied last Sunday was Jesus’ first conflict

   with the religious leaders of Israel—that conflict continues in this passage.

We will see over and over, as Jesus deals with the Pharisees,

   that he addresses a universal human problem—the problem of self-righteousness.


INTRO:  One thing I’ve noticed about preaching—people remember illustrations.

Five and a half years ago I started a sermon with an illustration

   that I bet some of you remember.


A well-known Christian scholar asked his class of seminary students:

   What would a town look like if it were completely controlled by the Devil?

They began to give their answers—

   crimes of every kind, murders, rapes, robberies,

   decaying buildings, weeds, trash, poverty, exploitation, despair.


When they were finished he said—that could be right.

But I think a town completely controlled by the devil would be an orderly town—

   lots of laws, streets swept, yards neat, financially prosperous,

   and every Sunday the churches would be full of people

   who would listen attentively to sermons—in which Christ is not preached.


His point was that according to the Bible, according to Jesus—

   the one thing that most thoroughly blinds people to their true spiritual condition

   is the very order and morality of their lives.

Even religion, even religion based on the Bible creates a confidence

   in their own righteousness that keeps them far from God.

All the evidence supports their belief that deep down, they are good people.

   Because of that they think they don’t need Jesus and his salvation.


And on the other hand, according to the Bible, according to Jesus—

   it is often the very despair of your moral failure,

   it is often the recognition that you have made a wreck of things,

   and that there is no going back,

   the sense that deep down inside you there is darkness and sin—

That causes people to follow Jesus when he calls

   and find the way to God’s forgiveness and healing. 

That’s what this story is about.

It’s about Levi the tax collector and sinners like him—

   a man who knew that he was a moral failure,

   a man who knew he was corrupt and greedy,

   a man who had not darkened the door of the temple or synagogue for years—

      because he knew that he was unclean by religious standards.

This is a story about that man finding forgiveness through Jesus.


It’s also about the Pharisees—

   men who were confident in their own righteousness,

   who knew that they had kept all the moral laws carefully,

   who were always in the synagogue and temple.

But their confidence in their goodness inoculated them against Jesus—

   so that true forgiveness, and life with God slipped past them,

   and they didn’t even know it.


Ultimately, as always, this is about Jesus. 

Jesus speaks a word of encouragement to people who are moral failures.

   He calls sinners.  He is the physician to people sick with their moral failure.


And Jesus speaks a word of warning to people who are morally self-righteous.

   He says to them:  There is nothing I can do for you.

Because you don’t believe you have a fatal disease

   and have no interest in the doctor. 


Which one are you?  More like Levi and sinner friends or Pharisees?

What’s so interesting is that these categories aren’t water tight.

We are all moral failures, whether we know it or not—

   and we all tend to be morally self-righteous, whether we know it or not.


So as you look at Jesus in this story—

   you must simultaneously heed his warning, and cling to his encouragement.

   that is the only way you will benefit from the forgiveness and healing

   of the Great Physician.


Two headings:

   1.  Jesus’ warning to morally self-righteous. 

   2.  Jesus’ encouragement to moral failures.  


MP#1  Jesus’ warning to the self-righteous

When Jesus said:  “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”

   He was not saying that the Pharisees were righteous—

   but that they thought they were righteous.

And as long as they were confident in their own righteousness—

   then there was nothing he could do for them.


Jesus illustrated that with the parallel statement:

   “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”

Once again, he wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were spiritually healthy—

   we know that from all the other things Jesus said about them.

He was saying that because they thought they were healthy—

   they had no interest in the spiritual healing, so he had nothing to give.

   If you are trusting in your righteousness, I can’t help you.

This is a very sober warning from Jesus and it deserves a closer look.


The Pharisees could not see themselves as they really were. 

   To be fair—the Pharisees knew they sinned from time to time.

   Would not have said that they were perfect.

But when they looked in the mirror, they were convinced of their basic goodness.

   “I’ve made some mistakes in life, but deep down I’m a good person.”

   That’s the way many people view themselves. 


Years ago I knew a girl who was anorexic.

Once she was shopping with a friend of hers, trying on bathing suits.

   She came out of the dressing room in a bikini, stood in front of a mirror.

   She was just skin and bones.

Her friend burst into tears and said:  Shannon, I’m so worried about you.”

   She replied:  “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine when I lose a little more weight.”


That’s how self-righteousness operates at a spiritual level. 

   Profound self-deception.  Think you are good. 

And your self-deception keeps you away from Jesus. 

   That means we need to approach this subject with great humility.

   You may be a self-deluded Pharisee.  I may be a self-deluded Pharisee. 


The Pharisees’ self-righteousness began with a superficial view of sin.

   That may seem strange to say when you think about how religious they were

    and how offended they got over sins they saw people commit.

But they essentially defined sin as a list of really bad things. 

   idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness.

   breaking the Ten Commandments and their other religious laws.

Sin for them was doing the bad things that are on the list.


Well, what if you’ve never done the bad things on the list and don’t intend to?

   You’ve never murdered, committed adultery, stolen, taken God’s name in vain.

   You’ve been religiously diligent all your life and will continue to do so. 

What sort of self-image does that give you? 

   Do you see yourself as a desperate sinner in need of salvation?

   Of course not.  The little sins you do are noting, easily excusable. 

You are fundamentally a good person. 


Now, of course, that is a very superficial, external view of sin. 

   The Bible says that sin comes from our naturally rebellious, selfish hearts.

The Bible also says that sin is not just notorious, highly visible actions,

   but also words, thoughts, and attitudes of the heart that are against God

   and our neighbor.  The Bible says we are judged according to light we have.

To whom much is given, much will be required. 


But self-righteousness and a superficial view of sin go hand in hand. 

   And the outward manifestation of self-righteousness

   and a superficial view of sin, is the tendency to compare yourself to other people. 


Do you often look at the moral failings of other people, cluck, shake your head,

   and say, “I just don’t understand how a person could do that.”?

Self-righteous people do that a lot.

   It’s a way of affirming your righteousness.  It feels good. 

If you’ve never done it, try it some time.

   It will give you a wonderful jolt of superiority.

   I can speak from personal experience. 


You see the Pharisees doing that in this story. 

   They compared themselves to tax collectors and other sinners.

Tax collectors extorted money and were traitors to their own people.

   We’re going to talk about Levi in a minute.

But the Pharisees were scrupulously honest when it came to financial dealings,

   and they were patriots, would have died before working for oppressors.

   “I don’t see how any Jew could be a tax collector.”

That comparison was very important to them. 

   That’s why it bothered them so much when Jesus ate with them.

Knew that Jesus was somehow undermining this comparison. 

   Wanted Jesus to eat with them, shake his head, and talk about the state of morals.

   They weren’t looking for Jesus as a Savior.


Millions of church members have indulged

   in the very same self-righteousness as the Pharisees.

And even though they profess to be Christians,

   they are no more looking to Jesus for their salvation than the Pharisees did.

When they look in the mirror they see good, moral people, who have kept the rules,

   and not done any of the really bad things.

Don’t se selves as they really are:  Sinners estranged from God without Christ.


I’ve told you before the story of William Haslam, 19th century Anglican minister,

   who was famous as the preacher converted by his own sermon.

He had been a minister for some time but was he was an unsaved man.

   There were some members of the church who knew this. 


On October 19, 1851 he was in his pulpit, explaining to a full church

   that the Pharisees had been condemned because they failed to believe

   that Christ had come to save them from their sins.

As he preached, he realized for the first time that he did not really believe either.

   As he continued with the sermon he saw the truth more and more clearly:

   Himself as a sinner and Jesus as the Savior.


He says in his autobiography:

     “I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul.  Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out, ‘the parson’s converted!  The parson’s converted!  Hallelujah!’ and in another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and praises of three or four hundred of the congregation.”


His coming to Christ occurred at the moment he realized he thought like a Pharisee.

   He had thought like one for years, even as a minister, and never realized it.

Millions in the church, more millions outside who think the same way—

   and do not realize how fatal a mistake it is.  That’s Jesus’ warning.

Until you know your sin, know you need him—fatally deluded. 

We’ve heard Jesus’ warning to the morally self-righteous, now lets consider . . .

MP#2  Jesus’ encouragement to moral failures

“I have come to call sinners.”   “Not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”


What do we know about Levi?

   We know he made a very bad choice at some point in his life that had brought

   about all sorts of unforeseen problems and sorrow.

What was that bad choice?

   He decided that he was going to become wealthy no matter what the cost.


Historians tell us that tax collectors in that day purchased their office

   from the government.  Purchased the responsibility of collecting taxes or tolls

   in a certain area, guaranteed to fill the amount required by the government.

Anything extra they collected was theirs to keep.

   The whole system was built on corruption and extortion.


No person with a sense of morality would have gone into this line of work.

   You became a tax collector if you wanted to make money and didn’t care how.

That’s the profession Levi had chosen.

   This Jewish man, who should have known better, but wanted to get rich.


Maybe he started out saying: 

   I’m only going to charge a reasonable amount for a modest standard of living.

And what happened?  That didn’t last. 

   He found himself squeezing people, hurting people.

   Remember, that’s what Zaccheus admitted doing.


He got rich.  Tax collectors lived very well.

   He probably had a big home and all the luxuries.

But as the years went by, there were more moral compromises

   And he found himself trapped in the life of his choosing with no way out.

Maybe he tried at times to be honest and change,

   but the demand and drive for wealth and power always drew him back.


From that came the condemnation and hatred of many people.

   Tax collector were despised because of their greed, collusion with government.

It may have been that Levi’s on extended family condemned him.

   Here was a man who was a disgrace to his own Jewish people.


He’s like a man in our day who sells himself to his work,

   success at any cost, looks up one day to find his wife has left him,

   his children despise him, and his only prospect is to go back to the office

   that has become his slave master.

All for the decision to pursue money and success as his highest good.


He’s like a woman who give herself to a promiscuous lifestyle,

   only to find that the excitement and feeling of acceptance it brings,

   has left her, and she does not have the love and intimacy she wants.


Levi’s decision ultimately brought him an empty life.

   Condemned by many people,

   Trapped in cycles of unethical behavior,

   Powerless to change his life.


Perhaps, with different details, you have known this same life.

   Sinful decisions that seemed so right at the time—

   but then, as the years go by, the consequences start to come home.

Sinful decisions that lead to more sinful decisions.

   Attempts to change that lead nowhere.

Find yourself condemned, empty, and powerless to change.


It seems hopeless—but it’s not.

   That’s what’s so amazing about the Gospel, amazing about grace.

Levi, for all the moral ruin of his life, had one thing the Pharisees didn’t have.

   He knew his need for salvation.

   He knew he had a fatal disease and he wanted a doctor.

And that’s exactly where Jesus found him—sitting in his tax collectors booth.


Wonderful line in commentary by Kent Hughes:

The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness, but my badness;

not my merit, but my misery; not my standing, but my falling; not my riches, but my need.”


That’s where it starts—has been true of so many of God’s people through the years. 

No hymn loved more than Amazing Grace. 

   No hymn writer more loved for the story of his life than John Newton.

   He was a vile man, an African slave trader. 

His life was so corrupt there seemed to be no way out—he tried many times,

   but found himself back in that work that was ruining his soul.

Then, in a storm he saw himself as he truly was, in his need Jesus saved him.

   He became a pastor—and to the end of his days, referred to himself—

   as the vile African slave trader—but was honored by all God’s people.


How does Jesus meet your need?  The same two ways he met Levi’s.

   He calls you and he eats with you.


1.  When you know your need, Jesus calls you.

Jesus said, “Follow me” and Levi got up and followed him.

   We are told an interesting detail in Matthew’s account—left everything.

Unlike Peter and Andrew, James and John who left their fishing to follow—

   they went back at times to fish, weren’t totally cut off.

For Levi to leave his tax booth meant that he quit his position—

   he left it behind, never to return.


What sort of financial repercussions did this have?  We don’t know.

   But here’s the wonderful thing:  The call of Jesus gave him the power to change.

Probably many times Levi had said, I’ve got to leave this job—but couldn’t.

   He was powerless against the grip it had on him.

   When Jesus called, call empowered him to change.


That’s true for you as well. 

   Knowing your need, knowing your helplessness is just where Jesus

   likes to find you, so that he can call you to a new life.


2.  When you know your need, Jesus eats with you.

They went to Levi’s house and they had a feast,

   house full of people like Levi, morally compromised, sinners.

What did that meal communicate to Levi? 

   I accept you and I honor you.


That’s amazing but true, when you know your need,

   no matter what your moral failures, Jesus accepts and honors you.

   And God’s people honor you.

True Christians always rejoice over and honor most those believers

   who feel their need most deeply and who have been brought to Christ.

Levi had another name, he was called Matthew.

   He was the disciple who wrote the Gospel of Matthew.

   When we open the NT, here is a name we honor, one who ate with Master.

CONC:  Jesus has gone to heaven.  But he has left us something very precious.

   Has given us the Lord’s Supper.  We’re about to come to the Table.


He’s has left very specific instructions about who can eat at this Table.

   This is a meal for people who know their need of Jesus.


If you are here this morning and you would say about yourself:

   I may have done a few bad things—deep down, I’m a good person.

Stay away from this table.  Not for you.

   You will eat and drink judgment on yourself.


But if you say:  Oh, I’ve made a mess of things.

   The things I’ve said and done.  The failures. 

   The struggles and compromises.  They weigh me down.

Jesus says:  Pull up a chair, let’s eat together.


Old Scottish Puritan Rabbi Duncan was serving communion one Lord’s Day

   and a weeping woman passed the common cup without drinking.

Pressed it into her hands and said:  Drink it woman—it’s for sinners.


Do you know your need?  You must, or you are condemned.

Because Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.