“And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)
What a remarkable scene we have at the house of Matthew! On the one hand, we have a group of some of the most despised scoundrels to be found in all of Israel. On the other, we have the religious and pious. Matthew, a publican or tax collector, belonged to an infamous profession hated by all strata of Jewish society. These were men more closely aligned with the occupying Roman government than to their own people whom they often cheated and swindled. But an interesting thing happened to Matthew one day as he sat working in his tax collection booth. The Lord Jesus Christ passed by and said to him, “Follow Me!”(Mark 2:14).
The call of Matthew is a poignant image of our Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd, seeking out the lost sheep and calling them into His fold. How many years it had been since Matthew had even entered a synagogue is anyone’s guess, but we can be certain that he would never have found Jesus by going into one to hear Him preach. Matthew, like so many other lost sinners, had resigned himself to his assumed destiny and in all probability gave little thought to the hope that he might one day be forgiven of his sins and find Salvation and reconciliation with God. Matthew was not searching for God when their paths crossed that day, but God was “searching” for him. Jesus came to him, even in all of his vile and wicked sinfulness, and spoke the life-bringing words that would forever change the trajectory of the life of Levi, Son of Alphaeus.
Contrasted against this we have the Scribes and Pharisees, men who were highly regarded and revered in society but most of whom had absolutely no interest in the Salvation that the Lord was offering. To them, this rabble of degenerates was offensive and the idea that Jesus, a Rabbi, would condescend to eat with such people cast doubt in their eyes on His own integrity. Yet while they stood by judging Jesus’ motives and scrutinizing His actions, the sinners and tax collectors present were said to be “following” Him. They recognized in Jesus something that the Scribes and Pharisees did not.
Jesus answered the religious leaders, declaring to them that He had come to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous. I wonder what they thought when He said this. Did they hold fast to their belief that there was a vast distinction in the eyes of God between those tax-collecting miscreants who were clinging close to Jesus and themselves? Or did the words of the Lord bring to their minds the Psalmist’s diagnosis of the heart of man:
“The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.
They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3)
These experts of Scripture had to be very familiar with this passage, and yet it seems they somehow felt that they themselves were excluded from the “all” who have turned aside and become corrupt. The very first step in the process of Salvation is conviction and, apart from it, there can be no repentance at all. If we fail to recognize our own sin and depravity, then there is no hope for our ever being saved. For if we say we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). In order for a person to call upon a Savior, he first must come to the realization that he is in need of one. There was, indeed, a distinction between the Pharisees and the Publicans present at Matthew’s house that evening, but it was not the distinction which the religious leaders imagined. The difference was that the Publicans knew that they were sinners and the Pharisees did not.
Of Garments Old And New
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)
The Lord’s words here are a continuation of what we have just considered. Self-righteousness and religious ritual are not the things which will save a person, but something, moreover Someone, completely different. Verses 18-20 describe a confrontation between both the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees and the Lord Jesus Christ regarding the observation of religious fasting. We should first understand that nowhere in the Old Testament is fasting prescribed as a religious observance. People would fast at times, especially when they were either mourning or humbling themselves before the Lord in petition for a need (cf. 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 12:16). But this was not done per God’s instructions, it was a tradition the people had adopted. Fasting, of course, can have a valid place in the Christian’s experience, but we must recognize that the issue taken with Jesus was not based upon His or His disciple’s disregard for the Law, but rather for the traditions which had grown out of Judaism.
Thus His reference to garments and wineskins has to do with relying on religious ritual, traditions, and the observance of ceremonies for Salvation. “Garments”, in the Bible, often refer to a covering of righteousness. When Adam and Eve sinned, God covered them with garments (Genesis 3:21). When Noah sinned, his sons covered him with a garment (Genesis 9:23). Isaiah compares self-righteousness to a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6). Over in Revelation, we read of white garments which the Lord Jesus provides, that is, His righteousness clothing us and making us acceptable to God (Rev. 3:5, 18, 4:4). It is to these garments which Jesus refers in His parable of the Wedding Feast when He mentions “wedding clothes” (cf. Matthew 22:11-12).
Our own garments are stained with sin and it is not possible to make them white by patching them up with self-righteous rituals and religious ceremonies. Only by being clothed in the white garments which Christ alone can provide may we enter into Salvation. Similarly, we cannot pour the new wine of the Gospel into the wineskins of man’s traditions and self-prescribed observances and expect to be saved by such things.
The old garment and old wineskin may also be seen as the Law of Moses, or the Old Testament. The work of Jesus Christ was not to patch up or repair what was wrong with the Law of Moses (not that there is any fault in God’s Law, the weakness lies in humanity who is unable to follow it — as seen in Romans 7), but to bring His own garment of righteousness with which to clothe sinners: a perfect, pure, white garment untouched by patch or stitch. His blood is the wine of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20), poured out for the sins of man and shed for new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), new wineskins which bear His name.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,
[This post was originally published May 10, 2015]
**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.
[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]