Mark 2:1-3:6 contains a series of five episodes in which the scribes and Pharisees raise questions about Jesus’ behavior. In four of the five episodes, they direct their questions to Jesus. But in vv. 15-16, they question the disciples.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
In terms of how this episode works on audiences of Mark’s gospel, something subtle is going on. The disciples throughout the gospel stand in for the church, so the scribes who are questioning the disciples are really challenging church audiences.
Think of films or plays in which characters break the fourth wall, departing from the narrative and speaking directly to the audience.
It’s as if the scribes pause the narrative and turn to church audiences to ask their question.
“Hey, church, are you paying attention to what Jesus is doing here? Do you see him eating with all the wrong people—the notorious sinners and those we consider traitors? These are the sort of scum upon whom God will surely rain down his judgment! Why is he spending time with them, running the risk of being seen to endorse them by eating with them?”
“And why is he so different from you? Your communities seem to be specially ordered to make sure you never run into these people? You’re so tidy and clean! Can you really claim to be a community loyal to this person?”
It does no good for us to answer that we truly do care for sinners but we just want to see them repent before we hang out with them. This is precisely the posture of the scribes and Pharisees. They long to see repentance and restoration on the part of sinners. But their method is to shun them into repentance, avoiding their contaminating presence.
Jesus doesn’t merely desire their repentance. He goes to them, walks among them, sits and eats with them. If God’s people are not among sinners and other marginalized people, the question must be faced, “why does Jesus eat with sinners and tax collectors when his disciples want to have nothing to do with them?”