Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
Check out the many other resources for pastors and churches, individuals and small groups at, especially the Reading Guide and Study Guides to the Gospel of Mark
Check out the full (and ever expanding) list of Revised Common Lectionary Exegetical Notes

Mark 2:13-22
8th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B

Other texts:


The Call of Levi (2:13-14) 

A Meal with Sinners (2:15-17) 

A Question about Feasting (non-fasting) (2:18-22) 

The progression seems to be: 


Mark has a longer introduction to the calling of Levi than the Matthew (9:9) or Luke (5:27-28). Mark tells us that Jesus is once again by the sea, that all the crowds have come out to him, and that he is teaching them. (2:13).

There is no new time reference in these verses, so the events would appear to have occurred on the same day that Jesus forgave and healed the paralytic (2:1-12). As I noted in my notes on that text, I don't think that the opposition of the scribes is primarily with their question, "Who can forgive sins except God alone," because Jesus, up to that point, has not forgiven sins, but announced: "Your sins are forgiven" -- it is still God doing the forgiving. Their real question is whether or not God would forgive such a person as a paralytic. The real issue is whom will God forgive and under what conditions.

In Mark's narrative, it is on this same day that Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him -- and he does. There is also a possible connection between these two stories with the word "ochlos" = "crowd". The paralyzed man is one person out of the large crowd (2:4) who receives special attention from Jesus (resulting in forgiveness and healing). In 2:13, a "whole crowd" is walking with Jesus, and Jesus singles out a tax collector. (These are the first two occurrences of "ochlos" in Mark.)

It is later that same day that Jesus is seen and criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors. These incidents still deal with the question about whom God forgives and under what circumstances.

There is also a connection between our text with the first calling narrative (1:16-20). They both take place "by the sea [of Galilee]" ("para ten thalassan" 1:16, 2:13). Similar words are used in the call and response, "Follow me," and they follow. However, there are some differences in the words, which I will explore below.

The image given in the longer introduction of Mark is that Jesus is walking by the sea followed by a large crowd and he is teaching them. A typical image of a teacher and his disciples/students. However, it is Jesus' conversations with his critics that we hear -- not what he might have been teaching his followers and disciples. Could responding to such questions be the method of Jesus' teaching?


This is the only place where the name Levi occurs in Mark. He is not included in the list of the twelve (3:13-19), although the name Matthew is included (its only occurrence), which is the name given in Matthew 9:9 of the tax collector. Also, in the list of twelve (in all four gospels), there is "James the son of Alphaeus" -- the same parent named in our text. (There are some variant readings that give "James" as the tax collectors name in 2:14.) Are Matthew and Levi the same person -- both tax collectors? Are Levi and James the same person -- or brothers -- with the same father? Other individuals have two names in the gospels, e.g., Simon/Peter.

There is much about Levi that we don't know. We do know that he was sitting at the tax booth when Jesus saw him.

Malina and Rohrbaught ("Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels") make pertinent points about tax collectors in the first century.

It is important to distinguish between "chief" tax-collectors such as the Zacchaeus mentioned by Luke (19:2), and their employees such as the toll collectors referred to in Mark 2:15.

... The tax collectors familiar in the Synoptic tradition were for the most part employees of the chief tax collector and were often rootless persons unable to find other work. Evidence from the late Imperial period suggests that cheating or extortion on their part would be less likely to benefit them than the chief tax collector for whom they worked.

We must also understand what is meant by the term "tax." Taxes in the first century were both direct and indirect. Direct taxes were levied on land, crops, and individuals. Indirect taxes included tolls, duties, and market taxes of various kinds. Toll collectors sitting in customhouses (Mark 2:14) collected levies on goods entering, leaving, or being transported across a district as well as those passing crossover points like bridges, gates, or landings. ... Conflict was especially intense between toll collectors and the tradesmen with whom they constantly interacted. Plutarch relates that: "we are annoyed and displeased with toll collectors, not when they pick up those articles which we are importing openly, but when in the search for concealed goods they pry into baggage and merchandise which are another's property. And yet the law allows them to do this and they would lose by not doing so" ("De curiositate" 518E; Loeb, 491). ...

We must also be careful in assessing the apparent conflict between Pharisees and toll collectors in Mark. The evidence is less substantial than one might guess from reading Mark. The authors of the Mishnah state: "If tax-gatherers enter a house, the house becomes unclean" ("m. Toharot" 7:6). But the house referred to here belongs to a member of one of the early Pharisee groups which were dedicated to ritual purity in table fellowship. It is therefore a special case. The assumption is that if a tax gatherer entered the house he would handle everything in order to assess the wealth of the owners. But it is not that the tax gatherer per se is unclean. Almost any nongroup member handling the objects in such a house would be ritually unclean by the host's standards and thus would defile the objects. [pp. 189-190]

Given this description (and others I've read), it is unclear whether or not Levi was wealthy or poor. Capernaum, as a center of commerce, and as a border town between the territories of Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, may have had a high number of merchants bringing in their goods, and paying the toll, so Levi may have been wealthier than the average toll-collector even though he was probably working for a chief tax collector. As a toll-collector, he would not been part of the "in-group" according to the Pharisees. Probably, like the paralytic, he is not one whom they thought God would forgive -- at least, not without some major changes in his life.

Jesus is saying to Levi, "Follow me." These are *not* the same words that he used when calling the first pair of fishermen, which more literally could be translated, "Come after/behind me."

The term for "follow" ("akoloutheo") here can mean, "to become a disciple of". However, it can simply mean, "to accompany." There was already a large crowd who were walking with Jesus. Jesus' words could simply have been an invitation to join the crowd that he was teaching. Levi rises up (a term that is used for Jesus' resurrection) and follows Jesus. It doesn't state that he leaves everything behind like with the fishermen. Shortly there will be a feast in his home (or perhaps in Jesus' home -- see comments below).


The ambiguity of "follow me" is heightened by the fact that the next scene is in "his" house. The NRSV, NIV, Luke 5:29, and many commentators interprets "his" as "Levi's". That is, Levi follows Jesus to Levi's house, where Levi throws a party for Jesus (suggesting that he might be wealthier than the average toll-collector). Both Jesus' disciples and Levi's "sinner" friends are invited. This is similar to events after the first call passage: Jesus goes to Peter's house, and they are eventually served a meal by his mother-in-law (1:29-31) -- a woman who needed Jesus' power to be restored. These calls to follow are followed by a meal.

However, the possibility exists that "his house" could refer to Jesus' house -- that Levi follows Jesus to Jesus' house where a party is planned for Levi and all the other outcasts. There have been four pronouns very close to each other:

Should the final "his" refer to the previous "he" [Jesus]? Is the writer using a type of chiasmus: Levi-Jesus-Jesus-Levi?

The possibility that Jesus had a home in Capernaum is suggested by 2:1b. NRSV translates it: "it was reported that he was at home". More literally it might be: "It was reported that he is in a house/home". It is ambiguous as to whose house Jesus was in.

Wherever it was, Jesus and his disciples are in table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners.

Eating together was a powerful symbol. After the "Gentile Pentecost" at the house of Cornelius, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is criticized by some Jews: "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and *eat with them*?" (Acts 11:3). He isn't criticized for baptizing them, but for eating with them! This issue is also addressed by Paul in Galatians 2:12. When parents discipline their children by sending them to bed without supper, I wonder if the hunger caused by missing one meal is as harsh as being excluded from the family table fellowship. What might this say about who is welcome (or not) to the communion table?

Verse 15 is the first time "disciples" is used in Mark. There seems to be a distinction between the disciples and the many who are following him. Perhaps translating "mathetes" as "students" may help illustrate the difference. Learning from Jesus vs. just following him (as part of the crowds?) are two different things.

A sermon theme I've used from this verse is the fact that Jesus' disciples were going to have table fellowship with Jesus, they also had to eat with society's undesirables. "Would you have come to that party?" I ask. I'm afraid that there are people in our congregations who wouldn't come if "those" people are going to be there.

Only Mark has the brief explanation line at the end of v. 15: "for there were many who were following him." It is likely that "many" refers to the "many" (both "polloi") earlier in the verse -- "many tax collectors and sinners." Were they part of the "whole crowd" mentioned in v. 13? That seems likely to me, since the imperfect is used for "follow." This implies continued or repeated actions in the past. Following Jesus was not something that just started with the meal. However, as I noted above, following Jesus does not necessarily make one a disciple.

Williamson, ("Mark," Interpretation Commentaries) writes:

The note in verse 15 that "there were many (of these social and religious outcasts) who followed him" doubtless describes not only Jesus' associates during his earthly life, but also the early Christian community from which this Gospel emerged and for which it is written. Such a church would remember this story gratefully as its members answered their critics in the synagogue. [p. 68]


Only Mark contains the line in v. 16: "seeing that he is eating with sinners and tax collectors." Jesus' table-fellowship was not done in private, but openly, in a way that others could see. As many of our small towns, little happens that the neighbors don't see.

Besides eating with the "riff-raff" with Jesus, the disciples are asked to defend Jesus' behavior. Here is an example of triangling in system theory. The "scribes of the Pharisees" have a complaint against Jesus. However, they don't talk to Jesus; rather they are telling (imperfect) others (the disciples). A similar "non-approach" to Jesus is taken by the scribes with their complaint in 2:6, they don't talk to Jesus, but discuss "in their hearts" and "among themselves". My impression is that triangles like this happen once in a while in congregations <g>. Jesus destroys the triangle in both cases by answering the Pharisees directly.

The question being asked of the disciples is: "Why is *he* eating with tax collectors and sinners?" They aren't asked why *they* were eating with such people.

Juel ("Mark," Augsburg Commentary) suggests a possible reason for this in his excursus on "The Controversies:"

Jesus' interrogators in these stories are often called "adversaries" by commentators. Perhaps the term is a bit strong. Jesus is asked to defend his behavior by observant Jews who regard him as someone sharing common values. If Jesus were perceived by the pious as a common sinner, they would not have dignified him with questions.

Debate about interpretation of a law was not unusual within Jewish tradition. In fact, one might say that difference of opinion was a prominent feature of the tradition, something to be treasured. ... That Jesus' behavior should become an occasion to debate his interpretation of the law and his attitude toward the "tradition of the elders" does not suggest that his critics are enemies.


We do the Pharisees an injustice when we regard them as petty hypocrites. Mark does not portray them as petty. They have a definite view of Jewish identity that differs at points from Jesus', and they ask questions. We ought not trivialize these differences of opinion by caricaturing the opposition. We might also note that Jesus would have looked more like a Pharisee than a member of any other of the various groups in the story. The reason for the Pharisees' concerns is that Jesus seems sympathetic to their religious cause while doing things that seem to undermine its foundations. If he were not a religious Jew, they would have had no interest in him. [pp. 50-51]

It seems likely to me, that crude fishermen eating with tax collectors and sinners was no big deal. The Pharisees wouldn't care or question that. It is because Jesus is seen as a pious, religious, scholar, that he is worthy of debate with other pious, religious, scholars. "Why does *he* eat with such people?" is the question. That is closely related to the issue that I mentioned earlier in this note: Whom will God forgive and under what conditions. Would God be in fellowship with those people? Even before they have repented and changed their lives?

The fact that the disciples are questioned about Jesus' behavior may indicate that Mark's church was being (or should be) asked similar questions about their table-fellowship. "Why are you doing that? with those people?" If people aren't asking such questions about us, why aren't they?


Jesus did not come to be a judge, but a physician. I imagine that it could be very easy for physicians to be very judgmental. There are all kinds of things we can do to make ourselves healthier and prevent diseases. Good physicians will tell their patients: stop smoking, lose weight, eat healthier foods, keep sex within a marriage relationship, etc. Physicians give all kinds of wonderful rules so that our lives might be better. However, when somebody has lung cancer or emphysema, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or STDs; their primary job is to try and save the patient from the destruction or pain of the disease. They may shake their heads and think "How stupid," but their calling with the sick is not to judge, but to heal/save.

In his dealing with the tax collectors and sinners, Jesus, in our text, does not ask them to repent of their sins. Neither did he ask that of the paralytic in the preceding text before he forgave and healed him. What is the relationship between repentance and forgiveness or restoring one's relationship with God? Should there be a brief order of confession and forgiveness before celebrating Holy Communion? Should we invite people to the table without prior repentance? without a prior baptism? Under what conditions should they be invited to participate in the table-fellowship with Jesus?

What does it mean to be called? The first meaning of the term "kaleo" in the NT is "to call by name" or "to give a name to," e.g., "calling the baby, Jesus". It then means "to summons" or "to invite," which usually implies the giving of a task and/or a new relationship with the one doing the calling. The only people Jesus actually calls (with this Greek word) in Mark are James and John (1:20). (Does that place them in the category of "not righteous, but sinners"?)

The only other place "righteous" is used in Mark is 6:20 where Herod considers John the B to be a righteous and holy man. Generally this Greek word "dikaios" refers to "doing what God (or humans) require." In addition to such *actions*, it can also mean "being in a right relationship with [God]."

How might Jesus be using the word in v. 17? (1) Those who *act* rightly, but who don't have a proper relationship with God, i.e., their good actions are not properly motivated by a love of God or neighbor. (2) Their actions and their relationship with God are right, in which case, Jesus doesn't need to call them into a proper relationship with God.

"Sinners" is presented as the contrast to "righteous," and, as such, refers to (1) improper actions and/or (2) improper relationship with God.

Jesus uses the same word ("hamartolos") in 8:38: "Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and *sinful* generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Here "sinful" is parallel with "adulterous" -- a term frequently used in the OT for an unfaithful relationship with God. Jesus' understanding of "sinful" and "adulterous" may also be indicated by his words: "being ashamed of me and my words". These images seem to define sin in relational terms, rather than dealing with specific actions.

The same might be indicated in Mark's other use of the term in 14:41: "... the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of *sinners*." What made them "sinners"? Were they doing the right or the wrong thing by arresting Jesus? Were their actions in obedience or in disobedience to the will of God? Was it God's will that Jesus should be betrayed, arrested, suffer, and die? It seems to me that their sinfulness was not their actions, but their lack of a relationship with God, but, in spite of that lack of relationship, they will still be used to carry out God's will.


Why fast? Harper's Bible Dictionary says that in the OT there were two kinds of fasting: public and private.

The fasts were always accompanied by prayer and supplication and frequently by wearing sackcloth as a sign of penance and mourning (Neh. 9:1; Dan 9:3; 1 Macc. 3:47.) ... Private fasts were observed as acts of penance (2 Sam 12:15-23; 1 Kings 21:27; Ps 69:115), when others became sick (Ps 35:13-14), and when one was accused and scorned (Ps. 109:4-21). [p. 304]

It is ironic that Jesus who came proclaiming repentance (1:15), does not including fasting as a sign of repentance (as apparently John did). Perhaps in our vernacular, Jesus is saying, "It's time to party!" -- an image not usually associated with repentance.

Malina and Rohrbaugh ("Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels") state: "Fasting at a wedding, that is, refusing to participate fully in the wedding celebration, would be a serious insult implying disapproval of the marriage taking place" [p. 194]

Their comment reminds me of the parables of Luke 15: "Will you rejoice with me at finding the lost?" And the elder son refusing to participate in the party. His snub points out a rift between himself and his father and his brother.

What days are we in now? The days of the bridegroom's absence -- he was taken away? The days of his presence -- Jesus was raised and returned? Is it still "time to party" or "time to fast"? Or, do we sort of combine the two in what some have called "a hungry meal" -- a petite piece of bread and a small sip of wine -- not really enough to be called a meal?


Jesus' images here suggest the following chart.

coat  material for patch sew on  worse tear 
wine-skin wine  pour in wine lost, skin destroyed

  I'm thinking that elements from Jesus' previous answers may also fit into this scheme -- although the results here are positive.

fasting  partying  invited by the bridegroom to be attendants recognize bridegroom's presence (and occasion) 
healthy  sick  need physician  wholeness
righteous  sinners  called  forgiveness/new relationship

The new that Jesus brings won't fit with the old. In fact, it ends up destroying the old. Jesus eating with sinners in a party setting just doesn't fit into the old picture of the righteous being the ones who are close to God, that proper repentance requires fasting and mourning.

How many congregations have been split apart when something new was introduced? A new translation of the Lord's Prayer? Guitars and drums in worship? Toe-tapping music that people could dance to? Sometimes "new" is introduced just for novelty's sake, but much more frequently, it is introduced so that those who are, perhaps most in need of Jesus' call, might hear it in a way they will understand and to which they can respond. Are our congregations committed to inviting the sinners to the party, or to trying to preserve the old, comfortable ways of doing things?

Brian Stoffregen, Rock Springs, WY
ICQ #18545384