Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners
In this episode, which is also narrated by the other Synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew (who refers to the tax collector as Matthew, rather than Levi, 9:9-13) and Luke (5:27-32), Jesus is confronted by the scribes of the Pharisees over his choice to eat with tax collectors and sinners. When Jesus’s disciples are questioned as to why their teacher feels it appropriate to eat with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus himself replies that in the same way the healthy do not need medical help, it is useless taking God’s message to those who have already heard it and are living according to it. As is argued by the likes of Joachim Gnilka (Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 104) and Ernst Lohmeyer (Das Evangelium Des Markus, p. 54-55), it is possible that the Markan author added verses 13 (immediately prior to the section quoted here) and 14, which mention the tax/toll collector Levi, to verses 15-17 later on, the two being originally separate traditions which Mark was working with, as Levi does not have any further role after he arises and follows Jesus, and Jesus’s response to the scribes’ question only mentions sinners, rather than tax/toll collectors (of which Levi is one) or both (see Robert Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, p. 98). Of course, the author wanted the text to be presented in the final form that we now have, but the potential joining of the call of Levi (verses 13-14) seems to echo the call stories of Simon and Andrew earlier in the Gospel (see Mark 1:16-20), so it could be that Mark decided to add a call story of a tax collector to a previously separate story about Jesus dining with tax collectors (sinners) in order to strongly illustrate that his discipleship is open to everyone. The fact that the tax collector’s recruitment is similar in form to that of Simon and Andrew (who had the less controversial job of being fishermen), emphasises this.
Both Greek and Jewish sources are disapproving of tax collectors (see, for example, Dio Chrysostom, Orations 14.14; Mishnah Nedarim 3:4; Tosefta Nedarim 2:2) (see Mary Beavis, Mark, p. 60), however, as John Donahue argues (“Tax Collectors and Sinners,” p. 42), it might be more accurate to render the term τελώνης as “toll collector,” as while more direct taxes, such as poll tax, were managed by the central authorities, indirect taxes, such as those on land, customs, and transportation, were given over to individuals to control, who would sit in toll booths by the road. It is this latter form of tax that Levi was likely responsible for (see Robert Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, p. 100-101). He would have been tasked with collecting the various taxes put in place by Herod Antipas (at this point, Galilee, unlike Judea, was not yet subject to direct Roman taxation), including customs duties on the goods which came through and were traded in Capernaum, a border town (Herod Philip’s tetrarchy was on the other side of the Jordan). Such toll collectors, however, were unpopular because of their employment by a Roman-sanctioned authority (regardless of any accusations of swindling on the part of the tax collectors), and it is therefore unsurprising that tax/toll collectors are frequently referred to in the Gospels alongside “sinners” (see also Matthew 11:19; Luke 15:1, 18:9-14), “fornicators” (Matthew 21:31; Luke 18:11), and “Gentiles” (Matthew 5:46-47, 18:17), even if the tax/toll collectors themselves could be Jewish, as in Levi’s case. The Pharisees apparent disgust at Jesus’s social faux pas, therefore, is understandable in this context – toll collectors like Levi were immoral and religiously dubious due to their character and associations (even if not direct) with a Gentile, imperial regime.
Mary Beavis (Mark, p. 60) remarks that while the house Jesus eats in is likely that of Levi, it is also possible that it is a house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying, possibly that of Simon and Andrew, two of Jesus’s disciples. However, if it is assumed to be Levi’s house, then the episode parallels the story of Zaccehus in Luke 19:1-10, where we also have an unpopular tax collector acting as an unlikely host to Jesus (see Robert Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, p. 101). As Adela Yarbro Collins (Mark: A Commentary, p. 194) shows, the fact that writers such as Dio Chyrsostom (Orations 14.14) also speak derogatively of tax collectors indicates that “reluctance to share a meal with people considered morally deficient [was] not a uniquely Jewish characteristic,” and therefore not necessarily related to purity laws. As stated above, it is also true that the type of tax collected by Levi (and arguably the others who dined with Jesus) was not a direct imposition of Rome. However, Herod Antipas ruled under Rome, and sought to please the imperial overlords as far as possible. Therefore, the passage probably at least in part evidences Jewish disdain for those such as Levi who worked for Rome’s tetrarch, playing a part (however indirect and small) in what was perceived as an oppressive regime counter to the rule of God. The fact that Jesus is willing to eat with those considered social outcasts by his opponents here also shows that his followers need not pay attention to strict social rules regarding where and with whom it was appropriate to eat; rather, his message and following is open to all.
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