Bible Reading Blog

Bible Reading Blog

“He Eats With Sinners”

Categories: Congregational Bible Reading


“When [the Pharisees] saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2.16)

Many today do not appreciate the significance of Jesus actions as he opposed (what we regard as) the stuffy piety of the Pharisees. Although we can see the fault in their attitude, the Pharisees were regarded as those seeking to offer God the utmost respect in their worship. 

This group developed over hundreds of generations of Jews who lived under the law. Their driving motivation was to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19.2). Under the law, Israel was to abstain from animals and peoples who were considered unclean for fear that they would become contaminated. In many cases, meals defined social boundaries in terms of who was “clean” and who was not. And so, the tradition of the Pharisees represented an attitude that approached sin from the preventive side.

Jesus’ bold outreach took a completely different approach to sinners as he ate with them; and so, it was easy for the Pharisees to interpret his behavior as a violation of the instructions laid down in scripture not to associate with evil doers (Psalm 1.1). But Jesus’ actions were not in violation of the law. Rather they represented an attitude that approached sin from the proper perspective, seeking to reclaim the impure and immoral. Jesus's actions highlight the contrast between their religious attitude that kept sinners away, and the good news of God that welcomes everyone to come near.

This incident exposes a tendency among God’s people throughout history to exclude or write off others we classify as hopeless. Many Christians today do not recognize that they harbor the very same attitude as these 1st century Pharisees. We sing “Amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me,” but we have in mind only our kind of wretches. This episode reveals 2 things that we would do well to consider today:

1. By eating with sinners, Jesus did not condone sinful lifestyles but attested that their lifestyle could be transformed. That’s the point of the gospel! We must be careful not censor our faith with people no matter how hopeless they might appear to us. Everyone can be transformed, but we must embrace the opportunity to spend time with them.

2. Jesus did not fear being "contaminated" by sinners but instead he “cleansed” them with God’s grace and power. Obviously we must be careful about the company we keep (1 Corinthians 15.33), but if the object of our religious life is to completely shield ourselves from bad influences, it forces us to look at people as potential polluters, who will make us impure. Jesus rejects this perspective. He doesn’t regard holiness as something that needs to be safeguarded but as God’s transforming power which can turn tax collectors into disciples.

Jesus makes it clear that we cannot win people with whom we are not willing to eat. It’s not about the food—it’s about our attitude towards others. We must seek to honor God as holy, but we must also caution ourselves against self-righteousness, and recognize that we’re all sinners in need of saving (Romans 3.23). And that’s what Jesus came to do.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.” (Mark 2.17)