SERVICE VIDEO: link
TEXT: Mark 2:14-22
Who has the authority to forgive sin but God alone?
We are in a series looking at what Jesus said and did, as told in the Gospel of Mark. We are looking at those things because Jesus invites us and prayed for us to follow him out into the world just as he went out into the world. We left off last week in Mark 2 with a paralyzed man being lowered through the roof of the home where Jesus was staying. Though Jesus would eventually heal the man, he did so as a sign of his authority to do what he did first: he told the man his sins were forgiven. And that scandalized the religious folks who were present. I suggested that we are probably not scandalized enough. We discount the importance of the “big miracle” of forgiving sin and focus on the lesser things of what God can do for us.
While today’s text seems to move on to other things, I see a point of connection on this theme of forgiveness of sin. Jesus goes from speaking it to living it out. I want to look at that with you and think a little more about how significant it is. We began the service with the first verses of Psalm 103, which declare God’s authority and willingness to forgive sin. This is the same authority and power Jesus claims and demonstrates.
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. 2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; 3 Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases; 4 Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion.
We left off with Jesus heading back down by the seashore in Capernaum (Mk. 2:13) and our text for today picks up with meeting and inviting another person to follow him as disciples. Jesus passed by the tax booth and saw Levi, a Jewish man working for the Roman government. Levi would have been hated, as all tax collectors were, for selling out to the Roman empire and collecting burdensome taxes from his own people. As Jesus passed by, he said to Levi, “Follow me!” (v.14) And Levi got up and followed him, as had the four fisherman just days before.
A Feast of Forgiveness (vv.15-17)
The scene shifts rather quickly to a dinner party, but the focus hasn’t changed from sin.
15 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. 16 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?” 17 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.”
It’s a dinner party with many tax collectors and others deemed to be ‘sinners’. This would have described any number of non-religious Jews in the eyes of the Scribes and Pharisees. There is no doubt that there is a connection between calling Levi to follow him and this dinner party. The Gospel of Luke adds the detail that “Levi gave a big reception for Jesus in his house, with a great crowd of tax collectors and others.” (Luke 5:29)
Many, not just the scribes and Pharisees, would have considered tax collectors undesirable company. But this went beyond that. This was a group of people identifiable as ‘sinners’ – non-religious folks who did not keep the Jewish religious rules. Why would Jesus have a meal with them? I believe he was demonstrating that the Kingdom of God was for all who would listen, not just the religious crowd and not just the rule-keepers. I also believe he was further demonstrating what he had shown when he healed the paralyzed man. When Jesus healed that man he said it was “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (Mk 2:10). Here he is not performing a miracle, but he is just as much demonstrating that he has the authority to forgive sin, to welcome sinners, to share with them in a feast and celebration.
For those who were hated by their own people and judged to be sinners far from God, this was a feast of forgiveness by the one truly able to welcome and forgive them.
Feast or Fast (vv.18-20)
The next part of our text seems to go on to another scene and another topic, but it is related.
18 John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they *came and *said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
The Law of Moses only required one day of fasting a year, on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Jewish people still celebrate Yom Kippur; in fact it was this past week from Tuesday evening to Wednesday evening. In Jesus day that was the only required fast, but some practiced voluntary fasting as a sign of penitence and devotion. John’s disciples did so because repentance was one of his central messages. And so the Pharisees asked Jesus about this, perhaps still in reference to the great “sinners’ feast” at Levi’s house. Perhaps they were even suggesting that Jesus and those tax collectors would have been better off fasting for their sin rather than feasting together.
Jesus replies with an analogy, pointing out that at a wedding it is not a time to fast but to feast and celebrate. He compares his own ministry and followers to that, saying that they are likewise celebrate something and someone. I don’t know if the Pharisees put it together that he was talking about himself, but it seems clear enough.
I think he was also describing the dynamic of what had just happened at Levi’s house. Those tax collectors and other so-called sinners didn’t need to go get religion and fast and repent. They were in the presence of and had responded to the invitation of the one who forgives sin. They had every reason to celebrate and to feast because Jesus was declaring Good News to them; Jesus WAS Good News for them.
Jesus goes on to day that days will come when the bridegroom is taken away and it will be time to fast. It seems as if he is pointing to his eventually leaving. And surely his followers would have reason to fast and pray, but they would also keep celebrating the feast. I think of the Lord’s Supper – communion – as one way we continue to celebrate the feast of forgiveness. In fact, the phrase “let us celebrate the feast” is still part of the Lord’s Supper liturgy in many traditions (and maybe needs to be added back to ours!).
Fitting and Filling (vv.21-22)
There is then a third and shorter part of our text this morning that also seems to move on to a new topic, but I think it is still related. It actually contains two different metaphors or analogies that seem to describe all that has just come before.
21 “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. 22 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.”
The first thing Jesus describes is sewing a patch of new cloth onto an old garment. The old has already been washed and stretched a hundred times and if you don’t stretch out the new fabric it will tear away.
Similarly, he describes an old wineskin and the risk of putting new wine into it. It can burst and the wine is lost. Instead, he says, put new wine into a new wineskin.
In both cases he is describing something having to do with old and new. The most immediate context seems to be what we’ve been looking at this morning. The old way to deal with sin was through the Law, through repentance and fasting, through hope in God’s forgiveness. And what developed around that was a religious fervor that sometimes believed sin could be addressed through hard work. It wasn’t just the Pharisees who made this mistake. Christians would also continue to struggle with that same notion of works-righteousness, which not only doesn’t work, but also creates distinctions between the religious and non-religious, like deeming the tax collectors and others ‘sinners’ unworthy of God. It’s not that they weren’t, it’s that the Pharisees were also sinners and unworthy of God and didn’t know it.
But Jesus came with new news; it was a Kingdom with God on the throne that welcomed all who would come. It was and is a Kingdom of justice and mercy, holiness and healing, and more. I would argue that it was there all along in the promises of God, the messages of the prophets, even in the Law of God. But the human structures and containers for that news were worn and insufficient for the glory of it. The rules and religion of the Pharisees were an old garment and an old wineskin that could not contain all that Jesus had to offer.
Jesus is showing people a new way – a new garment and a new wineskin for the Good News that is Himself and the Kingdom of God. The Law alone and certainly the traditions of men were not sufficient to carry the glorious news that God’s Kingdom is among us. So Jesus is teaching, showing, opening eyes and ears, and inviting people to be a part of it.
The Pharisees weren’t the only ones to struggle with old and limited structures for God’s Great News. Humanity has always struggled with this. You read about it in the early church. It was one of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation. And even today, even here, it’s going to be something we struggle with. Do we confuse the way we do things with the actual content of God’s Good News?
Is God’s Good News contained in our method of worship? Or in the church called Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church? Or in my teaching or our community habits together? Not at all. Sometimes the old way of doing things will constrain the message. Sometimes the message will “burst open” our way of doing things.
What is the alternative? I think we are exploring that even now. If there are no children coming to us for church (the old way), it may mean going out where children are. Christy and one or two people are doing that once a week. But we need so many more. We say we want to grow and reach children and young families; we have to put in the work and the old ways no longer work. And Jesus seems to be calling. Will you follow?
Dinner church is a fairly new thing that we’ve started back up. It is an easy thing to invite someone to, almost a direct parallel to the dinner described in today’s text. It has great potential to connect with our community. I can imagine it has great potential to be uncomfortable if the ratio of “church people” and “not church people” are there. But as Jesus said in talking about his own dinner church, is this not the reason we exist? Are not hospitals for the sick? Are our events – all our events – invitational or are they just for us?
What else are we willing to re-examine for effectiveness? What are we willing to change or do differently if the Lord leads? I’m not talking about change for the sake of change, but of holding loosely to the structures we know in order to take part in the “new wine” of God’s movement. Would you sing different songs? Sit in different seats? Welcome people who don’t share your background, ethnicity, or history?
What stays the same?
Jesus: He is the way, the truth, and the life.
The Kingdom of God: It wasn’t new with Jesus; he was just reminding people of something God had promised long ago.
God’s character: God has always been and will always be just, merciful, powerful, gentle, loving, and holy. And part of God’s faithfulness is…
God’s Word: It is trustworthy and true, though sometimes we struggle to understand and even more, to obey.
There is more, but what I want to hold out to you is the way that we cling to the wineskin and forget the wine. We’ve got to trust what is unchanging and ever hold loosely the things that stretch, wear, break, and fade away.
I challenge you to go home and re-read today’s texts – all three sections. Take your bulletin; it’s in there. Or find it in your Bible or on your phone. Ask yourself what is unchanging, what is of God, what you need to cling to. And ask God to show you what needs to change and what it means to follow Him freshly as Levi did that day when Jesus said, “Follow me.”
Jesus says that to each of us as well: “Follow me.” Amen.
Some Music Used
- Your Grace is Enough (Maher)
- We Will Feast in the House of Zion (McCracken)
- Come, Ye Sinners
- Rick Bean, jazz piano
- Come Thou Fount/We’ll Feast (arr. Austell)
- Simple Kingdom
- CHOIR: All Things New (Hagenberg)
- Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)