Mark 2:13-14 – As Jesus Passed By

“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (verse 13-14, NKJV)

As Jesus passed by… This line strikes me so strongly. We all pass by a thousand things each day that we never take a single moment’s notice of, don’t we? People, interactions, opportunities… We simply “pass by.” But when Jesus passes by, He sees things that others don’t. He saw Levi “sitting at the tax office.” Any one of us would have glanced Levi’s way and have simply muttered to ourselves, “What a hopeless sell-out.” But when Jesus saw Levi, He saw a heart hungering for acceptance and love. Aren’t we so thankful that when Jesus passes by us, He looks our way, too?

In Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s call to discipleship and Levi’s immediate response of obedience is abrupt and unexpected. The sudden encounter is one which even leaves us a bit uncomfortable perhaps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the abruptness of this interaction:

The call of Jesus goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience… How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events… Thus we get the stupid question: Surely, the publican must have known Jesus before, and the previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent in this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus… Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher of a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text, Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus.  (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)

An unexpected call, and an immediate response… You know, I used to look at this story and shudder in awe at the magnitude of Levi-Matthew’s sacrifice. To be honest, I always found the account intimidating. Would I have been able to walk away from everything known and comfortable in my world? After all, Levi’s decision was an irreversible one! Theologian William Barclay points out:

Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide. (Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

But, you know what, as I reflect on this passage more fully, I think I now understand why Levi could and would immediately choose to follow the call. Through his whole life, Levi-Matthew had struggled to find meaning and purpose, to feel like he belonged somewhere. And now, here was that opportunity standing before him, in the form of a Person named Jesus. Levi was being offered an invitation to be a part of a community, a family. He was being called into an eternal friendship with the very Son of God. As Bonheoffer concludes, “At the call, Levi leaves all that he has – but not because he thinks he might be doing something worth while, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus… When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.”

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot

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Mark 2:1-12 – Healing Forgiveness

After a brief preaching circuit around the Galilean region, Jesus returns to his hometown. Mark 2 picks up the account:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum several days later, the news spread quickly that he was back home. Soon the house where he was staying was so packed with visitors that there was no more room, even outside the door. While he was preaching God’s word to them, four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they dug a hole through the roof above his head. Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. (Mark 2:1-4, NLT)

Before we go any further, I can’t help but pause here and reflect on one line in this passage that I find particularly disturbing: “They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (verse 4, NLT). We like to think of ourselves as “the crowd around Jesus,” don’t we? We’re Christians, we’re church-goers, we’re part of the “in group.” But have we ever stopped to think about how we might sometimes actually be a hindrance for others trying to get to Jesus? Can’t we so easily discourage seekers by the way we judge others in our churches? Or perhaps by the way we criticize or gossip about other believers? What about when we try to make others follow all of our self-imposed rules once they get into our churches? (“You can’t be baptized until…”) How many times have sincere seekers been turned away or discouraged from coming to Jesus by the church-going crowd around Jesus? A sobering thought.

But, I love how the rest of the story goes. I like to imagine it played out something like this:

Perched from his seat in the center of the room, Jesus teaches to the eager crowd. They’re most likely in Peter’s house. Closest around Jesus are Peter, Andrew, James, and John, each posturing themselves as protective body guards. They’re keeping an eye out, in case anyone tries any, you know, “funny business.” In the middle of Jesus’ illustration, an awful scraping and clattering noise interrupts the discussion from directly above. Suddenly, a torrent of straw and dust and mud flakes rain down on the heads of Jesus and the disciples. What could possibly be going on? Peter gives a shout of indignation and starts for the back portico door—that’s his roof after all! But Jesus quickly reaches out and gently grabs a hold of Peter. “Wait..” Jesus whispers. Then, looking up with a quizzical smile, Jesus waits to see what will happen next… Suddenly, four heads pop over the ceiling’s gaping hole. A moment later, the heads disappear and grunts of lifting and staining can be heard. The next thing everyone knows, a pallet of some kind is being lowered with ropes through the opening. (Everyone is still too surprised to say anything!) Once the load reaches eye level, a gasp ripples across the room. There’s a man on the pallet! Slowly, the bed is lowered all the way to the floor, directly in front of the Teacher. All eyes are on Jesus now. The crowd breathlessly waits to see what Jesus will do. Jesus looks intently at the paralyzed man for a long while. He then thoughtfully gazes up at the four heads popping through the roof. Finally, resting His eyes back on the young man, Jesus says with a loving smile: “My child, your sins are forgiven” (verse 5, NLT).

“Uh, Jesus…” We think to ourselves. “Are you sure you got that right? Isn’t this man’s plight rather obvious? Don’t you think the poor guy would rather just be able to walk!?”  But no, Jesus knows exactly what’s going on in this man’s mind and heart. What kind of physical experience can possibly compare with the spiritual, emotional peace that comes from a forgiven soul? Christ’s words fall like music on the paralytic’s ears…

The burden of despair rolls from the sick man’s soul; the peace of forgiveness rests upon his spirit, and shines out upon his countenance. His physical pain is gone, and his whole being is transformed. The helpless paralytic is healed! the guilty sinner is pardoned!

In simple faith he accepted the words of Jesus as the boon of new life. He urged no further request, but lay in blissful silence, too happy for words. The light of heaven irradiated his countenance, and the people looked with awe upon the scene. (E. G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 268)

Yet not everyone can appreciate the beauty of the moment. From this point in Mark’s gospel, we see the first flicker of the mounting controversy between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders: “But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there thought to themselves, ‘What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!’” (vs. 4-6, NLT) How sad. These so-called spiritual authorities have become so calloused and jaded that they can’t even sympathize with the paralytic’s needs. Their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity has been growing by this point and so they immediately jump on an opportunity upon which they can criticize Jesus. But I just love how Jesus responds to the situation:

But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 12 Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:6-12, NKJV)

With one stunning miracle, Jesus traps the scribes in their own logic! As theologian William Barclay writes: “On their own stated beliefs the man could not be cured, unless he was forgiven. He was cured, therefore he was forgiven. Therefore Jesus’ claim to forgive sin must be true.”

As Mark’s “first time readers,” we learn a couple of important points from this story about the life and ministry of Jesus. Number one, we see for the first time, that Jesus not only heals sick people and cleanses lepers, but He also forgives sins! (We’re not just dealing with a powerful prophet anymore!) Next, we see Jesus affirm faith as an integral part of the healing/forgiving process. Finally, we begin to see the forebodings of an irreparable rift between Jesus and the religious leaders. Where is all of this going to lead from here? 

Before we wrap up today’s study, however, I’d like to highlight a few more life-application points for us to reflect on throughout the rest of the day:

  • Notice that after the crowd hinders the paralytic from being brought to Jesus, the four men must tear through the roof to make a way to Jesus. The thought occurs to me: Are these some things in my life I might need to tear down to ensure that I am never a hindrance for others coming to Jesus? Are there some practices of our churches that we might need to deconstruct in order to foster a better community of acceptance and love for those who seek Jesus?
  • Verse 5 says: “When Jesus saw their faith,” then He spoke to the paralytic… So, whose faith are we talking about here? Was it the faith of the four friends or the faith of the paralytic? I believe it’s both! The paralytic had to be exercising some faith in order to ask his friends to carry him to Jesus in the first place, and he was certainly acting in faith as he jumped up from his bed! But Jesus was also affirming the faith of the four friends in caring for their brother. We also have a responsibility to intercede in prayer and come along side our brothers and sisters in their difficult life seasons. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NLT).
  • The Pharisees and scribes were beginning to become trapped in a fault-finding mode of thinking. They were becoming jealous and suspicious of Jesus and so they were just waiting to pounce on an opportunity to criticize Him, even when that so-called opportunity was a beautiful act of the miraculous. Shouldn’t we carefully examine ourselves when we find our hearts falling into the same kind of critical spirit of other individuals or groups, even if they may do things a little differently than we do?
  • Which character, or set of characters, do you most closely identify with in this story? The crowd, the friends, the disciples, the paralytic? Why?