This passage is composite. It consists of a summary statement about Jesus’ teaching activity (Mk 2: 13), a brief account of the call of Levi (Mk 2: 14) which closely parallels the call narrative in Mark 1: 16-20, and a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees (Mk 2: 15-17).
The second conflict episode is centered on Jesus’ table fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners. The narrative of the call of Levi, a tax-collector (Mk 2: 14), functions as an introduction to the conflict that follows immediately (Mk 2: 15-17). The Pharisees, and indeed Judaism of Jesus’ time, characterized certain people as ‘sinners’ and scrupulously avoided contact with them. The term ‘sinners’ designated not only those who did not observe the commandments of God but principally those who followed certain despised professions or trades. Tax-collectors, publicans, money-changers, herdsmen, etc., were considered ‘sinners’ and as such ‘outcasts’ of society. The passage we are looking at mentions tax-collectors and sinners. Tax-collectors were state officials whose profession was considered to lead them to immorality, dishonesty, avarice, etc. Besides, their profession also meant co-operation with the pagan Roman rulers of Palestine. They were, thus, considered as unclean, sinners, and outcasts, and an essential aspect of the Jewish religious practices was to avoid all association with such people.
Jesus, however, totally disregard such religiously sanctioned separation of classes. He associates himself closely with those whom the religious authorities had classified as sinners and outcasts; and he even eats with them (Mk 2: 15). Jesus’ identification with sinners was already prefigured in his baptism. Now we see it in a concrete human situation. But to the Pharisees Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners was shocking and scandalous especially because Jesus was a teacher. Their question, which is addressed to Jesus’ disciples (Mk 2: 16), is a veiled challenge to them to dissociate themselves from such a teacher who is in the company of sinners. Citing a popular maxim Jesus defends his action (Mk 2: 17b) and says that he has come not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mk 2: 17c). The use of the word ‘righteous’ here seems to be ironic. If so, it would mean ‘self-righteous’ and would imply a condemnation of the attitude of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus’ meal fellowship with ‘sinners’ shows that he breaks down the barriers of separation erected by religion and society. It means that God unconditionally accepts sinners and forgives them. God’s unmerited love is thus at work in Jesus and it reaches out to sinners. In other words, by his actions Jesus brings the kingdom of God’ love into people’s life and experience effecting a radical transformation of humanity.