The Pharisees saw Jesus sitting with sinners and tax collectors, and made a judgment call. Perhaps the Pharisees were thinking of Psalms 1. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted near streams of water that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers. But not so are the wicked, not so! They are like chaff driven by the wind. Therefore the wicked will not arise at the judgment, nor will sinners in the assembly of the just. Because the LORD knows the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.” Sinners are not good people, and tax collectors are the lowest of the lowly. Therefore, at first blush, we would agree with them. For example: We know that a (fictitious) group of people are known drug addicts and drunkards and we see a well known Christian dining and drinking with them, what would we think? Perhaps we might think, “Look at Jody Boy; he’s supposed to be a Christian.” I recall the cliché—I’ve used it myself—“birds of a feather flock together,” or “you know a person by the people he hangs around with.”
St. Mark, in his Gospel account, was referring to the Jesus’ call of Levi (Matthew). “Once again he went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus heard this and said to them [that], ‘Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners’.”
This was not a party at Levi’s house, and Jesus joined in. Prior to this, Jesus was walking along the sea. The crowd came to him, and He taught them, as He walked along. As He passed by the customs post, He said to Levi, “Follow me.” As Jesus sat at table in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners—who had followed Him there—sat with Him and His disciples. The scribes, who were Pharisees, probably passed by later, saw Jesus, and asked some of those who they knew to follow Jesus why He ate with sinners and tax collectors. We do not know whether they were asking this sarcastically or questioningly. This is St. Mark’s first mention of the Pharisees, and he does not appear to be rebuking them here. He is just mentioning a fact, that some scribes who were Pharisees saw Jesus. Jesus heard them asking; therefore, Jesus told them, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do; I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Jesus is not rebuking them, but stating a fact.
St. Mark is not desirous of us focusing on the Pharisees; he is desirous that we understand that Jesus came to call sinners. He came to call those that are not righteous in order that He may make them righteous, make them holy. He was not “hanging out” with sinners; He was calling them, teaching them. St. Mark is giving us Hope. If we are sinners—and we are—then Jesus is calling us. He calls each of us continuously, “Follow me.” He constantly beckons to us in the Mass, especially in the Eucharist, “Come, eat; come, follow.” When we cease to hear this, we will turn away. This Hope is not wishful thinking.
This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: stpaulcatholic.net