Eating with “Scum”

By Mark D. Roberts

August 18, 2016

Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”

Mark 2:15-16 (NLT)


Drinking coffee with someone who has dirty hands and fingernails.When I was the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I once got into considerable trouble when preaching on this passage from Mark. A man in the congregation was upset with me for saying something like, “Why did Jesus eat with scum?” My critic’s point was that Jesus didn’t think of people in this way, and he was right, of course. This disgruntled church member failed to hear the irony in my usage of “scum.” I wasn’t speaking from my own point of view, but rather from that of the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, especially the Pharisees. They would have seen the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom Jesus dined while at Levi’s house as “scum.”

Am I more concerned about what people think of me than I am about people in need? Am I willing to “get my hands dirty” by entering into relationship with people who aren’t so neat and tidy?


In fact, the word “scum” isn’t found in the original Greek of Mark 2:16. It was added by the translators of the New Living Translation in an effort to convey the sense of their question, which reads literally, as in the NIV, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” What we must understand as we read this question is that in the culture of Jesus, table fellowship signified deep intimacy. To eat with someone was to share in their life and to allow them into yours as well. The Pharisees, who were committed to the highest standards of ritual purity, would never eat with people who were soiled by their impurity. They would have expected Jesus to do as they did, keeping plenty of distance between themselves and questionable types who might compromise Jesus’ apparent holiness.

So, why did Jesus eat with such people? Jesus ate with “scum” because he didn’t see them as scum. Nor was he concerned about preserving the appearance of his own religiosity. He ate with obvious sinners because they needed his help, and because they were open to receive it. As he explains in verse 17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (NIV).

This story challenges me to consider my own attitudes and behavior. Am I more concerned about what people think of me than I am about people in need? Am I willing to “get my hands dirty” by entering into relationship with people who aren’t so neat and tidy? Am I willing to be like Jesus? Or am I more like the Pharisees?


Do your selfish attitudes sometimes keep you from reaching out to people?

Who are the people in your life whom you might reject as “scum,” even though you might never use this kind of language?

What would it mean for you to follow the example of Jesus in this story in your workplace? Your neighborhood? Your church?


Lord Jesus, first of all I want to thank you for being willing to eat with “scum,” because that means you’re willing to have relationship with me. Oh, I might look pretty good on the outside. But you know my heart, Lord. You see all that is truly sinful in me. Yet you are willing to have deep fellowship with me, even to invite me to your table. How I thank you for your exceptional grace!

Help me, dear Lord, to imitate your example. Keep me from the pretense of not sharing life with people who are “questionable.” Help me never to think of anyone as “scum,” but instead to see him or her as you see them. Give me boldness to reach out to all with your love and grace, no matter how others might think of me. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: The Calling of Levi (Mark 2:13-17)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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