Mark 2:15-20 – Eating and Not Eating?


Mark 2:15-20


Jesus uses two controversies over eating to continue to unfold the nature of his identity, describing himself as both a doctor and a bridegroom.


The controversies and challenges that Jesus faces throughout the Gospel of Mark cluster around different themes. In the first two chapters, the themes of authority and Sabbath have already emerged. In these two stories, issues of eating present another opportunity for Jesus’ opponents to challenge him. Eating in the ancient world was intimately connected to religious observance and social status. Many religious festivals (i.e., Passover) were centered around meals and people chose their dining companions to reflect their place in society. For the Pharisees, eating also served as a distinct cultural marker that set them apart from their non-Jewish neighbors. Therefore, the expectation of the Pharisees was that Jesus, a man who had the authority to teach in synagogues and perform miracles of healing, would keep a strict watch on whom he ate with.

Jesus surprises them by eating in a house full of tax collectors and sinners. The issue at hand is both religious and cultural. On the one hand, the concern about sinners points to a religious concern; a holy man should keep apart from unholy people. On the other hand, many Judeans saw tax collectors as traitors because of their collaboration with the Roman occupation. If Jesus was meant to stand in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, it stood to reason that he would not associate himself with Roman collaborators. Jesus uses the controversies over these groups of people to further explain his identity and he does so by means of an aphorism: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus underlines that he is not concerned with people who think of themselves as righteous, but has come to lift up those who are actually sinners.

Expectations around eating also inform the following controversy. Fasting in the ancient world was seen as a necessary counterpart to feasting. Jesus shares this point of view. The question is not whether Jesus thinks fasting is necessary, it is why he does not command his disciples to fast at the same time as other observant Jewish groups. His reply emphasizes the crisis that his appearance has provoked. Using wedding imagery, he explains that his time on earth is short and that it is a time of celebration. In the first prediction of his death, Jesus acknowledges that fasting is important for his disciples, but that it will not take place until Jesus departs from them.