Zig Ziglar, the famous salesman and motivational speaker, once said, "The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist." Various versions of this sentiment have been expressed by other people. The thought makes a good deal of sense. If a problem goes unrecognized, how can it even begin to be addressed?
The four Gospels report that the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees were the chief antagonists of Jesus. Matthew 23:16 reports that Jesus called the Pharisees "blind guides," but as we see in John 9:39–41, their blindness did not pertain to their understanding of Jesus' true identity. They had to be blind to something else, and in today's passage we see that they were blind to their own spiritual condition.
After calling Levi, Jesus went to the tax collector's home and reclined at his table (Mark 2:15). This was the typical position one took at feasts and celebrations, with the head facing the table and the feet pointing away from it. Evidently, Levi saw his call to be a disciple of Christ as a time to rejoice. Yet as we see, not everyone approved of Jesus' behavior in joining with tax collectors and other sinners who had been invited to the party. The "scribes of the Pharisees" frowned on Jesus' fellowship with sinners, for they believed that acceptance with God was based on strict Torah study and observance. These others had not engaged in a life of such devotion; in fact, many of them did things that directly contradicted God's law. The scribes simply could not understand how a man who claimed to be from God could have such nerve as to eat with wicked people (vv. 16–17).
Among other things, we see that Jesus clearly did not see scrupulous Torah observance as the prerequisite for fellowship with God. Acceptance is ultimately through trusting Christ, as the repeated references to discipleship in Mark 2:13–17 indicate (vv. 14–15). Moreover, it is clear that Jesus took the initiative and called people to Him; He did not wait for sinners to come to Him on their own strength or initiative, as many Pharisees assumed should be the case.
Jesus acted in such strange ways because His purpose was redemption. He came not to call those who are well but those who are sick—indeed, those who are actually dead (see Eph. 2:1–10). So, of course He ate with sinners who recognized their sin—no cure is possible for those who are convinced that they are not sick, for they believe they have no need of a cure (Mark 2:17).
In his commentary Mark, Dr. R.C. Sproul comments on the irony of today's passage: the scribes "were the sickest of the sick, all the while thinking they had no need of a physician." Spiritual blindness to our own condition must be overcome if we are to be saved from sin. As long as we do not believe we are sinners, we cannot receive the cure, for only those who know they need a cure will receive it. In order to move closer to God, we first have to confess how far away we are from Him.