What do you think Jesus meant by saying these words? Is He saying that there are righteous people among the sinners? If so, then Paul theology that "everybody is a hopeless sinner" seems contradictory.


4 Answers 4


In context:

The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

This is therefore a defense of associating with obvious and notorious sinners. (Remember that tax collectors were not only collaborators with Rome, but notoriously corrupt.)

There is also, in view of His other comments about sin and the Pharisees, the ironic element that He associated with these sinners because they are willing to admit they are sinners and thus can repent. Those who do not admit they are sinners can not repent of the sins they do not admit.


You ask if Jesus is saying here that there are righteous people among the sinners. Here is an explanation, from this book:

"Jesus does not say that anyone is, actually, righteous. Only that he has not come to call such. He has come to call sinners to repentance.

If any suppose that they already have a righteousness then, presumably, they will pay no heed to the call of Jesus to repentance. Thus, Jesus does not exclude them. They, on the basis of what they regard as their own righteousness, exclude themselves from repentance.

And remain unrepentant... They had not believed, because they did not repent." Righteousness, pp25-26, Nigel Johnstone, Belmont Publications

Given, then, that Jesus is exposing self-righteousness, Paul's theology is in total agreement with Jesus. When Paul says in Romans chapter 10 that the Israelites did not know the righteousness of God but sought to establish their own righteousness, he is also exposing their idea and attempts to become justified in the sight of God by their diligent works. Their problem, Paul says a few verses earlier in chapter 9, is that they were pursuing a law of righteousness, but never arrived at it because they didn't do it in faith. They had stumbled at "the stone of stumbling" - Jesus Christ. Such ones do not hear Christ's call, for the Lord calls those who confess that they are unrighteous, and repent of that.

Paul confirms that in Romans chapter 1 where he says,

"For I am not ashamed of the good news of the Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation to every one who is believing, both to Jew first, and to Greek. For the righteousness of God in it is revealed from faith to faith, according as it hath been written, 'And the righteous one shall live by faith' (vss. 16-17 Y.L.T., quoting Habakkuk 2:4).

An outward appearance of righteousness was what Jesus was referring to in Luke 5:32; what others are impressed by - religiosity and meticulous observance of a long list of what not to do, and what to do. Now go to what he said about particular people who were self-righteous religious leaders as in Matthew chapter 23. For example, "Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." (vs. 28 KJV)

What those religious zealots have is just an appearance. What they have, is not real. To enter the kingdom of heaven what is needed is real righteousness; God is righteous. We humans are not, as Paul said in Romans 3:4-12 - "there is none righteous, no, not one" (quoting Micah 7:9). Isaiah also said (of God's people) that all their righteous acts were as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6-7 which Paul also quoted in Romans 3:11). Total agreement between Jesus, Paul and the Hebrew scriptures. No contradictions! Jesus calls sinners to repentance but he leaves the self-righteous to their own self-righteousness.


The paraphrase of the NLT is helpful here in Luke 5:32 -

I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.”

That is, the self-righteous pharisees did not, indeed refused to recognize, their need of salvation and reformation. This is not to suggest that Christ's salvation was not extended to Pharisees, but because of their deluded self-sufficient righteousness, they did not want anything from Christ - they believed they would be admitted to the kingdom of God based on their intrinsic goodness.

Note the Cambridge commentary:

the righteous This also was true in two senses. Our Lord came to seek and save the lost. He came not to the elder son but to the prodigal; not to the folded flock but to the straying sheep. In a lower and external sense these Pharisees were really, as they called themselves, ‘the righteous’ (chasidim). In another sense they were only self-righteous and self-deceived (Luke 18:9). St Matthew tells us that He further rebuked their haughty and pitiless exclusiveness by borrowing one of their own formulae, and bidding them “go and learn” the meaning of Hosea 6:6, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” i. e. love is better than legal scrupulosity; Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7. The invariable tendency of an easy and pride-stimulating externalism when it is made a substitute for heart-religion is the most callous hypocrisy. The Pharisees were condemned not by Christ only but by their own Pharisaic Talmud, and after b. c. 70 the very name fell into such discredit among the Jews themselves as a synonym for greed and hypocrisy that it became a reproach and was dropped as a title (Jost, Gesch. d. Juden. iv. 76; Gfrörer, Jahrh. d. Heils, i. 140; Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr. on Matthew 3:7).


When the rabbis found out that Jesus was present at Matthew's feast, they took advantage of the chance to accuse him. But rather than accuse him directly, they did so through his disciples. In doing so, they hoped to drive a separating wedge between the disciples and Jesus, who, without the disciples' support, would be the more greatly wounded. They asked:

"Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" (Matthew 9:11, KJV)

Jesus, hearing them question his disciples, did not wait for the disciples to answer, but answered directly himself:

"12. . . They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:12-13, KJV)

The Pharisees professed to be spiritually whole, and therefore in no need of a physician, while they considered publicans and Gentiles to be perishing from diseases of the soul. So should it not be part of Jesus' work to go to these very ones who needed his help?

However, what Jesus said had dual meaning. He was also addressing the Pharisees themselves, though they would not accept this, because though they thought so highly of themselves, they were really worse off than the ones they looked down on. The publicans were less bigoted than the leaders, and were consequently more open to receive the truth.

Jesus was saying to the rabbis: "Learn what this means, that I will have mercy and not sacrifice." In this he was showing that, while they claimed to teach God's law, they were completely ignorant of its spirit.


Jesus' words had dual application:

  1. He was indicating that he was in the right to work for those who most needed help; and

  2. He was implying that the Pharisees, too, needed help (though they would not admit this), for they were sinners, too.

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