October 31, 2017: Verse of the day

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Rejecting the Righteous

(The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (5:30–32)

Their haughty disdain for the riffraff inside prevented them from attending Matthew’s banquet, but that did not mean that the Pharisees and their scribes (see the exposition of 5:17 in chapter 27 of this volume for background information on the scribes and Pharisees) weren’t aware of what was going on inside. They expressed their disapproval by grumbling (gogguzō; an onomatopoetic word) at Jesus’ disciples. They would not deign to speak to any of the tax collectors and sinners attending the banquet. But they evidently expected the Lord and His disciples to follow the prescriptions of the rabbinic law, hence their anger and resentment toward them.

Their question, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” reflects the scribes’ and Pharisees’ outrage that Jesus and His disciples would associate with those unclean outcasts. Their question was a rhetorical one, intended as a stinging rebuke for what they viewed as outrageous behavior on the part of the Lord and His disciples. The question exposes the scribes and Pharisees as proud, focused on externals, and hypocritical. Imagining themselves to be the religious elite, they were in reality void of grace and strangers to salvation. Jesus turned His back on the outwardly moral, and focused on transforming repentant sinners into a holy people.

Overhearing the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus answered their challenge. His reply consisted of three parts. The Lord first gave an analogy, pointing out the self-evident fact that it is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. The scribes and Pharisees could not dispute that the tax collectors and sinners were spiritually sick; they were the sickest of the sick. How could they argue that the Great Physician should not minister to them? The Lord’s reply was a powerful indictment of their cold hearts, wickedness, and hatred of the very downtrodden sinners they should have sought to help. They saw no sin in themselves and no good or value in others.

Second, Jesus answered them from Scripture. Matthew 9:13 records that He also told the scribes and Pharisees to “go and learn [an expression used by the rabbis to rebuke unwarranted ignorance] what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.’ ” The quote is from Hosea 6:6, and declares that God does not want external sacrifices but a heart that shows mercy (cf. Prov. 21:3; Isa. 1:11–17; Amos 5:21–24; Mic. 6:8). Those who show mercy to others as the Lord commanded (Luke 6:36) will themselves receive mercy from God (Matt. 5:7), but “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13). The scribes and Pharisees, who prided themselves on their rigid adherence to the law, had no excuse for failing to show mercy to those who so desperately needed it.

Finally, Jesus answered them from His own personal authority as God incarnate, declaring, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” It is a statement full of irony, even sarcasm (cf. Paul’s sarcastic deflation of the conceited Corinthians in 1 Cor. 4:8). Accepting on the surface the scribes’ and Pharisees’ evaluation of themselves as righteous and hence not in need of a Savior, Jesus judicially left them to their self-righteous folly (cf. Matt. 15:14). Later He would again make this point when He told His hearers that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). God seeks the truly repentant heart, not the hardened, self-righteous one. It was the humble, repentant tax collector, not the self-exalting, self-righteous Pharisee who Jesus said was justified (18:14). It was His classifying of them as sinners in need of repentance that inflamed the Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus.

The truth is that God cannot save those who refuse to see themselves as sinners, who ignore, gloss over, or trivialize their sin. Only those who understand by the grace of God and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit that they are the poor, prisoners, blind, and oppressed, headed for a Christless, Godless eternity in hell, and trust in Christ’s work on the cross as payment in full for their sins (Col. 2:13–14) can be saved. As James wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

The scribes and Pharisees had badly misunderstood God’s purpose in giving the law. He did not give the law as a means of achieving self-righteousness, but to provoke self-condemnation, awareness of sin, conviction, repentance, and pleading to God for mercy. The law is “our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). As Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:9–10,

[God’s] law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.

Only those who recognize themselves to be in the latter group can embrace the glorious gospel of forgiveness. Such a one was Paul, the self-proclaimed foremost of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), who nevertheless found that “the grace of our Lord was more than abundant” to save even him (v. 14).[1]


31–32 It is important to recognize that Jesus not only originated proverbs and parables but also made wise use of current ones. So, citing a self-evident proverb of his day (v. 31), he described his mission in terms that he would go on to amplify in the parables in ch. 15. Since none are truly “righteous” (v. 32; cf. 18:19; Ro 3:23), Jesus used the word here either in a relative sense or with a touch of sarcasm. The prodigal son’s older brother, for example, could rightly claim that he had not deserted his father as the prodigal had (15:29). If, therefore, Jesus meant by “righteous” those who are generally loyal or devout, v. 32 means that he gave more help to those in greater need. But if, as is more likely, Jesus implied that the Pharisees only thought that they were righteous, the point is that one must first acknowledge oneself to be a sinner before he or she can truly respond to the call to repentance. Luke allows the proverb Jesus quoted to come full circle theologically by including the word “repentance,” omitted in Matthew 9:13 and Mark 2:17. With this word Luke introduces a topic of major importance. While the gospel of grace and forgiveness is for everyone (2:10), repentance is a prerequisite to its reception. The tax collector in 18:13–14 met this prerequisite, but not the Pharisee (18:11–12). The Lukan theme of joy is linked with that of repentance in 15:7, 10, 22–27, 32. Repentance was previously mentioned in Luke 3:3, 8, but only in the context of John the Baptist’s ministry.

Jesus’ use of the proverb may contain an allusion to Ezekiel 34, where the leaders of God’s people were accused of failing to take care of their flock since they had not “strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured” (34:4; cf. Green, 248). If this allusion can be established, then Jesus is also saying that his Messianic ministry points to the disqualification of the Jewish leaders as the “shepherds” of God’s people. This challenge to those in power is effectively issued in this context of table fellowship when the “traditional meal praxis” of the society is overturned (S. Scott Bartchy, “The Historical Jesus and Honor Reversal at the Table,” in The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. W. Stegemann, B. J. Malina, and G. Theissen [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002], 175–83).[2]


5:30, 32 / sinners: This epithet refers to those who could not or would not observe the law of Moses, particularly the oral laws and traditions of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisees regarded these people as having no hope for participation in the kingdom of God or the resurrection of the righteous. Lachs (p. 168) cites several rabbinic sources that discuss the undesirability of mingling, especially eating, with those who did not observe the laws of purity.[3]


5:31–32. In typical Jewish teacher fashion, Jesus cited a proverb to emphasize his message. Wellness did not drive people to the doctor. Illness did. Jesus was the spiritual doctor. He came with a message of repentance. That message seemed misdirected. It did not save Israel and the Middle East, where political confusion reigned. It saved those religious leaders considered unworthy of God’s attention. Power began to reveal true positions in life. Who was sick? The tax collector’s friends, people willing to work for the Roman government and thus against Israel? Or religious leaders who knew more about God than God did? The title Righteous One given them by humans was the only title they would ever receive. Jesus picked out the lowest social positions as the positions through which he would work.[4]


31, 32. Jesus answered them, It is not those who are healthy that need a doctor but those who are ill.

The criticism of the scribes has been duly noted by Jesus. He himself, by means of what may have been a current proverb, flings back a clinching answer. When he associates on intimate terms with people of low reputation he does not do this as a hobnobber, a comrade in evil, “birds of a feather flocking together,” but as a physician, one who, without in any way becoming contaminated with the diseases of his patients, must get very close to them in order that he may heal them! Moreover, it is especially the Pharisees who should be able to understand this. Are not they the very people who regard themselves as being healthy, and all others as being sick? See Luke 18:9. If, then, in the eyes of the Pharisees, publicans and sinners are so very sick, should they not be healed? Is it the business of the healer to heal the healthy or the sick? The sick, of course.

Jesus adds: I have not come to call righteous people to conversion but sinners. Substantially this is the reading also in Matthew and Mark, though in Matthew these words are preceded by a quotation from Hos. 6:6, and prefixed by “for”; while Luke here adds the phrase “to conversion,” where most translators favor “to repentance.”

The passage makes clear that the invitation to salvation, full and free, is extended not to “righteous people,” that is, not to those who consider themselves worthy, but rather to those who are unworthy and in desperate need. It was sinners, the lost, the straying, the beggars, the burdened ones, the hungry and thirsty, whom Jesus came to save. See also Matt. 5:6; 11:28–30; 22:9, 10; Luke 14:21–23; ch. 15; 19:10; John 7:37, 38. This is in line with all of special revelation, both the Old Testament and the New (Isa. 1:18; 45:22; 55:1, 6, 7; Jer. 35:15; Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; Hos. 6:1; 11:8; 2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Tim. 1:15; Rev. 3:20; 22:17). It is a message full of comfort and “relevant” to every age!

As reported by Luke, Jesus adds that the call he had come to extend to sinners was “to conversion.” Not only “repentance” or sorrow for sin is needed, but nothing less than complete transformation: change of mind, heart, will, conduct. For more material in defense of the rendering “conversion” instead of merely “repentance” see the note on Luke 5:32 on page 306.

Are we now finished with the explanation of Luke 5:27–32? Not entirely. Something must still be added. Otherwise the reader might conclude that the main purpose of the section is to show what a wonderful man Levi (= Matthew) was. He was, indeed, wonderful. Nothing should ever be said to detract from the value of his complete and immediate surrender to Jesus. However, that is not the legitimate point of emphasis. What is far more important is the fact that Jesus, who even at this early point in Luke’s Gospel had performed so many miracles of mercy, added this to them all, namely, the exhibition of his power to bring about a radical and permanent change in the mind, heart, will, and life of … Matthew. So, whenever we read his beautiful Gospel let us think of the saving power of the Triune God as revealed through his Spirit in Christ.[5]


32 Luke replaces Mark’s aorist ἦλθον, “I came,” with the perfect ἐλήλυθα, “I have come,” probably because he sees a permanently changed state of affairs introduced by Jesus and carried on into the life of the church. He also adds at the end of the verse εἰς μετάνοιαν, “to repentance”: Luke assures his reader that Jesus with his magnanimity in no way condones sin. The addition also facilitates the application of the medical similitude of v 31 to this verse. Jesus’ sentiment is: “Where the need, there the deed.” Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of restoration. To ask whether there are, or who are, the righteous whom Jesus does not call to repentance misses the thrust (as it does in 15:7). The contrast is determined by the imagery of v 31.

While it would be attractive to consider Jesus’ call as an invitation to the great eschatological banquet of God (so H. Schürmann, Worte des Herrn: Jesu Botschaft vom Königtum Gottes [Freiburg: Herder, 1961] 38: Jesus as host; Pesch, “Das Zöllnergastmahl,” 79–80: Jesus as messenger), at least for the Lukan text with its “call to repentance” only a more general sense for “call” may be claimed.[6]


5:32 The Pharisees considered themselves to be righteous. They had no deep sense of sin or of need. Therefore, they could not benefit from the ministry of the Great Physician. But these tax collectors and sinners realized that they were sinners and that they needed to be saved from their sins. It was for people like them that the Savior came. Actually, the Pharisees were not righteous. They needed to be saved as much as the tax collectors. But they were unwilling to confess their sins and acknowledge their guilt. And so they criticized the Doctor for going to people who were seriously ill.[7]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2009). Luke 1–5 (pp. 332–334). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] Liefeld, W. L., & Pao, D. W. (2007). Luke. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 125). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Evans, C. A. (1990). Luke (p. 97). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Butler, T. C. (2000). Luke (Vol. 3, p. 79). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[5] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke (Vol. 11, pp. 304–305). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[6] Nolland, J. (2002). Luke 1:1–9:20 (Vol. 35A, pp. 246–247). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[7] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1386). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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