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).
30 The complaint of the Pharisees, and particularly of those among them who were also scribes, is more than a superficial attempt to find fault. To join in table fellowship with irreligious “sinners” is to cast doubt on one of the essential assumptions of Pharisaic teaching. This sect was dedicated to upholding the purity of Jewish faith and life. Implicit in their teachings was strict adherence to both law and tradition, including necessary rites of purification and separation from all whose moral or ritual purity might be in question. The Galilean people had a reputation (not always deserved) for disdaining such scruples and disregarding the traditions.
The Pharisees’ complaint is specifically directed to the act of eating and drinking because table fellowship implied mutual acceptance. No act, apart from participation in the actual sinful deeds of the guests, could have broken the wall of separation more dramatically. Yet the Pharisees are not yet ready to argue with Jesus himself. In the previous incident they did not even express their thoughts openly (v. 21). Now they direct their question to Jesus’ disciples and also (in Luke only) charge the disciples themselves, not just Jesus, with this unacceptable conduct.
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).
30–32 Jesus’ action (eating with toll collectors and others, v 29) has as its sequelae two questions, the first in v 30, the second in v 33; here his action leads to protest (v 30) and response (vv 31–32). In contrast to the designation of Jesus’ opponents in 5:17, 21, Luke identifies only Pharisees; although this is strictly accurate—since scribes constituted a group of literate, educated persons concerned with the law who may or may not be of Pharisaic persuasion—the explicit presence of scribes in this instance draws attention to an impending confrontation concerning legal matters. In addition, the potential identification of scribes as persons closely identified with the temple but not presently serving as priests and certainly as persons of high status, of power and privilege,73 raises the stakes on the confrontation that unfolds here. As before, the Pharisees are present to monitor legal observance. Two implicatures lie behind their complaint. First, Pharisees interpreted the holiness of the temple as extending to their own households, with the ritual purity required of priests serving in the temple extended to their tables. The food to be eaten must be ritually clean; those with whom one ate likewise. Second, these Pharisees apparently regard Jesus and his disciples as righteous, at least in comparison with their tablemates. Consequently, Jesus and his companions should not be associating in so friendly a manner with these sinners.
These Pharisees manifest their concern with boundaries most prominently in the labels they use to describe Jesus’ table intimates: toll collectors and sinners. Luke had simply referred to toll collectors and “others,” so it is the Pharisees who introduced the term “sinner,” using it as a label. In the hands of the Pharisees, “sinner” demarcates those who associate with toll collectors as persons living outside faithfulness to God. By means of vituperative apposition, then, toll collectors are dismissed, along with sinners, as possible friends; from the Pharisaic perspective, they are outside the boundaries, beyond the margins. In Lukan parlance, though, toll collectors and sinners would be included among “the poor,” those to whom Jesus has been sent to proclaim good news.76
Adopting other imagery more at home in Luke 5, Jesus portrays toll collectors and sinners as sick, and himself as a physician. Given the categories of illness and health developed in 5:12–26, this signifies the psychosocial displacement of Jesus’ tablemates. Indeed, Jesus thus draws on traditional conceptualizations of Yahweh as physician and of divine redemption as healing. Against this backdrop, “healing” is understood as restoration to relationship with Yahweh and his people—that is, as forgiveness. In coming to them as physician, Jesus participates again in boundary-crossing and, in doing so, opens the way to spiritual and social restoration for these outcasts. What is more, Luke’s narrative seems to echo Ezekiel 34, where Israel’s leadership is indicted for their failure to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and the like—an allegation that would now apply to these Pharisees and their scribes. The parallelism between vv 27–28 and v 32, then, renders Jesus’ call to Levi as a programmatic call to discipleship for sinners, Levi’s response to Jesus as a concrete embodiment of “repentance,” and the banquet as a representation of the new community being formed around Jesus. Jesus thus uses the terms “sinner” and “righteous” in a parodic way, as if to say, “Those you thought were outside the boundaries of companionship are the very ones to whom I have been sent.”
Vers. 31, 32.—And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. This was one of those sayings of the Lord which sank very deep into the hearts of the hearers. All the three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, repeat it with very slight variations; it was evidently a favourite theme with the great first teachers who followed Christ. It has borne rich fruit in the Master’s Church; for this vindication of Jesus of his conduct in going so often into the society of the moral waifs and strays of the population has been the real “foundation of all those philanthropic movements which enlist the upper classes of society in the blessed work of bending down to meet in love the lower classes, so that the snapped circle of humanity may be restored; it is the philosophy in a nutshell of all home and missionary operations” (Dr. Morrison, on Mark 2:17).
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.
 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, pp. 124–125). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.