But when He heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (9:12–13)
When Jesus heard this accusatory question, He answered it for the disciples. His doing so doubtlessly embarrassed the Pharisees and added to their indignation. The fact that they had approached His disciples suggests that the Pharisees were afraid to confront Jesus Himself, and His overhearing and responding to their obvious indictment of His actions was more than a little disconcerting.
Although Jesus was fully aware of the Pharisees’ true intent (cf. 9:4), He took their question at face value and explained exactly why He had done what He did. In His brief reply, He gave three arguments in defense of His gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, the gospel that was reflected in His willingness to eat with the ungodly and immoral tax-gatherers and sinners.
the argument from human logic
First of all, Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” “If,” He was saying to the Pharisees, “you are really as spiritually and morally perfect as you claim to be, you do not need any help from God or other men. If you are indeed spiritually healthy, you do not need a spiritual physician. On the other hand, these tax-gatherers and sinners—who you declare, and they themselves admit, are spiritually sick—are the self-confessing sinners who need God’s way of salvation presented to them. They are the one’s who seek the spiritual physician, and that is why I am ministering to them.”
The analogy is simple. Just as a physician is expected to go among people who are sick, a forgiver should be expected to go among those who are sinful. Jesus was giving Himself to those who recognized their deepest need. What sort of doctor would spend all his time with healthy people and refuse to associate with those who are sick? “Are you doctors,” He implied to the Pharisees, “who diagnose but have no desire to cure? Will you tell a person what his disease is and then refuse to give him medicine for it?” What an indictment of their self-righteous hardheartedness! Those whom they diagnosed as sinful they were quite willing to let remain sinful.
As the Lord charged them later, the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who were careful to “tithe mint and dill and cummin” but had no regard for the matters of true righteousness, the “weightier provisions of the law” such as “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They had outward form but no inward holiness, much ritual but no righteousness. They loved to condemn but not uplift, to judge but not help, They loved themselves but not others, and proved themselves to be without the compassion and mercy that God’s law required—the law they vigorously claimed to teach, practice, and defend.
How could the Pharisees have missed or forgotten God’s wonderful and merciful declarations such as, “I, the Lord, am your healer” (Ex. 15:26). How could they neglect, and even resent, the healing of those whom God Himself desired to heal? Those who claimed to be well proved themselves to be sickest of all!
the argument from scripture
Jesus’ second argument was directly from Scripture. “Go and learn,” He said, “what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.’ ” He pinned the Pharisees to the wall with their own Scripture. The phrase go and learn was commonly used in rabbinic writings to rebuke those who did not know what they should have known. Jesus used the Pharisees’ own most honored authorities to rebuke them for their ignorance of God’s true nature and of their failure to follow His clear commandments.
Jesus here quotes the prophet Hosea, through whom God said, “I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). “It is the perfect Word of God and not the flawed words of men that you should be concerned about,” Jesus was saying; “and His Word calls you to be merciful and forgiving, not judgmental and condemning.”
The fact that the quotation was from Hosea made it all the more pointed. The story of Gomer’s unfaithfulness to her husband Hosea was a living illustration of Israel’s own unfaithfulness to God; and Hosea’s continuing love and forgiveness of Gomer was a picture of the continuing love and forgiveness God offered Israel. And just as God then desired compassion rather than sacrifice, He still did. Without compassion, all the rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices of the Pharisees were unacceptable to God. Without compassion they proved themselves to be more ungodly even than the despised tax-gatherers and sinners, who made no pretense of godliness.
God had divinely instituted the sacrificial system, and when the prescribed offerings were made to Him in a spirit of humility, penitence, and reverence, they were pleasing to Him. But when offered insincerely and in a spirit of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, they became instead an abomination. The rituals and ceremonies were only as valid as the contriteness of the worshiper. And the person who sacrificed to God in genuine reverence would serve his fellow man in genuine compassion. Conversely, the person who is cold toward other people proves he is also cold toward God, no matter how orthodox his theology and how impeccable his external moral standards. The person who sees obvious sinners as those only to be condemned proves himself to be a greater sinner than they. Those who are furthest from giving mercy are furthest from receiving it (see Matt. 6:15; 18:23–35).
God is never pleased with religious routine and activity that does not come from sincere love of Him and of other people. Ritual separated from righteousness is a sham and an affront to God. “I hate, I reject your festivals,” God declared to Israel. “Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21–24).
the argument from his own authority
Third, Jesus defended His work on the basis of His own authority: I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. He gladly associated and identified with tax-gatherers and other sinners, because they are the ones who needed Him. The parallel passage in Luke 5:32, and some Greek texts and English translations of Matthew 9:13, include the ending phrase, “to repentance.” It is the repentant person, the person who is sinful and who acknowledges and turns from his sin, who is the object of Jesus’ divine call. The person who is sinful but thinks he is righteous shuts himself out from God’s mercy, because he refuses to acknowledge his need of it. He rejects Jesus’ call to salvation because he rejects the idea of his lostness.
In response to a later similar charge by the Pharisees and scribes that He “receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), Jesus gave three illustrations of God’s concern for and forgiveness of the penitent sinner. Through the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin He pointed up the truth that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7; cf. v. 10). In the story of the prodigal son He dramatically illustrated the double-sided truth that God is overjoyed with a humble sinner who repents and is grieved by the self-righteous person (represented by the older brother) who is himself unforgiving of others and even resents God’s forgiveness of them (see espec. vv. 21–32).
Kaleō (to call) was often used of inviting a guest to one’s home for food and lodging. The inference here is clear. Jesus did not come to call the self-righteous to salvation for the same reason He did not call the Pharisees to recline with Him at the dinner in Matthew’s house. They were too good in their own eyes to condescend to such humiliation. And because they would not identify themselves with fellow sinners, they could not be identified with Christ, who offers salvation only to sinners who willingly acknowledge they are sinners.
“Because you consider yourselves already righteous,” the Lord was saying, “I have not come to call you. Because you are satisfied with yourselves, I will leave you to yourselves.” The Pharisee who stood proudly in the Temple and thanked God for his own goodness saw no need for forgiveness and thus was not forgiven. But the penitent, heart-broken tax-gatherer who beat his breast and cried out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!… went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:10–14). At that same Temple, Jesus said to a group of Pharisees, “I go away, and you shall seek Me, and shall die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (John 8:21; cf. v. 24). The one who thinks he is righteous and spiritually safe without Christ has no part in Christ, who came to call … sinners. He cannot seek and save those who will not recognize they are lost (see Luke 19:10). Logic, Scripture, and Jesus Himself together affirm that forgiveness is for the sinful and salvation is for the lost.
In one of His last parables Jesus graphically portrayed that truth. He pictured His kingdom as a great royal wedding feast for the king’s son, for which the king had sent out many invitations. When the previously invited guests, who represented Israel, were called at the appointed time but were unwilling to come, the king several times sent his servants out again to plead with them to reconsider. When they still refused, and mistreated and killed some of the servants, the enraged king ordered his armies to destroy the murderers and set their city on fire. He then sent servants throughout the rest of the kingdom, even to the most out-of-the-way places, to gather all they could find and bring them to the feast (see Matt. 22:1–10; cf. 21:33–46). That was the message He gave to the Pharisees at Capernaum. As Jews, they were the already invited guests to the Lord’s banquet, but they refused to attend and acted with hostility toward the messengers. Therefore, just as they stood outside Matthew’s house and watched the tax-gatherers and sinners eat with Jesus, they would also stand outside God’s kingdom and watch every sort of repentant sinner and outcast be welcomed into it.
The kingdom of God is for the spiritually sick who want to be healed, the spiritually corrupt who want to be cleansed, the spiritually poor who want to be rich, the spiritually hungry who want to be fed, the spiritually dead who want to be made alive. It is for ungodly outcasts who long to become God’s own beloved children.
12–13 These verses again connect Jesus’ healing ministry with his “healing” of sinners (see comments at 8:17). The sick need a doctor, and Jesus healed them; likewise the sinful need mercy, forgiveness, restoration, and Jesus healed them (v. 13). The Pharisees were not as healthy as they thought (cf. 7:1–5); more important, they did not understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Expecting a Messiah who would crush the sinful and support the righteous, they had little place for one who accepted and transformed the sinner and dismissed the “righteous” as hypocrites. Jesus explained his mission in terms reminiscent of 1:21. There is no suggestion here that he went to sinners because they gladly received him; rather, he went to them because they were sinners, just as a doctor goes to the sick because they are sick.
The quotation (v. 13) is from Hosea 6:6 and is introduced by the rabbinic formula “go and learn,” used of those who needed to study the text further. Use of the formula may be slightly sardonic: those who prided themselves in their knowledge of and conformity to Scripture needed to “go and learn” what it means. The quotation, possibly translated from the Hebrew by Matthew himself, is cast in Semitic antithesis: “not A but B” often means “B is of more basic importance than A.”
The Hebrew word for “mercy” (ḥesed, GK 2876) is close in meaning to “covenant love,” which, according to Hosea, is more important than “sacrifice.” Through Hosea, God said that the apostates of Hosea’s day, though continuing the formal ritual of temple worship, had lost its center. As applied to the Pharisees by Jesus, therefore, the Hosea quotation was not simply telling them that they should be more sympathetic to outcasts and less concerned about ceremonial purity, but that they were aligned with the apostates of ancient Israel in that they too preserved the shell while losing the heart of the matter, as exemplified by their attitude to tax collectors and sinners (cf. France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 70). Jesus’ final statement (v. 13b) therefore cannot mean that he viewed the Pharisees as righteous people who did not need him, who were already perfectly acceptable to God by virtue of their obedience to his laws so that their only fault was the exclusion of others (contra Hill, Greek Words, 130–31). If the Pharisees were so righteous, the demand for righteousness surpassing that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5:20) would be incoherent.
On the other hand, it may not be exactly right to say that “righteous” is ironic here. The saying simply defines the essential nature of Jesus’ messianic mission as he himself saw it. If pushed, he would doubtless have affirmed the universal sinfulness of man (cf. 7:11). Therefore, he is not dividing men into two groups but is disavowing one image of what Messiah should be and do, replacing it with the correct one. His mission was characterized by grace, a pursuit of the lost, of sinners. The verb kalesai (“to call,” GK 2813) means “to invite” (unlike Paul’s usage, where the call is always efficacious). By implication, those who do not see themselves in the light of Jesus’ mission not only fail to grasp the purpose of his coming but exclude themselves from the kingdom’s blessings.
If Matthew does not add “to repentance” after “sinners” (as Lk 5:32), it is not because he is disinterested in repentance (cf. 3:2; 4:17). Rather, the words are not in his principal source (Mark) and do not contribute to his present theme.
Hosea 6:6 is also quoted in 12:7, again in a context challenging the Pharisees’ legal scruples. Cope (Matthew, 68–70) suggests that the verse reveals a contrast between the substantial demands of mercy and merely legal and ceremonial piety, a contrast traceable in the following pericopes (vv. 14–17, 18–26, 27–34, 35–38). But his evidence is slightly overdrawn. In vv. 27–34, for instance, vv. 27–31 raise no overt hints of ceremonial defilement.
12 Jesus’ first response is in the form of a proverb which uses physical illness as a metaphor for spiritual need. Plutarch quotes a similar saying of the Spartan king Pausanias when he was criticized for neglecting his own people: “It is not the custom of doctors to spend time among people who are healthy, but where people are ill.” The philosopher Diogenes is quoted as saying that as a doctor must go among the sick so a wise man must mix with fools. The point is obvious: any effective “healer” must expect to get his hands dirty.
12. When he heard this he said, It is not those who are healthy that need a doctor but those who are ill.
The slur of the Pharisees and the resulting embarrassment of the disciples had 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 place their trust in their own righteousness while they despise all others (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.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 2, pp. 64–67). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 264–265). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 354). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, p. 424). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.