When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating and socializing easily with tax collectors and sinners in Matthew’s home, they were scandalized. They questioned why Jesus would hang out with the most despised “lowlifes” of society. According to their self-righteous standards, no truly godly teacher would fellowship so intimately with the world’s “scumbags.” Unashamedly, Jesus responded to their hypocrisy by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:12–13, NKJV).
Jesus presents Himself as a doctor and healer of those who are spiritually sick (the unrighteous sinners of the world). God loves sinners (Romans 5:8) and sent His Son into this world to save them (1 Timothy 1:15). Repentance is the treatment plan, and forgiveness is the cure Jesus offers. “Those who are well” or “the healthy” (NIV) don’t need a doctor. Jesus’ critics thought they were healthy and saw no need for a doctor, but, in reality, they were deceived. Jesus is not implying that the Pharisees were righteous. Removing all sarcasm and irony from Christ’s statement, the verse might read, “I haven’t come to call on those who think they’re righteous, but to treat those who know they’re sinners.”
Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6—“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”—as an indictment against the Pharisees. They do not understand the verse’s true meaning and therefore do not perceive their own spiritually reprobate condition. The Pharisees observe the letter of the law perfectly. They are flawless in their execution of religious rituals and sacrifices. But, if they were truly righteous, they would appreciate the spirit of the law by demonstrating God’s kindness, compassion, and mercy toward the outcasts of society.
When doctors call on sick people, they must get up close and personal with them to have any hope of helping and healing them. So, too, Jesus calls sinners to Himself. His love for the lost compels Him to come down to where they are and get mud on His feet with them (Hebrews 2:9; Philippians 2:7; 1 John 3:16). “The Pharisees prove their religion by keeping clean. Jesus proves his love by getting dirty” (Knowles, A., The Bible Guide, Augsburg, 2001, p. 419).
Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He did not leave heaven to pat self-satisfied religious people on the back and ignore everyone else who fails to measure up to the Pharisees’ meticulous standards. Jesus came to call “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39) and bring them near by His blood shed on the cross (Ephesians 2:13).
Tax collectors and sinners know they are spiritually sick. They long for God’s healing forgiveness. They are “the poor in spirit,” “the meek,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3, 5–6). On the other hand, the Pharisees are blind to their own neediness. They think they are healthy but are instead “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16–17, 23–24; see also Luke 6:41).
Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” The “righteous” are respectable people in the eyes of the world and those who are righteous in their own eyes. “Sinners” are the outcasts of the world. If we are to follow in Christ’s footsteps and not be like the Pharisees, we will get our hands dirty, too. We will reach out to the rejected, the homeless, addicts, prostitutes, criminals, afflicted, diseased, abused, and marginalized in our society. We’ll love the unlovable, dine with the undesirable, and befriend the forsaken of the world. Like Jesus, we’ll have compassion for the single parent, the widow, the divorcees, and the elderly (Matthew 9:36)—compassion that moves us to act on their behalf (Matthew 15:32; Luke 7:11–17). Like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), we’ll show mercy with deeds of kindness by walking “in the way of love, just as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2).