SynopsisIn this passage Jesus passes by Levi, who’s sitting at the tax booth, and calls Levi to follow him, which Levi does. Later on Jesus is having dinner not only with Levi but with many other tax collectors and sinners, and the “scribes of the Pharisees” ask Jesus’ disciples why it is that Jesus is willing to eat with them. Then…
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (verse 17 (ESV))
ThoughtsYou’ll often see the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” in the Gospels, and most study bibles that I’ve seen will explain why: tax collectors were considered traitors by the Jews of Jesus’ day, since they were collecting those taxes for the hated Roman government. And if that wasn’t bad enough the whole system of taxation was pretty corrupt, with tax collectors keeping some of the money for themselves—meaning that they’d have incentives to ask for more tax than was really required. So the Jews—not just the Pharisees but all Jews—would have had a number of reasons to dislike Levi right from the get-go.
This passage has Jesus addressing “the scribes of the Pharisees,” and I’m not sure who these people are; usually the scribes and the Pharisees are treated as two separate groups. The ESV footnote says that some transcripts have this as “the scribes and the Pharisees” (emphasis added, obviously), which we see more commonly, and the NIV translates it as “the teachers of the law who were Pharisees” (verse 16 (NIV)); the NASB words it the same as the ESV’s main text, without a footnote. However, I don’t think it matters. Jesus is talking to some form of religious leaders, and we don’t need to split hairs over whether it was scribes, or Pharisees, or a special group of scribes who worked for the Pharisees, or whatever.
I would guess that there are probably some nuances in this passage that have to do with being ceremonially unclean or something along those lines; that as a teacher of the law, the religious leaders would have said that Jesus should refrain from eating with sinners, for fear of being made unclean himself. And I wouldn’t necessarily even fully fault them for that; in the Old Testament laws, it is very easy for one person who is unclean to make another person unclean. Uncleanness passes from person to person faster and more easily than any sickness we’ve ever encountered, except maybe Captain Trips. Not that I’m saying they’re correct in staying away from “sinners,” I’m just saying that there’s a certain logical consistency in why they’re staying away.
But there’s a larger point here, which is just as prevalent in today’s world as it was in theirs: works theology. You see, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed the exact same thing that most people have always believed, in every age of the world: If you do good you will be rewarded by God (or a “god,” or “gods”) and earn His favour, and if you do bad you will be punished by God and earn His wrath. The details of how one tries to be good would have been different for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than how a Jew today would approach it, which would be different from how a Muslim would approach it, which would be different from how a Hindu would approach it. That is, all of these religions have different definitions of what it means to be “good;” they all have different rules and regulations that one must follow. Buddhists have a different outlook yet again, since there isn’t such a focus on a “god” or a “creator”—Buddhism is somewhat agnostic as to whether there even is a “god” or “creator,” although it is considered that too dogmatic a belief in a Supreme God will hinder one’s achievement of enlightenment—so there is a similar focus on doing good but without an emphasis on doing it to please someone else. Any religion or belief system has a focus on trying to do good, given their own definitions of “good” and their own reasons for why doing “good” is a good idea. Even atheists have a focus on doing good, with their reasoning being that since there is only this world and nothing comes after it we should try to make this world as good as possible. In fact, at the time I wrote this post, there had been a lot of focus on doing good by atheists who were tired of the “holier than thou” attitudes of religious people; atheists feel that religion is nonsense, and part of the way they want to prove it is by showing that atheists are just as good as anyone else.
Of course, the Jews of Jesus’ day had a pretty good reason for maintaining their system of beliefs: God told them so. You can’t get more direct than that. This isn’t something they figured out on their own, God came to them and said, “Look, this is who I am, this is how you should worship Me, and this is how you should live your lives. Period.” (Well… I suppose most if not all of the stuff that the Pharisees and other religious leaders added would be in the “they figured it out” category, rather than the revelation category.) It’s obvious, from some of the interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders that they misunderstood some of the things that God had told them, or put the emphasis in the wrong places, but they had His Scriptures upon which to base their beliefs.
I mention this because after 2,000 years of repetition the import of Jesus’ words in verse 17 can sometimes get lost on us, but the truth is that that verse changes everything. That verse (and other passages like it in the New Testament) are the reason that Christianity is different from any other religion or belief system that has ever existed. Whereas every other belief system tells us to be good, to try to please God (or for other reasons), Jesus comes along and says, “Well, actually, you can’t. It’s already too late. You’re already a sinner. There is nothing you could possibly do to please God. But”—and here’s the good news part—“God has come to call you anyway.”
The whole message of Christianity is that we are all sinners, and that our default position is one of being under the wrath of God. There is nothing we can possibly do to earn His favour because righteousness is an all or nothing thing: you have to live every moment of your life in perfect obedience to God, never doing anything that’s displeasing to Him, and if you ever do anything that displeases Him then you’re a sinner and cannot enter into His presence because He is holy. Worse yet, we aren’t sinners because we sin but we sin because we’re sinners—it’s in our nature, ever since the universe was fundamentally altered by the sin of Adam and Eve. So even if it were theoretically possible to live every moment of one’s life in sinless perfection, it’s not realistically possible, because doing so would be against our nature. It is simply not possible to earn God’s favour by doing “good,” regardless of how we define “good”—even by following the Old Testament laws and regulations fully—it is simply outside what humans are able to do.
But it’s not outside what God is able to do. So He came to earth, to call us who were “sick.” What was impossible for us to do, no matter how hard we tried, no matter what kind of rules or regulations we adhered to, God did for us. Christians are definitely called to be good, but not in order to earn God’s favour; they are called to be good in response to the undeserved favour that has already been bestown upon them.
Make no mistake, when Jesus tells the religious leaders that he has not come to call the righteous but the sinners, it does not mean that he considers them to be righteous. They considered themselves to be righteous, but Jesus didn’t; continue reading through Mark, or the other Gospels, and you’ll see many instances of Jesus lambasting them for their misinterpretations of the law and their hypocritical behaviour. (See, for example, Matthew 23.) Jesus is not saying, “I’m speaking to these people because they need to be saved and not speaking to you because you’re already okay with God.” He’s not even saying, “you both need to be saved but these people need to be saved more than you.” (Again, based on Jesus’ harsh words for the religious leaders of his day, he might even have put it the other way around—that the religious leaders needed saving more than the laypeople did.) In fact, I think Jesus is being ironic when he tells the religious leaders that he has not come to call the righteous but the sinners: the fact that the religious leaders thought they were righteous would have been one of the hindrances stopping them from accepting Jesus’ message. If they’d been able to see their sinfulness—the way the tax collectors and sinners did—maybe they would have been more receptive to a message from God that they could be saved from it.