“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
The context of this verse is Jesus sitting at the table with Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) who has just left his life as a tax collector (a.k.a. government sanctioned extortioner) and is giving a feast to celebrate his new life. He has invited all of his friends and these friends are, understandably, all people like him — tax collectors and other folks in questionable lines of work and less than savory lifestyles. Some Pharisees somehow managed to be on the scene and wondered why Jesus would eat with people like this. This morning’s verse is part of Jesus’ reply.
He explains something basic. You do not call a righteous person to repentance — they have nothing of which to repent. You call sinners to repentance — sinners, after all, have sin of which to repent. The Pharisees should have known this. The Pharisees should have had a follow-up question in the form of “Who is righteous except God?” But they did not. They thought themselves righteous. They thought themselves blameless with regard to keeping The Law.
Paul wrote on these two topics. He wrote in Romans, quoting the OT, that there is none righteous, not even one. He also writes that he had been a Pharisee and felt himself to be blameless as pertained to keeping The Law. He also noted that his Pharisaical spotlessness was insufficient to show him approved to God. No matter how good I may think myself, Isaiah wrote that all my righteousness is like filthy rags — the actual term is something more akin to menstrual rag … something like a used Always pad. My absolute best is revolting in the eyes of God. My righteousness; my greatest efforts are deplorable; something to be cast in the rubbish heap.
In the end, Jesus came to call everyone to repentance. Sure, Jesus said that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners. Who is righteous? Who can stand before God and say, “I am spotless and clean and without blame in all my ways?” Only Christ Himself. Who is called to repentance? Everyone. Absolutely everyone.