“not come to call the righteous.” This verse has a couple meanings that are interwoven. It has a strong meaning with a built-in confrontation that is right on the surface, but also another, deeper meaning that is important to understand. The primary meaning has to do with the contrast between the Pharisees, who thought they were righteous, and the “sinners” they condemned. The secondary meaning is that no one is righteous in the sight of God based on their own merit, so Jesus is actually saying he came to call everyone.
The Pharisees believed they were righteous before God. This shows up in quite a few verses. For example, in Luke 7:29-30 the common people admitted their sin and went to John the Baptist to be baptized and cleansed from their sin, but the Pharisees considered themselves to be righteous in the sight of God and thus refused to be baptized by John. Also, Jesus again confronted the Pharisees and said to them: “You are the ones who make yourselves righteous in the sight of others” (Luke 16:15 REV).
A vital part of the self-righteousness of the Pharisees was that they kept apart from things (including people) that they thought might defile them. In fact, the very name “Pharisee” comes from the Greek word Pharisaios (Φαρισαῖος), which comes from the Aramaic word Perisha (פְּרִישָׁא), which means “set apart” or “separated.” While there were some good-hearted Pharisees like Nicodemus (John 3:1) who wanted to be separated unto God in a right way, as we see in Scripture, far too many Pharisees allowed their “separation” to separate them from the real work of God and keep them aloof from God’s work on earth. Thus, while Jesus ate at Matthew’s house with Matthew’s tax-collector friends, the Pharisees kept themselves separate from the group.
It should have been obvious to all the Pharisees, as it was to Nicodemus, that Jesus was a teacher who was sent by God. His teachings were powerful, and he demonstrated his authority by doing signs, miracles, and wonders, which they knew to look for (1 Cor. 1:22; Matt. 12:28; 16:1; John 2:18; 6:30). If Jesus was eating and drinking with “sinners” and speaking to them about the Kingdom of God, then they should have followed his example. The fact that they didn’t, indeed, couldn’t, should have driven them to repentance. Instead, they plotted to kill Jesus. So when Jesus said to the self-righteous Pharisees that he had not come to call the righteous, far from confirming their belief they were righteous, they should have been stricken by the difference between Jesus’ ministry and theirs, repented, and changed.
As for any “sinners” in the area close enough to hear the Pharisee’s question and Jesus’ answer, when Jesus said he had not come to call the righteous, they would have immediately seen the irony of the situation. It is even likely that they had been shunned by the Pharisees before, and saw through their religious hypocrisy, and they would have immediately picked up on the fact that when Jesus seemingly referred to them as “righteous,” it was irony, even perhaps humorous and bordering on sarcastic.
The other meaning in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is that no one is righteous, so everyone was in need of being saved, and Jesus came to save everyone. In Romans 3, Paul quotes extensively from the Old Testament to show that no one is righteous in God’s sight based on their own merits (Rom. 3:10-17). But the verses that Paul quoted, and others like them, were conveniently explained away by the Pharisees. But in truth, every person needs to be saved by Jesus Christ.
“but sinners.” For more on Jesus calling sinners to repentance, see commentary on Luke 5:32.