“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17, ESV)
The term “righteous” or “righteousness” is found over 500 times in the Bible, over 140 of those in the New Testament. Thirteen of those instances are from the words of Jesus. Every instance comes from the same Greek word, dikaios, meaning, “upright, keeping the commands of God.”
Interestingly, though, the word also means the opposite. In English we might liken it to the word sick. “I am sick (not feeling so well).” Or, “That jacket is sick (its great)!” As in English, so in Greek: context determines the manner in which the word is being used.
Knowing this helps us understand what Jesus meant when he used the word “righteous.” For example, look at these two statements of Jesus in Matthew 13:
Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them (v.17)
Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear (v.43).
Here, Jesus means the term in its ideal sense, “upright, keeping the commands of God” (Thayer). In fact, this is the sense in which Jesus almost always used it in Scripture.
But look at these parallel passages from Mark 2 and Matthew 9.
They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17).
But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:13).
Here, Jesus contrasts “righteous” with “sinners,” but perhaps not in the usual way, as in “those who are already forgiven” with “those who have yet to be forgiven,” though these are perfectly acceptable ways to use the terms. But Jesus is making a different, less obvious comparison.
The context of this statement is this:
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? (Matthew 9:10-11).
Clearly, Jesus is answering the Pharisees. And in so doing, he is likely using the second, opposite meaning of the term righteous, defined by Thayer as, “those who seem to themselves to be righteous, who pride themselves to be righteous, who pride themselves in their virtues, whether real or imagined.
If you plug that definition in to Jesus’ statement, it makes perfect sense:
I came not to call the righteous [those who seem to themselves to be righteous] but sinners, [those who do not seem to themselves to be righteous] to repentance.
Or, it can be condensed even more:
I came not to call the self-righteous, but the unrighteous, to repentance.
This parallels other sayings of Jesus, particularly in dealing with Pharisees – like when he told them they were blind because they had sight (John 9:39-41), or when he compared their pretentious prayers to that of a penitent publican (Luke 18:9-14).
They thought themselves righteous; they were anything but. Jesus was never more severe as he as with the self-righteous.
The lesson they needed most – and perhaps professing Christians need reminded of today – is that the self-righteous never really are righteous unless they are unrighteous.