"How is it that He [Jesus] eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mark 2:16b).
When the scribes and Pharisees called people "sinners," they were thinking of the rank-and-file Jews who were not committed to in-depth study of the things of God, especially the law of God. These people went the way of the culture and followed the customs of the day rather than the details of the law. The Pharisees were just the opposite. The word Pharisee is derived from a Hebrew word meaning "separated one," for the Pharisees were strongly committed to keeping the law of God, and they believed that salvation came from distancing themselves from anyone who was morally loose. So it was important for them, in order to maintain their holiness and their sanctity, to have no dealings with people whom they regarded as sinners.
There are Christians like that, who actually believe that there is some sanctity in avoiding any contact with unbelievers or pagans. Several years ago, a woman called me to say her husband wanted to play golf with me. She said she would pay for the round as a birthday gift for her husband, and I agreed to play golf with him. We played eighteen holes of golf, and then after the round we went into the Men’s Grill. As he was leaving, he saw me then go to sit with my friends at the club, many of whom were not believers at the time but who are now members of my congregation. This man was so upset that I was friendly with these people that he took it on himself to call the board of directors of Ligonier Ministries and complain that I was mixing with the wrong kind of people.
Jesus did not spend His life in a monastery. He was where people were, where there was pain and suffering, because He cared about people. But the religious establishment of His day could not stomach that Jesus, who was supposed to be a rabbi, was willing to dine with despised tax collectors and ordinary Jews. So they came to Jesus’ disciples and asked, "Why is He doing it?"
When Jesus heard about their complaint, He said to them:
"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" (Mark 2:17).
What good is a doctor who associates only with well people? It is a good thing for doctors to be involved in preventive medicine, but we need doctors even more when we are sick. Of course, not everyone who is sick and needs a physician realizes it—such were the scribes and Pharisees.
There was some irony in Jesus' words when He said to the scribes and Pharisees, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." The implication was that these religious leaders themselves needed to repent of their sin. They were the sickest of the sick, all the while thinking they had no need of a physician.