These words, that conclude today’s gospel reading (Mt 9:9-13), come from Jesus and are directed to the Pharisees. They see Jesus eating at the table of the just-called (former) tax collector, Matthew, and question His eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”
This episode appears in all three synoptic gospels (also in Mk 2:17 and Lk 5:32 — which gives me plenty more commentaries to consult!), with the others worded nearly exactly as above. This has always been a somewhat curious statement to me. I have always taken “righteous” to mean “self-righteous.” And there is definitely something to that:
Jesus uses the opportunity to reproach the scribes and Pharisees for their pride: they consider themselves just, and their reliance on their apparent virtue prevents them from hearing the call to conversion; they think they can be saved by their own efforts (cf. Jn 6:41). (The Navarre Bible: St. Mark [Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1988], 80)
But, did not Jesus come to save everyone? And who really is completely righteous, anyway, aside from the Lord and His mother?
All are sinners. The only difference is that some admit their lack of righteousness and some do not (see 1 John 1:8-10), thus refusing Jesus’ messianic invitation (see Matt 22:3) and his medicinal grace. Jesus is recasting the people’s whole understanding of the messiah. His mission is not to vindicate those who keep the law, and condemn the rest; rather, it is to offer the healing of which all people are in need; healing from the devastation of sin. Even sins of pride and judgmentalism [as displayed by the Pharisees in this episode] are among the sicknesses he came to heal. (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008], 61)
We should further note that, with this statement, Jesus is indicating that He
did not come to prolong the Old Covenant with the nation of Israel. This was an imperfect, provisional covenant designed to separate Israel from the Gentiles and their sins (Lev 20:26) while Israel was not ready to love God from the heart (Jer 11:8; Mt 19:8). Jesus inaugurates the New Covenant to transform the hearts of his people (Jer 31:31-34; Mt 5:8) and so welcomes all into God’s covenant family. Whereas the Old Covenant quarantined Israel from the world, the New Covenant embraces the world within God’s mercy (Rom 11:32). (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Gospel of Mark, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001], 20)
Let it never be the case that we, like the Pharisees, classify ourselves as righteous, in no need of the Lord’s mercy, because we consider our own works entirely sufficient to put us in right relationship with God. Rather, we must always acknowledge humbly, in accord with reality, that we are sinners in need of grace to live righteously and to ultimately be saved.