Everyone loves being complimented. I know I do. And I like sincerely complimenting other people too — everybody wins with a good compliment.
Jesus knew people love being complimented too. In our Sunday school lesson today I noticed an odd compliment that Jesus seemed to pay to some rather trollish Pharisees. Here is the passage from Luke 5:
30 But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.
32 I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Though the record of this exchange is scant, my assumption has always been that these scribes and Pharisees backed down after this explanation. After all, Jesus’s response makes sense and the scribes and Pharisees were probably pretty pleased with themselves after assuming Jesus just called them “the righteous”.
But did Jesus really call them righteous? Was this really a compliment? I doubt it. (See Matt 23 for what Jesus later said of these hypocrites.) It seems more likely to me that Jesus was showing by example how to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”. That is, there is nothing untrue about saying “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”. If the scribes and Pharisees in their pride assumed they were the righteous ones Jesus was referring to then that was their problem. If these trolls left Jesus alone because of that assumption then nothing but good came of the exchange. So Jesus, as the great spiritual physician, was apparently attending to the sick who were willing and able to be healed by him. Those who were not prepared to be healed by Jesus (like the Pharisees) would have to wait. In the meantime Jesus seems to have worked the compliment/flattery angle a bit to temporarily keep the scribes and Pharisees out of his operating room.
Wise yet harmless.