Let’s talk about Pharisees for a minute. We love to demonize them. They are the bad guys who Jesus went up against. We just love it when Jesus pulls a fast one and pulls one over on the Pharisees. But do we really know who we are talking about?
The Pharisees were a religious class in Jesus time (far more prominent after Jesus time, but that is for another reflection). They were not the high priests. They were different from the Scribes in that they didn’t have nearly the power. They were different from the Saducees in their understanding of resurrection and afterlife questions. In a lot of ways, perhaps the best understanding of Pharisees in our modern context would be elders of the church. They were a bit more learned on matters of faith, had a bit of a voice within the religious community, had respect that went with them. All of this is to say, they weren’t really the bad guys at all. They were the good guys. They were the really good guys. But there in lies the problem, and the grounds upon most of the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the ones who followed the rules, did as they were told, and looked down upon those who did not. They were self-righteous. They knew that they were better than everyone else, and they acted like it. That is often where we find them in the stories when they confront Jesus. This week, Jesus is dining with a mixed group of sinners, tax collectors, as well as Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees and Scribes are turning up their nose at those “other” dinner guests. That brings on three parables from Jesus, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (better known as the prodigal son).
All this Pharisee talk is important because it tells us that there is a part of this parable that we often miss. Again, Jesus had several different audiences, and the sinners and tax collectors loved hearing of the redemption of the lost son. That is often the part we love to hear too! We love the idea of being welcome with open arms by our God when we have wandered off from home. However, we often don’t realize that for most regular church-goers (most of you reading this email), our part in the story is often a lot closer to that of the older brother, rather than the lost son. Yeah, I know—none of us want to hear that. The older brother is self-righteous, conceited, and merciless. He is really only concerned about what he gets from things. He is a Pharisee. He has done everything he was supposed to be doing. He has done what he was told. He has acted the part. Now he wants his piece of the pie. He doesn’t come off looking so hot.
That is kinda the warning to us—God loves that we have been doing as we have been told. God loves that we have been faithful and loyal. God loves that we are dependable and wear those butt prints into our pews on Sunday. But beware the temptation to self-righteousness. It is easy for those of us who do behave as we are expected, to start looking down on those who don’t. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap as the older brother or as the Pharisees and think that we are somehow better than those who have not lived by all the rules. Thing is—that isn’t how God operates. God loves us all. Period.
One of the beauties in Jesus’ teaching is that these parables do speak to so many audiences. There are times in our life where we are the prodigal and need to be welcomed home. There are also times when we need to realize we are the older brother and need to be better about the welcoming part—which brings us to this Sunday!
I hope you all have been good little Pharisees and done as you were told—inviting someone to church. It is Back To Church Sunday! This is an important time for us to practice the grace that the older brother lacked. It is time for us to welcome with open arms, those who we haven’t had sitting next to us. Frankly, it is always time for us to welcome with such grace, but now is a good time to practice. We’ll talk a bit more about Pharisees and Prodigals on Sunday. See you then!