top of page

Prodigals: Pharisees in the Crowd

Prodigals: Pharisees in the Crowd David Collins October 16, 2022

We’ve been looking at the parable of the prodigal son and his brother for the last few weeks. Last Sunday, Megan finished the second act of the parable, the story of the Elder Brother, how offended and angry he was by his father’s forgiveness of his younger brother. The parable just ends with him standing outside the feast, seemingly refusing to go in.

Jesus told this story for a particular reason, and for the benefit for a particular group of people who were in the crowd that day.

Luke tells us, at the very beginning of his fifteenth chapter,

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 3 So he told them this parable: (Luke 15:1-3)

Then Jesus tells them the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost brothers. Today we’re going to dig into this group he was telling this story for: the Pharisees.

When Jesus was walking around Israel, teaching and healing, he was doing so in an occupied land. The land of Israel sits right in the middle of the ancient world, and any empire who wanted to rule the world, which is every empire ever, had to conquer Israel. So Israel got conquered a lot. One of the empires, Babylon, carted most of the people away to try and assimilate them into their own culture, which was a real crisis for Israel, because for much of their history, their identity was tied to the land. So who are they if they’re not on the land?

In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire occupied and “owned” the land, but like many colonizers, they governed their territories by installing local rulers who were willing to play ball with them. So the Jewish king, and therefore the nation, and maybe even the Temple, was by definition compromised. This crisis of the Jewish identity led to the Pharisees.

Because if you can be Jewish and not live in Israel, and even if you do live in Israel, it’s no longer the sovereign and set apart nation of King David, what does it really mean to be a good Jew? The Pharisees provided an answer to that identity crisis.

And their answer was community morality. We can’t control what others do. We can’t even participate in our government without compromising ourselves. All we can control is our own morality. It’s not a bad solution, is it? They steered their people from being a people of the Temple, to being a people of the book. Their focus on community morality provided a way to maintain Jewish identity in a changing world.

Which is probably why they didn’t like Jesus.

Because if you define yourself by who you’re better than, you can’t have to defend those definitions! If you define yourself and your group in opposition to others, you have to fight against anyone who would challenge that. The Pharisees found their identity, they found who they were, in contrast to who they weren’t.

Does that remind you of anyone you know?

Does it maybe remind you…of you?

Our default position as human beings is to justify ourselves. If we feel bad about ourselves, we look for something, anything to make ourselves feel better. I once had a friend who loved the remote start on her enormous SUV. She would start that thing up 20 minutes before she got in it so it would be nice and warm in the winter. I gave her a hard time about it once and she said, “Oh it’s okay. I compost.”

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t balance out, but the reason I remember it years later was that she really meant it! I challenged her commitment to the environment, she recognized that what she was doing was probably bad, and so she looked for a way to justify herself. I don’t put banana peels in the trash. I turn them into compost instead. Identity crisis averted!

We are just constantly looking for ways to justify ourselves! Driving slower than me? Moron. Driving faster than me? Dangerous moron!

And if we have trouble justifying ourselves, we get our friends involved. So many friendship groups are just mutual assurance societies. I share stories of interpersonal conflicts and you tell me how I was right, and then a little bell rings and now you share stories of interpersonal conflicts and I get to tell you how you were right.

And if you can’t get together with friends, all you need to do is pick up your phone and let the algorithm show you pictures and videos of “people to look down on”. It could be Karens Karen-ing on airplanes, or people being “woke”. I might not know where you itch, but the algorithm does, and it will just scratccchhh and scratccchhh until you get your leg going.

If you’re plugged in at all to the world right now (and good job if you’re not) you can’t help but define yourself in opposition to others. It has become the foundation of our society. In our democracy, the average voter knows much more about who they’re voting against than who they’re voting for, at least they think they do based on attack ads. Political operatives have learned that the best way to motivate us is to aim for where our identities intersect with our anger.

But they didn’t create that shortcut. They just found it, and will exploit it as long as it works. </