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.

You see, there’s a little Pharisee in all of us. Not necessarily in the religiously superior way, though it often leads to that on the left and the right. But in every case, in every person, you and I have the desire and the inclination to justify ourselves, often in opposition to others. And to believe that the world would be better off without THEM. Whoever they are. And even if we’re right, that’s not what makes us into Pharisees. It’s the little ego boost we get when we believe that we’re on the right side.

I think this is what’s at the heart of every Pharisee. It’s not the feeling of superiority. It’s the spirit of comparison. It’s the way that Pharisees justify themselves by their adherence to their group’s orthodoxy, (so that they can be better than other Pharisees) and the way this sets them apart from everyone else. (So their group can be better than other groups)

We have this amazing and sinister ability to take just about anything and turn it into our identity. And that can keep us standing at the threshold of our Father’s feast, just like the elder brother.

It’s easy to point out the Pharisee-ism in others, and FUN. It’s a bit harder to recognize it in ourselves. But the hardest thing is to figure out what to do about it.

What does Jesus want the Pharisees to do with the insight he has just given them? What’s the good news for them? Where’s their grace?

If they are standing at the doorway to the party, unable to go inside, how are they supposed to cross that threshold?

We know that several Pharisees did just that. John tells us that Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night and found out how to be born again was a Pharisee. Joseph of Arimathea, who gave Jesus his own tomb was a Pharisee, and became a disciple. And most importantly, the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee before Jesus saved him from himself on the road to Damascus, and he went on to understand grace better than just about anyone ever has.

So what does it take for a Pharisee to move from justifying themselves, to being justified by grace?

Well, in this chapter of Luke we’re looking at, Jesus describes it.

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

We seriously misunderstand what it means to repent. We think it means to say we’re sorry and try harder next time. But that’s just something else that WE do. And quite possibly something else about US to point to as the reason that we’re just fine thank you very much.

Have you experienced that feeling of catharsis after doing something wrong? You apologize and are forgiven and it turns into a good thing? It’s almost like it was worth it? Repentance can feel like that. Like just another thing that YOU do. Like another way that YOU are ultimately holding the reigns. Maybe you grew up in a faith tradition like that…where the same people made the same mistakes over and over again but it was just find because on Sundays or at revivals they would cry and repent.

Technically, that is within the realm of grace. Though it is in the territory of what the Apostle Paul was writing about when he said Shall we sin that grace may abound? By no means!

The word for Repent is much bigger than that. It’s the word, Metanoia. There were translations of the Bible once where they rendered this as “do penance” IE be really sorry and try to do better. But Metanoia is on a whole other level from that. Meta means after. And Noia means an all encompassing perception. When someone experiences a conversion, this is the word for how they see the world after. The After-Person . Something happens, and there is a split in their lives. There is the way they saw things before, and the way they see things now. Metanoia.

Jesus says there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who has this Metanoia than over 99 “righteous people” who don’t. But the thing is that there is no such thing as a righteous person who doesn’t need to.

A better translation for “who need no repentance” is actually “who have no need for repentance”. It’s not that they don’t actually need it. But that they don’t feel the need for it. “Why would I do a thing like that?” “I’m good.” “How dare you suggest such a thing?”

There were many Pharisees in the crowd around Jesus who didn’t have some secret life, with dark and dirty secrets in it. They weren’t the younger brother, who had his moment of Metanoia in the pig slop. And they weren’t the awful preachers living a double life we hear about every week today. They were good and moral people. But still, and maybe even more than the sinners …they needed to repent. They needed Metanoia.

The Pharisees needed to repent of the reasons for their righteousness. They need to come to see those reasons in a new light and never be able to see them the same way again. They needed to come to their senses, just like the younger brother had.

In Luke 15:17, Jesus says of the younger brother, “But when he came to his senses,” which literally means, When he came to himself.”

I take that to mean when he saw himself clearly. It was probably easy to do that, hitting bottom as he had, in literal filth in a far away country.

But what has to happen to the Pharisee for them to see themselves clearly? How do they have their moment of Metanoia?

Well, according to Jesus’ parable, maybe it happens once they’ve pushed everyone away and are standing by themselves in the dark outside of the open door of a party, and the only thing that is keeping them from it is their own feeling of pride.

Maybe standing at that threshold they remember all the people they’ve pushed away, through the constant comments and comparisons. Maybe standing out there in the dark they see the faces of family and friends they’ve alienated by having to be right, and never letting things go. Maybe standing out there, they realize that as much as they tell others and themselves, how close to God they are, that it’s just something they say for the status, for the ego boost, or because it’s something they’ve always said and want it to still be true but that really, they could no longer tell the difference between the presence of God and their own feeling of certainty.

But all they have to do, to join that feast, is just….let go.

It’s as easy as laying down. And it feels just as good when your back has been aching from being on your feet for too long.

Just let go of that image of yourself that you hold so tightly to. Just let go of your need to prove yourself. Let go of your identity as this or that, and just…be.

For modern day Pharisees, it’s not so simple to do that though. How do you just let go when your whole identity is so wrapped up in how tightly you are gripping your feeling of control? Your feeling of certainty? Letting go just feels like giving up. Letting go must feel like losing.

But it’s not. It’s so much more. This word for repentance doesn’t mean to be a gracious loser and submit to the one who has defeated you. The most wooden English translation of this word Metanoia means to change your mind. But to every Pharisee I’ve ever met that just means to exchange one idea worth fighting over for another. To change your allegiance but not your approach, your mission but not your method,

I’ve known more than a few angry atheists who became angry Christians. Changing your mind has to mean more than that. And it does. It really does.

Because what word is more expressive than change? What word is more comprehensive than mind?

Change in the radical sense, when applied to mind is so much more than just changing your opinions. It’s a transmutation of consciousness.

If we were to say change of place, we would all understand that meant to occupy a different place. Change of condition, another condition.

A change of mind means thinking new thoughts, receiving new impressions, forming new tastes, and inclinations. A new purpose entirely. That’s what change means.

And what is the mind? It’s more than just the brain. More than certain beliefs and ideas that feel right to that brain. The mind is the spiritual part of us which takes in and processes the world around us. The mind is sight and perception, thought and reflection, everything we think of as intelligence.

But the mind is also our morals and emotions. The mind in this sense is also our heart. Metanoia is not just a change of mind but a change of heart as well. It is a change of the whole person.

Remember Meta means after. Metanoia is the after person. The mind and heart and will and spirit AFTER you have experienced Gods grace. It gets translated as repentance, but that word might be all used up for us in the English language. Repentance too easily means saying you’re sorry and being forgiven over and over again. We’ve seen that story so many times that when we read this parable we think, we’ll what are they going to do the next time the younger brother asks for more inheritance.

Metanoia is who the younger brother absolutely must have become after this feast. A changed man. A new mind and heart and will.

But this story isn’t for the younger brothers. It’s for the Pharisees then and now. Jesus isn’t telling Pharisees how to be younger brothers and get away with it. He is calling them, you, us, to a new higher transformed mind. Jesus isn’t trying to get Pharisees to adapt their platform and use their Pharisaical powers for his policies instead. He is showing them what God’s Grace is truly like so they will see that there is no such thing as the 99 who didn’t need to change their minds.

Jesus wants Pharisees, (not just the obnoxious ones, but you and me too, because we’ve all staked our identities on something other than God) Jesus wants Pharisees like me and you to come to ourselves, to see ourselves clearly, just like the younger brother did among the pigs. We might be lost among the books, or among the politics, or even among the beliefs about God, and by his grace will see ourselves clearly. That God doesn’t need us. God doesn’t need our help, or our defense. That God doesn’t owe us.

We might see ourselves clearly. That we are not our likes and dislikes, our politics and our beliefs, our successes and failures, our children and our commitments. We might see ourselves clearly that we simply are. That we are loved, and forgiven, and free, and that we might be brand new after seeing it.