Friday, July 27, 2018

Prodigals & Pharisees

I thought it was a great idea for a song lyric: “Prodigals and Pharisees, equal at the foot of the cross”. Last week, I even suggested to a friend, who is a gifted songwriter, that he should compose it.

He gave me the same kind of benignly polite look that I suspect would be on my face, if our places were reversed and he had suggested that I write a book based on one of his flashes of insight.

Still, the idea stuck with me. Not being much of a songwriter, it was probably inevitable that it would turn into a blog post instead.

The idea was sparked by one of Jesus pithy stories, found in Luke 18:9-14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
The characters were chosen quite deliberately by Jesus. The Pharisees were the super-religious heroes (at least, in their own eyes), and tax collectors clung by their fingernails to the lowest rung on the societal ladder of the day.

The point of Jesus’ parable is exquisitely clear: only those who recognize their spiritual poverty receive God’s mercy. And let’s not lose sight of where Jesus is aiming the parable: those “who were confident of their own self-righteousness and looked down on everyone else”.

The great irony is that both characters in the parable were in need of God’s grace and mercy. They stood in the same temple, prayed to the same God, yet only one went home “justified”. The other wrapped himself in a cloak of his own making and wandered off without even realizing his desperate situation.

It’s the same today: you don’t need a membership card or initiation rite to be a Pharisee. It’s an attitude, not an organization. And there are multitudes of ‘prodigals’ who have wandered in some way from their faith, and yet later find themselves wanting to reconnect with God (like the tax collector in the parable).

At the foot of the Cross, pharisees and prodigals are on equal footing, with equal need for forgiveness and mercy. Whenever a church meets, it’s really just another gathering of “Sinners Anonymous”.

Some may be further along in their understanding and practice of “living by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-25), but none of us earned it, never did and still don’t deserve it, and daren’t* take it for granted.
*It’s a real word. Google it.
“The Christian does not believe God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
~ C.S. Lewis ~

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