24 – An Audience of “Saints”
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling…”
In an earlier chapter I had noted that the story was not really about the profligate son, but rather about the prodigal father. But I would like to offer another assessment as to the identity of the main character. Tradition gives the honour to the runaway. More recent views have said, the father is the main character. But let me offer what seems to be an unlikely answer, but I think the correct one. The main character in this story may be the son who never left home. For the contrast in this story is not between two brothers. The contrast is between the father and his older son. The contrast is between how the father responds to the returning runaway, and how the older brother responds to his home-coming. Let me argue for this position.
In the stories about a shepherd who finds his lost sheep, and the woman who finds her lost coin, no negative note intrudes into those accounts. Each of the two stories end with joy. The final story about a father who has his son returned, also breaks out in joy, but then moves to a joy mingled with sadness.
So it is time to re-ask the question, “Who is the audience for this story?” In the previous chapter I mentioned that the secondary audience is “The publicans and sinners.” For I am convinced that the primary audience is the one composed of “The Scribes & Pharisees.” Listen again to Luke’s introduction:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.
And the Pharisees and the Scribes murmured, saying,
‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them!’
So Jesus told THEM this parable.”
There were two major groups (denominations?) who were seen to be the leaders of religion in Israel. One group, the Sadducees, were of the priestly class; loving the liturgical; fixated on temple worship. The other group were the Pharisees who were predominantly laymen, who were more concerned with life-style issues; fixated upon ethical behaviour.
Scholars trace the beginnings of Pharisees to the “Hasidim” (the holy ones) who arose around 170 B.C. These were the ones who wanted to resist any watering down of the Jewish faith to fit more easily with Greek values. But compared to the Sadducees they were positively “liberal minded” when they first began. They were prepared to borrow from Persian insights and develop new directions for Jewish theology. They added belief in a coming Heavenly Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, the ministry of angels, the possibility of the miraculous, and that present behaviour could effect eternal rewards and punishment in a heaven or hell.
By about 100 B.C. this group came to be known as the Pharisees, (Those who separated themselves) and because of the failure of the Sadducean party to govern well, had risen to significant influence in the life of the nation. The populace got their vote, sometimes as the lesser of two evils. The Sadducees had limited divine inspiration to only the five books of Moses. The Pharisees expanded the scriptures to include the teachings of the prophets, and the Psalms and the Wisdom books, and were interested in studying the oral tradition of the elders. They had little interest in temple rituals, but did exercise leadership in their local synagogues as they led the people of their villages in the study of the scriptures and the education of the children. But as the decades progressed these liberal minded innovators became conservative maintainers of the new status quo that they had helped create. Revolutionaries developed into the maintainers of law and order and the foe of any who wanted to make further innovations (such as John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church.)
The scribes (grammateus) were not a religious party as such, but had close associations with both secular and religious leaders. They were copyists and interpreters of the documents of both court and temple. They might arise from the priestly families, or from the Levites or from the wider society. They became very knowledgeable about the Law of God and the laws of the land and so were resorted to as experts in the realm of the sacred and secular. They became the teachers and lawyers of the communities where they lived, and saw themselves as the guardians of official policy and orthodox theology. As the most educated element of the Jewish nation they were treated with great respect and were often called “Rabbi” (Great Ones). They traced their origins all the way back to Ezra, the “second Moses”, and claimed authority as his true successors. They were the guardians of “the faith once delivered” and considered all lawbreakers to be enemies who must be opposed.
Jesus’ Message to the Religious
Jesus had been hearing the murmuring of the Pharisees and Scribes for a long time. If the unwashed masses gathered around Jesus wherever he went, so did the religious leadership of the nation. They too dog his steps, not to be taught by him, but to be self-appointed “fruit inspectors”, who were there listening for any false note or watching for any inappropriate behavior. It is on one of those occasions that as the crowd gathered, Jesus heard the guardians of the gate complaining about the company he kept.
They referred to Jesus as “This fellow.” “This fellow (houtos) welcomes sinners….” It is a pejorative term intended to insult Jesus as well as the gathering crowds. Jesus either overhears them or can read their disdainful glances as they scan the rabble and mutter to one another.
So Jesus decides to tell them a story. He tells a story about a shepherd and a lost sheep. It is aimed for the religious leaders who have little love for the lost. It is a story without a harsh note in it. It contains only an invitation to rejoice when a lost lamb is found. But just in case the simple story goes over their heads, he explains the significance of the story immediately; “Just so, I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents….” It may be a note that is intended to reassure the legalists in the crowd, that Jesus is not simply hobnobbing with the dissolute, but attempting to lead them to repentance and draw them to the Father.
The second story about a woman and her lost coin is also aimed primarily for these religious leaders. This too is a story without any rebuke in it. It simply offers an opportunity to rejoice with the neighbours and the angels over the restoration of the lost. And, just in case the penny has not dropped, he explains again that he is talking about sinners repenting.
The Additional Ending
But this third story about the reprobate son is not quite so gentle. I think Jesus may have been watching the faces of the religious elite to see if his words awakened any recognition, any acceptance of his message, or any decision to reverse their judgmental attitudes towards his fraternizing with moral outcasts.
The first story about the shepherd is told. Some of the faces are blank. They haven’t understood. Other faces, however, have tightened up around their lips. They have understood the words and their intent, but are not sure they want to get soft on sinners. They do not want to let down the barriers or lower the standards.
So he tells the story of the woman, the very same story from a different vantage point. He watches the faces of his primary audience as he speaks. He sees that every face now registers understanding. They have heard him the second time. But now some faces have a smirk, a sneer, a hardened look. They understand his words, his attitude, and his purpose. But they still hold that sheep and coins are one thing; profligate people are another. There is no place for publicans, pimps, prostitutes, Samaritans or Gentiles in the kingdom that they envision.
When Jesus begins the third story, however, it is told with greater force. It carries less symbolism and tells a story that has little ambiguity about it. It will take very little skill to understand it. Again something, or actually someone in this case, is lost. There is a longing for his return. The son is found, and the rejoicing begins. This third story should end there if it is to follow the pattern set by the first two stories. But the story cannot end there.
Anger & Compassion
For Jesus is hardly dispassionate as he looks out upon the despised peasantry of Palestine and those appointed to lead them to God. Two very closely related emotions are operating in him. Anger and compassion.
There is anger at the leaders who choose not to rejoice at the return of such runaways. His words, though gentle on the surface, have a bite to them. They are bold words containing no cowardice. He paints a picture of his primary audience that is not very pretty. These people know immediately that they are being cast in the role of the older brother. They are the ones who never did leave home. They have no memory of defection and desertion. They are, in their own minds, the faithful who never denied or disobeyed God. That is their self evaluation. But in actual fact they have become grim-faced critics, and just like the older brother have become mean, vindictive, and spiteful! Like ancient Jonah sitting under the vine, they too are displeased with this implied generosity of God. And Jesus is angry with these leaders who do not love the lost. (See Luke 11:37-54 for an extended example of his anger against all false piety.)
But there is another emotion that inter-twines with the anger. It is compassion for these very same men. We know he looks with compassion upon the obviously lost. But he also feels a great compassion for those who see him as their enemy. He will not give up on them. He has told the same story three times seemingly without effect. So he adds a rider to the third story to reach out one more time, hoping to elicit compassion for lost people. He will try again to get a foothold in their attitudes and in their theology. So he lets them know that the father calls them “sons” as well as the wanderers. In accepting the profligates, he has not rejected those who have lived long years in faithfulness.
I say, he speaks to them with compassion. But he wields a surgeon’s knife, not to harm them, but to remove a rapidly growing cancer. But let me remind us that his words here are not aimed for the audience of sinful men and women who gather round in hope. He is not criticizing the religious leaders before the anti-religious or the irreligious. He has no desire to drive wedges between groups in society. He is not trying to add a new insult to an old injury. This is love, making another attempt to warn those who are in danger of excluding themselves from their place in God’s great family.
Whatever else we end up saying about the older son in subsequent chapters, this is the most important thing about him. He is loved by his father. With all of his faults, he is loved by his yearning father. The father comes out to him, just as he does to the younger, and urges him to come in out of the cold. The older son is not the enemy, he is a son astray. He is a son gone wrong. He has fallen into a ditch, as did his younger brother. It is not a worse ditch, just a different one. So first and foremost, let it be stated; he is beloved of the father, even though he may not want to return that love.
We do not know what final response the older brother makes. The story does not end with his walking away or his coming inside. And Jesus may leave the story un-concluded to say to the hyper-religious leaders that the decision is still theirs.
It is interesting to note that in Acts 6:7, Luke tells us that “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” We can only hope there were many more Pharisees and Scribes, who along with Saul of Tarsus, decided to also become obedient to the faith that works by love.
In 1887, Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Creighton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Quite an assessment! But in the past century we saw that judgment demonstrated too many times to be in much doubt about it. In fact it became an axiomatic statement throughout those years. “Power corrupts! And absolute power corrupts absolutely!”
When the Maccabee brothers wrested power from the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanies IV in 164 BC, this family of priests won the gratitude of the Jewish nation, and from that time on Judeans would name their children after the Maccabean heroes Judas, Simon, Matthew and John. They were the liberators of God’s people whose names would be celebrated every Hanukah. (You can read the books of I & II Maccabees in the Old Testament Apocrypha for the details of that story.) But within 40 years they had become more tyrannical than their Greek overlords had ever been, and became despised by their people. They evolved into the party of the Sadducees who ruled in the realm of religion and became addicted to the power of control in both religious & state affairs.
The Pharisees became the loyal opposition around 100 BC and were able to offer an alternative to the Priest-craft of the Sadducees, and became a renewal movement in Judea. But when they chose to grasp the reins of political influence, they too became arrogant and autocratic and as corrupt and corrupting as others who wielded power.
J. R. R. Tolkien in his great trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings” plays on that theme of power that corrupts. When the epic begins, Sauron, Saruman, Smeagol/Gollum and Denethor have already been corrupted in their pursuit of power. Good people like Aragorn, Galadriel and Gandalf are tempted to take and use the Ring of Power for doing good, but resist the temptation, unlike Boromir who succumbs to the lust for power. Even the most innocent of persons such as the Hobbits, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam feel the lure, and though able to give up the ring, find themselves wounded by their close encounters with it. Power is a dangerous drug that corrupts all who seek it, even when their motives are only to do good.
But I am also convinced that when power and religion join forces, the use of power becomes most diabolical. The history of the Christian church bears testimony that when the church and the state get entangled in each others affairs, this alliance ends up sacralizing the authority of the monarch, and distracts the church from its true mission of “speaking truth to power.” The church is intended to be prophetic, as was Nathan the Prophet, who stood up even to good King David, to protest the abuse of power.
The history of Islam, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, and other world religions tell the same sad tale: when the power of the state is in the hands of a religion, or a religion is wielded by the state as one of its instruments of governance, both are corrupted.
Even in local churches, from the tiniest to the largest, it seems to be the case that the innovators of one generation quickly become the defenders of turf in the next, and resist handing over power to the coming generations. It happens in churches where families or individuals become “indispensable” in one decade and become the gate keepers in the next, resistant to stepping down that others might serve.
Many of us are rightfully concerned about the moral decadence of our age. We feel that it is important for the church to resist that which is immoral in society, for the overwhelming consensus of the Christian church has been that some behavior is immoral and un-Christian and must be opposed. The church has every the right to denounce that which it believes to be evil. But, I would insist the church has no right to try to move such behaviors from their moral code into the criminal code. We have no right to use the powers of the state to try to further the Christianizing of our culture. The church should not even be interested in getting its “lifestyle codes” ratified by the judicial system. The church needs to remind itself that for anyone to fulfill the Christian ethic, it would take the empowerment of the Spirit of God to bring that about, not the enactment of new and stricter laws.
So when the church functions as the church (not trying to be the handmaiden of the state), she is willing to declare to sinners of all sorts, that “we would die for you, but we will not execute you. We will serve you, but we will not rule you. We will counsel you, but we will not coerce you. We may not consider you right, but we will defend your freedom to be wrong. We will be risk takers and love you whether you ever change or not, and whether you ever love or respect us. We will treat you as we would wish to be treated.”
Only one person had the right to say, “All power is given unto me…” because he could also say to others, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” The one who gave up power (Philippians 2:6-11) and then had it returned to him, turned around and empowered the disciples, both men and women, Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free to use their God-given powers to empower others. That may be one of the best antidotes to the abuse of power!