I have to say: I don’t much care for the Pharisees. So often, they come off as the “bad guys” in the gospels. But I fear that I may be one myself. Not by virtue of my cultural heritage, but in the way that I think and the state of my heart.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, in Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables to the scribes and Pharisees who thoroughly disapprove of the company he keeps. With stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin, Jesus paints a word picture of a God who actively seeks the lost rather than dismiss them out of hand as not worth the trouble.
And in the third and most personal of the parables, Jesus tells of a father who joyously welcomes home a son who has been foolish and disrespectful. Jesus wouldn’t expect the Pharisees to identify with the prodigal. But there’s another son in the story (Luke 15:25-32).
The older son was away when his irresponsible kid brother came trudging home. Now, as he approaches the house, he’s surprised to hear the sound of merrymaking. So he calls over one of the servants: “Hey, what’s going on here?”
I would hate to be in that servant’s shoes at that moment. You have to answer, but you don’t want to make the boss mad. So you stick to the facts: “Um, well, your brother’s back, safe and sound, and your father’s killed the fattened calf.”
Whether the older brother likes it or not, the guests who are celebrating in his house are his guests, not just his father’s. His responsibility is to put a good face on it and go in to greet them. To refuse to do so would be to publicly humiliate the father.
But you’re never too old, it seems, to throw a tantrum. Years of resentment boil to the surface, and the son refuses to go in.
The guests would be aghast at the older son’s behavior. And again, the father does the unexpected: instead of having the son beaten for such flagrant disrespect, the father leaves his guests to go outside and plead with his son.
And now the flood of resentment pours out. The son portrays himself as the obedient slave of a tight-fisted father. It sticks in his craw that his kid brother could act so shamefully and not only be forgiven, but to have a party thrown for him. What about me? he seems to say. You’ve never thrown me a party, not even a little one. And I’m the good son! It’s not fair. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!
The father is endlessly patient. His response to his son’s assassination of his character is to remind him that everything already belongs to him (after all, he had already divided the estate). Then he says, “But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found” (vs. 32, CEB).
That’s it. Jesus leaves the story open-ended. He doesn’t say how the older brother responded to the father’s entreaty. In essence, he is inviting the Pharisees to finish the story themselves: So what will you do? Will you join the party, and celebrate with me the seeking and finding of the lost?
If I’m perfectly honest, when I read the story, there’s a part of me that says, Oh, those clueless, self-righteous Pharisees. They just don’t get it. Give up, Jesus, you’re wasting your time. I’m not longing for the Pharisees to accept the invitation. Who wants them at the party? They’ll spoil everything.
And that’s when I realize that I am the older brother. I am the self-righteous one, willfully blind to my own lostness, dividing the world into the deserving and the undeserving.
I need the Father Jesus describes, a God who will reach out to me with prodigal compassion.