Wednesday, November 20, 2013


In my previous post I discussed how Jesus chose to eat with those who were looked down on by the religious of His day.  He "eats with tax collectors and sinners" was the criticism often leveled against Him.  He ate with people who did not keep the rabbinical rules and who probably weren't too careful about keeping God's rules.

As I stated there, Jesus was on a mission to bring people back to God, and apparently started with those who would have been more aware of their alienation from God.  He seems to have given up on the "righteous" -- those who were satisfied that they were in a right relationship with God.

But He hadn't completely given up even on these -- the Pharisees and the scribes; in at least one incident we find Him extending an invitation to them.

Even though the story is familiar to many of us, it may be possible to miss the invitation.  The story takes up the entire 15th chapter of Luke, even though it includes three familiar parables which are often looked at separately out of their context.

"And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Him to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).

Notice the next words, "And He told ­­­them this parable ..." (verse 3).  As all good grammarians know, a pronoun usually refers to its nearest antecedent.  In other words, even though the tax collectors and sinners may have heard and enjoyed them, the following three parables were directed primarily at the religious complainers.

The first parable Jesus tells (15:3-7), is of a man who owned 100 sheep, but searched out the one that was lost.  After finding it he called his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.  Jesus concludes this story with, "I'm telling you that even so, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine righteous who do not have need for repentance!  (15:7)

The next parable (15:8-10) is of a woman who had ten drachmas, but "lit a lamp and swept her house" until she found one that was lost, after which she too called her friends and neighbors to celebrate.  Jesus concludes this one with, "Even so, I'm telling you, there will be joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!  (15:10)

The third story (15:11-32), is of a father who had two sons.  Most of us know the first half of this story, of the so-called "prodigal son," the younger son who leaves home and squanders his inheritance on "loose living," then repents and returns to his father who "moved with compassion" welcomes him back into the family with a party.  But there's more to the story than this.  There's an older brother -- one who has been loyal to the father, who has "never disobeyed a commandment" of the father.  (See:  THE BARTER SPIRIT.)  Like those Pharisees and scribes we meet at the beginning of the chapter, he objects to the father's compassion for the lost brother.

The story closes with an open ending.  The father pleads with his older son, "Child, you are always with me and all that's mine is yours.  But it was necessary to celebrate and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!?  (15:31, 32)

We're not told how the story ends, whether the older brother responds to the father's invitation or turns around and walks away.  But this is just a story.  The real invitation is for those religious grumblers to recognize that these "tax collectors and sinners" with whom Jesus was eating were lost brothers who were returning to the fold, that God was celebrating over this and that they too should celebrate.

I used to teach a class called Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, TX.  Most of my students were older than the typical college kids, and most were "churched."  I taught that there are three steps to Bible study:  observation, interpretation and application (See:  ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS).  I used this story as one of the assignments.  They were to find and write out the biblical principle or principles found in the passage and to write out a personal application for themselves.  I would remind them that when we apply biblical principles we must apply them to ourselves -- to where we are right now and what changes are necessary for our lives.  So even if they had a great testimony of how "Jesus found me in the pigpen of sin and pulled me out," that was not what we were looking for.  The question was where does this passage and its principles hit me now in my present state of spiritual growth and what changes does it demand of me?

A few (very few) wrote about how they were still like that rebellious younger brother and how they needed to repent as he did.  Quite a few told stories of sibling rivalries they still were clinging to (not surprisingly most of these were the older of a pair).

But the stories that were the most moving went something like this:  (I'm paraphrasing and conflating).

"I was like that younger brother before I came to Christ, and God changed my life!  But that was years ago and now I realize that I have become that older brother.  I'm a good church member; I serve as a deacon; I teach a Sunday school class; I sing in the choir; I tithe; I say all the right words.  I look down my nose at some of those young people I see.  I don't go out of my way to meet and greet them.  I even wish that they wouldn't come to our church.  But now I realize that I was just like them a few years ago.  And God is inviting me, as He did that older brother and those Pharisees and scribes, to celebrate with Him when these people come to Christ.  I've been growing in the wrong direction.  God wants me to become more and more like the father, like Jesus, and less and less like that older brother or the Pharisees."

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