In the Parable of The Pharisee and The Tax Collector we see the message of Jesus loud and clear. We have the obedient, law-abiding Pharisee telling God he’s obedient and giving thanks for not being like that man in the corner, begging for mercy and expressing his need for God. One man is dependant on his goodness by following the law to the letter, another man dependant on God for his grace and mercy. On the outside, it would seem the Pharisee would have been the exalted one in the story. He has lived a life of obedience and holiness. He’s part of the in crowd, the morally righteous and better than everyone else. The tax collector, a sinner so broken he can’t even look up while praying, lives a life taking from his people and appears to be heavily remorseful about this. There are no rules or laws to save this man, only God and His mercy. Jesus tells us he will be exalted in his humble approach, and the Pharisee will be humbled by his. I believe this is true. When you read the Parable Of The Prodigal Son there is an exalted sinner and a humbled obedient son.
In this parable, Jesus teaches of a son wanting to try things out his own way. He gets his inheritance and takes off. He lives a life of waste and even spends his money on prostitutes. Meanwhile at home, the older brother obediently stays to help his father. He’s the good son and expects his reward will be much greater than that of his little vagabond brother. The son that left home finds he’s out of money, food, and shelter, realizing even the workers at home have it better than his current situation. So he runs home, begging his father to forgive him and wants to work for his own father. The father doesn’t even listen to that mess. He’s too busy calling out for a fattened calf, rings, and a robe. He’s not concerned with how to punish or correct his son; he’s ready to party! His oldest son returns from his work in the fields and sees quite the celebration. Curious, he asked a servant what all the hype was about. He was furious! His brother returns home and gets a party while he works hard and is obedient, never even receiving a little shindig for him and his friends. That must have felt like a kick to the stomach. I guess learning his brother is alive took second place to being rewarded for obedience. One of the any important lessons of this parable is the conversation between the older son and the father.
“ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:28-31 ESV (emphasis my own)
The older brother snubbed his nose and completely ignored the fact that the returning son was his brother. He was so wrapped up in his self-righteousness that he could never associate himself with a sinner like his younger brother. The father took notice of this and reminded him his brother was lost and was found. His brother thought that he could do things his own way, but soon found himself humbled and in need of his father and that was worth celebrating. I can see why the older son would’ve been upset. We don’t want to be obedient for nothing. Law and order is for the righteous and all others be damned. We who strive to be perfect don’t want to go unnoticed or left without reward. After all, striving for excellence, pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, working out in the fields all day is how we get ahead in this life, isn’t it?
I do not think so. Both parables show two men and one Father. Both parables show the side of humanity that depends on obedience and hard work and the side the tests the waters or goes astray but returns to the Father humble and truly dependant of Him. Each story is of humbled men exalted by the Father and exalted men humbled by the same Father. There are many ways you can take these similarities, but I’d like to focus on one.
The dependence on rules and making it about how great we are externally never seems to please God in the Bible as it does when we are honest about ourselves and our need for God. We live in such a self-help oriented culture that if I were to stand at a pulpit and preach this I would probably get called a heretic. “Depend on God? Are you out of your mind? I have credit card debt to pay and kids that need sports equipment! Isn’t it good enough that I work hard for my money, tithe weekly, and go to church every Sunday? It’s not like we drink, smoke, cuss, or sin like those that don’t go to church. Get real, heretic!” Individualism and capitalism are the way, the truth, and the light for some in this culture. Tribalism has taken off well recently, too. You can see this in the continued support among evangelicals for Roy Moore. His supporters have said they will still vote for him, even if the accusations of him being a pedophile are true. They are the righteous and obedient ones. Never willing to cast a vote towards the sinning democrats. They are the older brother, they are the pharisee in the Temple. “Oh God, thank you for making me a conservative republican. Thank you for evangelicalism. I go to church, tithe, and am obedient to your Ten Commandments. Thank you for not making me like this liberal.” Sounds harsh, but this where individualism, tribalism, and capitalism has gotten us.
If I’m being honest, I think all of us humans can identify with both characters of each story. It’s only human to need to do a job well done in life. After all, we don’t want to be vagabonds and thieves all throughout our time on earth. Yet, we still find our reflections in the son and the tax collector. They are the ones most people find common ground with. In true self assessment, we see our need for the Father that is willing to forgive us, wrap us in robes, and rejoice in our return to Him. Who doesn’t love a good celebration? Today, search your heart and find parts that need humbled. When you encounter someone today that is opposite of you give them the words that you long to hear about yourself.
I’ll start: You have value in my life.
Go forth and love a radical love that you see in the words written in red. They’re not easy to live by, but if Jesus didn’t think you could live like him, he wouldn’t have asked you to take up your cross.