The Prodigal Son, Tax Collectors, Pharisees and Easter

Luke 15:11-32

In the parable of the prodigal son, we have three main characters: the Father, the first son who leaves, and the second son who stays. The Father represents God, the son who runs away represents people who have wandered away from God, and the son who does not leave represents the religiously devout.

The first son holds ideas about his life and his Father that are not completely true. His ideas were true in the sense that he realized that after squandering his inheritance, and disowning his own Father, he was at the end of the line. The dividends of his choices were incredibly poor - he was a Jew slopping around with pigs, wishing he could eat as well as they did. And even though he knew he had seriously insulted his Father by everything he had done (for example, his liaisons with prostitutes), he still slunk back home hoping for acceptance on some level.

For that son, "acceptance on some level" meant that he thought he needed to earn his way back into the Father's house and favour. This was not true. We have a phrase for this idea that the prodigal son was convinced of. We call it "works salvation." Even though he came to his senses enough to return to his Father, this prodigal son errored in thinking that his Father is the kind of person who would require him to work his way back into good standing. Likewise, we don't need to earn our way into the kingdom of God. God the Father simply accepts us fully as his own children.

To turn the son's return into a doctrine of what we must do in order receive Jesus and know God misses something important. It cheapens the Father's mercy and creates a kind of works salvation - i.e. "you can't know God unless..." On the other hand, there is also something important in this understanding of the parable because if one continues to ignore God, it's difficult to really know God-but not impossible! In human terms, the son could not have been received by the Father if he hadn't made up his mind to return in the first place-but with God all things are possible. Nevertheless, this does create an interesting problem. Without the return, the parable's meaning is drastically different, and given the scope of the situation the son has gotten himself into, his return home is a very reasonable choice. But, it is also quite possible and reasonable to conclude that someone else might have completely refused to return home.

Something to note here is that while the son is off living a life of indulgence and self-contentedness, the Father doesn't chase him down and drag him back, nor does the Father even get angry. The Father allows his son to make his own choices, and even face consequences of his choices. Perhaps the key to understanding the son's return, then, is to realize that God likewise allows us to make our own choices and to experience consequences of our choices, so that we might come back to him. As the Church, we then can and should be out in the dark places of the world, shining the light of Jesus.

Notice also how the Father runs toward his son while his son is still "far off in the distance." This is significant, firstly, because it shows us that even while we are still far away from God, God pursues us. Secondly, as the church, we should reflect the Father's attitude by being radically loving toward people who return, or are trying to return to God, radically understanding of people who do not, and yet radically willing to show people Jesus--through our actions and words.

The second half of the parable is about another prodigal son: the older one. This son complains that his father neglects him. The older son is like a kid who complains that he doesn't have a Nintendo, when there is a perfectly good Nintendo in the family room - "but I waaaaant one forrr meeeeeee!" We who are called children of God can be like the older brother. When we see people come back to God all messed up, struggling to move forward, floundering around and still receiving all sorts of Grace and Mercy, we can get indignant, and prideful or self-righteous instead of reaching out with a helping hand and open arms. We may say or think things like, "I slave for you God! It feels like you never given me anything!" But the father responds to this son "don't you know? All I have is yours." Likewise, we the children of God have had everything that matters all along.

In another parable, a Tax collector and a Pharisee go to the alter together. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like all the sinners around him, but the Tax collector confesses that he is a sinner and beats his chest in anguish over it. A Pharisee was culturally seen as one who should inherit the kingdom of God and be justified before God - simply because of his high position in the temple system. In short, Pharisees were seen as blessed. Tax collectors were, according to the Law, under a curse because they literally stole from God. So this story of the Tax collector and Pharisee has a some interesting layers of meaning. One meaning is about what kind of an attitude it takes to 'go home justified before God.' Pharisees were the kind of people who did all the right things. They gave money to the temple regularly, performed all sorts of religious duties, and wore religious clothing. But, in spite of this religious piety, this Pharisee was incredibly self-centred, and shows no concern for others. He is only glad that he is not like them. Thus, the first point of the parable: religion can't save anyone - including Christian religion- because religion is all about what we do and don't do; approve and don't approve. It's easy to be a Christian Pharisee -and I'm sure we have all either been there or know people who have been there. We do all the right things-we give money to the church, we are involved in various ministries at church, and we may even evangelize on the streets of our cities. But we miss the weightier things --namely, love. We spend so much time wrapped up in our lives at church, that we turn it into a social club. Anyone who doesn't fit our mould is cast aside. And we slowly but surely become glad that we aren't like "those people" over there, or "those sinners" who are going to "burn in hell." It's this kind of attitude that makes Christianity offensive for people, and rightly so.

I met an evangelist this week who said, "I believe so strongly that the Lord is coming back soon that I can't help but approach people and tell them about Jesus, so that they might be saved and avoid eternal hell. My heart just aches for people to come back to God." While I don't agree with his "Jesus as a ticket out of hell" philosophy, over the course of our interactions this week, it became clear to me that he is fundamentally motivated by Love, and I won't argue with that. In fact, it would be a waste of time to argue about his philosophies in light of the fact that he is motivated by love. I have a hunch that there are many more people like him, but I think they all get lumped together with another group of people who hold a similar philosophy of Jesus' purpose, but are not motivated by love --they are instead motivated by frustration, or anger, a self-centred sense of piety, or fear of anything that isn't culturally 'Christian'.

There is also a third group --those who are motivated by love, but who still have a good number of fears about a lot of things. They fear questions, and things that are different from what they know. They fear change, and long for the good old days of Christianity. They fear reading too deeply into the scriptures, because doing so might dismantle things they have held dear for a very long time. This last group of people are like the disciples before Jesus was crucified. They had gusto and passion, but sincerely could not read the world around them, despite their best efforts. They also had very small ideas about what Jesus was doing. As a result, they eventually became more concerned with self-preservation than with standing up for justice; that is, until Jesus rose from the dead and they realized what was really going on. That's when everything changed.

We are all at times like the disciples or the pharisees - but our main Goal is, and always should be to be like Jesus. We are many, but we are also one. May we see that Jesus has risen, and is drawing all people to himself. May we be partners with God in this process, keeping up the hope that 'not one will be lost', even the face of an increasingly violent and sin-saturated world. And may we be humble, allowing God to cover our failures with his perfect love.

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