When a hard heart develops, a hard head is sure to follow.
All Christians aim for the perfection of spiritual maturity, but some of them, like me, often find themselves switching lanes into legalism. It only gets worse when we mistakenly brand ourselves with terms borrowed from Scripture, like “overcomers,” “conquerors,” “warriors,” etc.
But the most serious hidden handicap occurs when we get around to actually disliking the very God we purport to serve. You see, our idea of perfection doesn’t play well with grace.
We’ve heard “grace” ten thousand times, studied it in Greek, even preached it. For sure we agree with it.
As long as someone doesn’t actually need it.
That’s why the scribes and Pharisees, those professional religionists, said of Jesus “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1). They questioned, even disparaged His commitment to righteousness. He then answered with the three most beloved parables of the New Testament: the good shepherd, the lost coin, and the perhaps inappropriately titled parable of the prodigal son. All of these were spoken for the benefit of ancient legalists because it is hard getting the concept of grace across to “perfect” people.
They were right about the sin of those sinners—they saw it clearly. But enough of God had been hidden from their own view that they hardly knew the God they thought they served.
And so His first parable casts Himself, the Son of God, as a shepherd seeking a single lost sheep. The Pharisees could not understand His valuation of a soul, the passion of His search, the celebration of His success—all were the opposite of their expectations.
The second parable consists of a woman with a lit lamp (apparently emblematic of the Holy Spirit?) who searches for and finds a lost coin. The Pharisees had found Jesus’ reception of sinners suspect, as though He were somehow soft on sin, and not concerned with righteousness. Yet the prostitutes and tax collectors weren’t “getting away” with anything. The Spirit’s inward illumination had exposed their sin. These sinners were experiencing an inward revolution. But “perfect” folks can’t understand much of anything inward, including light.
Finally, the third parable casts God as Father of two sons–an outrageous wasteful younger son who runs off, and an older, dutiful son who punches in for work daily. When the carousing boy “comes to himself” and returns, the Father immediately receives him back without negotiation, and throws a party. The eldest son complains about the favorable treatment—What? Shouldn’t there have at least been a stern rebuke? A public shaming? Certainly not a celebration! Pharisaical ideas couldn’t grasp an already self-brutalized sinful life, the power of a repentant return, and the beauty of a hearty welcome back into the arms of God.
It is all grace—that wonderful reality that deals with a sinner more effectively than any threat of punishment ever could. It is grace that humbles, that wins the heart, that affects the change. This is God’s way—not to pretend sins haven’t been committed, but to so thoroughly root them out as to leave the sinner himself amazed.
And still we have trouble understanding it.
When David was faced with the discipline of God, he prayed, “Let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam. 24:14), that is, those who do not possess any understanding of grace. Sadly, years back I witnessed this very thing, when certain Christians demonstrated a weird, savage delight in delivering more discipline than a sinning brother required.
This happens when we forget our own sins, despise those who fail, become estranged from the joy of God, and pride ourselves on our slavish religious goodness.
But God has many ways of demonstrating to us the superiority of grace. Only some of them, like in Luke 15, have to do with teaching us. He could, for instance, put a legalist in such a situation that he or she had to cling to grace, white knuckled. After their judgmental stance toward others, for instance, the sudden exposure of their own secret sins might leave them destitute (c.f. John 8:1-11—the implied threat of writing on the ground seemed quite effective here!). Or, what if a legalist accidentally did something terrible to someone else, and then needed that person’s forgiveness? Under those circumstances, grace might mean the difference between a nervous breakdown, life-long depression, and intense self-blame.
Let’s hope we learn the easy way.
The three parables conclude open-ended. Did the older son ever see things the Father’s way? We don’t know. It could have gone either direction.
As for this sometimes-Pharisee, I know where I’d like it to go.