Sinners and the Self-Righteous.
“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’” – Luke 15:28-30 NLT
Jesus associated with sinners – regularly and gladly. It was for the sake of sinners that He came to live and die. And the reality is that He came for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. He came for every person alive on the planet when He walked the roads, paths, and streets of Israel. Because “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). Jesus came to save sinners. So what’s the point of this chapter? It’s made clear by the way Luke introduces it. “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people – even eating with them” (Luke 15:1-2 NLT). This sets up the series of parables told by Jesus to all those within ear shot. And He makes a very damning point, aimed directly at the Pharisees and teachers of religious law – the spiritual elite of the day. These men were the poster boys of piety. They were looked up to and envied for their spiritual depth and religious zeal. They were biblically knowledgeable and the icons of religious virtue. But Jesus knew better. He understood that they were also sinners in God’s eyes, but they simply refused to admit their sin. They had covered over their sinfulness with self-righteousness and religious activity. But as Jesus had once described them, they were like whitewashed tombs – clean and pristine on the outside, but full of death and decay on the inside. Earlier in his gospel, Luke had recorded a statement from Jesus that expressed His sentiments regarding these so-called religious leaders. “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:32 NLT). These men considered themselves righteous and right before God because of all their efforts done on God’s behalf. They somehow thought they had scored brownie points with God because of all the spiritual exercises and religious activities in which they engaged. The issue wasn’t whether they were sinners or not – it was that they refused to admit that they were and repent.
So Jesus told them three simple stories, and each makes the same painful point. In the first one, a man has a hundred sheep and loses one. “What will he do?” Jesus asked them. The answer isn’t quite so obvious as we might think. Jesus says that the right thing to do would be for the man to leave the ninety-nine other sheep alone and defenseless in the wilderness and go after the one lost sheep. In other words, Jesus suggests that the one has more value to the man than the ninety-nine others who he abandons in the wilderness as he searches for the lost sheep. And when he finds that one lost sheep, he puts it on his shoulders and joyfully carries it home. Mission accomplished! Jesus says that “there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT). This sounds like a direct reference on Jesus’ part to Isaiah 53:6. “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.” Nine of the “sheep” in Jesus’ story are the self-righteous who smugly believe they are safe and sound, when in reality, they are just as lost. Their problem is that they refuse to acknowledge their lostness. It’s interesting that in the story, the man took the found sheep home and hosted a party with his friends. He left the other sheep in the wilderness. There is no more reference made of them.
In the second parable, a woman has ten coins and loses one. Jesus asks the obvious question as to whether or not this woman wouldn’t ransack her house in order to find the ONE coin that was lost and then rejoice over it when she did. As in the first story, when the woman finds the one lost coin, she calls in all her friends and neighbors and and rejoices with them. I would have to think that her friends and neighbors would have thought the celebration a bit much over one found coin. But Jesus says, “In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents” (Luke 15:10 NLT).
Finally, Jesus told them a parable regarding two sons and their father. This one is the more familiar story to most of us. We typically refer to it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have made the younger son the hero or focus of the story. But based on the context, the real focal point of Jesus’ story is the older son. The younger son in the story demands that his father give him his inheritance early. Upon receiving it, he promptly takes a journey to a distant country where he blows it all in record time, living the high life. He ends up in poverty and recognizes that his only hope is to return home and beg his father for forgiveness and place himself at his mercy. Which he does. And the amazing thing is that the young man’s father receives him back joyfully, graciously, and extravagantly. He throws a party and showers him with gifts. This is where the older brother comes in. Rather than rejoice at the return of his younger brother, this guy becomes sullen and angry, because he has remained at home, working diligently, serving his father faithfully. He became angry and refused to take part in the festivities. He tells his father, “I have slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to” (Luke 15:29 NLT). He believed all his effort and hard work should have earned him a party, not the rebellious younger brother. Like the Pharisees standing in front of Jesus that day, this older brother felt like he was the one who should have been the center of attention. He had earned it. He deserved it. But the story reveals something about this man. He didn’t serve his father out of love, but out of a sense of duty. He didn’t serve his father joyfully or willingly, he did it as if he was a slave. It was all a burden to him. He did it expecting to receive something in return for all his effort. But that’s not how things work in the Kingdom of God. Effort doesn’t earn us anything. It is a grace-based economy. Paul reminds us, “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:9 NLT). Jesus came to save the lost. But it’s hard to save someone who doesn’t THINK they’re lost. It’s hard to rescue someone who doesn’t THINK he needs rescuing. The religious leaders were just as sinful and in need of salvation as the tax collectors and other sinners of their day, but they refused to admit it and repent of it. And they would be left defenseless in the wilderness, sitting ignored on the counter in the house, and outside the party looking in.
Father, while I can have a lot of the attributes of the Pharisee in my life, I thank You that one day You opened my eyes and helped me to see my sinfulness. You searched for me and found me – lost and with no hope of ever being found. You rejoiced over my salvation, because You are the one who made it happen. It was not something I did. I didn’t earn it or deserve it. It was all You. And I am grateful. Thank You for sending Your Son to die on my behalf – a sinner condemned and unclean. Amen.
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men