Pharisees, Sinners, and Lost and Found

Luke 15:7 (CSB)
“I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance”.

I’ve been reading the gospel of Luke quite a bit lately. Not only are Rita and I reading through the book a chapter a day as we did last year, I am also doing a thirty day devotional reading on Jesus, much of which is drawn from Luke’s gospel. It’s always interesting to go back and read what you’ve read many times in the past, because you always find something you didn’t notice before.

Chapter 15 is one of my favorites. It consists of three parables which are related to one another. The first is about a lost sheep out of a flock of one hundred; the second, a lost coin out of ten; and the last, a prodigal son with an angry brother. It seems as though the last parable receives the most attention, although the lost sheep gets it share as well. I’ve read both many times in my life, but I never really stopped to consider one verse in particular: it’s the one quoted above.

At first glance it seems rather strange. Does it really mean that God is happier over repentant sinner than he is those who already belong to him? It sounds a little nonsensical. If it’s true, there’s no wonder why the older brother is so angry about the circumstances of his brother’s return (oh, I’m sorry- his father’s son; it’s no brother of his). To the thin-skinned and easily offended it would be easy to spin this as God playing favorites, and those who try to be righteous end up with the short end of the stick.

But as is the case with most of scripture, you have to dig deeper and look further than just this verse to understand what’s being said. It’s one reason why these parables are grouped together. The answer to making sense of this verse comes at the end of the last parable, in verses 31 & 32, where the Father is speaking to the older son: “‘Son’, he said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and is now alive again; he was lost and is found.'” It’s not that the Father loves the older obedient brother any less. The older brother is the heir to everything the Father has. But his brother has been lost and has returned home, and it needs to be celebrated.

There is another story which appears a few chapters before this, in chapter 7. It begins with a dinner invitation to Jesus from a Pharisee, whose name we find out is Simon. As Jesus comes in and reclines at the table a woman comes in behind him. (Instead of chairs, the usual custom was for guests to adopt almost a lying position at the low table, with their feet extended behind them). The woman is described in unvarnished terms: “a woman of the town who was a sinner”. She brings with her an alabaster jar of perfume, an expensive item that cost her dearly. She begins to weep, using her tears to wash Jesus’ feet, and using her hair to wipe them. She then kisses his feet and anoints them with the perfume.

As extraordinary as this woman’s actions are, just as astounding is the reaction of Simon. All he sees is a sinner, and Jesus is letting her touch him. Therefore, Jesus can’t be much of a prophet, or he would have recognized her for what she is. Simon’s blind and tone deaf to what’s happening; all he can see is what his prejudice and preconceived notions let him see. He completely missed the act of love being carried out. Washing someone’s feet is one thing; washing them with your tears and kisses, using your own hair as a towel, and then pouring perfume on them is in a class all by itself.

The key here is that Simon is a Pharisee. He considered himself a cut above everyone else, spiritually. He was so righteous, so good at keeping the law, that God owed him salvation, right? Aside from the outrageous arrogance and hypocrisy, that attitude also considers anyone less rigid to be undeserving of God’s consideration and blessings. Jesus calls him on it. Actually, Simon got off easy compared to the excoriations that Jesus later visited upon the Pharisees.

Jesus tells Simon a story about two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other. Neither could pay their debt, and both were forgiven. Jesus then asked, “which of them will love him more?”. Simon correctly answered, “the one he forgave more”. Jesus goes on to open his eyes to the current situation. Simon had extended no courtesy to Jesus which would have been considered basic hospitality: a slave to wash his feet, and oil to soothe the dust in his hair. The woman, on the other hand, had gone ‘above and beyond’ in her treatment of Jesus’ feet. Great forgiveness, great love.

If we claim to be followers of Christ, there is always a danger of falling into the trap of having a Pharisee mindset. If we start thinking how good we are, how obedient, how spiritual, it easy to start seeing others as just “sinners”. What these two chapters remind us-should remind us- is that we were all sinners, still are. We are that lost sheep, that lost coin, that lost child. The one difference is that we accepted the gift of God which was paid for us with the blood of His son Jesus. We’ve been celebrated by heaven when we repented and gave ourselves to Christ. It’s when we forget where we started, how lost we were, that we start becoming the older brother, the Pharisee, the one “too big to fail”. The truly sad part in all of this is: if that’s our attitude, we already have.

I find great joy in these stories, because there’s something for everyone here. For those who have turned their back and wandered away from God, there’s always hope. When you come to the end of yourself, the path is always open to come home, and the Father is always standing there, waiting and watching for you, wanting to run and snatch you up, and then start the celebration. But unlike the older brother, those of us who also made our way home want to celebrate and welcome you, too. It just wouldn’t be the same without you.

For those of us who have claimed Christ as our Lord, these stories remind us we were there once, too; lost, far away from home and without hope. If we truly want to have the heart of Christ, our hearts need to ache and burn for those who are lost. Pray for them, show them you love them, help them to find their way to the only One who is the Way, who can change their lives and restore the joy, peace and hope found in a relationship with God broken so long ago. The One who loved them enough to die for them-and us.