I’m sharing this post from the archives. This was a hard one to write as God revealed my self-righteousness, but it eventually led to brokeness, healing, and forgiveness. You may have already read those stories, but this is the prequel, the part that had to come first.
“You know you’re a pharisee if sin disgusts you more than it moves you to compassion.”
Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees. And for good cause: they created stumbling blocks for those who sought God, they prided themselves in their good works and self-righteousness, and they despised the tax-collectors and ubiquitous “sinners.”
Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” and a “brood of vipers.” He didn’t exactly sugarcoat his condemnation of them.
Which is why I’ve tried to stay as far away from the label “pharisee” as long as I could, even though in my heart-of-hearts I knew that I probably was one.
Me? A Pharisee?
In my own life, I’ve been deeply hurt by someone I love dearly.
This person (who I looked up to more than any other person on the planet) had become so blinded by and entangled in sin that his presence was a threat to my well-being and those around him. And so he left, partially because I put up walls and partially because he would rather leave than give up his sin.
Our relationship died that day, and I went through shock, disbelief, anger, and bitterness, before resting in a place of loss.
It’s been over three years. Three long years.
And now I feel the Father tugging on my heart, telling me it’s time to act in reckless love.
But the pharisee in me doesn’t want to hear it.
Anyone But Him
Here’s the thing: I’m thrilled that God lavishes His love on the world and welcomes everyone into His family, but I struggle with the mentality that once you’re in, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You’ve got to earn your keep, to stay on the straight and narrow, to follow God’s commands. And if you don’t, you’re out of the club.
Right there is my heart as a pharisee.
I have more compassion for those druggies and hookers who have never heard of God’s amazing love than for those who have taught Sunday School and turned their backs on Him for a life of hedonism.
I’m the older brother hearing bad news–destitute, lonely, living with the pigs–nodding my head and saying “Serves him right. Teaches him to disgrace the family.”
I’m the older brother disgusted with the fanfare and celebration in honor of the one who turned his back on the family.
I’m the older brother refusing to go in to the feast because what’s-he-ever-done-to-deserve-a-party and why-didn’t-I-ever-get-to-party-with-my-friends?
I’m the older brother saying “After all I’ve done for you… this?! THIS is how you treat me?” And railing against the injustice of it all.
I’m the older brother… and you know who the older brother represented in that parable, don’t you?
I even remember using this very parable in conversation with my husband: If he ever comes back like the prodigal son, if he throws himself on the ground and says, “I have sinned! I don’t deserve to have this role in your life, but I’m going to work hard to prove that I’ve changed and I’m going to pay you back!” Then. Then I’ll consider starting a relationship with him. Otherwise: no way jose!
(Ugh. The ugliness of my own heart is too much.)
But here’s the part of the story that I missed: the father in that parable has tender words to say to the older brother. And those words offer you and me hope.
Compassion for the Stuck-Up
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. [..] “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
~Luke 15:28, 31-32
Listen to the compassion in the father’s voice.
Just as his actions earlier in the day (running toward the younger son, embracing him, clothing him, ordering the slaughter of the fattened calf) were surprising and reckless, so are his movements now.
Watch as he lays aside his dignity, leaves the feast, joins the older son on the porch, and pleads with him. The older son accused him of being a slave master (“I’ve slaved for you and obeyed all your commands,”) but the father does not order him into the house, he entreats him.
The older son has a heart of stone, but the father is moved with compassion for both the younger and the older son. He invites both sons into his presence to celebrate salvation, to party, to feast, to raise the roof with shouts of joy and gladness.
And herein are Jesus’s tender words to the pharisees: Come in and join the party. You are welcomed and wanted here.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
As our pastor taught on this passage recently, I couldn’t help but feel convicted about this dead relationship.
I believe God is the God of the living, not of the dead, and He can certainly resurrect dead people and dead relationships.
But in my waiting, am I the older brother–expecting that person to return in sackcloth and ashes, earning his way into my graces and paying for his indiscretions–or am I the father, watching for his return, welcoming him with arms wide open, taking the first step toward reconciliation, and showering him with love?
How do I treat the prodigals in my life?
Do I feel compassion and love when I hear of this person’s reckless living, or do I feel disgust and self-righteousness?
Am I leaving an open door for this person to know he can come back?
The Father opens his arms wide for us, the older brothers, and for them, the younger brothers.
I pray we will do the same.
Re-reading this post today moved me to worship the God who can change hearts. He’s done a mighty work in my own heart (read about my journey toward forgiving those who have hurt me most) and I’m watching and praying for Him to work in these dear one’s hearts as well.
Will you join me in praying?