Luke 15:1-2 — Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
(…continued) You may not be in the category of Mrs. Finney’s vicious neighbor Fred or Louie the murderer. So what is Jesus saying to you here? Are you perhaps among those 99 sheep who are not lost, those ‘righteous persons’ Jesus referred to who do not need to repent?
Well, you probably aren’t in that category either. Jesus’ comment about those who do not need to repent was not said as a statement of fact, but to provoke some deeper thought in his listeners. Who, after all, is not a sinner; who does not need to repent? All of us are like that lost sheep and need to repent of our sins, even those who seem most righteous.
That verse comes as a part of Jesus’ response to self-righteous teachers of the Law who were criticizing Jesus for the way he would “welcome sinners and eat with them.” In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables, all describing the great joy there is when something that has been lost is then found: a lost coin, a lost sheep, and then, a lost soul. In the third parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, there is an additional twist. There, it is not only a lost son who needs saving, but there is also a second son, a self–righteous son, and he too needs saving. This son is not an outrageous sinner like his irresponsible little brother, or, like Fred or Louie. No, this boy has been a good and faithful son, a hard working, loyal, and righteous son. But this son’s righteousness becomes his sin. His righteousness sets up barriers between him and his brother, and then between him and his father. His righteousness turns into pride in himself, then hatred toward his little brother, and then anger toward his father. In his righteousness there is only obedience to the rules. There is no patience, no understanding, no love, and no forgiveness. His righteousness has become his problem.
In each parable, Jesus focuses on the lost and how all heaven rejoices when a lost one returns. In the last half of the the third parable, Jesus turns his attention to one who seems righteous, but is also lost and needs saving. Jesus does two things in Luke 15. First of all, he tells us he came into the world to save sinners. Then, he shows his critics that they are wrong, but that the loving father reaches out to sinners like them, also.
Mrs. Finney was probably a good person. She was no doubt good at obeying the rules, and that certainly is one level of goodness and righteousness. But the Bible calls us to a deeper goodness than to just obey rules. Mrs. Finney probably loves to sing “Amazing Grace” in church, and she no doubt firmly believes that the grace of God is something wonderful. But she doesn’t believe it should be granted to just anyone, and certainly not to her ornery old neighbor Fred. She is like the older brother in the parable who did not believe that his little brother deserved the love and forgiveness of their father.
Jesus teaches us in these parables that God cares about all people, desiring the repentance and salvation of all. Who are we to disagree with God and want any less for anyone? The father of the girl Louie murdered had a deeper understanding of all this than Mrs. Finney, and he prayed for and visited his enemy. He did confess that his heart wasn’t always in it, and he had to keep praying to God for the strength to obey. Paul himself, that great champion of the faith and courageous missionary did not take pride in all his accomplishments. Rather, his greatest joy in life was in knowing that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, saying that he needed that forgiveness more than anyone. His own letters testify to the struggles he had with being obedient and faithful to his Lord, even saying that he was shown mercy so that “Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for all those who would believe in him and have eternal life.”
All my theology is reduced to this narrow compass– Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Luke 15:31-32 — (Jesus said), “‘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 15:7 — (Jesus said), “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
I Timothy 2:3-4 — This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Prodigal Son, by Max Slevgot, 1899, (1868-1932)
This painting is a triptych which mixes realism and impressionism. The left panel depicts the prodigal living extravagantly in the far country. The scene is Asian. A geisha in a beautiful robe sits demurely at the table with the golden clad prodigal, while a dancer raises her arms provocatively in the background.
The right panel is as stark and realistic as the left is colorful and impressionistic. The destitute prodigal, nearly naked, limp from exhaustion and hunger, slumps in his desolation. We see him bowed in shame with nowhere to turn but home, as difficult as that may be.
The central panel portrays the prodigal’s return. He opens the door to the richly adorned room where sit his richly robed father and his elder brother. The prodigal in contrast is filthy, ragged, unkempt, and most of all emaciated. He lifts his hand not in a gesture of greeting, but in one of self-protection, unsure of his welcome. The father pivots in surprise, his body coiled to spring upon his lost son, his arms primed for embrace. The elder son stands stiff, unmoving and unmoved.
The most meaningful features of this painting are the son who sits in his dark desolation, and the father who instantly stands to welcome his long lost son. The depth of despair and the height of joy, caught on canvas brushed with melancholy and mercy— these are the two pictures indelibly painted on our hearts as we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. –By Lee Magness at: www.prodigalsall.com