Jesus loves all His little prodigals and pharisees

Well, I’m sitting here on a Wednesday night unable to sleep and curiously hungry. I’m not sure if the sleeplessness and hunger are linked, but I’m currently testing that theory by downing a crisp English muffin slathered in butter. Whether sleep is subsequently induced or not, it’s a win win!

While laying awake in bed for about an hour, I really wrestled through some thoughts I’ve been having over the last several days that were initiated by a well written article I read last week, “I Thank Thee That I Am Not as Other Legalists”, Or, How “Freer Than Thou” Became the New “Holier Than Thou.” Perhaps my wakefulness is due to my brain trying to work these thoughts out into sensible language, and since that English muffin hasn’t triggered blissful unconsciousness yet, I think I’ll take a stab at sorting my musings out before returning to bed.

Mark Snoeberger introduces his topic with an example of an obnoxious, probably somewhat ignorant, brother-in-Christ who, instead of using his freedom as an opportunity to serve his fellow man through love, uses it as an opportunity for the flesh {Gal. 5:15}. Twas a frustrating beginning to the post, but as I read further I began to understand why he highlighted this example.

He writes:

Michael Horton served up a blog post that . . . was a timely pushback at a trend that has long been evident . . . —a trend that he calls “reverse legalism.” His argument is that a reverse legalist can sometimes be, ironically, just as legalistic as a regular legalist…but with a twist. Instead of measuring sanctification by multiplying behavioral standards so that he can smugly announce, “I am holier than thou,” the reverse legalist standard measures sanctification by eliminating behavioral standards so that he can announce, with equal smugness, “I am freer than thou.”

Do you know the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector that he is referring to here?

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” {Luke 18:9-14 ESV, emphasis mine} 

The Pharisee had this “holier than thou” complex, while the tax collector wasn’t looking for a competition. He was looking for forgiveness and mercy, which Jesus said he received because of his humility.

With the “reverse legalist” the story would go something like this:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed and thanked God that he wasn’t like other men, but did good things. The tax collector, hearing the boasting of the Pharisee began thanking God that he wasn’t prideful like the Pharisee, dependent on his goodness to be righteous. No, he was free from the restraints of the law and because of his freedom he looked on the Pharisee with contempt and a hint of Southern pity. “He’s such a legalist, bless his heart.” 

If such is the case, both are guilty of legalism, believing their favor with God depends on behavior, not on the righteousness of Christ alone. The one thinks his good standards {most of which he made up} merits a good standing before God, while the other believes his “deep understanding of grace” and freedom of spirit makes him more righteous than his brother.

Why am I wrestling with the ideas of legalism and reverse legalism you ask? Well, after thinking through it, I believe it’s because the Spirit is teaching me that I’m not a Pharisee or a Prodigal. I’m both, often in the same day! One moment I convince myself that God is more pleased with me because I’ve read my Bible that day, and the next I’m patronizingly shaking my head at some “poor” brother in Christ who thunders against the use of electric guitars in worship.

Jesus told another parable in Luke 15 commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The authors of Give Them Grace, in the chapter entitled “Jesus Loves All His Little Prodigals and Pharisees”, argue for a different name.

A better name for it might be something like “the welcoming father.” Why “welcoming father”? Because the astounding lesson of this parable is that an utterly good father welcomes two wicked sons who were outwardly very different but inwardly exactly the same.

While I appreciate Snoeberger’s pointing out the problem, I wish he had taken it a step further and identified the problem in his own heart. The fact is we are all legalists at the core. We don’t trust Christ’s righteousness and we seek to add to it with our own.  Let’s not use our freedom or morals as an opportunity for the flesh, but in love let’s serve one another {Gal. 5:13}. Let’s ask the Spirit to give us eyes to see ourselves as the characters in the parables Jesus taught – as the Pharisee, the tax collector, the women at the well, the prodigal son, the bitter son who stayed. He is faithful and will bind us together in unity and train our hearts in truth.

This song sums it all up beautifully. One of my all time favorites.


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