[Part one can be found here.]
When we examine the Gospels as a whole, we find numerous interactions and parables that have a strong resemblance to the structure of the parable of the lost son. In these particular parables and interactions, we find a striking connection between the surprising ease at which openly recognized sinners find themselves forgiven by God and the much harder matter of seeking to encourage repentance among those who think that they are already righteous. If this was simply an isolated matter, it would be easy enough to overlook it, but it is something that is repeated often enough that it ought to be noticed and reflected upon more. Let us discuss some of these incidents and notice what common patterns we can find from them.
We can find one of these passages in Luke 18:9-14, which reads: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”” This passage ought to be a considerable warning to us, because it reminds us that those who think themselves to be righteous and despise others often find that those they despise are in better graces with God than they themselves are. Here again we see a case where someone who thinks themselves to be close to God finds themselves praying with themselves and God not regarding them at all while an obvious sinner who repents finds the grace he seeks.
The story of the man blind from birth is another one that is instructive in this regard. Let us examine the end of this story, in John 9:30-41: “The man answered and said to them, “Why, this is a marvelous thing, that you do not know where He is from; yet He has opened my eyes! Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.” They answered and said to him, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” He answered and said, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” And Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.” Then he said, “Lord, I believe!” And he worshiped Him. And Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.” Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, “Are we blind also?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.”
This story adds a wrinkle to the usual pattern in that the man born blind was not in fact a flagrant sinner as we have seen in most of these stories, but rather someone who was assumed to be a sinner because he was born blind, as it was assumed that someone who struggled with such a serious problem was either a terrible sinner themselves or had parents who were–neither of which is the case according to Jesus Christ, who would know. Because the Pharisees had judged the man born blind as having been born in sins, they refused to accept his impeccable logic that someone who performs a miracle that had never been done in recorded history could not be the sort of flagrant sinner that the Pharisees falsely accused Jesus of being, and refused to recognize their own more serious spiritual blindness in the face of someone who had merely been physically blind but still had his sound reasoning intact. Here too we ought to be careful in that this passage warns us that Jesus Christ came into the world so that the blind may see and those who think they see may be blinded. Do we count ourselves among the blind or do we think ourselves to be among the enlightened, those whose thinking is superior to that of the common herd of humanity? If the Pharisees had recognized their blindness–their inability to correctly judge the spiritual state of Jesus Christ or the man born blind–they could have repented of their blindness and been forgiven, but to admit themselves blind would have been too humbling for these proud souls, and so they persisted in their blindness and abused their authority to disfellowship a godly man from the synagogue under their control. Here too we see that the emotional distance of the lost elder brother from God can be combined with a great deal of power and authority within religious institutions that can be abused by those whose ego gets in the way of their humbling themselves and seeking forgiveness from their Lord and Master, in whose name they claim to serve as leaders.
We see this same dynamic in another story that pits the repentant but openly acknowledged sinner with one who is viewed as righteous but whose emotional coldness is contrasted with the warmth of the repentant sinner, namely in Luke 7:36-50: “ Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.””
There is a lot going on here underneath the surface. Let us note that in this particular story, Simon, a leading Pharisee, is taking the role of the estranged elder brother, while a sinful woman, probably someone involved in some sort of known public scandal of sexual immortality, is in the role of the repentant sinner. Here too we see that someone who repents of sin can find forgiveness fairly easily in the Gospel accounts, but that Simon’s resentment is a more complicated matter–Simon invites Jesus to eat but does not even meet the normal standard of social grace that would include water to wash one’s feet, or an affectionate greeting of friendliness. Jesus politely, but pointedly, refers to his behavior as demonstrating a lack of love, and points out that while Simon has sinned ten times less than the woman, he loves Him less, and is still counted as a debtor, even if an unappreciative one. And while the repentance of the woman and her forgiveness of sins, which itself prompts the Pharisees there having a meal to question Jesus’ authority, we do not find Simon or any of his associates asking for repentance for their harsh judgment of either Jesus Christ (without sin) or the woman (forgiven of her sins).
This pattern is a problem. Why is it that the Gospels can repeatedly show sinners being forgiven and have those sins wiped away in a moment of people coming to their senses and seeking forgiveness from Jesus Christ, but does not contain similarly dramatic appeals of those with cold and resentful hearts warming to Jesus Christ and to others? The shared structure of these stories and parables ought to give us pause. It is no difficult thing for someone whose sins are openly recognized and often looked down upon to be forgiven of those sins when someone comes to themselves and desires to return to God. The Father is a generous and merciful being, quick to forgive, and longing for all to come to Him in repentance. But we do not find that it is a quick thing for those who are close to the Father in terms of having nothing obvious to repent of, but being emotionally distant from the Father and lacking His merciful and gracious and kind nature, to repent of their resentment and bitterness and hostility towards God and other people and to become more loving. Why is that so? Why is it harder to recognize that we have been blinded by our pride to think that we are wholly righteous when we are merely less disobedient than the obvious sinners around us, but still in need of God’s mercy and grace? Why do the Gospels shy away from showing the repentance of those like the lost older brother, while repeatedly showing how easy it is for the prodigal younger brother to be saved?