The Third Pharisee

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

In popular culture, images of Jesus change with the times, and move with the expectations and thoughts of the day. If you ever threw a Jesus movie film festival, you could —within the course of a long and mostly repetitive day — see Jesus ranging from a cold European played by Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told, to Rockstar Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, to Godspell’s Jesus-as-a-happy-clown, to Jesus the young Marxist revolutionary in Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew.

In other words, when we think of Jesus in our faithful imagination, he has a tendency to look a lot like us. This can be a very good thing: Part of being people who worship the Word made flesh, the God incarnate is that we recognize and celebrate that the flesh he took on in the Incarnation was not some sort of pseudo-humanity, but was real human flesh and blood, born of the Virgin Mary, suffering under Pontius Pilate. This is part of understanding the mystery of the Incarnation, that by taking on flesh, by becoming a human man, Jesus united divinity to humanity. God came near and became more than a disembodied Spirit, but God with us.

But when we come to an exchange like we see in our Gospel reading today, we also have reason to beware that the image of Jesus we see can be shaped as much by the Jesus we want to see as it is by the Jesus we actually encounter in the Gospels. But as we look at Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the testimony of St. Paul in our reading from his letter to his friend and student Timothy, we’ll find in Jesus a God who invites us to join his joy in redeeming, restoring, and rejoicing with us at our return from wherever we are lost.

In our Gospel reading, we come to Jesus in the middle of a crowd that has gathered. In the crowd is a mixed group from all around: Pharisees and scribes, regular Judeans, and others. Into this gathering a specific group of people has pushed through to the front, “coming near to listen to Jesus.” Luke describes them as “tax collectors and sinners.”

Luke is using terminology that described a certain group within the synagogue system, specifically those who had chosen a way of life that left them unable to join the community at worship.

By their choices or way of life, they were ceremonially unclean, and to associate with someone unclean, to go under the same roof as them, made you unclean by association. To eat with them went further, showing solidarity with them. Eating with a sinner made you ritually unclean just like them, not just accidentally, but by your own choice.

The observation of the Pharisees was absolutely right, insofar as the religious morés of their society were concerned. Jesus did welcome those it was not kosher to welcome. But these tax collectors and sinners weren’t there to steal money through tax extortion, and they weren’t there to keep on in their sin.

It says that “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near” to Jesus. For what purpose? They “were coming near to listen to Jesus.” They were there to hear him teach, to learn how to follow. They were there, in other words, to participate in the very thing that the Pharisees, scribes, and the moral police of the day had barred them from: to hear the Word of God proclaimed and to be able to listen.

In those days, if you wanted to look up a bible verse, you didn’t type it into Google, or run to your family’s bible. The synagogue was literally the only place you could find any scripture. You showed up at service time, and the reader would open the scroll and read the reading for the day. If you weren’t allowed in the synagogue, you could not hear God’s word.

That is, until Jesus came on the scene. He preached in synagogues and out. He went into any home that would invite him, Pharisee, scribe, tax collector, Gentile, or sinner. If they would invite him in, he had a word for them.

The Pharisees thought that Jesus’ religious authority was like theirs. They had made God into their own image, and couldn’t accept it when he showed up taking God’s word into places where people were most hungry for it. They mistook compassion for lenience, and judged Jesus to be no better than the sinners he received.

In some ways it’s easy to be a Pharisee, to cast stones at those we deem unclean, different, or sinful. But Pharisees come in lots of different forms, and I’m going to talk for the rest of our time today about three different Pharisees, the image of God they have, and what they have to do with Jesus’ parables to the crowd.

The First Pharisee we’ve already talked about, the Pharisees in Jesus’ story. They look down their nose at tax-collectors and sinners. They judge those who aren’t as exacting in law-obedience as they are, and then they take it a step further. They judge those who don’t judge them, and that’s Jesus.

In their imagination, God was just as much a stickler for the rules as they were. They bought the lie that only those outside the synagogue could be lost, and that they were never lost to begin with. That’s the first Pharisee.

But it’s to these Pharisees that Jesus addresses the parables that follow. In each of the parables, there is one that is lost and has to be searched for to be found. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” “What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

If we learn anything about life from Jesus’ interactions with Pharisees, it’s that even religious people, church people, saved people, found people have a tendency to wash the outside of the cup only after a while, and to ignore the more elusive, more deeply rooted places where we are hiding and lost, where we need to be found. In other words, there is a second way to be a Pharisee, even if you can remember a time when you felt lost and have been found.

If you’ve ever faced temptation, you know that the lie on the front end of sin is that our temptations are no big deal if we give in: God doesn’t care, or turns a blind eye. But after we give in to temptation, we fall victim to another lie, the lie that we have done something so far beyond the pale, so bad, that there is no way that God or anyone else should ever love us.

What do you do then? You either beat yourself up, go into self-imposed exile, run even further away, —OR — you steel yourself to the guilt and double down on the things that make us feel like we’re lovable. Maybe the sin will go away if we ignore it, and we remind ourselves how good we really are. This is where the first Pharisee comes from, from the self-imposed effort to work away all the bad.

The second Pharisee is one who treats forgiveness, and the mercy of God’s grace according to that first lie: that Jesus’ mercy is an indifference to sin. I love sinning, and God loves forgiving: Things are arranged splendidly.

The tendency is to ignore or numb the guilt, to explain it away, to say that there is no such thing as brokenness, no such thing as being lost. Our sin, our brokenness, our hang ups aren’t really hang ups! They’re just how we are. Since God loves us anyway, there must be nothing wrong. It’s true, God loves you more than you can imagine, but God loves you too much to ignore where we need his mercy.

One problem with this is that it imagines a God who doesn’t see our sin, then it’s hard to imagine a God who can find you where you are lost. The second problem is that it says that once we’ve been found, we get to judge all those less enlightened than us, those Pharisees suck on the merry-go-round of sin and forgiveness. We wander off and get lost again.

The lie of the first Pharisee is that once we’ve wandered off, whether a lot or just a little, we are too far gone to be saved, too lost to be found. The lie of the second Pharisee is that thanks be to God, we have it all together, and those little places where we fall short don’t really matter, or don’t actually count. It’s those different than us who are the ones in need of saving. The problem, in other words, is not labeling people, even though that isn’t a very good idea. The problem is convincing yourself that you’re not lost.

But there is a third Pharisee in our readings, and he isn’t where we would suspect: St. Paul

If you don’t know his story, Paul used to be Saul. He persecuted Christians and was a rising star in the Pharisee world. Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, while he was on his way to throw Christians in jail. He was a Pharisee who was lost. Maybe he had even been in the crowd that day when Jesus taught the parables from our Gospel reading.

When Jesus appeared to Paul, his life turned upside down. He went from being the chief persecutor of the church to the chief church planter. But that’s not how he refers to himself in his letter to Timothy near the end of his life: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe.”

As Paul went on, he never stopped seeing ways that he was lost, and needed to be found again. This wasn’t a merry-go-round of sinning on purpose to be reminded of God’s mercy. It was an ongoing realization that his sins were worse, more deeply rooted than he had known, and that God’s mercy guides us down to the depths of those roots that we may know the joy of being found.

Paul’s story at the end of his life is one of recognition and resignation: he’s never going to have it all together. He’s never going to stand on the basis of his own merits. He’s always going to rely on God’s grace and mercy to rescue him and carry him back home.

But Paul’s story, the story of the third Pharisee is that God loves finding lost ones. In this world, none of us gets out unscathed, none of us exactly knows the way, but that’s okay because the real party in heaven isn’t over those of us who have it all together, because that’s a fiction. The real celebration, the feast, and the joy of the Good Shepherd, our King of love is that God’s love is a love that goes after us, all of us.

This is hard for me. It’s hard to deal with my failures, hard to admit that I still need to be found. I want to be a finder! I don’t want to be lost. But I have to admit that I get lost. I get overwhelmed and screw up, get angry, get calloused, get selfish, get lost.

It’s hard to be found. We have to admit we’re lost. But on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd who carried our sins on the cross, and bears our weight on those nail-pierced hands, we can have the joy of seeing how far the savior would go to find us when we were that one lost from the 99. There, we can know the depths of God’s mercy, and know ourselves when we are found in that love.

Here we find the Jesus as he is, restoring the lost, and welcoming sinners and eating with them. It isn’t a scrap shared between two beggars in the garbage heap, but the feast of joy that we share together as lost ones found by the one who would stop at nothing to bring us home. Let us come home and rejoice.

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.


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