If there is one group of people in all the world who never believe they need redeeming it is the arrogant, self-righteous and religious people in the world. This was the group of people that tormented Jesus almost every day of his ministry. It was Pharisees and Sadducees and the priestly crowd who condemned Jesus for associating with the tax collectors and sinners. It was that crowd that condemned him for healing those who were hurting or those possessed of demons on the Sabbath Day and it was that crowd who thought it was scandalous that he would receive sinners and eat with them. How can you ever redeem those who don’t believe there is anything wrong with them the way they are right now?
We could look at Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night early in his ministry asking questions and learning that one must be born again to enter the kingdom. While he didn’t become an open disciple until after the death of Jesus he was there to help Joseph of Arimathea take down the body and bury it in Joseph’s new tomb. There is little doubt that in the most well known story Jesus ever told that we know as the story of the prodigal son, that the older brother represented all of those who thought they had it right and certainly didn’t need grace, mercy or a savior. It is easy to look so closely at the Father’s love and forgiveness, acceptance and celebration of the younger brother’s homecoming that we miss the fact that when the older brother came home and stood outside refusing to go into the party for the younger brother, the father went out to him and pleaded with him to come in. The older brother started his speech to him, “All these years I’ve served you and I never transgressed your law, but you never even gave me a young goat that I might rejoice with my friends, and yet when this son of yours who has wasted your money with prostitutes came home you killed for him the fattened calf.” It didn’t seem fair to him at all. He had no grasp of grace. All he could see was that he had lived as the obedient, hard working son who stayed home and took care of the place and now he didn’t feel appreciated. Notice he saw himself as one who had never messed up at all. He had worked as a slave for his dad. But listen to the father. “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours, but it was right when your brother came home to kill for him the fattened calf since he was lost and now is found, he was dead and is alive again.”
It is easy for us to see ourselves as the prodigal son that comes home but I suspect most of us have more affinity with the older brother than the prodigal son. What is so amazing is that the father doesn’t rebuke the son. He didn’t tell him he was an arrogant, self-righteous clod. He explained to him the reason for lovingly accepting the brother home and pleaded with him to come in. Did he? We don’t know. I would like to add a few words to the story and it be that the older brother broke down in tears and said, “You are so right. I have been a fool. Forgive me and let’s go party with my brother.”
Here is what I know for certain, there was a well known Pharisee who hated Jesus and his followers so much that he held the garments of the ones who stoned Stephen, the evangelist to death. He was so enraged that he went into people’s houses and arrested both men and women throwing them into jail because they were following Jesus. He was even on a commissioned trip into Syria to the city of Damascus to arrest believers in Jesus when an amazing thing happened. It is described in Acts 9. A blinding light from heaven struck him to the ground. A voice came to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He answered, “Who are you Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” He was blind from the light and had to be led into Damascus. He spent 3 days fasting and praying before the Lord commissioned a disciple named Ananias to go to him and lay his hands on him so he can receive his sight and to tell him what he needed to do. Ananias was reluctant to go since he had heard of all the damage he had done in Jerusalem to the disciples of Jesus, but Jesus told him to go since he was a chosen vessel of his and that he would show him how many things he had to suffer for his name sake. Besides he had already given him a vision of a man named Ananias coming to him. Ananias obeyed. He laid his hands on him and gave him his sight. He commanded him to be baptized into Christ and he was and that started the Christian life of the man who would become the Apostle Paul.
Even when we have been ones who are sure of our salvation and have looked down on anyone who differed with us in any way to the extent we felt they were lost for such disagreement, God still reaches out to us and redeems us. In many ways it is harder to convince this person they need any redemption than the one living in open sin. But the Spirit of God can work on any heart and melt away the stone to give them a heart of flesh to hear the word of the Lord.
I must learn from Jesus that in order to reach those who are deeply religious and are arrogant, self-righteous and pharisaical you can’t just go along to get along. Jesus could have fit into their mold and not angered them. He could have said to all those wanting to be healed on the Sabbath to come back tomorrow. He could have refused to publicly meet with and eat with the Samaritan woman or the immoral or tax collectors. But he was showing us God and his heart, so he refused to fit into a mold that really took away grace, mercy and acceptance. He took people where they were and worked to carry them to where they needed to be. For some it is wise to not do anything in their presence that violates their conscience. But for this type person, Jesus never did so that we have recorded. Instead he called them hypocrites who bound things on others that they didn’t do themselves and worked heaven and earth to make a disciple and when they did he became more a child of hell than ever before. Often the challenge is to know when it is time to sooth a person’s conscience and when it is time to heal the sick on the Sabbath and let the others figure out how it happened.
Because of God’s heart to the older brother and because of the total change in Saul to become the apostle Paul we know that even the arrogant, self-righteous religious person can be changed and came come to realize their sin and trust in God’s grace to save them as well as others.