Lent Reflection:Who are the Pharisee?

Through out these reflections on the story of the prodigal son I’ve tried to keep an eye on the purpose of the story as more than a story but as a part of the parable Jesus is telling his audience.

I’ve written about how the younger son is a sinner like us. I’ve suggested that we are God’s children embraced like the father embraces his lost son. In Clarity it became clear that the Son’s repentance can serve as an invitation for us to consider repenting too. This sense of identifying with the prodigal son goes further, we, like the sinners and tax collectors, are not worthy of the love which we encounter in God’s grace.

Following the narrative arc, we find ourselves now reflecting on the part of the older brother. This is also where the rhetorical emphasis of the parable seems to lie. The Pharisee and the teachers of the Law were mumbling amongst themselves that Jesus was eating with sinners, the implicit accusation is twofold. Either:

  • Jesus is a good person, a righteous person, and so shouldn’t be associating with bad people, with unrighteous and unclean people.


  • Jesus is associating with other people like him. He’s associating with sinners and so he is one of them.

It seems to me that if the second were the case, then they would simply dismiss him as a popularist speaker – interesting, but ultimately just another fraud with a big following. They don’t though, they seem drawn towards him. They’re interested in what he has to say, even if they disagree with him. Indeed, only the previous chapter Jesus was eating in the house of a prominent Pharisee!

The sense we get when we read this situation is that there’s something about Jesus which means that they can’t ignore him, but they certainly seem to feel uncomfortable with his insistence on spending time with those who were ‘beneath him’, just as they were beneath them.

This is what we find with the older brother when he protests,

‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

– Luke 15.29-30

I pointed out a couple of days ago that the older son is actually a good person. So too are the Pharisee. They followed the law, they kept the Sabbath and poured money into the temple. These were the family people, the ones who would have had well behaved children and food on the table. These were the guys who could read and debate the scriptures at the higher levels. They would gather together to recline and eat. They would attend the Sanhedrin, if not in an official capacity then they would at least keep abreast of all the latest issues being discussed and talked about. These were the righteous ones. I don’t mean self-righteous, though in scripture they often are, but rather I mean that these are the people who are taking their faith seriously. They believe in God and worship him alone at the temple.

When they came across the sinners, they would want them to join them. They would want them to leave their lives of sin to live as God intended his people to live; following the law. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t the only ‘real believers’. There would be plenty of respectable Jewish believers who would have done construction work, who would have been carpenters, who would have worked in and managed estates much like the father and older brother in the story of the prodigal son. However, the Pharisee were the guys who were consciously devoting themselves to holiness. Sinners needed to either do the same, or were to be left to their unclean ways.

In a sense, the Pharisee and the teachers of the Law were the ones who have been obedient to God and the demands of the Law, for years. They’ve slaved and never disobeyed.

Tangent: Obviously, all have sinned.
All have fallen short of the Glory of God.
However, it was possible to be a righteous person
by your accomplishments under the law.
Just read what Paul says in Philippians 3.1-11!

Jesus paints us the picture of the older brother who is curious as to what’s going on and then realises that his sinful brother – be basically calls him a pervert -is the one being celebrated. This picture encapsulates the listening Pharisee in his audience.

By doing so, Jesus seems associate himself with the father in the story.

Tangent: Isaiah 9.6 is one of the verses
I personally find peculiar. How can Jesus
be referred to as ‘Everlasting Father’?
Here is the first occasion I’ve noticed
where he takes on a fatherly role.
Sorry – Tangent!

The father is pleading with the older son to go inside, to join the celebration. Jesus, in this section of the story, seems to be doing the same with the Pharisee. It can be common for us as reading scripture today to cheat. We know the ending of the story and as such we have a perspective on the things Jesus is saying and doing which the Pharisee didn’t know. It can be easy to say that they were short sighted, that they should have responded differently. But what a challenge this would have been to them.

It’s true to say that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor, to say that Jesus was not content with the status quo, that he sought out the lost and the sinners. However, it would be wrong to reduce the stories of his encounters with the Pharisee and the teachers of the Law to a pantomime where the Pharisee are simply the comical bad guys who get their comeuppance when Jesus proves them wrong,  in an argument or even by the resurrection. Instead we have to remember that God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that all who believed in him may have eternal life.

This gift of eternal life, this declaration of filial love and divine friendship was not just for the sinners and the tax collectors. It was for the Pharisee too.

It could be argued that the Pharisee already had a taste of the promise of this life by their conduct. Jesus doesn’t need to restore them in the same way as he does the alcoholic or the prostitute, but he invites them to share in the celebration of this restoration. He has gathered the sinners and tax collectors into his Father’s house, and now he stands at the door inviting the Pharisee in.

In the story Jesus tells, the older brother is invited in and the story is left with a call to join in the joy of the lost being found, of the dead being alive again.

Whether or not the older brother will go in is entirely up to the Pharisee, the teachers of the Law and even us ourselves.

That’s right.


Lots of us are Pharisee too…

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