It’s a word that reeks: of pride and arrogance, a sentence finalized and delivered by judge and jury to those beneath us.
Most of us have felt contempt, of others and for others. Good missionary that I was, I remember feeling a mix of paternalism and contempt when we lived among the Manjako people in Senegal. “They’re certainly fortunate to have us here,” I remember thinking one day.
I was there as God’s emissary to bring them good news! You may think me arrogant for thinking such a thing. I certainly was. By grace I now have been the recipient of untold lessons in humility from the hand of God. But back then, if the Manjako thought they could see God in my life, the picture they got was certainly distorted….
The religious teachers of Jesus’s day also presented a distorted view of God and who he is. That’s what we see in Luke 15 and is the reason Jesus tells the parable the way he does. The religious leaders were supposed to be God’s shepherds to Israel, helping them to know and understand him. Instead, the people got the message, supposedly reflected from on high: they weren’t worth very much to God.
Jesus found himself in a situation where that question was hanging in the air. He decided to tell the onlooking religious leaders what we call “the parable of the prodigal son.” (Prodigal: “recklessly wasteful.”)
Like “The Sower” and “The Good Samaritan,” the prodigal is among the best known stories of Jesus. Even if you’ve never cracked open a Bible, you’ve heard it or are aware of its cultural and literary impact in our society, an impact which is—or has been—significant.
Please read the parable before we go on. You’ll find it in Luke, chapter 15. There is more to the parable than you may have heard before. It consists of three vignettes: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and the third about the lost son. It’s short, only thirty-one verses.
Okay … now that you’ve read it, we’ll continue….
First, the “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of Rome. They kept whatever they collected over what was owed and were, not surprisingly, considered traitors, detested by most. The disciple Matthew (or Levi) had been a tax collector when Jesus called him.
“Sinners” included a variety of people not generally considered righteous before God, definitely not top tier. They would have included prostitutes or other ne’er-do-wells.
These people were “all gathering around to hear Jesus;” they were drawn to him and were eating with him. He welcomed them—and they felt welcomed. They knew that Jesus was at least a rabbi, maybe more (i.e., Messiah?) yet he welcomed them. Eating with them showed this because shared meals were traditional times of intimate fellowship, discussion, and enjoyment of others. Just imagine….
Contrast them with “the Pharisees and teachers of the law,” who were contemptuous of both the people and Jesus. You can feel the vibe. The Pharisees prided themselves in strict adherence to all the minutiae of the rules they set up to “help” people keep God’s law. The teachers of the law (or “scribes”) gave themselves to the laborious hand-copying of the Scriptures. These two groups had frequent run-ins with Jesus, especially over issues related to Sabbath-keeping.
They enjoyed society’s respect and deference, though they seldom returned it—most assuredly not to those they regarded as beneath them. But such a group sat before them now….
Jesus was aware of their hard hearts. While we might want to “do contempt unto others,” Jesus sought to win them by providing an opportunity to understand the father heart of God towards those before them. He knew most of the leaders would walk away, allowing the birds to snatch the seed; still, he continued to reach out to them.
Watch Jesus closely. His parable doesn’t start with the father and sons. He knew that even hard-hearted religious types understand the value of a lost sheep or a lost coin (likely worth an entire day’s wage) and would extend the same effort and be just as joyful as anyone upon finding them. But, of course, other humans—especially one so thoughtless and contemptable as this recklessly wasteful son—well….
How odd it was that Jesus inserted a statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than a gazillion who don’t need to where he did: in the two vignettes about a lost sheep and lost coin. It was not lost on the Pharisees and teachers that Jesus was saying explicitly: “God rejoices greatly when a sinner repents.” (Don’t be thrown off by the reference to “in heaven” or “in the presence of angels” because that was a common device used by the Jews to not say the sacred Name.)
So, if you’re familiar only with the vignette about the father and his two sons, you may have been missing the punch line of the whole parable. The central point is the joy experienced by God when one single sinner “comes to his senses” like the prodigal did.
Can you picture Jesus’s Father running up the road to welcome that returning child? You can’t? Beneath his dignity and majesty? Not your picture of God? However you picture it, joy is the point.
You can bet that Jesus’s joy knew no bounds at these “tax collectors and sinners” who wanted to hear. They had their ears on. How might they have had their picture of God changed by the presence of Jesus?
Does the “good son” in the story remind you of anyone? Those religious hypocrites? Their need to repent was painfully obvious to everyone—but them. Their blindness is evident all through the Gospels. Outwardly, they supposedly did the right thing. But God wanted their hearts.
As to the prodigal himself, we don’t hear any more about him after the father runs up the road, hugs him, orders the best robe, ring, and fattened calf. But the older son, well, that’s another matter. He refused to come to the celebration once he heard about it. He complained bitterly to his dad. He considered himself perfectly justified in what he thought and said, but his father did not have his heart.
If you are waiting for me to explain the meaning of each part in the story, I won’t. Some parts are obvious. The father is God, no doubt, and he reminds the older son that his inheritance is still there. But he has missed something fundamental about the nature of doing the “right thing”: love and compassion, particularly for those who were lost and now are found.
It was part of Jesus’s overall message that the Father accepts all who come to him, whether “sinners” or Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews): those who understand their true poverty, their need for him, and turn to him (or, come to their senses).
“What comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” (A.W. Tozer) It would be good to know your honest answer—not one you’d tell a Sunday school—but what you think when you’re alone, in the dark.
I hope, through these postings, to give some accurate indication of the answer. God forbid that any Manjako or anyone else has a picture of God based on the contempt and other un-God-like qualities I once displayed while acting as his representative. My Father’s grace, mercy, and love didn’t give up on the prideful young man I have been on this long road I call my Zigzag Journey.