The eldest son of some friends of mine began his college career this semester. During the summer months, the soon-to-be college student searched for a dorm room or apartment but couldn’t find anything suitable. A few weeks before the beginning of the semester, an ideal dorm room came available in an ideal dorm building.
The parents attributed their son’s incredibly good fortune to me, my prayers, and my influence (with God?). At first, I was reluctant to take credit. Later, I thought, “Why not?” Unfortunately, I think I’ve put myself in the position of having to reproduce the miracle of the perfect dorm room again next year when the next child applies to college.
My friends’ inclination to credit me as the source of their son’s good fortune mirrored my willingness to be credited with influence I don’t possess. Everyone wants to think of themselves as belonging to a group which possesses power and influence. Everyone wants to feel like an ‘insider.’ My friends assumed I had inside influence with God, or the University, or the housing managers. The Pharisees who feature in today’s Gospel reading considered themselves to be ‘insiders,’ as well; their sense of self-satisfaction led to the three parables Jesus told.
The three parables in today’s reading have identical themes. The recoveries of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are described as causes for Divine rejoicing. Jesus intended the parables as metaphors about the universality of both God’s mercy and the need for God’s mercy. The parable of the lost sheep ends with the statement, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Lk 15:7) The parable of the lost coin ends with the statement, “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk 15:10) The parable of the lost son has no similar statement, but the meaning is communicated by the actions of the characters in the story.
The Pharisees in this Gospel reading considered themselves to be ‘insiders’ with God because of their meticulous religious practice and stringent morals. Jesus didn’t disapprove of the Pharisees or their religious fervor. These three parables don’t suggest that the devout are outside the reach of God’s mercy; rather, they suggest that entry into God’s ‘inside’ group is not restricted to the perennially devout. Jesus said that those who repent in humility and return to God are also counted among God’s inside group.
The Pharisee reform movement during Late Second Temple Judaism promoted a strict regimen of religious practice as the way to make oneself pleasing to God. The Pharisees studied the Law of Moses in detail, and they applied their knowledge of the Law to every aspect of life. There is every reason to think that their devotion was acceptable to God. Despite their devotion, however, the actions of the group of Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading betrayed a lack of understanding of God’s will. They criticized the people who were attracted to Jesus’ teaching about repentance, and they criticized Jesus for welcoming those who found hope in his teaching. They complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:2)
Although this group of Pharisees possessed an intricate knowledge of the mechanics of their religion, they failed to understand what their religion was trying to teach them. They failed to see that God’s boundless mercy poured out in the Sinai Covenant was addressed to all God’s People rather than only to those who lived exemplary lives. These Pharisees considered sinners to be ‘outsiders,’ incapable of being reached by God’s mercy. Even when sinners repented, these Pharisees judged them harshly.
Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s Grace raises human nature above what nature is capable of on its own. The power of God’s mercy to elevate human nature is not reserved only to the virtuous; nor is the need for Grace’s power restricted only to the sinful. It is God’s intention that all people enjoy the effects of God’s mercy throughout their lives and in every situation.
The group of Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading were adept at the practice of religion, but they were failures at being changed for the better by their religious practice. They hadn’t learned the most important lesson that religion teaches, namely, that all people are always in need of redemption.
Jesus intended these three parables to help these Pharisees understand how God judges between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ The members of God’s ‘inside’ group are those who respond faithfully to God’s mercy. The previous state of the lives of God’s insiders does not matter; what matters is the degree to which a person is willing to grow in faith and charity. Outsiders, on the other hand, are not those who are unworthy of God’s mercy but those who are unchanged by God’s mercy.
The three parables challenged the Pharisees’ understanding of holiness; these parables pose the same challenge to those today who want to be considered ‘insiders’ with God. God’s ‘inside’ group does not consist of those who are satisfied with their religious practice; rather, God’s insiders are those who are willing to be changed for the better by God’s influence.