The Pharisee

This is another “first person” look at the gospels. I was thinking about the parable of the “prodigal son” and it struck me (as it has others) that the ending is missing. However, as I mulled it over, the context in which Jesus told it suggested one powerful possibility.

We so often see the Pharisees only as the enemies of Jesus. In fact, they started out as what we would call a revival movement, and most of us might well have been drawn to them. True, by the time of Jesus they had moved into legalism, but many of them were good people trying to do what they though right. And many of them did come into the Church. They found Jesus hard to deal with in part because some of what he did and taught they really liked (for instance, they would have applauded his clearing of the temple, which was a Sadducean money-making venture), but had problems with his inclusiveness, the heart of this parable.

But I’ll let the Pharisee tell you himself…




Return of the Prodigal Son, Lincoln Cathedral

Return of the Prodigal Son, Lincoln Cathedral

He isn’t going to last much longer, that much is becoming obvious.  Sooner or later, and probably sooner, the temple authorities or the Romans are going to move against him.  For all his lack of formal training he is clearly a very intelligent man, it is hard to believe that he doesn’t know what he is doing, but even if he does no harm what purpose does it serve?

I’ll admit that he is not like the other rabble-rousers who have been popping up recently.  They are little better than bandits, and they use religious fervour only insofar as it furthers their anti-Roman agendas.  The sword is their first, and usually only, option.  Not the Nazarean!  It is rumoured that he has already rejected an army and a crown.  Up in Galilee last year they say he gathered a crowd of five thousand men who were ready to declare him King and form the core of his army and he just dismissed them!  Many here in Jerusalem scoffed when they heard that, assuming he had run away, scared of what he had started, frightened of ending up like all the others who challenge the might of Rome.

Then he showed up here again, with just a small band of followers, and it became clear that he was neither afraid nor was he backing down.  If he has rejected an army and civil power, he still wants something.  And what is more, for some reason the rabble still listens to him and accepts him.  Even so, we might have ignored him, allowed him to teach those who followed him, as many other rabbis have done and do, but he wouldn’t allow that.  Instead he has thrown down challenge after challenge to us, forcing a confrontation.


Take that story he told a while ago about the two sons, one of whom takes his inheritance and goes and wastes it.  Then, when he gets into desperate straits, he comes crawling back and his father not only accepts him but throws him a feast.  How the common masses loved that story, thinking he was talking about them and how if they come back to God he will accept them again.  Which was, indeed, one of the points he was making, but not the main one.

They forget why he had told it in the first place, and so how can they understand it?  But we know, we see.

It was his habit of spending his time not only with the unlearned, the common, but with the worst elements of the rabble.  He not only allows prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners to be near him, but he actually seems to prefer their company!  So it was inevitable that some of us would ask him about this: after all, we Pharisees spend our lives seeking God in his holiness and understand all about contamination and so are scrupulous about avoiding anything—and anyone—who could taint us.  He walks about as if such things don’t matter, we had to know why.

In answer he talked about how people rejoice when they find something they have lost, implying that God rejoices to find these lost ones—he had said another time about it being the sick not the well need a doctor.  The rabble see it as another story of the lost being found that they forget that the climax, the main point of a story, is at the end—and this story doesn’t end with the father’s joy at his son’s homecoming.  There is another son in the story, the older son who obeyed his father and was not at all happy with his younger brother’s sudden reappearance.  If the rabble are the younger son, who is the other one?  Who else but us, of course.


Yet his story ended right there, with the father pleading with his older son to come and join the party.  Did he?  Would he?  Why is the ending missing?  We wrestled with that for a while before the real meaning of the story hit us: it is not a description but an invitation!  Join me, he was saying, come and help me welcome these lost ones home.  It is not that he forgot the end of it, it is at the ending hadn’t been written yet.

Did he really expect us to accept such an offer?  Surely he must have realised what it would mean for us: to throw away a whole lifetime of watchful scrupulosity; to waste our carefully crafted and kept holiness; to embrace, after such particular avoidance, this unwashed, common, rabble.  He had shown us before that he himself didn’t set much store by the traditions of the Elders, but he must have known that it was in keeping them that we Pharisees found our identity.

I would have said that such a thing was unthinkable, that none of us could do it, but I had noticed some of our brothers considering it.  All I can say is that they had better be careful and keep their new convictions to themselves.  Already the authorities have issued proclamations stating that anyone found following this man’s teachings would be put out of the synagogues.  And it is bound to get worse as things come to ahead.


He realises that we have rejected his offer.  He no longer tells that story, and the ones he does tell now have endings: the wedding feast where the invited guests won’t come and are rejected or destroyed, are the one about the vineyard owner who sends for his rent and the tenants reject and abuse his servants, then kill his son before he, in turn, rejects and kills them.  He acknowledges our answer, our refusal to give up all that we have worked for, and declares that the battle lines are drawn.  And so they are.

We are watching and waiting.  So long as he is surrounded by the crowds and has their approval, we will do nothing.  We cannot risk a riot and the inevitable Roman response.  But crowds are fickle things and, sooner or later, he will say something to cross them and we’ll be ready.  Or else we’ll catch him quietly, away from the crowds.  Either way his days are numbered, the final ending of all the stories will soon be written.


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