Who is a lost sheep in your church? What does the prodigal son look like in your mind’s eye? It’s likely these parables invoke images of a wayward partier, a self-destructive addict, or an aggressive atheist. Jesus undoubtedly had each of these souls in mind when he told his great parables, but I wonder if he would include a Pharisee in that bunch.
In evangelical culture, few personal flaws are as stigmatized as judgmentalism. Over the past few decades, the Holy Spirit has transformed churches into places where sinners are embraced and the homeless can receive an unending supply of socks and shirts. We are even making strides to reach out to those struggling with addiction and sexual sin, which were once considered unmentionable. But the moment we hear a hypocritical or legalistic remark from a fellow member, we secretly wish they could be banished to the church down the street.
Consider your reaction upon hearing of someone who is leaving your congregation. When an addict relapses and disappears from church, we are deeply saddened that he or she is gone. We pray fervently for the Lord to bring transformation into people’s hearts and to restore them to the body of Christ. But when a hypercritical member storms out of a congregational meeting vowing never to return, we’re more likely to sinfully rejoice that he will soon be some other church’s problem. We’re more likely to say “Good riddance!” than “Lord, help him!”
What has caused this unhealthy disregard for the spiritual health of the “Pharisees” among us? Perhaps our worship of Jesus has changed into a worship of the transformation that Jesus offers. Pastors and church leaders alike desire not only positive but dramatic results, both of which seem more likely with “down-and-outers” than with entrenched insiders. After all, a redeemed rock musician makes for a more exciting sermon illustration than an apologetic critic.
Yet Jesus desires that the lost sheep are found and fed, regardless of who they are. During his three years of ministry, our Lord spent significant time teaching the Pharisees. He did so because he loved them. He invested his valuable time with the teachers of the law and the scribes so that they might be transformed alongside the sinners and tax collectors. And at least one of them was.
In John 3:16, Jesus delivers his good news to Nicodemus—a Pharisee: “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” He offers life to the dying, no matter what kind of death they are experiencing, because in his eyes the Pharisee and the tax collector probably looked quite similar.
The Lord desires a “rags to riches” conversion story for every person. Whether the rags are literal or spiritual, it is our job as Christ-followers to offer the riches of his grace.