Paul Tillich paired the story of the Prodigal Son with the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. I think it is a good match.
But, as did Tillich, I focus on the elder son in the Prodigal story, and the Pharisee in the sinning woman story. (And you should assume that the kernel of what I relate is pure Tillich.)
In both cases, we deal with righteous individuals. The elder son is so familiar to us, and frankly I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He’s the obedient one, the one who doesn’t get in trouble. If he were a girl, he’d be called a goodie-two-shoes.
What is often missed is that the Pharisee by all accounts is an obedient one as well. Although we are wont to think of Pharisees as those who spout what they don’t preach, actually they did. They defined things in their own way, and then lived them to the letter. Much of Jesus’ condemnation of them had to do, not with their lack of piety, but that they often missed the point of piety. It was form over substance that was their problem.
Here, there is no complaint that this Pharisee was not righteous. He was, by all accounts. Jesus thinks well of Simon it seems and Simon has honored the Lord with an invitation to dinner, a clear sign of hospitality.
In both cases, the rule-follower gets no respect. The sinner is upheld and pampered with praise. And you have to ask why.
Jesus suggests the answer. In both cases, the sinner has sinned hugely, gigantically in fact. One is a whore and the other a frequenter of whores. And God, in his immense graciousness, has forgiven them. Yet this is not the real point either.
Both ASK for and receive forgiveness, and their gratitude is immense. Jesus in fact says this:
It is someone who is forgiven little who shows little love.
What does this mean?
Tillich suggests and I certainly concur, that Jesus tells us that both the elder son and Pharisee are technically righteous, and what’s more they know it. And they expect to be acknowledged as such. They are quick to point out the flaws of others.
Yet, they are not comfortable in their righteousness, and that is why they struggle so hard to be righteous or more properly perfectly obedient to the letter of the law in the Pharisee’s case, and obedient to a father’s home rules in the other.
Tillich sees this psychologically as suggesting that for such a person, there is no feeling of being forgiven, they feel constantly unappreciated, unloved, and unrewarded. This expresses as a lack of ability to love on their part.
They cannot love greatly, and they thus are always judging others as coming up short. The acknowledged sinner, however, is overwhelmed by the graciousness of God’s forgiveness and loves God, and themselves finally precisely because God loves them. They realize they are worthy. Such people invariably can turn that self-love and God-love outward to a greater world. They love greatly.
The woman who wept over Jesus’ feet did not in fact love first, she accepted that she was loved by God, and thus accepted the forgiveness offered. She is to be commended.
The Pharisee and elder brother? They are still locked in their anger and feeling that somehow they still don’t measure up, simply because they are not accorded the blessings they feel they would receive if God truly found them acceptable.
The lesson for each of us I think is to explore the Pharisee/elder brother in ourselves. Are we doing all the “stuff” of righteous behavior? Are we always attending to our prayers and our rosaries, and our church attendance, our acts of charity, and then wondering why God isn’t blessing us more? Are we concluding that we have not been deliberate enough, focused enough, pious enough, faithful enough?
Are we feeling less than worthy of God’s love, and thus are we more prone to point to others as appearing to do less than us. At least we are not them! we think.
Does this explain the mind of the fundogelical? The bible pounding, “amen” “Praise God” types who can explain in detail why this person, this group, this whatever are not what God wants them to be? Does this explain why certain people want there to be a hell where all those they think are not as good as they, will find themselves?
I rather think it explains them. But they are but the extreme side of the equation. We all, as I said, have to fight down that urge. We all need to accept, really accept God’s gracious love, and not connect our forgiveness with some “sign” of blessing, leaving our lives free of stress and trouble.
We, perhaps, shockingly, would all be better off to have been the whore than the goodie-two-shoes. We might have the capacity to love more, forgive more, and be joyous.