For a long time, I thought of the Pharisees and scribes as the villains of the Bible. If you’ve ever spent much time reading the New Testament, you know why. They are always opposing Jesus. They conspire with other folks to have Jesus arrested – beaten – killed. But some years ago, while reading a book by Jerram Barrs (Learning Evangelism from Jesus), I was challenged to re-think them – to stop dehumanizing them – to recognize them as human beings rather than some nefarious creatures. That exercise has since changed my perspective and opened up a lot of life lessons.
For instance, in Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 parables. Those parables are told to an interesting audience made up of what seems like two or three groups of folks. They aren’t mentioned – but I’m sure that the disciples are nearby. But then there is a second group – tax collectors and sinners. They are the folks on the fringes of religious society. We might think of those folks as lost – right? I mean – that’s what religious folks usually think of when they think of folks on the fringe of their religious community. In essence, they aren’t what we might consider as church-going folk.
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But there is a third group of folks in the audience – Pharisees and scribes – and I’d like to focus on them for a while because I’ve learned a lot by seeing them as humans and not villains. They are certainly not what we might think of as lost. They are very much part of the religious society. But, as I think of them as human beings – as people who have a strong moral core – I wonder what made them respond to Jesus the way they did. While I don’t have it all worked out, I think it is safe to say that some of the folks reacted to Jesus the same way folks react to change and loss and dealing with the reality of who they are.
Let me see if I can unpack what I mean.
Luke tells us that a crowd gathered around Jesus made up of our aforementioned groups: disciples, tax collectors, sinner, Pharisees, and scribes. The Pharisees and the scribes saw the sort of people that Jesus ate with and they grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
As I’ve said before, I love words and one of my favorite words is the root word for the word grumble. In the Bible, the word for grumble comes from the word γογγύζω (gong-good’-zo). If you say it correctly, it sounds like it means. It means to murmur – to grumble – to complain. The word conveys the low noise that a crowd of folks makes when they are unhappy. Think about a court scene in a movie when the people are displeased with something someone says. That’s the sound of the word – and that’s the noise the Pharisees and Scribes are making when Jesus meets with tax-collectors and sinners. They murmur and grumble and complain.
Now we can quickly run past this and chalk it up to Pharisees and Scribes just being villains or we can stop for a second and ask ourselves why? Why were they grumbling?
Well, part of it has to do with the fact that Pharisees and Scribes kept a safe distance from those they considered “sinners.” It wasn’t like they didn’t understand that they themselves were sinners and in need of God’s grace and mercy. They knew that and acknowledged it and did what they thought was necessary to pursue right living before God. They wanted to make sure that they were as orthodox as possible and they wanted the rest of their society to do that same. So, they got a bit sidewise with people that were on the fringe of their religious community but were still associated with them by race and nationality.
So, it makes sense on one level that they would grumble about Jesus and the folks he’s spending time with. But, I think these Pharisees and Scribes are dealing with something else as well. I think they are dealing with change and loss and coming to terms with a the reality of who Jesus was saying they were – and when people deal with loss and change and coming to terms with themselves – they often grumble (γογγύζω).
I’ve heard people say it a thousand times, “I don’t mind change.” But – as soon as change starts to happen – suddenly they mind it – and very often – they γογγύζω. Why is that? Why is it that folks really don’t like change?
Well, if a few guys out of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School for Government know anything (and I think they do) it has to do with loss. People don’t fear change per se – they fear and hate and loathe the pain from the loss that invariably comes with change.
Think about that for a moment – think about the murmurs and grumblings that have accompanied this pandemic. I’ve grumbled myself. I really wanted to see Thatcher run track this year. I really wanted to have a huge party to celebrate Sherry’s birthday this year. I didn’t want to see my family and friends lose their jobs. I’d rather worship alongside folks on Sunday morning rather than ZOOM; I don’t like this change – but it isn’t the change per se – it’s the loss.
I think that these Pharisees and Scribes didn’t like what was going on with Jesus because all of a sudden – things were changing and they – like you and me – didn’t like it because they were dealing with loss. So they murmured and complained – they grumbled because they didn’t like what was happening and it was showing them and others who they really were.
In every instance with Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes kept losing power. They were losing position. Their way of thinking was being challenged. Their way of doing things and their way of seeing the world and the people in it were being challenged and they kept coming up short – and they knew it and so did others and they didn’t like it. So they grumbled.
And those guys were very human in how they reacted. I mean – look at who they are reacting to. Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were all flocking to see and hear Jesus. And what is Jesus talking about?
He’s talking about God. Jesus is telling tax collectors and sinners about God –people who are by all indicators – lost from a religious perspective. He’s even telling Pharisees and Scribes about God.
But that is what a Pharisee and a Scribe was supposed to do. They were the experts about God. They were the people that folks went to before. They were the ones that kept everyone straight about doctrine and practice and what was the right way to do this or that. But suddenly all of that is changing and they are feeling the loss that comes with change – and so they grumbled.
Their way of doing things – their way of looking at the world and the people in was being challenged – but challenged by whom?
Well – God. Actually, God in the flesh – God in the person of Jesus – the very Son of God.
That is what Christians profess, anyway. We believe that Jesus is the very Son of God – the logos who became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. And so, Jesus – the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of God – is standing in a crowd of people – and in that crowd are tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and Scribes – and the Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling and murmuring because the tax collectors and sinners are there and Jesus – the Christ the Son of God is eating with them and treating them like people and telling them about how to know God. And in reality, he’s telling the Pharisees and Scribes, too.
In all of that, we have to know that it is God that’s shaking things up for the Pharisees and Scribes. It wasn’t some sort of conspiracy by the tax collectors and sinners. It is God that’s doing this thing and I think that these Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling because they are dealing with loss and change and they are being forced to come to terms with a new reality about themselves and the person responsible for all of that is God in the flesh.
You know what? The idea that God is sovereign and rules over all things and all that comes into our lives isn’t something that was dreamed up by the Reformers in the 16th century. The idea of God’s sovereignty over all things is right there in the Old Testament – it runs from cover to cover in the Bible. The Pharisees and Scribes would have known that – just as much as we know that God is sovereign over all things – and yet they are as human as we are and when they are faced with change and loss and this new reality about themselves – they murmur and grumble – and eventually conspire to work against God himself.
But – if they had been paying attention to the parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15 – they may have truly been able to deal with change and loss and this new reality.
But to be fair, it isn’t just Pharisees that SCribes that are being subjected to the notion of change and loss and the reality of who they are. To be quite honest, the tax collectors and sinners are going to have to deal with the same thing. You see when Jesus enters a person’s life He doesn’t leave them as they were. He changes everything about them. When the Gospel hits its target, tax collectors – like Zacchaeus – are not able to defraud anyone any longer – at least not without being sorely convicted internally. In other words, people that meet Jesus – well – they can’t simply go back to the way things once were. And that can be a real loss – worth it – but a loss nevertheless.
I came to faith in Christ when I was a student at Carson-Newman. Coming to Jesus changed everything for me. Before that, let’s just say I was a bit adventuresome (as my wife says). But after coming to faith in Jesus I no longer did those things – which means I didn’t really hang out with the same crowd any longer. It isn’t that I didn’t like them or want to stay friends – it was just better for me not to be in the environment any longer. See what I mean about change and loss and dealing with this new reality of who I am?
That’s the power of the Gospel – that’s what Jesus does – Jesus brings change and loss and a new reality about who we are as human beings. The Gospel doesn’t leave a person unchanged.
That’s what God does in the lives of His people; He changes them and we all know that change can feel like loss. It can be painful. When God enters a person’s life, He changes the way a person thinks, and lives, and treats others, and thinks of themselves. But sometimes, in order for that change to happen – God has to shake things up.
So, in Luke 15, God is shaking up the world of the Pharisee and the Scribe and they are grumbling because of it. If you’ve ever read this text, have you ever thought about the intended audience of these parables? Granted, everyone heard, but the target audience was the Pharisee and the Scribe – the grumblers – the folks who were really being challenged by God to accept change and loss and the reality of who they were.
Look the Pharisees and Scribes were content in the way they saw the world and the people in it and their place in that world. But God intervened and shook things up and made them come to terms with the fact that God is a God who searches out those who are lost – and there wasn’t a person in that crowd that wasn’t lost – not even the Pharisee and Scribe. But they had to come to terms with the fact that they were lost – because they really didn’t know it.
At the core of these parables in Luke 15, Jesus is telling them about the very character of God – God is a God who searches for the very people that the Pharisee and Scribe had written off. God searches and restores tax collectors and sinners – but he also restores and Pharisees and Scribes, too. God is a God who shakes people up as He seeks and restores that which is lost to Him.
He leaves the 99 to go get the one. He turns the house upside down, to restore the one to Himself. That’s what God does – even today – but to do so – sometimes God shakes things up so that people go through change – even loss – in order to really see themselves the way they need to in order to see God for who He really is. God is the God who seeks and restores lost people – and there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t need to be found by God.
God is the God who changes things up and in the process He searches and restores people to himself. He does it all the time. He’s doing that at this very moment. And sometimes – very often – God challenges our perspectives in order to change our lives; he allows us to endure the loss that comes with change so that we can deal with the reality of who we are – and we are people who need Jesus.
Oh, a person might grumble and murmur – but God pushes through that nonsense.
The bottom line is, we are living at a time of change and loss and new perspectives. We are going to experience the loss that comes with this change. We already have to some extent. We really don’t know the full extent of the loss we will experience. But we can rest assured that God is sovereign and He is about changing us through the loss and I believe with all my heart that God is going to lead us through this change; He will be with us as we deal with the loss that comes with the change, and he will restore us more and more as we deal with the new reality of who we are and what we will become.
Luke 15:1–10  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable:  “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?  And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (ESV)