Religious fanatics – lost to God, yet loved by him (See Luke 15)

See Luke 15:1-32

Jesus was addressing specific categories of listeners when he told the story of the so-called Prodigal Son: Pharisees (religious extremists, in today’s vocabulary) and scribes (religious experts, who could write comments about the holy books and teach from them). Fanatics of any religious belief terrorise people not of their faith, whether extremist Muslims, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Hindus in Orissa State, India, or ‘Christians’ in Northern Ireland – all violating the peaceful standards of their traditions.

They were complaining that Jesus was closely associating with those they considered to be riff-raff – tax-collectors (opportunists who worked for the occupying Romans, lining their own pockets from their job) and sinners (those who made no effort to be especially religious – secularists or materialists in today’s vocabulary).

He told these three stories of individuals who had lost treasures and then found them and, feeling so happy, they had to throw a party with friends to celebrate their recovery. The man in the third story loved both of his sons and felt that he had lost both of them. The younger son was an opportunist and the older son was a moral extremist, expert at keeping the rules but doing so very mechanically. The self-indulgent one left home to do whatever he pleased with his father’s gift to him (maybe valuables which he had turned into cash), while his ‘good’ brother worked long hours in the farm fields outside of town.

God in a hurry!

Father watched the horizon daily for his younger lad. And when he saw him in the distance he ran to meet him beyond the town. Kenneth Bailey, who spent many years among rural peoples of the Middle East, reckoned the biggest problem about the wayward son’s return would be social shame. The elders at the town gate would forbid his return to the life of the community because of the dishonour he had brought on his family and town. That is probably why the father ran to show that he forgave his son for bringing shame, so that the elders could make no official attempt to arrest him and try him. Also the father told his servants to prepare the roast beef dinner quickly before the older son came back with his objections. When he did return at sunset the party was already well under way. It’s the only hint in the Bible of God ever acting in a hurry!

Big brother was shocked to hear the dance music as he approached the family home and asked one of the house boys what the racket was all about. Father came out to plead with him to come in and share in his joy of reunion. This man needed to be delivered from his self-centredness just as much as the younger son. Jesus was really putting out an invitation to the religious experts and extremists to join in his celebration over sinners who, realising their sinfulness, had come to dine with him and be taught by him.

The story ends inconclusively. Did the other son join the celebration? But one thing is sure: much of the rest of the New Testament features just such a man – a religious expert who had tried to stamp out this ‘new religion’ that claimed Jesus was alive from the dead. Saul was in fact a religious terrorist till he met the living Jesus, and then realised that he was just as spiritually dead to the God he served as were people of other nations who served  various false gods; so he repented and heartily joined God’s celebration.

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