More than once, I have begun watching a movie and realized part way into it that I had seen it before. Some movies are worth watching again, and some are not. But there is a kind of movie that definitely loses something on subsequent viewings. It is the kind in which the impact of the story depends on its shock value. The story contains a big surprise or a significant twist that was unexpected by first time viewers. The viewer is drawn into the story and then confronted with something that calls for a shift of viewpoints. But if you know what is coming, the effect is less powerful.
Some Bible stories are like movies that involve shocking twists. Think for example, of the story the prophet Nathan tells King David to get him to make a judgment that reveals his own guilt. David is led by the story to a moral judgment that expresses his outrage at a terrible abuse of power, only to realize that his judgment has exposed the full horror of what he himself has done. Or think of the story told in the book of Jonah in which a hated enemy of the nation turns out to be people God loves. The prophet who is ready for these people to suffer for their wrongdoing is disappointed when God responds with forgiveness rather than punishment. Because we have heard these stories before, we sometimes miss how shocking they must have been to their original audience.
Many of Jesus’s stories had shocking conclusions. The traitorous tax collector who has done terrible things leaves the temple justified while the religious leader who has lived an exemplary life does not. The hated Samaritan acts compassionately to rescue a helpless Jew who would likely have despised him, while the good religious folks from his own group avoid getting involved. The worker who has put in only an hour on the job receives the same payment as the ones who have been laboring all day. The despicable son who has publicly insulted his father and brought shame to the family is welcomed with a lavish party, while the good son who has always done what he was told is enraged by the father’s failure to bring appropriate punishment on his brother.
We have heard these stories so often that their shock value has likely worn off. But we can recognize that they are challenges to our conceptions of God and to assumptions we make about our own virtue. Jesus’s stories teach us that those who think they can enlist God to come down hard on those we judge harshly are going to be disappointed. The God Jesus talked about seeks out the person who has stayed from the path, offering mercy and forgiveness. This God gives blessings to all, including enemies who behave in despicable ways. People who think of God as rewarding those who do right and punishing those who do wrong will find such teachings offensive.
When Christians read the New Testament, they have little doubt about who the good people and the bad people are. They imagine themselves as on the side of team Jesus and see Jesus’s opponents as their opponents too. So, when Jesus condemns the legalistic Pharisees, they are ready to add their own condemnations. They take Jesus to be opposing obsession with petty regulations, and though they have their own set of regulations, they don’t think of their rules as petty. But they often miss the deeper point of Jesus’s critique of those with impeccable religious credentials. The Pharisees want to preserve a religious system in which the lines are clear between those who are respectable and those who are not. They view God as ready to commend and reward their own devotion to following divine commandments and to condemn and punish those who don’t measure up. When Jesus seeks to throw the doors open to people who are obviously unworthy, they need to put a stop to it.
So, whose side are church people on? Are they more like the defenders of their own religious status who opposed Jesus or more like this prophetic disrupter of the system who says that God’s love extends to everyone? When you go into the average church, are you more likely to hear words of judgment against those who don’t measure up or expressions of love for them? Are Christians more like the Pharisees in thinking that God should punish the wicked severely or more like Jesus in thinking that everyone should receive mercy and forgiveness?
In Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, the Pharisees are portrayed as the elder brother who has stayed home and done what he was supposed to do. He is a son too, but he resents the fact that he is not being rewarded in accordance with all the sacrifices he has made. His picture of the way things should be is one in which people get what they have earned and those whose performance is best receive the greatest rewards. By contrast Jesus portrays God’s blessings as given to all. On his account God is not distributing good things in accordance with our level of performance.
There is something shocking about Jesus’s portrayal of God. We easily lapse into expecting that the righteous will receive the reward they deserve and the wicked will be punished in relation to how bad they have been. God’s policy of indiscriminate love offends our sense of fairness. In many areas of life fairness is an appropriate standard. But should we be thinking about fairness when what we are offered is love? Most people who have received love from another person don’t think of it as something they have earned. Instead it evokes wonder and gratitude. So, how should we think of God’s love? We can take the attitude of the Pharisees and start comparing what we have been given to what others have received. Or we can listen to the father in the parable who tells the elder brother, “ … all that is mine is yours.”