Some have a very hard time finding the gospel in the Gospels! The teachings of Jesus can seem legalistic but only if we fail to hear the rest of the story. Most people in Israel at the time of Jesus considered themselves to be in a good position before God. They supported the temple by paying the required tax and offering the appropriate sacrifices. They abstained from unclean food, circumcised their sons, kept the festival days and the Sabbaths, and generally tried to keep the law as taught by their religious leaders. Then John came and cried
Repent, and be baptized. Furthermore, Jesus said a new birth was needed (John 3:3, 5) and that
except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). In other words, Jesus was saying,
You need what you do not have. Your works are not good enough.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the son is lost and does not know it. Eventually he begins to see his father’s love in a new way and longs to return. His pride is gone. Hoping for acceptance as a servant, he is astonished to be lavished with honor by his father. The relationship is not just restored. It is transformed. A similar reversal of expectations appears in the second parable. The
righteous Pharisee is ignored by God, while the
sinful tax collector is not only accepted but leaves justified, forgiven, and free from guilt.
Both stories help us to see God more clearly, as a Father and as a Justifier of the ungodly. When He describes the cup of crushed grapes as
My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins, Jesus suffers as the real Passover Lamb, the death that should have been ours (Matt. 26:28, NASB; compare Mark 10:45). Thus, salvation is free to us because He, Jesus, paid the full price for it.
What hope can you take from each of these parables for yourself? In what ways can you relate to some of the people in them, and what should your answer tell you about what you might need to change in your spiritual life?