Enticed: By Legalism - Rev. Michael F. Bailey

Enticed:  By Legalism
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Michael F. Bailey
March 6, 2016

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

If you’re new to North Carolina let me attempt to explain just a bit about the state you now live in. Each year, we engage in a type of Civil War among the universities who don blue uniforms; namely Duke University and the University of North Carolina. This conflict happens around the sport of basketball. And after last night, the civil war this year is a tie. And now, we enter into the ACC men’s tournament time. I so appreciate the ACC women’s tournament being in Greensboro, and yet in my estimation, it’s just not right for the men’s tournament to not be here! 

Church is a good place to confess. Here’s my confession today: as much as I love the ACC I almost hope the men’s tournament fails in these foreign cities its now being held in, to the extent that it is obvious to all, that it belongs in Greensboro, North Carolina! I’m almost tempted to contact one of these politicians running for the presidency and see if they would make a plank in their platform signing an executive order directing that the ACC tournament should always be in our fair city. Of course, it’s absurd to think that any politician would back something so far out of the realm of the ordinary. Come to think of it, a number of them are saying some rather absurd kinds of things, aren’t they, so maybe we have a chance! 

Today we have our next to the last sermon in our series entitled “Enticed.” In the past few weeks and concluding next week, we have been considering, in the season of Lent, how culture, society and the world entice us away from God’s desire for how we are to live. We began by considering together how we are enticed to substitute the mere good for the best. Then, we contemplated how we are enticed to hurry through life. Last week, we explored all of the half-truths that permeate even our faith life. Next week, we end the series looking at how we are all enticed by greed.This Sunday, we’re going to consider how we are enticed by legalism. 

Now, you know “legalism,” but you may not know it by that term. Basically, legalism is reducing the beautiful scope and constellation of joy that is life in God’s grace to a set of “do’s” and “don’ts”, rules and regulations and laws. Legalism leads us to not depend solely upon Christ and His grace for our salvation. Rather, with legalism, we began believing if we keep a certain list of rules we are righteous and have salvation. 

Conversely, legalism says that if some rules and regulations are not kept there is no salvation, which is how legalism often causes us to view others. Legalism can be attractive! Think of it! If you are one who is pretty good as a rules keeper; if you are able to do the “do’s” and not do the don’ts (which people often ascribe to the Bible), you could go through life with an outward appearance of righteousness, but you would be without Christ actually transforming you, cleansing you and resetting your priorities in life. 

Legalism can lead to “faking it” when it comes to life in Christ. Those of you who have been raised in the atmosphere of conservative Christianity that marks much of the church in the south know exactly what this is. I believe it was H. L. Menchen, the late editor of the Baltimore Sun, who once expressed in doggerel what some reduced Christianity into in the South. He said Southern Christianity is this: “thou shalt not smoke, cuss, drink, dance, play cards or chew or associate with those who do!” By these standards a person refraining from the activities on this list could be considered a fine, upright Christian and yet have a heart filled with hate and live a life of injustice. 

Legalism can also be personally painful for people. This most often happens when someone fails. A life of legalism means they’ve never experienced the joy and the freedom of Christ graceful forgiveness.And in our text this morning, Jesus was confronted with legalism. The Pharisees and the scribes were the ultimate rules keepers of the faith in the day of Jesus. They reduced their faith into a list of “do’s” and don’ts.  Sinners and tax collectors had come to hear Jesus. The scribes and the Pharisees upon observing this, grumbled that Christ welcomes sinners and eats with them. To welcome sinners and eat with them implies acceptance, trust and peace with them. To the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus broke their rule not to welcome sinners. He was considered to have been tainted by His association with unclean people. 

This thinking, which happens in faith life today, reveals something about legalism which I believe breaks the heart of God. You see, when we are legalistic we are prone to exclude people from God’s love, community of grace, renewal and regeneration. And in answer to the legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus told three stories–the third of which we’re focusing on today–the well-known story of the prodigal son. Time doesn’t allow me to do justice to this rich parable, but in the very telling of it Jesus teaches well about both the enticement of and the failure of legalism.

You see, the overall teaching of Jesus in this parable is that we all fail with rule-keeping; that the rule-bound faith life does not ameliorate the need for grace and is not a substitution for such. Our only hope is Christ’s unmerited forgiveness–not rule-keeping legalism. In the parable, no one is righteous; no one is able to keep the legalistic rules; all in the story are in need of grace. In order to see this, we need to get out of our typical thinking about the story.

Usually, when we hear a story we divide the characters up into the good and bad; we attribute to them as in old Western movie either a white hat for the good guys or a black hat for the bad. But if we dig deeply into this story, we see that everyone fails to keep the rules and customs and all are black hat wearers. I think we can also begin to see that the same applies to us and along with characters in the story, we see are so in need of grace. 

Let’s think together about the father in the story. Usually, if we put anyone in a white hat, it’s the father. But there is more ambiguity here then first meets the eye. For instance, Jewish Midrash, commentary on the law, said that there are three kinds of people that God won’t even listen to. One example being those who transfer their property to their children in their lifetime. The father broke this rule. And I wonder if in the reading of the text you caught the extent of how the father violated this rule. Verse 12 says the father divided his property between both of his sons! And here’s where we began to get a picture of the sons as well. The younger son in asking for his portion of the estate while his father was alive was in essence, telling the father “I wish you were dead.” And here’s an insight to the older son. By the values and customs of the day, in their honor culture, the older son was expected to protest and refuse to take his portion of the estate from the father. And yet, there is nothing in the Bible to indicate he did this. We can assume he took his portion. What this means is this: legally and technically, the father now has nothing and is dependent upon the older son, who now is the head of the household, to provide for the old man. Keep that in mind when the father starts to give away property and pay for a lavish party for the younger brother.

We all know the detail of the younger brother who took off for a foreign land and lost everything he had. Once again, we must get over some of our modern day thinking about an inheritance. Today, an inheritance might come in the form of stock, bonds or even a check from the bank and perhaps property. And yet, in the days when Jesus told this story an inheritance was land. For the Israel people, land was a sacred trust from God and to lose land to a foreigner is about the worst thing the younger son could have done in his culture. You know the story, he came to his senses in the foreign land and he headed home. There are many noble reasons to head home; missing loved ones, seeing and experiencing the familiar, or as someone said, “home is going to the place where they have to take you in.” But his reason for heading home was base. He headed home because of his empty belly. Now, I’m sure you noted he worked up a little three-part speech; father I sinned against heaven and you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; and lastly, treat me like a hired hand (which, by the way, was a day laborer–the lowest servant in the estates of that day.) So he headed home and when he saw his dad coming to the Village edge, did you notice he did not complete his three-point speech? He left off the third point about being treated as a day laborer. Why? Did the father cut him off, or did he see he could get a better deal than offering to become a hired hand?  

What a rule-breaker this younger son is! The father continues breaking the other rules of legalism. For instance, older men did not run in public because their robes would fly up and their legs could be seen and that was something that just wasn’t done. We often describe him running to the younger son out of love and compassion and celebration, and yet, some scholars think that because the boy lost land to foreigners the villagers very well might have killed him and the father ran to embrace him before the villagers got there; to show the villagers the boy was under his protection. Then, the father who had legally given away all that he had, started giving things to the boy. He gave him the best robe, which again, scholarship tells us is the ceremonial robe of the head of the household. 

Now, since the father has given everything away and the younger son lost all he had, the older son is in possession of the estate. The ceremonial robe belongs to the older brother. And then the father gave a ring to the younger son. Again, if it was the signet ring of the estate, truthfully, it too belonged to the older brother. And then the father put sandals on the boy, which signified being in the family, because servants didn’t wear shoes. The father followed all of this up by calling for a lavish party. Now think, all of this was done with property technically owned now by the older brother! 

How would you feel if you were the older brother? Well, you know the older brothers story as well. He refused to go into the party which was a terrible insult. He breaks the rules of his culture and in the next breath tells his father, “I’ve never disobeyed a command.” By my reading, he just did! The older brother has gotten everything the old man had and then says “you never even gave me a small goat”; he’s not making any sense by this point is he? And then he is the only one in the story that has low-minded enough imagination to accuse the younger brother of cavorting with prostitutes. At first blush, it would seem that the older brother did the right things in life, but actually, he broke as many rules as the younger brother did. 

And here’s Jesus’ point; rules-driven faith lives are something we all, like all of the characters in the story, fail at! The insight from Jesus is that legalism entices us to think we are righteous because of the rules we can keep as we conveniently ignore those we break. More, legalism causes us to judge that others are not righteous because of the rules they break. But there exist some facts here about us in this tale:  the fact is none of us can become righteous by external rule-keeping and legalism. The fact is, we are all totally dependent upon Christ and His grace in our lives. It is our only hope. The fact is, as sinners, we’re all in the same boat together. We all need Jesus and His love.So how about you? Will you, during this holy season of Lent, during this holy time of Eucharist, open your heart in prayer to the Holy Spirit convicting you of any legalism in your life? Will you allow the Spirit to reveal where you have or perhaps better yet, we have, as United Methodist, used rules to exclude people from the community of grace? Will you put your trust and very life in the hands of Jesus who has the love and power and the desire to forgive all of us rules breakers? Will you let the one who said all of the laws and rulesare summed up by loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength and loving neighbor itself; will you let Him gracefully forgive and free you this morning for the joy, the freedom and the assurance of the life lived in His grace?


Sharing starters:

Share with your group your understanding of legalism.

Share with your group any experience you may have had with rules-keeping interpretations of the Christian faith.

Share with your group the “do’s” and “don’ts” you’ve heard expressed in your church experience.

Share with your group how legalism excludes.

Share with your how you seek to live by grace alone.