A Self-Righteous Heart
Around 1948, Vladimir Nabokov advised, “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” This was a lesson my high school English 4 teacher taught me when we spent a week analyzing one sentence (this is NOT an exaggeration) from Ethan Frome: “Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man.” It was the final assessment I gave to my AP English Language and Composition students when they had to argue whether Santiago Nasar’s death was justified in A Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And it’s the approach I take today in my personal Bible study.
I always get a little more excited to read when I realize I am upon what my pastor calls “a familiar passage.” These are those oft-preached verses that we first learned about in Sunday School or in those colorful children’s Bibles of our youth. I like these most because they require me to attend even more closely to what I’m reading, and God always reveals new truths to me through those surrounding verses not usually heard about from the pulpit. Borrowing heavily from Nabokov, I tell myself that great authors don’t squander language, for who is a greater author than God. I know that every read unearths new understanding, sometimes even down to the preposition level, to guide my journey.
Yesterday, I arrived at Luke 15, the land of the Prodigal Son. Doing my own Bible study has shown me the limitations of even a notoriously long-winded baptist preacher. In truth, I perceive my own limitations in even relaying my learning in this post. They also give me a newfound appreciation of Jesus as a master orator. I realize that these parables are simultaneously for those who think they know God and think they are doing His will as well as those who are traditionally seen as lost.
The opening of this chapter, the prelude to this trilogy of parables, sets a specific scene: Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners who have gathered to hear him speak. Pharisees and religious teachers are there as well, but they are disturbed that Jesus is talking to and eating with those they believe are unworthy. In three quick real-world examples, Jesus tramples on traditions not rooted in His Father’s charge for believers. Important, too, is His ultimate call out of those who believe they stand in accordance with God’s will.
Sometimes, while sitting in church, I feel like my pastor, through God’s anointing, is snatching back the curtain of my truth, putting all my dirty laundry in full display across my front porch. I can’t help but feel the “ouch” of revelation when I hear my own shortcomings pouring forth with Biblical grounding from the lips of my minister. But when God Himself (and all by Himself) claps back at me in those details I’ve been noticing and fondling after praying, “Please allow Your Word to deeply penetrate my mind, body, and spirit,” well let’s just say that “ouch” is much too much of an understatement. Awareness becomes too mild an experience, and I have to do something drastically different to march more assuredly toward salvation. When I am alone sitting on my own couch at three in the morning, shifting and squirming like I’m under the hot lights of interrogation, I know I have to get right with God.
I see myself in the older son. He was the one doing the right stuff. In fact, he was in the field working when his brother returned home. He was so upset at his father’s rejoicing that he refused to even go in the house. “Look at all I’ve done…” He believed that his brother didn’t deserve the good reception. More importantly, he believed that he did. I find myself face to face with my own sin of self-righteousness. I wear the sandals of the Pharisees, and I don’t like it. I know God’s child doesn’t belong there. He expects more from me.
Equally poignant, though, is how the chapter ends. We aren’t told if the older son goes in the house. We aren’t told if he makes an even bigger stink and storms off. Jesus, in so doing, leaves the Pharisees to decide what they will do. He tells me that I have a choice to make, too.
Heavenly Father, I don’t want to toil doing the “right” stuff with the wrong heart. I don’t want to stop myself from entering into Your house because my ideas are trumping Your expectations. Again, I thank you for humbling me. Again, I thank you for giving me another chance. Like the father in the parable, You see me even when I am a long way off, and You even see me when I toil away closer to You but with a spirit unlike Yours. Thank you for the revelation in the details of Your Word, and help me never to tire of seeking guidance and comfort there. Amen