It’s no secret that Evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, continues to wane in influence in the West. Just this month, the Pew Research Center released updated information, including population trend forecasting, concerning religious demographics. The projections describe several interesting phenomena, most notably the continued global growth of Islam and the decline of Christianity. The study estimates that globally, by 2050, Christianity and Islam will comprise nearly equal shares of the world’s population, with Islam outgrowing Christianity over the period by more than 50%. This shift is due primarily to the declining numbers (“switching out”) of Christianity and the higher birthrate among Muslims, though Islamic conversions are estimated to outpace defections. This is in contrast to the estimated net loss of 66 million persons to Christianity due to “religious switching.” The Center predicts most of these will not switch to another religion, but will rather become religiously unaffiliated. The heyday of Christianity in the West, barring dramatic reversals, seems soundly a thing of the past.

The reaction among Christians to this reality remains mixed, with some embracing it and others mourning it. Christianity no longer holds a place of prominence, particularly in the West. While we cannot change that reality, how we respond to that loss of influence is important. We find an interesting insight to this phenomenon in the Gospel of Luke’s lost and found parables (Luke 15). The parables largely function to demonstrate God’s desire for all people to know and love Him. Jesus speaks these parables in Luke, however, in the hearing of the scribes and Pharisees, and thus they also function as a warning against those who would undermine or ignore God’s purposes. (A note of nuance from the outset: by speaking of the “Pharisees” here, I recognize that this does not mean every single Pharisee is guilty of the charges levied by Jesus. He well may have had a particular subset of this large group, possibly the most influential of them, in mind.)

We learn from Josephus that the Pharisees often held a high degree of social influence among the Jewish people. New Testament scholar Anthony Saldarini suggested we may best understand the Pharisees as a “retainer class,” meaning that their influence was often derived from whether or not they were in favor with the ruling class.[1] According to Josephus, the Pharisees generally maintained significant influence over the people (Ant. 13.298). We see this illustrated in the Gospels, since the Pharisees are frequently jockeying with Jesus, trying to prevent Him from swaying public opinion against their teachings. Luke’s Gospel shows that they exercise considerable influence since they had the ability to turn accusations against Jesus into action (Luke 6:7–11; 11:53–54).

Luke 15:4–32 records three parables spoken by Jesus in the hearing of the scribes and Pharisees. Luke likely also framed two subsequent parables about an unfaithful steward (16:1–14) and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19–31), as directed at the scribes and Pharisees. The first three parables, the “lost and found” parables, emphasize the joy which heaven shares when a sinner repents (16:7, 10, 32). The parables increase in intensity, moving from a sheep and a silver coin to something far more dramatic, that of a lost son. Since each parable focuses on the joy found when a sinner repents, Luke no doubt expects us to contrast this with the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees in 16:2, who criticize Jesus for “welcoming sinners and eating with them,” activities described here as a repeating pattern in Jesus’ ministry and not occasional actions.

The final parable (15:11–32) packs the most forceful rhetorical punch. The younger son squanders his wealth with reckless living (and prostitutes (!), a major transgression for pious Jews), becomes destitute, finds work feeding swine (an unclean animal!) and even wants to eat their feed! Everything about this story would have incensed the Pharisees, and perhaps even most devout Jews. The son not only brings shame to his household through his actions and wastes his father’s wealth, but he defiles his body sexually and ceremonially by his actions. The story, of course, finds its resolution when the son comes to his senses, returns home penitent, and is welcomed, not by an angry father who rejects him or chastises him, but rather by a loving father who embraces him and has a feast in his honor. And the older son, angered at this display, would not even go into the feast to see his brother. Yes, the older brother would not eat with this sinner returned home. No doubt in the parable, the scribes and Pharisees are the older brother. Jesus’ story thus chastises them for putting self-interest over the joy of a runaway child returning home.

That the occasion of the brother’s offense comes to the fore over sharing a meal with his sinful brother is likely also not incidental. We saw this as the complaint of the Pharisees against Jesus earlier in Luke 15:2. Stephen Barton recognizes that this protest “reflects the symbolic weight accorded table fellowship in Early Judaism and in antiquity generally, where the sharing of a common table was a basic mechanism for initiating and maintaining sociability and the bonds of a common identity, as well as for marking one group or society off from another.”[2] Sharing a meal meant sharing identity. So for the Pharisees, seeing Jesus share a table with sinners meant identifying Him with sinners. Jesus’ parables undercut their criticism, demonstrating that the interest of God’s kingdom was precisely for that lot.

An even greater irony exists in that the older son sees himself as faithfully serving his father. He states he has done so “for many years” and he has “never neglected [his father’s] command” (15:29). In spite of his consistent obedience, he bemoans the fact that such a grand display of celebration has never been given to him, yet the disobedient son is receiving his father’s best. This no doubt also represents the attitude of the Pharisees and points to the crux of Jesus’ criticism of them. They faithfully keep the commands of God; a praiseworthy reality. Yet they lack compassion and concern for their fellow humans, especially for those who do not carry out such dutiful obedience.

Jesus’ charge against the scribes and Pharisees reaches a crescendo in Luke 16. The parable speaks against the misuse of wealth for dishonest or corrupt purposes. The parable concludes with the famous statement of Jesus

No servant can serve two masters; for either they will hate the one and love the other, or they will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

That the Pharisees are still in view is confirmed in Luke 16:14, where we are told they loved money and scoffed at Jesus’ parables. Jesus responds by showing that their heart was the issue and asserting “that which is highly esteemed among people is detestable before God” (16:15). The two central charges against the scribes and Pharisees in these parables challenge their refusal to associate with sinners to the detriment of their participation in the kingdom of God and their love of money (and thus influence) to the detriment of their treatment of their fellow humans.

While we tend to read Jesus’ parables too a-contextually, reducing them to moral teachings, Luke frames this series of parables, bookended by its mention of the scribes and Pharisees, as a condemnation of those groups (or at least of those members present) and a confirmation of Jesus as being at the center of God’s kingdom activity. These leaders of Israel had missed the central focus of the arrival of the kingdom: to bring sinners to repentance and restored fellowship with God. By maintaining their social barriers and religious practices over and against the work of God happening among them, the scribes and Pharisees put themselves at odds with the in-breaking of the kingdom. Jesus’ association with sinners and with the marginalized of their society put a strain on their religious paradigm. The Pharisees certainly used their social influence to attempt to oust Jesus, and they likely saw him as a threat to that influence. In contrast, Jesus’ kingdom presence sought not to attain social influence among the movers and shakers (though some of them responded), but rather focused upon the poor, sick, sinful, and powerless.

Luke also provides two parables of Jesus describing the kingdom of God (Luke 13:18–21). In both parables, the kingdom begins as something small and insignificant (a mustard seed and some leaven), but it grows and spreads to significant size and potency. The kingdom does grow in influence. But this influence derives from the proclamation of its Message and the repentance of sinners. It does not come by establishing some set of social boundaries, an act associated not with the kingdom but with the Pharisees who oppose the kingdom’s Representative.

Jesus’ warnings to the scribes and Pharisees can illustrate to us that we should treasure faithfulness to God and His work in the world over the influence we may possess or desire. We must avoid the tendency to get so caught in the cultural struggle which surrounds us that we forget our commission is to love “the least of these” and to bring alongside of ourselves other followers of Christ. These Pharisees sought to maintain their social influence and the barriers which their religious practices created. Jesus broke those barriers. In the Pharisees’ eyes, Jesus was a sinner by association.

While the scribes and Pharisees may have viewed themselves as the faithful son, their attitude, marked by a desire to maintain their social influence, as evidenced by their love of wealth and disparagement of sinners, put them at odds with God’s kingdom purposes. In seeking to be faithful through misguided means, they became unfaithful by missing the work of God right in front of them.

We evangelicals also share in the danger of erecting well-intentioned walls to preserve our religious commitments while at the same time shutting ourselves off to the “sinners” in our midst. As our larger social influence wanes, we must be careful not to attempt to entrench our position at the cost of being faithful to our commission. The kingdom grows through proclaiming its King, both in word and deed. The repentance which the kingdom brings will not come if we build walls of separation. Building or reinforcing social barriers simply separates us from the people whom God wants us to love and to show Jesus. The fruit of the kingdom will come by welcoming and sharing meals with those whom we disagree. The influence of the kingdom expands as we join up in its work, not as we try to establish or protect our own influence. In concentrating our efforts there, we may find that in losing our influence we will find greater faithfulness to God and His kingdom.

Chad Thornhill is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of Theological Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of two forthcoming books (The Chosen People, IVP Academic; From Alpha to Application, Baker Books). Additional publications may be found at www.chadthornhill.weebly.com/publications.html.

Image: Righteous in Christ

[1] Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).

[2] Stephen C. Barton, “Parables on God’s Love and Forgiveness,” in The Challenges of Jesus’ Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 202.