The First Woe

In a way, the Prodigal Son was not lost, since he was able to “come to his senses” and make his way home. He had sense enough to know that if he did not come to his senses then he would be truly lost. He was able to assess his situation and remember that he was still his father’s son. He was able to reason that even a demotion to servitude in his father’s house would be better than the penury and starvation he was experiencing in the far country.

Is the failure to come to one’s senses (to come to oneself), and thereby to reject one’s status as a child of God, connected with the Unpardonable Sin? In the three Lost parables we have discussed in the past two weeks, the common thread is the earnestness of the searcher. But there is another: None of the lost (the coin, the sheep, the Prodigal) is so bereft of sense as to renounce its owner/shepherd/father.

Another aspect of being lost can be derived from the “woes” that Jesus attributed to the Pharisees. They might help us to identify religion that is false and fatal—religion that leads to outer darkness. I propose that the woes have a common theme of centering religion on ourselves. Jesus prefaced his remarks about the woes thus:

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:1-12)

Then He described the first of eight woes:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Matthew 23:13)

In other words, He accused the scribes and Pharisees of making salvation difficult for people, of standing in the way of people who might otherwise find [or be found by?] God. It is a terrible thought that religious leaders, who include some of us, might be impediments to the religious well-being of others. As Jesus said, in another context but relevant here:

“[W]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

But is salvation really easy? Jesus said:

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

This gives the impression of a difficult path to salvation, yet Jesus seemed to contradict Himself:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Contrast this light load of Jesus with the “heavy burdens” which the scribes and Pharisees “lay them on men’s shoulders” (see Matthew 23 quote above).

When we consider what it means to be lost, when we care about and are aware of God’s grace, how do we make salvation easy or difficult for ourselves and others? Is the load light or is it heavy? How does it all relate to the Unpardonable Sin? Do the “woes” lead inevitably to Unpardonable Sin, or could they lead to grace?

Donald: Words matter. Actions matter. As a baptized member of the Adventist Church, I proclaim that I accept the doctrines of the Church in the context of God and Christ. At a megachurch of 5-6,000 worshipers I’ve visited, there is a preparatory series leading baptismal candidates toward Christ, and then there is an outdoor mass baptism, and the gateway to Christ for the baptismal candidate is finally opened by the acceptance of a white towel. The names of the newly baptized are not recorded. This seems to be truly a baptism into the body and the life of Christ. It may complicate matters when churches say to baptismal candidates: “Come to Christ, but follow our doctrines.”

David: To me, words matter only insofar as they form a stumbling block to a relationship with God. I do not believe that communication with the divine can take place in English or any other human language. We can grasp divine concepts—divine Truth, divine Right, divine Wrong—only through the inner spirit. All it takes, and all we can contribute, is simple faith in that spirit. We do not have to say the words “I believe in God” in any human language in order to believe in God. We simply have to believe.

Words matter because they are dangerous.

Mikiko: With regard to the lost sheep, Jesus said that there would be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than in 99 truly righteous people who had no need of repentance (Luke 15:7). The self-righteous Pharisees failed to see their need to repent and brought no joy to heaven. Even after baptism, people may fail to follow God’s directions, so they need to repent too.

Jay: It seems that after Jesus cast out the demons, the Pharisees were passing judgment on the source of His power, suggesting that it came from Satan (Matthew 12). They were casting doubt on Jesus’ credentials for judging and forgiving and saving people. Jesus was pointing out that we do not have those credentials and that, in thinking and representing that they did, the Pharisees were a stumbling block to salvation. The first woe addresses the Pharisees’—our—lack of perfect understanding of salvation and judgment.

The Lost Coin bears no responsibility. Neither does the Lost Sheep. Even the Prodigal Son did not seem to realize that he was lost, even when he was reduced to eating with the pigs. And when he finally came to his senses, even then he completely misunderstood what it meant to be saved: He came home not to resume his place as a dutiful son, but to replace starvation and misery with servitude—but fed, housed, and clothed servitude—in his father’s house. He did not seem to realize what true salvation was.

Human understanding of salvation and its opposite can never be perfect, because it is a divine construct. The first woe seems to me to require that we acknowledge this. If we think our understanding is perfect, we become stumbling blocks to others and commit the Unpardonable Sin.

Don: Our lack of understanding was made poignant in the Day of Judgment scene described by Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46) in which everyone is surprised. The good were surprised to earn that they had been good, and the bad were surprised to learn that they had been bad.

Michael: Christians proselytize by first hooking people with talk of salvation through God’s love and grace; then, when the target asks to know more, he or she is introduced to the specific doctrines of the proselytizer’s church, and God’s love and grace fade into the background, while church rules and regulations take center stage as the necessary conditions for salvation. They can be an impediment to salvation. But we may sometimes, as individuals, be impediments to salvation for other people even without any reference to salvation; perhaps by exalting ourselves.

David2: I get a picture, from the quoted Scripture, of the hypocrites—the scribes and the Pharisees—standing with their backs to the gates of heaven, blocking the way for others.

Donald: My behaviors might tempt someone to follow me, even though I might be in the wrong lane. The map is important. Even if we all agree on the map and the destination, it has multiple routes to get there. I may have good reasons to choose a particular route, but to claim that it is the only way is wrong.

David: Following a specific route, with its own rules and regulations is burdensome. The light burden is a highway without speed bumps and limits. The highway to God is simply to believe in God, in Goodness. This does not mean that we will behave accordingly. We will sometimes go too fast, force others off the road, and drive carelessly, all the while believing in Goodness. That is to say: We are not capable of perfection. We will be at least as bad on highways bound by complex rules of the road, but when we break those rules, the punishment is severe—the burden of driving on that highway is heavy.

It seems to me (with as little arrogance as I can muster 😉 that all God wants is for us to believe in Him/Her/It, because that is all it takes to maintain a universal preponderance of Good over Evil. To me, this is God’s master plan. If we believe in a God of pure Goodness, our behaviors will tend to be good, on average. Unbelief would be catastrophic, for the individual and for Creation. To the extent that religious doctrines make belief in God seem somehow subordinate to their rules and regulations, to that extent religious doctrines are burdensome and serve as stumbling blocks by making believing in God far more difficult than it need be.

Kiran: The repentant Prodigal Son was willing to be subjected to all the rules imposed on servants in his father’s household, but his elder brother was unwilling to see the Prodigal rewarded. To him, there was a bargain with the father which he had kept but his brother had broken. He did not think as a child of God should think.

Jay: Even those who live with the father, those who live blameless lives in the kingdom, do not necessarily understand salvation. Is it liberating or horrifying to realize that one is incapable of understanding? To human beings, it seems to me, it is horrifying. We need to understand in order to deflect the horror, so we build a structure—religion—to help us in our quest for understanding. Is the first woe a warning against doing just that? Or is it a warning against saying that our doctrines embody all the understanding you need for salvation? It’s one thing to build a construct of loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself; it’s another thing to say that if you don’t work with our construct for loving God, etc., then you are lost.

David2: We are fundamentally uncomfortable not knowing. We therefore tend to fill in the blanks with whatever comes to mind and construct edifices out of them. They are human constructs, idols. But we find it so difficult to trust in God to fill in the blanks for us in His own good time. It’s hard to put down the pen when we reach a blank in the narrative.

Don: We’d rather be wrong than uncertain.

Jay: Without faith, uncertainty leads to despair and feeling lost in outer darkness. With faith—as Jesus taught through the Centurion—the uncertainty, and the basis for despair and lostness, no longer exists.

Don: The statement by Jesus that the way into heaven is narrow seems to me to mean simply that it allows people to pass individually. It’s a one-person-wide wicket gate, not a city gate allowing people to enter 20 abreast. Every individual is assessed by Jesus, and allotted grace as needed for entry.

Jay: We are incapable of passing through the gate without His help. No amount of human effort will get us through it. So why do we—why should we—care about our behavior, about what we do? What’s the point?

Donald: If we live forever, will we see God? Why do we seek Him? Is to ensure we are not lost, or that we do not end up as a loss to the Creator? Am I drawn to Him because He is my Creator and has a role to play in my life on earth, or because I am more concerned about my life after death? Am I lost in outer darkness because I don’t deserve salvation, or because I don’t seek it?

Mikiko: We get lost sometimes because we are imperfect. The Prodigal Son ended up eating with the pigs, realized his imperfection, and determined to go home and repent to his father. He received in return his father’s love and mercy. God welcomes everyone who repents. Everyone who does so is promised everlasting life.

David: To be in thrall to terror of damnation is surely a real psychological and spiritual burden on people. Is it a natural burden we are born with, or is it a burden imposed upon us by society, by culture—specifically, by religion—as we age? I personally do not feel any natural terror of damnation, so in my case at least, it must be neither. It is not a burden, period.

David2: In my observation, Eastern culture is much more accepting and even amused by the lack of certainty in life, whereas Western culture must have answers.

Michael: There appear to be two elements to the woe: One is belief, the other is behavior. Jesus called the Pharisees out for not behaving as they told others to behave. If I accept someone else’s (David’s in this case) statement that belief in God is belief in Goodness and that this tends to lead to good behavior on balance, could that conceivably be an impediment to my personal relationship with God?

Chris: The Prodigal’s elder brother was always a good and dutiful son until refusing to join in the father’s party for the Prodigal. He who was lost (the Prodigal) was saved seemingly at the expense of the loss of one (his elder brother) who was not lost to begin with.

David2: Was he lost in that instant of refusal to obey his father and join the party, or was he always lost? There is a hint of reproach in his father’s comments that all of the good things now being given to his younger brother had always been available to him. It seems he jut never asked for them. He never took advantage of his father’s goodness.

Jay: But he never did anything directly wrong until that instant of refusal, which hinged upon his judgment of his brother as someone undeserving of forgiveness, which he was neither entitled nor equipped to do. It implicitly accused his father of bad judgment and bad behavior. This is what the Pharisees did when they criticized Jesus for casting out demons. The uncertainty of what is the right thing to do kills us, at least in the West.

David: We are all reading exactly the same words in the Parable, yet we are drawing different conclusions. This is the problem with words, with Scripture as representing the Word of God. As I read and interpret those words, the elder brother had no loss of belief in his father. Yes, in the heat of the moment he made a mistake in judgment, but surely the point is just to show that he made a mistake in judgment, not to show that he was damned to outer darkness. But I can see how terrifying it would be to believe in the latter.

Michael: There is no need for fear of eternal damnation: The human condition is miserable enough without that. Depression and anxiety are prevalent, perhaps arising out of some sort of existential guilt. I worry about Original Sin.

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