Jealousy, Elitism and Self-righteousness: Warnings from the Parables to Church Lifers
by Danny Bell
By Danny Bell, January 6, 2014
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little." (Luke 7:47 NIV)
Jesus dropped this bombshell after telling a parable of the Money Lender in the presence of Simon the Pharisee at his home. It came when Jesus read Simons thoughts towards a woman who was touching his feet and compared the pharisee's lack of devotion with the woman’s actions. Jesus highlighted that when the Money Lender forgave all debts, those who most appreciated it were the ones who owed more versus those who owed less.
When Jesus spoke these words he was targeting certain attitudes that were common in the religious life of professed followers in his day. Many had the privilege of being born into the Jewish faith, attended the best schools, were 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th generation practicing Jews. They had not known any other life but the privileged one they had been in. Indeed many Jewish lifers had followed their religion so dutifully that they believed this association meant blessing and salvation for them and their families.
Attitudes of self-righteousness, jealousy, and elitism (looking down on others who were “of the world”), coming from those who professed to be God lovers, were offensive to Jesus. Holding genuine seekers at arm’s length and blocking the way to the Kingdom were among the actions of core Jews that Jesus tried to expose in his parables.
And here’s the thing, Jesus targeted these attitudes in most if not all of his parables. Particularly self-righteousness and elitism. The Prodigal Son is a classic example of this and can easily get lost in our enthusiasm to show the love of the father for his returned boy. But there is another lesson here in this parable, just as strong and mentioned by Jesus for a reason. When the older brother realises what has taken place, he becomes angry and jealous:
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:25-30).
The older brother is represented by those that never left their father’s house. They are not in the world, nor did they come from it, but have stayed the course and been obedient to the duties of the family business–a credit here at least, they attribute to their own goodness. Church lifers, who stayed inside the walls and never put a foot wrong, bearing the heat of the day while the vagabonds of disobedience squandered money, had sex and smoked dope.
We are not told of the epilogue to this story, but we sense here a compassionless elitism coming from the older brother which conceivably could turn into a scenario where the younger brother is despised and treated harshly. In a church environment, this could easily translate into spiritual bullying of those who have come in from the cold at such a late hour, saved and rewarded. Church lifers can chafe under feelings of disbelief and jealousy when they see a worldling going to the front of the line and given the same privileges and honour as themselves.
This is born out in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). The ingratitude and jealousy of the early workers (those who were there all along) is exposed by Jesus when the landowner pays them. As in the Prodigal Son, the older hand is agitated when the newcomer receives the same honour as themselves, who had a long a weary climb to the top. Jesus goes on to warn in this parable attitudes that will keep one out of the Kingdom; “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (vs. 16).
The more we look into the parables, we see Jesus implanting this important lesson over and over again. Here are just a few of the stories that expose the self-righteousness, jealousy and elitism that impregnates most parables:
The parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-35). A parable that highlights the lack of appreciation of what God has done and attitudes towards the servant while ignoring the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). A parable showing the elitism of the one who worships ostentatiously and is self-righteous in his own eyes versus the outcast, one who senses his spiritual poverty.
The parable of the Kings Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). Shows the attitudes of the Kings “subjects” – those who are supposed to be his friends and have been under his protection for many years. Their lack of appreciation for their privileged status and their cruelty towards the under classes is in sharp contrast to the way the outcasts quickly fill the “hall” and accept the invitations readily.
The parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Five of which were foolish and five wise showcases the self-sufficient attitude of the foolish virgins. The contrast of the deep felt need and poverty of the wise virgins causes them to carry extra oil and is characteristically compared to the confidence of the foolish. The motivation of the wise virgins for staying up to meet the groom was borne out of the need to not disappoint. The foolish virgins took it for granted they would be ready, thus they were found wanting at the crucial moment.
Again and again the parables ooze this significant point: those who love much appreciate their blessings and new found status, whereas the subjects of the Kingdom take for granted what they have and so love little. The self-righteous and elite lifers of the faith show their true colours when asked to accommodate and have compassion on those coming in from the cold. A kind of selfish jealousy consumes them and blinds them from seeing things in the light that Jesus shed on the parables. From disinterested neglect to heartless beatings of the Jonny-come-lately, the spirit of the older brother is exposed as a warning to us all.
Our spiritual grandmother had this to say:
It seems to me that the Lord is giving the erring, the weak and trembling, and even those who have apostatized from the truth, a special call to come fully into the fold. But there are but few in our churches who feel that this is the case. And there are still fewer who stand where they can help such. There are more who stand directly in the way of these poor souls. Very many have an exacting spirit. They require them to come to just such and such terms before they will reach to them the helping hand. Thus they hold them off at arms' length. They have not learned that they have a special duty to go and search for these lost sheep. They must not wait till these come to them (Testimonies, Vol. 2, page 20).
The church has changed and we are far removed from the time of Christ. One thing that has not changed however is our enemy and that he knows how to exploit human weakness; as he did then, he will now. The spirit of the older brother is with us today in our business and board meetings, our classes, our sermons, evangelistic efforts and publications. Jesus exposed the self-righteousness, the elitism and jealousy that can possess church lifers who think they are owed something for being good for so long.
We are most at risk of this insidious disease who have long lived within the confines of church walls and taken for granted the price paid to secure us our positions of comfort and ease. It tortured the heart of Jesus when he encountered a self-sufficient spirit, but as in his final message to his last day people, he stands at the door of the blind church and knocks (Rev. 3:14). Isn’t it also ironic too that the image is presented as them being behind a closed door and Jesus knocking? The door is closed to the man in humble garb, if only they realised who it really is who is trying to get in.