The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables, each relating to something which is “lost” and then “found” again. The point of each parable is to highlight the way in which God loves to seek and save the lost. But what of the things in each parable which are not lost? The “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v7), the older son who is “always” with the father and shares everything with him (v31)? Do they represent the righteous, who are already in favour with God? Or do they represent the Pharisees, who had only an appearance of righteousness?

Common Interpretations

To answer this question, we need to consider first the two most common ways of understanding this passage, which I believe both fall short. The first, and perhaps more common, is that the things which are not lost represent a kind of pretended, outward “righteousness” of the pharisees. Statements like “need no repentance” or “always” with the father are taken to refer to a false belief the pharisees had about themselves, one which doesn’t actually reflect reality.[1] The problem with this interpretation is that it over-psychologises the meaning of Jesus’s words. Jesus is not telling these parables to flatter the pharisees, but to correct their false beliefs (v1-3).

The second most common way to understand the passage is to take the “righteous” to represent actual righteous persons in good standing with God. Within the scope of Luke’s Gospel, this would include people like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. The problem with this interpretation is that there is nothing in the context to suggest that such righteous persons are intended. The parables are told as a response to the pharisees grumbling against Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. What’s more, this attitude of the pharisees is clearly reflected in the protests of the older son in the third parable (v28-32).

A better solution is to understanding the “righteous” persons referred to as the pharisees, but to recognise that there was a real, objective sense in which they were “righteous”. Not in a moral sense, since they were hypocrites who treated others with contempt (Luke 11:37-54). But with respect to their objective standing within Israel, they were undoubtedly at the top of the chain, and thus were “righteous” in the sense of being blessed with such a status.[2]

Redemptive History

In order to understand the parables properly, it’s important to consider them in the context of redemptive history. Jesus was not in the business of dispensing timeless morality tales about God – he came to bring into being a new era in history, one in which social outcomes would be reversed in a drastic way (Luke 6:20-26). Those who were presently “poor”, “hungry”, “weeping” and “hated” would be blessed, whereas those who were “rich”, “full”, “laughing” and spoken “well of” would be cursed. This “kingdom of God” came crashing into human history, bringing down the strong and mighty and lifting up the weak and weary.

It’s in this context that Jesus refers to the pharisees as not needing repentance, as having a high status before God. And they actually did have a high status. They were the teachers of Israel, knowing the law and being close to the temple authorities. They enjoyed a sort of ‘ceremonial’ closeness to God that no ordinary Israelite could ever enjoy. But instead of leading them to act in a way befitting this high status, they acted wickedly towards other people.

It’s for this reason that Jesus teaches that they “need no repentance” and that they are close to God. They were God’s representatives in a real, objective sense. Elsewhere, in defending his ministry to those with sinful reputations, Jesus uses the analogy of a doctor treating patients and says “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32). In other words, Jesus regarded the pharisees as possessing a genuine status of righteousness before God.

Called to Account

But this status was not to last. Straight after Jesus told the three “lost” parables, he told two more parables which shed further light on the situation. Both parables serve as a warning to the pharisees, that if they refused to repent, they would be stripped of their current status and come under judgement. The new kingdom of heaven had arrived and the old leaders were about to be called to account.

In the first parable, the pharisees are represented as a middle manager who is about to be fired (Luke 16:1-9). In order to secure his own position, he cuts deals with his master’s debtors in order to secure their favour after he is sacked. In response to this, the master reinstates the manager. Jesus uses this to draw an analogy with the situation of the pharisees. Their time is up and they are about to come under judgement. But if they act quickly, by acting merciful towards the poor and releasing the burdens of others they might be able to win the favour of God. Essentially, this is them being offered a second chance.

In the second parable, the pharisees are represented as a rich man who refuses to help a poor beggar (Luke 16:19-31). He ends up in a place of judgement, whilst the beggar ends up in a place of blessing with Abraham. The rich man tries to ask for relief from his suffering and gets none. This is a warning to the pharisees: if they do not repent now, they may never get another chance.


The pharisees were the teachers of Israel. They enjoyed a special favour with God, and possessed unique authority as those who sat “on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). They had an objective status of “righteousness” which others lacked. But the kingdom of God was coming. And this meant that their time was up. If they refused to repent, they would come under judgement.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

[1] Of course, this is not to deny that the pharisees really were hypocritical. But their hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that their outward status is not consistent with the way that they lived their lives.

[2] This strikes many as odd, because we are so used to thinking of “righteousness” in a purely moral sense (either in a positive or in a hypocritical way). This could have something to do with the individualism of modern society.

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