Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, "Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?" Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, "What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" – he said to the man who was paralyzed, "I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home." He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they said, "We have seen incredible things today." (Luke 5:21–26)
Scribes and Pharisees always seem to have secrets, and those secrets are in their hearts. It isn't always in what they say or in what they do, but rather in what they are thinking that breeds deception. They spring traps from the inside, where their preconceived notions, their assumed certainties, their own clinging to a certain way of seeing the world abounds. They don't see and wonder; they first know what must be, what should be, and then they interpret what they see accordingly.
When I'm honest with myself, I think I understand the scribes and Pharisees better than just about anyone else in the gospels. I know their hearts. I am expert in forming an opinion of some person or some group, keeping this secret, and then judging everything they do according to the narrative I've adopted. I don't suspect that I am always wrong – many times I am likely right. But it is the secret authority that I wield, which I do not disclose to others, that is the main issue. I assume I know first, then I see what's what and judge it by what I've already known to be true. Friendships break apart this way. So do work relationships. So do marriages. So do communities.
The scribes and Pharisees begin by knowing who Jesus is, or rather, they know who Jesus is not. They hold to an idea of God. They have established the boundaries. Their categories are set. Jesus is a disturbance. Since they cannot be wrong, he must be wrong. They call him a blasphemer: the one who does not observe the definitions of God that they have assumed.
These are the same scribes and Pharisees that are scandalized when Jesus welcome sinners and tax collectors at the beginning of Luke 15. In response, Jesus addresses to them a parable. Actually, three parables. The first is about a lost sheep. The second is about a lost coin. The third is about a lost son. Check that: the third one is about two lost sons. The sheep are like the sinners, who have wandered aimlessly and gotten themselves lost. The coin is for those tax collectors, who know what it is like to chase after money, except now they're the ones being pursued. The younger son seems to be about both the sinners and the tax collectors, no matter how far gone. But the scribes and Pharisees are addressed, too. The "friends and neighbors" who celebrate at the return of the lost sheep and the lost coin, those are the scribes and Pharisees, as they ought to be. And the elder son, who won't come back inside the house, he is the scribes and Pharisees as they really are, right now. He's certain of his sense of justice, of right and wrong. He's got his terms. His father comes to him and pleads with him to come inside. The elder brother is the father's son, too. The distance he has to go is like nothing on a map, but the journey in his heart is massive. He's got to move off of his own certainty and allow himself to be changed, to be amazed.
That's why I find a little bit of hope for the scribes and Pharisees at the end of the passage I'm thinking about today, in Luke 5:26. We read that "astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they said, 'We have seen incredible things today.'" Since we are not told otherwise and since Jesus is speaking to them (v. 22) as he addresses the paralyzed man (v. 24), I think that "all" means the scribes and Pharisees, too. Maybe them most of all. They are astonished, they glorify God, they are struck with awe, they have seen incredible things today. And perhaps they will experience a miracle themselves: perhaps their hearts will arise from under the cover of their secrets and walk humbly into the household of belief.
Prayer: O Lord, uncover the secrets of my heart. Open me to you.