Text: Matthew 7:1-5, Matthew 23:37-39, Luke 15:11-32, Luke 18:9-14, Romans 2:1-11, Romans 3:9-23
As a teenager I was a pretty lousy prodigal. The youngest of three daughters, I had the benefit of watching my sisters’ rebellious moments backfire and learned quickly that the best way to stay in my parents’ good graces was to toe the line. Add to that the fact that we lived at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, surrounded by structure, discipline, and people who knew how to do things right. Early on I decided I wanted to be like them: while good leaders might make honest mistakes, they usually don’t blow a bunch of cash partying. They go to college, get good grades, and become generals and senators.
I applied that same logic to my young Christian faith. I thought if I lived “rightly”’ all my dreams would go just as planned. I even claimed Scripture to back me up! (see Proverbs 16:3). Instead, my self-righteousness grew like a cancer, slow and undetectable, hidden by a life focused on pleasing others.
There is so much irony in self-righteousness because it is exactly the self-righteous who don’t think they have a problem. That’s why it can be a toxic sin, one that creeps into our lives without our awareness. Today, I find it most apparent in my marriage. When I’m having a bad day, God forbid my husband sneeze too loudly, miss a button on his shirt, or accidentally leave the stove on. I’m quick to point out or dwell on his minor flaws while ignoring the far bigger issue: my critical spirit.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother starts a long argument with his father. He was angry—and legally speaking, he probably had a case against his younger brother. But followed to the root, his anger was really a deep-seeded resentment. He tells his father, “I’ve been slaving away for you” (Luke 15:28)—revealing that all along, he’d felt bitter about the work his father had asked him to do. And he mentions that he never had a party; meaning that deep down, he felt he deserved one.
Self-righteousness blocks our ability to find joy in others’ redemption. When I’m being self-righteous, I’m better at calling other people names than naming my own sin. Reading the parable of the prodigal son has never been fun for me because I know I’m the older brother—heart hardened and locked up tight—and I would much rather be the younger brother, who knows he’s in desperate need of forgiveness.
In church circles, people often talk about the father running out to meet his son. I’ve heard it told that men in that culture didn’t run—they never picked up their robes and exposed their ankles. What he did was unabashedly and radically loving. But something I’ve never noticed before was that the father didn’t stop there. He didn’t just run to the prodigal son; he also sought out the self-righteous son. He looked around and noticed that his older son was missing from the party.
There is hope in the gospel of Jesus for self-righteous people like me. The Father comes after us, too. There is room for all of us at His table.
Claire Gibson is a freelance writer and editor whose work has been featured both locally and nationally in publications including The Washington Post, and Entrepreneur Magazine. An Army kid who grew up at West Point, New York, Claire is currently growing roots in Nashville, Tennessee. She loves her husband, Patrick, and their dog, Winnie.