Now that we’ve looked at the three tests to identify legalism: rules, reasons, and resources, I propose a New Testament test case.
A test case of a legalist – The son who missed the party (Luke 15:11-32)
We’ve all heard the prodigal son parable. The youngest son couldn’t wait for his dad to die, so he demanded an early payment on his inheritance and left home in a huff. He wasted it all in bohemian behaviors and when he got hungry enough he made his way home and plead for a job and a place to stay on the family farm. His dad was so stoked to see him coming around the bend he slobbered kisses on him, showered him with welcome home gifts, and threw a party. The other son, who, being the eldest, you’d would’ve thought he would have been better than this, instead of being glad to see his little brother, stubbornly refused to attend the party. He hated that his law-breaking brother was welcomed back in the family, no questions asked. “I’ve slaved like a dog for you,” he said to his father. “I’ve always kept all your rules and your stupid son is the one who gets the coming home party!”
The father had two “lost” sons, one MIA in rebellion and the other in religion. The one son left home and the other was never “at home” to begin with. They both, we might say, “lived less loved” – not that either was loved less than the other or less than they needed. Their father adored them both with equal extravagance, but neither of them got it.
The older was as lost as the younger, maybe even more so, because didn’t realize it. His lostness though, was different, not so obvious – to himself or to anyone else. He looked better from the outside but inside he was ill at ease. His brother was lost in lust, while he was lost in legalism.
Let’s see how the legalistic boy stacked up to the three “R’s” – rules, reasons, and resources.
His Rules: There’s no doubt big brother was a rule-keeper, at least he said he was, and his dad didn’t refute his claim that he did everything he was told. His entire relationship with his him, if you can call it a relationship, was based on what a good boy he was. He didn’t spill his milk as a child or fail to milk the cow when he got older. He didn’t smoke or chew or kiss girls who do. No doubt the neighbors all wished they had such hard working and compliant sons of their own.
The boy’s rules, as far as we’re told, were the right ones.* As far as we’re told, he didn’t make up rules to keep. His dad told him what to do and he was careful to do it. He protected each command as a precious glass vase.
He knew his job and he did it. He passed this part of the test, nevertheless he was clearly a Pharisee. Remember that the legalist may subscribe to the right rules, yet obey them for the wrong reasons and depend on the wrong resources to obey them.
*We know reading the context of the parable in Luke 15 that he represented the Pharisees, who were notorious for going beyond the laws that God gave and making up their own just in case. If we take that into account we would have to say that some of his rules were factual and some were fictional.
His Reasons: His obedience was not a response of love to love. He was good boy, but for all the wrong reasons. His motive was mercenary, serving on the estate purely on a wage basis. His reasons for being so dutiful were more about what he would get for it than for how he could show his appreciation for his dad’s unconditional love. He never missed punching in and he stayed on the clock perpetually. He didn’t remain and work on the family farm for the love of it. His motive was utilitarian. His father – who, to him, was more of a foreman than a father – was just the authority figure who gave him his check at the end of every month.
Where his brother came in late and left early, he stayed on the job to show that he was the better boy. He endured rather than enjoyed his father’s house and was quite proud of his productivity and unbroken record of never taking a sick day.
His reasons for obedience were the reasons of a legalist.
His Resources: I imagine him coming in from laboring under the hot sun, with sweat pouring off his face, red with heat and frustration. Because he was entirely dependent on his own discipline and strength, his white-knuckle work ethic was more about what he brought to the table than what his father brought. He was the overachieving boy who drove himself into a sullen stupor. He did what he was told, but was joyless in the doing of it, and acted more like a slave than a son.
He flunked, if not the reasons, both the reasons and resources tests and proved to be an angry and worn out legalistic soul.
For a primer on where the law fits in the life of a New Testament follower of Jesus you might consider mine called, “The Lord, His Law, and Those Who Love Him.”
Next – a few other observations from this test case and a finale…