The riff-raff. What comes to mind when you hear that phrase? True, you don’t hear it that often these days. It’s somewhat old-fashioned. However, chances are good you’ve got an idea what it means. You might even hear a particular voice in your head when you read it. I know I do.
The voice comes from a character in a certain black-and-white movie that plays every December, often multiple times throughout the season: It’s A Wonderful Life. He’s Mr. Potter, the bitter, old banker and the foil for the younger, idealistic George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart. After George comes up short in a bank deposit, Mr. Potter tells him in quite the self-righteous voice, “Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000?” The riff-raff, the lower classes, those of questionable reputation, the good-for-nothings. Or to use another word, sinners.
And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
Luke 15 is usually recognized as the chapter that includes Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. In actuality, that is just one of three parables in the chapter, each having to do with someone or something lost—a sheep, a coin, and a son. The lost sheep and lost coin are fairly neutral examples, but that last parable gets specific for those listening. The younger son who took his inheritance and ran off to spend it foolishly in a distant land is clearly the one who is lost. He is a prime example of the riff-raff, a sinner.
But the genius of Jesus comes into play as He introduces a third character in that familiar parable: the older brother, the brother who had done everything right, the one who always played by all the rules. That description in many ways fits the Pharisees and scribes listening to Jesus. They would never have considered themselves a part of the riff-raff they so despised, sinners like those Jesus welcomed and ate with. But Jesus’s parable reveals both brothers were lost. The younger knew his lostness, while the older did not. His self-righteousness left him blind to his own need of rescue. That same self-righteousness blinded the Pharisees and scribes. They were lost and didn’t know it.
Jesus’s parable tells us we’re all riff-raff, every one of us. Make no mistake—God loves us and is running toward us to wrap us in his love and forgiveness. But we’re all sinners who have fallen short of his glory. Any righteousness (right-ness) we have doesn’t come from us, but from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Staying lost in self-righteousness leads to bitterness, but recognizing our lostness is an important step to being found and welcomed home.
Written by John Blase