Thursday, June 21, 2012

Joy in Heaven over One Sinner Repenting: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son in Luke 15

Luke chapter 15 begins by telling us that many tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus, and that the scribes and Pharisees complained that Jesus not only received these “sinners,” but even ate with them. Luke then records Jesus’ response to this criticism, in the form of three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (or, more popularly, “prodigal”) son. Jesus’ explanation of the first two parables contains forms of the stronger word for “repent,” in a context which makes its behavioral connotation obvious. Further, while the parable of the lost son does not use any repentance words, it illustrates the concept of repentance.

Jesus taught the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin as follows:

Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? 5 When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (metanoounti), than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance (metanoias). 8 Or what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ 10 Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting (metanoounti).

Luke 15:4b-10

Jesus does not deny the sinfulness of the tax collectors and sinners with whom he was criticized for associating. He asserts that they are “lost,” like the sheep and the coin, and need repentance. To this point, at least, Jesus agrees with the diagnosis of the scribes and Pharisees—the people he associated with were sinners and needed to change their lives!

However, Jesus’ remedy for the situation is different than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The religious leaders felt that those they saw as trapped in sin were accursed, beyond the possibility of repentance, and must be avoided by the righteous lest they spread their contagion. By contrast, Jesus sought sinners. He begins his explanation of this with the two parables quoted above. A shepherd would not simply abandon sheep that strayed. Their wandering off would not make them any less his sheep. Instead, a shepherd would search for the lost sheep until he found it. Speaking with the hyperbole common in his parables, Jesus insists that a shepherd who had 100 sheep, but lost one, would leave the 99 that remained in the flock to look for the one that strayed, until he found it. His purpose, obviously, would be to bring the sheep back from straying and restore it to the flock. And when he found the sheep, he would throw a party, rejoicing over finding the one lost sheep. In the same way, Jesus says, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who believe they need no repentance. This shows both the value God places on individual sinners, and the value that God places on individual sinners recognizing their need of repentance (in contrast to the Pharisees, who did not).

The second parable in this group focuses on the value of individual sinners to God. The picture is of a poor woman who only has a few coins and loses one of them. Once again, the story contains hyperbole--the woman not only sweeps the house and searches for the coin diligently: when she finds it, she throws a party! This is how Heaven rejoices when one sinner turns to God.

It should be clear that neither of these parables would make any sense if the sinner, when found, did not change his way. Why would a shepherd rejoice over finding a lost sheep, if, after it was found, the sheep did not return to the flock but remained astray? Why would a woman who has lost a coin rejoice over finding it, if it refused to be picked up from off the floor and placed with her other coins? Why would God rejoice over “finding” a sinner, if the sinner he found remained bound by his sins, unable to join God’s flock? Thus, in both of these parables, Jesus uses “repentance” words derived from metanoio to describe the change in the “found” sinner that makes Heaven rejoice. It is precisely this metanioa that the self-righteous Pharisee cannot show, because he doesn’t think he needs it.

Although Jesus’ next parable in the Luke context, that of the lost (or prodigal) son, does not use any repentance words, it contrasts the concepts of repentance and self-righteousness quite clearly. The younger son is a picture of a defiant sinner, such as the sinners with whom Jesus was accused of associating. He demands his inheritance while his father is still living, demands his freedom, and departs from his father’s house to go to a far country. In the far country, he squandered his inheritance--as, in fact, we all do--and came to a point in his life at which he was in great need, feeding pigs (remember that Jesus’ audience was Jewish!) for a foreigner, so hungry that he wished he could eat the pigs’ food. The point the Pharisees did not understand, however, is this: even when the lost son departed, fell into the depths of degradation, and was “lost” and “dead” to his father, he was still a son. His father still knew where he was, and was watching for him to come home. Then the son came to himself, recognized how much better it was at home, and repented. Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “repent” here, the principle of repentance is present--what made restoration possible was that the younger son changed his course, that is, he got up on his feet and started walking toward home, where the previous course of his life had been away from home. When the father saw him coming, he did something very undignified in that culture--he ran to meet his son and welcome him back into the family. So Jesus sought out sinners because the Father Himself runs to welcome them when they repent and return to Him!

Jesus also contrasts the younger son, whose sin was outwardly gross, but who recognized his need to change course and return home, to the older son, who never physically left home and who did what his father told him to do, but who left his father in heart. Much as the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ acceptance of “tax collectors and sinners,” the older son objected when the father welcomed the rebellious younger son home. Like his father, the older son knew where his wayward brother had been, and that he had squandered his father’s possessions on harlots. The older son believed his father’s love and favor had to be earned, and believed that his younger brother’s behavior should earn his father’s rejection and contempt, regardless of his apparent repentance. Like the Pharisees, he lacked his father’s heart and was angry when he accepted his wayward son back home in spite of his open sins. Although this parable doesn’t use repentance words, it certainly does illustrate God’s response to our repentance (starting to return home to Him), particularly when placed in the same context as the lost sheep and lost coin parables.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Repentance, Luke 5:32 vs. Matthew 9:13

In every English translation of which I am aware, Luke 5:27-32 reads something like this:

27 After these things he went out, and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and said to him, “Follow me!” 28 He left everything, and rose up and followed him. 29 Levi made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them. 30 Their scribes and the Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Luke 5:27-32 (WEB). All Greek texts of which I am aware also agree in their inclusion of the last two words, eis metanoian, “to repentance.” This is, again, repentance in the strong sense of changed life and behavior.

The mystery arises because an important group of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament—those commonly called the Alexandrian texttype because of their common origin in copies made by scribes in Egypt (primarily Alexandria)—omit the words eis metanoian from Jesus’ statement in the parallel text in Matthew 9:13. Most of the modern English translations of Matthew 9:9-13 follow the Alexandrian texts and read somewhat like the NIV:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up abd followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV). The whole concept of repentance is mysteriously missing from this report of what Jesus said on this occasion.

However, not all Greek texts, and not all English translations, omit the concept of repentance from the passage in Matthew. The KJV, for example, renders Matthew 9:13 as follows: “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” On this point, the KJV follows an early scholarly New Testament text that relied upon multiple ancient manuscripts, Stephanus’ 1550 revision of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus. Both Erasmus and Stephanus compiled Greek texts that were in the Byzantine texttype tradition rather than the Alexandrian text tradition (a tradition which had not yet been discovered in Europe in the Sixteenth Century). Matthew 9:13 in Stephanus’ text ends with the words eis metanoian.

However, more recent scholars find the Textus Receptus to be unreliable, both because of the very limited number of ancient texts available to Erasmus and Stephanus and because of transcriptional errors and back translations from the Latin Vulgate introduced by Erasmus and not corrected by Stephanus. Therefore, no modern translation I am aware of follows the Textus Receptus exclusively.

This does not imply, however, that no modern scholarly Greek text contains the words eis metanioan in Matthew 9:13, or that no modern English translation of the verse contains the words “to repentance.” In the world of modern scholarly compilations of the Greek New Testament, those scholars who favor the Alexandrian texts over the Byzantine texts generally omit repentance from Matthew 9:13, whereas those that favor the Byzantine texts (of which texts now many more are known than in Erasmus’ day) generally include it. Professor Robinson has stated the case for giving priority to the larger and historically deeper set of manuscripts that constitute the Byzantine textform in the lengthy Appendix to his 2005 compilation of the Greek New Testament (1). Besides the Robinson and Pierpont Greek New Testament edition, the words eis metanioan are also found in Matthew 9:13 in the 1894 Scrivener Greek text, and the words “to repentance” are found in the English renderings in the 1901 American Standard Version and the World English Bible. I personally believe the Byzantine texts correctly included repentance in Matthew 9:13, and this not just because of my respect for the late Bill Pierpont (who was my first Greek teacher). I will explain.

There is no evidence that Jesus called Matthew away from his tax booth, and dined at his house that day, on more than one occasion. Indeed, it would appear quite unlikely that he did so. Thus, Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:25-32 describe the same incident.

There is no question that the description of this incident in Luke attributes to Jesus the statement that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. All Greek texts and English translations of the Luke passage make the objective of Jesus’ call to sinners the repentance of those sinners. This is in keeping with the meaning of the entire passage. Jesus had initiated this chain of events by calling Levi (Matthew) away from his tax booth to follow him. Levi had demonstrated his repentance by immediately leaving his business and following Jesus. Levi never looked back—he continued to follow Jesus and became one of the twelve disciples into which Jesus poured his life over the next few years. But, immediately after he was called, Levi invited Jesus, his other disciples, and Levi’s own tax collector and “sinner” friends, to a dinner with Jesus.

During this dinner at Levi’s house, some Pharisees insinuated to Jesus’ disciples that their Master was doing wrong when he associated with these blatant “sinners.” Jesus took this opportunity to contrast the Pharisees with the “sinners” to whom he was ministering at the dinner. The Pharisees believed they were spiritually “healthy,” not sinners but zealous for the Law (compare the description the Apostle Paul, an ex-Pharisee, gives of himself in Philippians 3:4-6). The believed they had no need of any physician to heal their spiritual condition, and had nothing of which to repent. By contrast, the need of the tax collectors and “sinners” for repentance was obvious. Jesus came to bring healing to those who knew they had a need. This healing started with their repentance.

While it is clear that Jesus’ words in Luke’s account include “to repentance,” it is not as clear that Matthew’s account contains these words. Some texts contain the words, others don’t . Assuming the underlying historicity of the accounts, there are, speaking broadly, only four possible ways this could have happened:

1. Jesus perhaps responded to the same objection to his keeping of bad company twice during the meal at Matthew’s house, once in the form reported in Luke, the other time as reported in the Alexandrian texts of Matthew.

2. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying included the words “to repentance,” as reported in Luke, but Matthew omitted these words to emphasize a different aspect of the saying than Luke emphasized. In this case, the occurrence of the words in some Greek texts of Matthew would, once again, have to be explained by the activity of Byzantine redactors.

3. Jesus only responded once, and his actual saying on this occasion did not include the words “to repentance” at all. Luke added them for reasons of his own, and scribes or, more correctly, redactors (if this hypothesis is true) in the Byzantine text tradition added them to some texts of Matthew to make the text harmonize with Luke.

4. Jesus only responded once, using the words “to repentance” as reported in Luke and in most Byzantine texts of Matthew. The Alexandrian texts of Matthew omitted these words either as the result of a deliberate redaction or, more likely, a scribal error early in the transmission of the Egyptian exemplars.

I will admit that the first two possibilities cannot be entirely excluded. Jesus may have answered the same objection twice during the same meal, and have given a somewhat different answer both times. Further, Matthew and Luke were writing to different constituencies—Matthew mostly to Jewish believers, Luke to Gentiles—and certainly had different emphases. Even if the words “to repentance” are included in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ remarks, those remarks differ from Luke’s account in that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words includes an allusion to Hosea that is not included in Luke’s account at all (“but go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”) Matthew 6:13a, compare Hosea 6:6. An allusion to a Hebrew prophet would be lost on Luke’s Gentile audience, but is exactly what Jesus likely would have used to explain himself to Jewish leaders (and to the Jews in Matthew’s audience as well).

The problem is that the difference in emphasis between these two Evangelists does not explain the omission of the words “to repentance” from Matthew’s account of this incident. If Jesus’ declaration that his purpose in associating with and calling sinners is to bring them to repentance has a natural place in this context, it is in Matthew’s account, written for Jewish consumption. In preaching to Jews, Jewish believers would certainly want to be able to reassure their hearers that a significant purpose of the Gospel, now extended to gentiles and “sinners,” is to bring them out of their sin. If the message of repentance is going to be de-emphasized, one would expect to see this in Luke, written to Gentiles. But, assuming Matthew’s text originally did not include the words “to repentance,” exactly the opposite pattern is seen. Matthew de-emphasizes repentance for the Jews, and Luke emphasizes it for the Gentiles!

Moreover, Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ allusion to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13a does not support the removal of the words “to repentance” later in the verse. The message of the verse before is the same in Matthew and in Luke: it is those who know they have a need who need a doctor. Matthew then places an emphasis on mercy—because sinners need healing, going to them to call them is an act of mercy, which is what God desires. Then, the message of Matthew 9:13b is also parallel to that of Luke 5:32, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. The reason emphasized for this call in Luke is the sinners’ need itself, in Matthew it is mercy (which Jesus tells the Pharisees to emulate). But in both cases Jesus call to sinners meets them where their need is—at the point of their sin. In both cases it is necessarily a call to repent. Thus, Jesus’ slightly different emphasis in Matthew 9:13a does not explain the absence of the words “to repentance” in 9:13b.

The third possible reason for the difference—i.e, that Luke deliberately added to Jesus’ words—accuses Luke of dishonesty and can be disregarded.

That leaves the fourth possibility as the most likely: the autograph of Matthew included the words translated “to repentance” in Matthew 9:13, but they were subsequently lost from the Alexandrian text tradition through scribal error or (less likely) deliberate alteration. Jesus actually said on this occasion that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.


(1) Robinson, Maurice A., “Appendix: The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (Scarborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing 2005), 533-586.