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.