Earlier this week, we talked about Jesus’ beautiful stories of lost sheep and coins, arguing that it is God’s great delight to love and welcome people despite the boundaries we set up to prevent same.
For some, a single phrase in Jesus’ stories threatens to overturn the apple cart. From Luke 14:
I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
When we read this, our self-justifying, exclusive natures pipe up to say, “Aha! He said, ‘Sinner who repents’. That means anyone outside of my group is, by definition, a sinner! In order to be reconciled, they first have to say they’re wrong and think like me.”
This is handy for us, but it’s not intrinsic to the gospel.
In this story, the designation of “sinner” was not brought up by Jesus, but by religious leaders who were scandalized that Jesus would eat with anyone who is not them. Employing the word himself, Jesus contradicts their point effectively. He refuses to get in an argument about who’s a sinner and who’s not. The story strongly implies that the religious leaders themselves are doing something wrong. Everyone involved could be painted with a sinful brush.
Instead, Jesus goes with their term, turning their expected outcome on its head in the process. It’s as if he’s saying, “Even IF the word, ‘Sinner’ applies as you suggest it does, that does not exclude these people from the love and family of God.”
Modern debates about inclusion, exclusion, and suitability often get bogged down in examining whether something is a sin. This is almost always a waste of time. Even if you get an answer, who among us does not also commit sins? The important question is not who’s a sinner and who’s not, but what God does with people who have fallen short.
Asking, “Is this a sin?” we seek condemnation of our neighbor and absolution for ourselves. It’s no accident that most of the topics we debate in this fashion involve potential “sins” that we do not think we, ourselves, commit. From a perch of safety on high, we debate the fitness and fate of people who are not us, secure that we’ll remain unstained either way.
The seekers in Jesus’ story did not do this. They moved, seeking out people who fall short, rejoicing when they were recovered and carried home. This is the work of God.
But what about that little phrase, “who repents”? Doesn’t that mean it’s up to the lost person to acknowledge, confess, and renounce their shortcomings before they can be reconciled?
That’s the way we’ve defined repentance traditionally. We think of repentance as the act that brings reconciliation with God, much like sticking our card into an Automatic Teller Machine and punching out the correct code to receive forgiveness.
That’s not what happens in these stories. God is not portrayed as a static ATM, waiting for us to think properly, say the right words, and stop sinning before he’ll connect with us.
So, then, what’s this repentance thing about? The concept of repentance appears in the languages of Old and New Testament (in Hebrew and Greek), in the Latin to which they were translated, and on into English. In all cases, it carries a sense of turning and/or walking. The Latin translation tends to take this literally, almost “to turn and re-walk”. The Hebrew is more of an internal mind-turning, often with sorrow accompanying. The basic idea is new direction and change.
Re-walking beautifully expresses the action in these stories from Luke 14. When the sheep went out under its own power, it became lost, walking in a separate direction. The seeker re-walks the sheep back where it was meant to be. Getting lost did not happen in a single moment; it was a progressing journey. So is the reconciliation. Carried or guided by the shepherd, the sheep re-walks the path at every step. It may not even know where it’s going. The direction has changed and it’s towards reunion. That’s all we know.
All of us who fall short aren’t fixed or cured by what we believe, nor by what we confess. We simply tell the truth that we are re-walking our paths towards something good, even when we can’t see what that is. This re-walking journey doesn’t end with our reunion. It continues all the days of our life thereafter.
We who re-walk do not return to a static community, localized in space and time, which does not move. We are transformed and we continue to be transformed, along with our community, walking in new ways thereafter.
Another way of phrasing Jesus’ celebration description might be, “All of heaven rejoices over one journey re-walked that transforms a person’s life in joy, brings them into community, and changes that community in turn. Heaven rejoices more over this than over 99 lives and 99 communities that don’t go anywhere because they don’t perceive the need to move from where they are, nor to welcome anyone or anything new.”
This brings up obvious questions: How do we define our faith lives and journeys? Do we trust in our own power and convictions, or do we trust in being re-walked by something greater than we? What is the purpose of our faith communities, to stay static and wait for people who think like us to join, or to move in the great re-walking ourselves?
God delights in finding us far more than we delight in being found. Yet heaven rejoices at every step of the journey anyway. May your re-walk be enlightening and blessed.