When repentance is more God's work than ours: Luke's strange stress on divine mercy

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of three posts on Luke.

The comedian Emo Philips used to have a great one-liner:

When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.

St Luke has more about repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry than the other gospels, and in a way his take on it is as strange as Emo’s. Luke’s Jesus is very much the friend of sinners.

Detail from an icon of St Luke in Great Lavra monastery on Mt Athos; via Wikipedia

It should be said straight away that Judaism was very much in favour of repentance, and was always happy to see sinners engage in it. It’s just that some of those who clashed with Jesus didn’t recognise people’s responses to Jesus as repentance. Repentance was laid out clearly in the law. It involved making sacrifices and reparation, and amendment of life. Partying with Jesus didn’t look much like that kind of serious acknowledgement of sin.

I want to look at three specific examples. The first is the way Luke tells the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet while he is at supper (Luke 7:36-50). The woman is simply described as a sinner in this city. She comes in and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, dry them with her hair and anoint them with ointment. Simon the Pharisee, Jesus’s host, thinks that, at best, it reveals Jesus’s ignorance of her reputation. Jesus then tells Simon and his guests a story of two debtors, both unable to pay their debts, one debt ten times the size of the other. The very generous creditor lets them both write off their debts.

Jesus then asks Simon which debtor will love the generous creditor more. Simon has no choice but to give the obvious answer: the one who owed the most. Jesus then compares Simon’s lack of hospitality to the woman’s (over-)effusive welcome. He suggests that the great love she is showing him now shows how much God has forgiven her. He finishes by assuring her she is forgiven. The rather subtle point is that to show love for Jesus is in and of itself evidence of forgiveness. Love for Jesus is love for God. Forgiveness by Jesus is forgiveness by God. The system of sacrifice and reparations is made superfluous.

The second story is that of Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). He is trying to see who Jesus is. Presumably he has heard something about Jesus which includes his unusual tolerance for tax-collectors like Zacchaeus. He then finds Jesus stopping right where he has climbed a tree to be able to see. Jesus not only stops, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for the evening. This act of acceptance prompts Zacchaeus to change his life: he is going to make restitution of any money he has cheated out of others, and give half of his property away to the poor. The forgiveness of God that Jesus mediates creates repentance in Zacchaeus.

The third illustration includes three parables Luke sequences together (Luke 15:1-32). Luke explains that Jesus tells these to justify his keeping company with tax collectors and sinners. The parables are the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. In the first two it’s quite clear that all the emphasis is on the work of the shepherd finding the sheep, and the woman searching for the coin. Yet the joy of the shepherd and the woman are compared to the joy of the angels over a repentant sinner. It sets up the expectation that the searcher contributes more to the making of repentance than the one who is found.

To my mind this introduces an interesting ambiguity to the story of the lost son – or possibly the story of the foolish father. The father waiting daily by the gate, the father who runs down the road to embrace his son before he can get a word out, the father who brushes aside any thought of penance in favour of a celebration –– how like the shepherd and woman is he in doing all the heavy lifting? Does the son want reconciliation, or simply a better situation than the one he currently find himself in? Whichever way we understand it, the emphasis is on the prodigal forgiveness of the father, far more than the change of heart in the son.

While Luke uses the language of repentance, his emphasis is on forgiveness. For Luke, God, and Jesus as his agent are the primary initiators of forgiveness. This theme runs throughout the gospel, and is drawn into the climactic narrative of the crucifixion: Jesus prays for the forgiveness of the soldiers who crucify him, and welcomes the crucified bandit who recognises him as king. The risen Jesus himself summarises the consequences of his passion and resurrection in these terms: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

Repentance is about being found by the searching God. Repentance is created when God embraces the sinner. It is not so much my gateway back to God, as it is the fruit of knowing myself to be found, loved, embraced, and lifted to my feet, by the God who acts in Jesus to do that very thing.

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