I’m preparing my sermon for September 16 (yes, it’s early in my internship and I have time to work on a sermon two weeks in advance). The gospel text, Luke 15:1-10, includes Jesus’ parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Both of these stories celebrate the finding of that something which was lost – a gold coin, a single sheep. In these tales the owners work tirelessly – and even neglect other possessions or responsibilities – to find what was lost.
But then Jesus interprets the parables, in verses 7 &10, telling his audience that there will be great joy in heaven when a sinner repents. When a sinner repents? I’m experiencing a disconnect between the stories Jesus tells and the interpretation Jesus offers. Neither the coin nor the sheep repent nor demonstrate any need to repent (perhaps it was the negligence of the woman or the shepherd that led to the loss of the coin and sheep – perhaps they should repent!). Rather, the stories overwhelmingly point to God’s perseverance in seeking out the lost, and the celebration that takes place when the lost is found. Repentance enters the parables only in Jesus’ concluding commentary, not in the parables themselves.
There are knee-jerk liberal and conservative angles in this text. The simple liberal theme is this: God celebrates when someone who is lost, separated from the flock, stuck in the dusty corner of the world is found and reunited with the whole. Coupled with vss. 1-2, this "God celebrates" angle fits into the "God’s got a big table," Kingdom of God utopia theology that I can easily slip into. This is fine, but it ignores some other plain-as-day themes that more conservative traditions might embrace – the (pejorative?) labeling as "lost" those who are unbelievers or unrepentant, and the calling of (the need for?) sinners to repent (as a prerequisite for . . . for what?).
Which gets me to wondering . . .
- what is the relationship of repentance to belief? It seems to me that in the New Testament there is lots of talk of repentance – as much or even more so than there is talk of belief. We liberals don’t like to talk of repentance (unless we’re calling on corporate America or our government to repent of their sins . . . belief is so much more pleasant than repentance!).
- I imagine – I know – that the life of faith isn’t a straight-forward mechanical operation, yet there is a sequence assumed in Jesus’ comments – first comes repentance; THEN comes celebration. What do we who proclaim God’s grace have to say about this sequence of our act followed by God’s act?
Your insights will be greatly appreciated.