The coin doesn’t repent (neither does the sheep)

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.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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6 Responses to The coin doesn’t repent (neither does the sheep)

  1. Scott says:

    LZ –
    Just thinking that the impetus to repent is also a gift of grace. That I cannot by my own reason or understanding come to Jesus … (third art. meaning from Luther’s catechism.) Maybe I will have more ideas later.

  2. Scott says:

    LZ-
    2 Corinthians 7:9-10 This is very interesting because Paul supposes that his letter caused “Godly sorrow” – I guess that means he preached Law — convicted them of their sin – and then proclaimed the Gospel – vs. 10 NIV says – Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret … NRSV says that “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation…” and goes on to describe an eagerness to clear oneself, indignation and alarm and longing and zeal — Does this show a link from repentance to belief or not? This grief or sorrow that leads to repentance – this could be personal or corporate. from BGD- p. 512- for Metanoia – turning away from – but also beginning of a new relationship with is another meaning. Sorry to be so “Word” oriented – but that is what my occured to me today.

  3. PS says:

    Yesterday at Bible Study, a woman asked our pastor, what about this friend of hers who keeps doing something “wrong” to her, but doesn’t see the hurt and doesn’t “get it” and so doesn’t repent. The pastor quoted Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
    Those people may have believed in God, certainly not “in Jesus.” But there was room for repentance without acknowledging the sin.
    Repentance followed by forgiveness will make for a better life. But fortunately we aren’t saved by how much or how well we repent or forgive or believe.

  4. Remember, according to Mark & Matthew, the content of Jesus’ initial preaching in Galilee was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mar 1:15) or “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”… (Matt 4:17)
    Repentence is both one of his keynotes and is related to the proximity of the kingdom.

  5. Johann says:

    While thinking about your questions, it occurred to me that there is a third element in the sequence of events: first, God reaches out to us to establish or renew our relationship (the searching); next comes repentance, when we turn back to God and embrace that relationship; then, the celebration!
    I imagine for many people, the “knee-jerk” reaction is to think too narrowly about repentance (and sin, for that matter); repentance is corrective behavior after we break the rules. When we speak of repentance, of turning back to God, are we really thinking in terms of a “crime and punishment” scenario? Would it be helpful to consider the implications of a more relational understanding of repentance? Would interpretation of the parables make better sense if we understand repentance in the context of loving God and loving our neighbor as the heart of all the law? Love is, by its very nature, relational, dynamic, and consequential. And no, it ain’t always easy.
    I think I am a liberal, and I don’t mind talking about repentance.

  6. John Petty says:

    The people who say you have to repent before you can be forgiven are wrong. In fact, it’s exactly the other way around. First, you’re forgiven, THEN you repent.
    Repentance, by the way, is “metanoia,” which does NOT mean feeling sorry (usually for getting caught), but rather a change in orientation, a turning and moving in a new direction.
    Why would you do this? Because you’ve been forgiven, and, in gratitude, you WANT to.

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