What Repentance Is (Redux)

(I am away on a personal silent retreat; however this was too good to pass up.)

The Hebrew Scriptures, along with many Rabbis, affirm both the need for repentance—turning around, or changing your mind—as well as the POWER of repenting. They understood YHWH as a god of radical grace and love, and so to them it was nothing to affirm (as the Babylonian Talmud does),

“Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of glory… Great is repentance, because it brings about redemption…
Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors…”

A rabbi says this, “An arrow carries the width of a field; but repentance carries to the throne of God.”

So for Jesus to talk about repentance in a novel way, he had to somehow go BEYOND this understanding. Otherwise, very few people would have found his teachings novel, and CERTAINLY they would not have been worth arresting (and eventually killing) him.


But when Jesus tells a parable (with three parts) in Luke 15, the first image he uses of REPENTANCE is striking.

He tells the story of a “good shepherd” who leaves his 99 sheep goes after a lost, single animal. The text tells how the good shepherd (i.e., God/Jesus) is thrilled when he finds the sheep, and then comes home and celebrates with his friends.

But the punchline comes in verse 7.

Jesus tells his listeners (the Pharisees and legal experts), “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over ONE SINNER WHO CHANGES BOTH HEART AND LIFE (read: “repents”) THAN OVER NINETY-NINE RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE…”

On the one hand, Jesus unambiguously tells his audience, “THIS IS ABOUT REPENTANCE…”

One the other hand, THE SHEEP NEVER REPENTS.

The sheep is merely “FOUND.”

In this story of repentance, Jesus seems to be saying that repentance is not always about DOING something; it’s about LETTING YOURSELF BE FOUND BY THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

Even “turning yourself around”, or “changing your view of reality” can be turned into performance, into making God happy.

But Jesus tells us RIGHT HERE that sometimes to repent just means to STOP and ALLOW the good shepherd to find you, pick you up, and carry you home.


(The Talmudic and Rabbinic quotes come from Kenneth Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal, p 80-81.)