Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. (Luke 15:1 NASB)
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7 NASB)
“And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ So he got up and came to his father.” (Luke 15:16-20 NASB)
I’d like to see some remorse over what they’ve done. It vindicates me. And it’s selfish and petty of me. The question I’m wrestling with is this, “Were the tax collectors and sinners coming near Jesus to hear Him repentant at that point, or was Jesus calling them a step further with His parables?”
The reason I wrestle here is partly because this is where I spend my time, in the interstitial spaces between closely related statements. Most people find it boring as all get out and it’s hard to discuss in any company mixed or otherwise. It’s just not interesting to most people, but it brings me full stop as I think it through.
The other reason I wrestle here is that I have to let Jesus be my guide rather than my tradition or contrary teachings. The Holy Spirit needs to be allowed to use Scripture to make me more like Jesus. Jesus knows what this means, I don’t. But I need to know.
Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented. Instead He described the thoughts and actions of the younger son and left the terminology to His audience. At the beginning of the chapter, the tax collectors and sinners came near to hear Jesus. The observation of the Pharisees was that Jesus welcomes them and has meals with them. That could have been hyperbole for Jesus allowing them to come near Him, or it could have been more detail about what Luke meant by “coming near Him to listen to Him.”
Since Jesus has already said that eating with Him and listening to His teaching in their streets was not enough (Luke 13:26,27), I don’t think either one really constitutes “repentance”; at least not as Jesus intends it to be understood. Which leaves me thinking that Jesus was telling the parables to both groups. The only way I can think that He wasn’t is if the “eating with sinners” was the celebration over their repentance (Zaccheus?). So, I’ll hold out that it’s possible they had repented. On the other hand then, why the detail about the younger son? Was that to explain to the Pharisees what He meant by repentance? Again, it’s possible.
But I believe it’s more likely that Jesus is also speaking to those who came near about what they needed to know to make that closeness life-changing. They had come near to listen, and so Jesus took that opportunity to tell they what they needed to know, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
I’ll unpack that tomorrow. For today, what do you think? Had the sinners repented drawing near to hear or had they not? And why or why not?