Jesus, Sinners, and Repentance

A popular meme on social media seeks to clear up Jesus’s true relationship with sinners and tax collectors. Perhaps you have seen it:

Jesus didn’t eat with sinners and tax collectors because He wanted to appear inclusive, tolerant, and accepting. He ate with them to call them to repentance.

Facebook Meme

At first glance, it seems right, particularly because it gets us past the all-in sloppy inclusiveness of our times. However, upon closer examination, it’s actually a clever cover for intolerance and inhospitality in the name of Jesus. Jesus did want to appear inclusive, tolerant, and accepting. It’s the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus welcomes sinners and even eats with them!

I do not contest that Jesus is calling all to repent. It, too, is core to the Gospel message and is the appropriate response to that message. However, I push back on the point that Jesus “did not want to appear inclusive, tolerant, and accepting.” The approach of the meme is a subtle form of gatekeeping—a way of holding those who don’t repent, to my satisfaction or my standard, at bay.

Whoever wrote the meme has no way of actually knowing whether appearing tolerant was one of Jesus’s concerns. However, in story after story in the Gospels Jesus was inclusive, tolerant, and accepting—which is precisely why religious leaders did not include, tolerate, and accept Jesus. And exactly what the sinners found so attractive in Jesus.

Though many stories can illustrate the point, I have chosen the cluster of stories in Luke 15. Here we have some of Jesus’s most well-known parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and what is classically known as the parable of the prodigal son (a poor title at best). To understand these stories in context, one must hear the background offered at the beginning of Luke 15:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1–2 NIV2011

The religious leaders criticized Jesus for not just appearing so but for actually being “inclusive, tolerant, and accepting.” The leaders are disturbed because that is what Jesus did.

The parables that follow the opening verses are addressed not to the crowds in general, but specifically the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Luke is clear, “Then he told them this parable” (Luke 15:3).

Once this is clear, the referents in the parables become quite clear: lost sheep (sinners), ninety-nine sheep (religious leaders), the shepherd (Jesus). One will note that Jesus is being playful here with the ninety-nine who have no need to repent. Doesn’t everyone have a need to repent?

Now the next parable echoes the first, is connected (“Or suppose…”), and is as transparent: lost coin (sinners), 9 coins (religious leaders), the woman (Jesus).

In both parables, the shepherd and the woman go to great lengths to find that which is lost. The religious leaders, like the author of the meme, do little to create an environment where that which is lost might be found.

Not surprisingly, the parable that follows, which I like to call, “The Parable of the Good, Good Father,” carries on with the same referents: lost son (sinners), older brother (religious leaders), the father (Jesus/God). This parable, however, ends with the judgement of the one who is unwilling to accept the younger son. The older brother will not include, tolerate, or accept his younger brother. Thus, the parable ends with the older brother impenitent.

The older brother in the story is put off by the father’s lavish, generous, outlandish display of grace and welcome: the best robe, ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, a tender calf for the feast, music and dancing—over the top celebration!

To be sure, the young son repented—well, he came home, at least. However, we should not forget that Jesus told the parables to the Pharisees and teachers of the law to explain why he was eating with tax collectors and sinners. The meme creates a false dichotomy. Truly Jesus did want want to appear “inclusive, tolerant, and accepting.” He also sought to call people to repentance. These are not mutually exclusive.

It was in being inclusive, tolerant, and accepting, that Jesus gained the right to be heard by sinners and tax collectors. Jesus did not call people while standing on the outside but rather as part of them, among them. Unlike the religious leaders who feared being contaminated by the sinners, Jesus did not do it at arm’s length. He risked appearing contaminated to others so that he could make a difference among sinners and tax collectors.

We need to be less concerned about how we might appear and more concerned about those whom Jesus was willing to include, tolerate, and accept. It’s hard to maintain boundaries and be among the people at the same time.