Repentance Redefined

Traditionally, as far as my religious background is concerned, the definition of repentance is fairly clean cut and follows, more of less, the same as that of the religious culture in Jesus day.

Following it then, we tend to define repentance as a ‘turning’ to God along with ‘sincere regret or remorse’ over sin. The Greek word translated repentance in our New Testament is ‘Metanoia’ – meaning ‘a change of mind’. The Hebrew word in the OT is ‘Teshuva’ meaning to ‘return’. So far so good.

However, the parable teaching of Jesus appears to challenge our traditional view of repentance at a very basic level. How so you might ask? Well, let’s take a couple of  illustrations from the ministry of Jesus – the first recorded in Luke 14 and follow them to their natural conclusion.

‘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.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

This parable is, of course, one of three stories, told by Jesus at this point in his ministry, to illustrate to the religious leaders of his day, why he acted and behaved as he did towards those they considered ‘sinners’. The story recorded above seems, at first glance to be quite straightforward and in the telling seems to have absolutely nothing at all to do with repentance. However – after having finished the story Jesus says, very clearly and pointedly –

‘I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’

This raises a number of questions for us, as it did, I am sure, for those Jesus was addressing. In truth all the sheep in the story did was to be stupid or careless enough to get lost. All the work in its rescue is done by the shepherd. It is he who realises the sheep has gone astray – not the sheep, it is he who abandons the rest of the flock in the wilderness and searches for it and it is he who, when he finds it, with great joy, lifts the animal on to his shoulders and takes it home. Yet, the clear inference is, that in allowing itself to be found and carried home, the sheep, in some way, mirrors a sinner who repents – and as a result is the cause of ‘great rejoicing’ in heaven.

I can see the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were listening to Jesus, raising their eyebrows, looking at one another and shaking their heads – just like some of us might be doing right now as we read this!

As I said, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, to whom the story is addressed, had a very clear understanding, as we think we do, of what it meant to repent – and there were three distinct aspects to their view –

1 – Confession of sin.
2 – Compensation for sin.
3 – A clear demonstration of the sincerity of ones repentance in the keeping of the Law.

Of course the above is a brief summary and in truth it’s a wee a bit more complex than this – but it encompasses, I think, the main points. However, the story Jesus told about the lost sheep appears to challenge this carefully thought out doctrine.

The other two stories in this parable further redefine Jesus understanding of repentance – and while it is beyond the scope of this short post to explore these in detail we need to at least mention the most dramatic aspect of one of these – the return of the prodigal son (I have also addressed this in another recent post – ‘Unrequited Love’ – LINK HERE ).

The question in this story, as it relates to our current observations is – at what point did the lost son repent? We know he had made a repentance speech which he thought would, I suspect, satisfy the expectations of his religious culture and his father and it went like this –

‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.’

(Luke 15 JBP)

However, as he approached home suddenly, this young man became aware of his father running towards him and, a short time later, found himself held tightly in his father’s arms and being kissed repeatedly by him. This would have been a rather unseemly spectacle to those watching and I think the word shocked would be an understatement in relation to how the boy felt. However, the moment he could draw breath he started to repeat his prepared speech – but only gets out the first few words before he suddenly stops. Why? Most suggest that the father interrupted him so he could not continue. However Kenneth E. Bailey contends –

‘Rather, faced with this incredible event he is flooded with the awareness that his real sin is not lost money but rather the wounded heart. The reality and enormity of his sin and the resulting intensity of his fathers suffering overwhelm him. In a flash of awareness he now knows that there is nothing he can do to make up for what he has done. His proposed offer to work as a servant now seems blasphemous. He is not interrupted. He changes his mind and accepts being found. In this manner he fulfils the definition of repentance that Jesus sets forth in the parable of the lost sheep.’ (1)

Another interesting demonstration of this is found in the real life events surrounding the character called Zacchaeus – with whom most of us will be familiar. Zacchaeus was a hated Jewish tax collector and servant of Imperial Rome. To boot he was a cheat and known for robbing his own people. So it goes without saying Zacchaeus was not an observant Jew by any stretch of the imagination! However, on entering Jericho it is to Zacchaeus house Jesus invites himself! Again this is shocking and, no doubt, truly offensive to the community.

What we would have expected, and certainly the good people of Jericho expected, was that Jesus, on encountering Zacchaeus, would have called publicly on him repent of his sinful ways, show deep remorse over his behaviour and lifestyle and be prepared to make compensation to those he had wronged. And yes – of course, he should also then become an observant Jew and begin to follow the law of Moses. With only a very slight variation perhaps, and substituting the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Christian’ – that is what we would also expect today – at least in the tradition in which I was brought up.

But Jesus, flying in the face of all convention and in the hearing of all the people surrounding him, says, more or less – ‘Instead of one of you good and respected citizens of Jericho, today I’m going to eat in the house of a traitor who you all hate and despise! No wonder we read –

‘But the bystanders muttered their disapproval, saying, “Now he has gone to stay with a real sinner.”’

Luke 19 (JBP)

What we see here, is in fact, a completely unexpected demonstration of love and grace – apparently with no conditions or strings attached! The big question for us is – what will Zacchaeus do with this love and grace so unexpectedly extended to him by Jesus? One thing is sure he cannot remain neutral – such love demands a response.  But it will be response so very different, I suspect, to what we might have expected if Jesus had started beating him over the head with a Bible! I wonder how often in his life before this moment Zacchaeus has experienced that? But love and mercy disarms and attracts us – unlike hell fire preaching which, most of the time, drives us away.

But the great culmination of the story is that Zacchaeus gladly accepts Jesus offer of unconditional love – and it is in his acceptance of that love, freely offered, that repentance, according to Jesus definition, takes place!

As Zacchaeus descends from the tree he is, at that moment, granted a new status – that of a friend of Jesus! It is in his response to love, freely offered, that he becomes righteous! He does not become righteous after he had compensated for his sinful life and become a law-keeper. ‘He is granted the status of acceptance and righteousness on the basis of allowing himself to be found’ (Bailey). It is after all the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4) – not our repentance that leads to his goodness – and there is a world of a difference.

As far as we know – no one, either on the journey to the house or once there, tells Zacchaeus how he should respond or how he should now change his life and lifestyle. Jesus did not arrange a series of ‘discipleship classes’ or outline the steps of repentance he must now show. Yet – Zacchaeus demonstrates the effect and impact of the love so freely offered to him by Jesus in declaring –

‘I will give half my property to the poor. And if I have swindled anybody out of anything I will pay him back four times as much.’

(Luke 19 JBP)

This is his response to love, to acceptance – not an attempt to gain it – it has already been freely given! To me this is one of the clearest examples of the Gospel – the Good News! God in Christ has reached out in a clear and costly demonstration of unexpected love to Zacchaeus (and, by implication to us) – a law breaker, perhaps of the worst kind in his culture. However we, so often, as the religious people of Jesus day, think that the love of God should only be extended to those who keep the law – good people, nice people, people who go to church every Sunday. (2)

Although you, like me, may find it difficult to get our heads round all this, especially if we have been brought up in a tradition that has laboured other aspects of repentance to the exclusion of that taught by Jesus – it does not by any means make it less true! What it does do however is force us to re-evaluate what ‘repentance’ really is and to re-examine our own interpretation of the ‘Gospel’ proclaimed by Jesus!


(1) ‘The Cross & the Prodigal’ – Kenneth E. Bailey, page 70.

(2) I believe one – if not the greatest downfalls of any religious tradition – and certainly Christianity, is the draw to legalism from grace, to rules instead of freedom and structure instead of dynamism. Legalism kills and very often the death is slow and even, at times, imperceptible. I have seen this happen personally to individuals and in churches as well as in my historical research in relation to religious movements and revivals. ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ (2 Corinthians 3:4–6) but ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Corinthians 3:17)

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