There’s Sinners and There’s SINNERS.

qyycIsgfpMYt_0This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post

The book of Judges established the pattern of sin-judgment-repentance-forgiveness, but the fact that it was a pattern showed that it wasn’t effective in turning the hearts of Israel permanently to the Lord. God abandoned this pattern with the Babylonian Exile by refusing to withhold judgment even if Israel repented.

The old model of repentance leading to forgiveness was completely turned on its head by Jesus, who came proclaiming forgiveness and then calling for repentance. Note, for instance, what he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:11 NRS)

Similarly, it wasn’t until after Jesus told Zacchaeus that he wanted to stay with him that Zacchaeus repented and promised to compensate those he had defrauded. To stay with a person was to show acceptance of that person, indicative that Jesus was not holding Zacchaeus’ sin against him.

In the Bible, the most common paradigm for the consequences of sin is exile: Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden, Cain is forced from his homeland to wander as an alien among strangers, and the Prodigal is penniless in a foreign land feeding swine.

In these and many other examples, the problem isn’t that they aren’t forgiven; it’s that they aren’t home. They are in exile. In proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus was declaring that the Exile was over: God had forgiven Israel, returned to Zion (Immanuel—God Is With Us), and was calling his people home to him.

And by “his people” he didn’t just mean Israelites, he meant everyone, Jew or Gentile.

The Jews of Jesus’ day, however, still maintained the religious and ethnic distinction between Jew and Gentile; moreover, within their own race and religion they maintained a distinction between sinners.

There were sinners, and then there were Sinners. Every Jew sinned; everyone knew that, and the religious leaders didn’t condemn the common person and their common sins. These were all accounted for on the Day of Atonement.

Those who were called Sinners, however, were a special class of sinners. These were people who prostituted themselves or collaborated with the Romans like the tax collectors. These Sinners weren’t even trying. They weren’t repentant, and they veritably flaunted their sins in front of everyone else.

These Sinners sins weren’t atoned for on Yom Kippur. They weren’t among the forgiven whose sins were borne away. They were the unwashed, the untouchables, the unforgiven.

Thus when Simon the Pharisee, seeing that Jesus allowed a certain woman to touch and anoint his feet, thought, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner,” (Luke 7:39 NRS) he was referring to her status in society, not the fact that she had committed some sins.

And Jesus, by accepting her touch, is welcoming her home from the exile imposed on her by society. He tells Simon, “…I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:47 NRS)

All of us are sinners; few if any deny that. But some Sinners and their Sins are considered worse than us regular sinners and our sins, and many feel that to accept them is to somehow give at least tacit approval of their Sin. If they haven’t repented, if they are in fact flaunting their sin by showing up at our worship services and wanting to share our communion table, that just shows how unforgiven they are.

If the Bible teaches us anything it’s that punishment and condemnation don’t generally create the conditions that lead to repentance. Forgiveness and acceptance are the proper conditions for a changed heart and changed behavior.

Every alcoholic knows that they will not receive condemnation when they show up at an AA meeting; rather, they will find acceptance and forgiveness. “Hi, my name is Larry, and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi, Larry.” And they hand him a cup of coffee.

Does anyone really think that by accepting an alcoholic in their midst that anyone in AA is giving tacit approval of their alcoholism? That’s preposterous on its face. Yet that is precisely what some evangelicals are saying about certain Sinners.

The problem that sin causes us isn’t that we aren’t forgiven, it’s that we are alienated. We are in self-imposed exile from our Father. Grace is God’s unilateral forgiveness, but we can be forgiven and still living away from our home, away from the Father.

God rejoices whenever any sinner comes to their senses and decides to come home. And anyone who would seek to bar a sinner from coming home to worship the Father and eat with the rest of the family is in their own self-imposed exile. Like the elder brother in Luke 15, they are out in the field, sulking, while there’s a party going on inside.

Image by The Quote Factory

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One Responseto “There’s Sinners and There’s SINNERS.”

  1. Jim Barnett says:

    Hi Larry – I’ve been thinking about this subject area for a while and appreciate your thoughts and perspective. My thoughts, for what it’s worth: I think it’s much more natural to our sinful nature to judge, be critical and find fault in others, than it is to act with God’s perfect and unconditional love. Think about what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself and love your enemy. Hypothetically in a real-life war, loving my enemy means having unconditional love for the person(s) who might have killed my children, my family or my friends. I’m a Christian but I don’t have that kind of love within me, not on my own accord at least and even trying to live with Christ in my heart I don’t know if I can say I have THAT kind of love. I strive for it…..but it originates from God.
    God, who IS that kind of love in perfection, can judge righteously. We humans who must work with difficulty in allowing Christ to work in us / through us and have HIS love in our hearts make very imperfect judges. We might be better served, and serve others better, to worry more about our own sins. Jesus hung out with, associated with, and directed His ministry to sinners and SINNERS. It’s not a justification or acceptance of sin. We should try and do the same thing.

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