A little under four years ago, a Christian blogger wrote article called, “Debunking the ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ Myth.” The writer called for Christians to follow the Scripture. He asked his readers to drop hate from the conversation, stop shaming the guilty, and recognize that changing someone’s sin is not our responsibility.
The Website on which the article appeared was written for church leaders. So how did the church leaders respond?
Within eighteen hours, dozens of pastors and ministers raged against the writer—some two and three times. Others tagged their messages to cheer them on. The replies were so spiteful that the editors had to erase the entire dialogue string.
The issue is not new. It was as alive in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. In Luke 15, the Pharisees complain about Jesus. “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).
Their words form the chorus of those who have lived so long in their righteousness that they have forgotten what their own sin looked like. “How you just love these sinners, Jesus? Don’t you realize how disgusting these people are? They—they sin!”
Jesus replies with a three-part parable. In the first, a man who owns a hundred sheep still goes out to find the single lost sheep, and rejoices when he finds it (Luke 15:3-7). In the second, a woman who loses one of ten coins tears the house apart until she recovers her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). In both cases, they celebrate, and in both cases heaven rejoices when a single sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10).
The third part of Jesus’ reply is the familiar account of the prodigal son. It is a story about a rebellious kid, a jilted father, and a sin-hating son. In looking at each character in turn, Jesus zeroes in on sin, forgiveness, and self-righteous rage.
The Prodigal: “Justice Served Cold”
The story begins with a kid. He lives with his wealthy family and has every opportunity to succeed in life. But he hates life on the farm, hates work, and hates his father. He even resents that his father is alive, and demands his inheritance in advance. The kid is an embarrassment to Jewish sensibility.
We know what happens. He runs off and squanders his money, only to end up feeding pigs on a Gentile farm. This part of the story had to be music to the Pharisees’ ears. Pigs and Gentiles were unclean animals to the Jews. The kid has gotten just what he deserved. He broke ties with his father, and now God has broken ties with him. Justice is served when it is best—cold.
The Father: Indulgent Forgiveness
But Jesus takes the story on an unexpected turn. The young man comes to his senses and decides to go back and confess to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:19, 21).
Jesus’ first take on grace involves opportunity. Sinners can say, “I have wronged you and I deserve nothing.” God wants guilty men and women to seek his forgiveness.
Jesus is only getting started. When the young man returns, his father runs to him, embraces him and kisses him (Luke 15:20).
The father’s self-shaming in this statement is off the charts. Patriarchs do not run. Their position requires them to act with dignity, and running is at the opposite end of the spectrum. To run to his son, the man would have had to hike the back of his garment between his legs and expose his naked flesh to the world.
As if that were not unthinkable enough, the man embraces and kisses his son. The kid has spent months among the Gentiles, those unclean people. He reeks of pig excrement. When the father takes all this filth onto himself, he risks infecting his whole household with ceremonial uncleanness.
But none of that matters to the father, because has his son has returned. Bring the best robe and kill the fatted calf! Put shoes on his feet! (Shoes were a mark of family bearing in this culture. Servants went barefoot).
This part of the story tells us volumes about grace. It does not count the past. It does not care about how dirty the sinner is, and it refuses to consider the juiciest way to divvy out blame. All it cares about is the opportunity to love and forgive. Jesus sums up grace in the father’s words. “This my son was dead, and now he is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
Grace chooses joy over anger. The father’s delight in restoration outstrips any cost involved in forgiveness.
The Self-righteous: Anger over Forgiveness
The third take on grace comes from the older son, the last character featured in the story. He is a scorekeeper, and is like the religious leaders in every way. He gets in his father’s face and spits out, “I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30, emphasis added).
Would you look at that? The older brother has been such a good boy. Where is his reward for all his hard work? He is the perfect hate-the-sin guy. All he knows how to do is keep score, and right now, he has lost the lead.
The father appeals to the older brother to love grace more than the score. He uses the same words that the older brother used. “This your brother was dead, and is alive...” (Luke 15:32).
A Story without an Ending
The parable does not have an ending. Jesus leaves the father and the older brother in mid-discussion and waits for the Pharisees to supply the ending of their choosing. They must decide whether they will forgive with Jesus or continue to keep score.
Their choice will reflect their hearts. If they continue to insist on hating the sin, justice is not the only thing served cold. So is comparison.
The alternative is so much better. The Lord loves sinners, and heaven rejoices when they repent. Jesus’ plea to find joy in restoration appeals to the very thing it defends. Let God deal with the sin. When a sinner returns, heaven rejoices.