In Hebrew, there are three kinds of sin. One is unintentional sin, that which you did against God, but didn’t really know it. Another is sin that is done on purpose, but the person is so weak-willed that he couldn’t help but do it. But the third category is sin done on purpose, to spite God and his people. This is the kind of sin that Jesus is talking about. People who have totally rebelled against God and against his people, but then they realized their loss and want to come back.
Jesus main message here is the acceptance of these sinners. The father is God. This is a father who was constantly watching for his son to return, even though he gave him up for dead. And even though the son recognized— rightly— that he didn’t deserve to be his son, the father was ready to accept him back fully, without any hesitation. The father didn’t just take him back grudgingly or with conditions— he fully accepted him right then and there. And then he had a great party to celebrate his return (and this wasn’t a man who usually had parties). God is this man, who has a party every time one of his rebellious, lost children return to him.
Of course, we know what sin is, but who are sinners? A sinner is not just a person who sins, but a person who has rejected God’s ways and has decided to live for him or herself or for the world. They have purposely chosen a life that is in opposition to God’s life, and they know that they can’t be right with God as long as they pursue this life. These are people who can’t go to church because they “know” the church won’t receive them. They are the people excluded from God, by their own actions, their own choice.
How are sinners brought back?
These people who, by their own choice, have separated themselves from God, is it even possible for them to come back to God? Many people believe that they can’t. They would say that they were too hardened, too far gone. But Jesus rejects this, saying that every sinner has the possibility of return.
We can see the pattern of return here in this story. First, the sinner realizes how much he or she has lost by separating themselves from God. They realize that their way of life has given them nothing but sorrow and so they determine to seek help. So they come to God for help— perhaps through a prayer, perhaps through seeking assistance at a church or through pastoral counseling. Then, once they seek something— anything— from God, then God shows them his full grace and full acceptance. The smallest amount of repentance, and God springs forgiveness on them like a lion.
So how should the sinner be received by the church? Even as God does, with a lot of grace and understanding, with forgiveness and acceptance. However, this isn’t how the sinner is usually received. Usually there is some measure of distrust, or some hoops they need to go through before they can be fully accepted. And, on occasion, there is basic rejection of the sinner, out of a church’s sense of propriety and fear. But, as much as this is often the church’s way, this is not God’s way.
How did Jesus receive sinners?
First of all, Jesus sought sinners out, letting them know that he sought their company, not just grudgingly accepted them. He taught them God’s truth, but not in a churchy way— rather he made the word alive to the outsider, the one who hasn’t been in the church or a part of it for a long time. And, most importantly, Jesus had parties of acceptance. When Matthew and Zaccheus were saved, Jesus organized parties in their own houses, arranging to have their friends— sinners and tax collectors all— welcome to the party. Jesus had the heart of an evangelist, and make sure that it was the outsiders who were welcome into the ultimate party— God’s kingdom. (Mark 2: 14-17; Luke 19: 1-10; Luke 15: 1-10)
As Jesus did, so should the church. The church seems to not be an open community for sinners. Rather, each church is a cultural box, and each doorway is itself a box and if one does not fit into the box, then that one is just never welcome. Does this mean that the church should be a cultural amoeba, without cultural form or shape, able to accept anyone? No, because that is not possible, nor does it make anyone else comfortable. But the church needs to be ready to accept some kind of outsider, the ones that most churches don’t accept. Perhaps one church focuses on ministry to homosexuals, another to the homeless, another to addicts and another to sex offenders. But EVERY church needs to be accepting sinners, prodigals and ex-God-haters. This is a basic part of Jesus’ mission, thus it should be the church’s as well.
The ministry of Jesus is to receive and restore sinners.
Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 500-504). . Kindle Edition.