Diana and Ronnie Hicks volunteered as transcribers. They also did the computer work on the first few rounds of revisions. This was no small undertaking, and for their commitment to such a tedious task I am truly thankful.
Ken and Lenore Mullican started where Diana and Ronnie left off. Ken invested many hours entering corrections, making revisions, and formatting the digital version of the manuscript. Together he and I slowly worked on the project for well over a year. Without Ken’s unflagging efforts, “Repentance: God Inhales” would have remained nothing more than a roughly edited transcription.
At least once I have been questioned about the booklet’s odd title. “Repentance: God Inhales” reflects a fusion of two conceptual sources. First, there are plenty of passages like Leviticus 1:4-9 where the phrase “a soothing aroma to the Lord” appears. An aroma can be appreciated only if it is inhaled. Secondly, I began formulating ideas about this topic during the presidency of Bill Clinton, a man who claimed he did not inhale (while smoking marijuana during his student days). These two sources of inspiration seemed compatible conceptually, and so the title “Repentance: God Inhales” sprang into reality.
The material in this article originated as an oral presentation. Despite my efforts to improve the literary style and enhance readability, evidence of an oral history may still be collected. Hopefully the reader will not be too distracted by the content to notice the literary shortcomings.
Lastly, I am again very pleased that Father Richard Thomas agreed to write a foreword for something that I have written. He is a Spirit-filled Jesuit priest who serves the poor and destitute of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Over the many years of laboring in ministry, Father Thomas has seen God respond in dramatic ways to the silent cry of the penitent prostitute and the shattered soul of the remorseful junkie. He has witnessed God’s loving-kindness transform even the most decadent and prolific of sinners.
I am indebted to Israel’s ancient sages and Judaism’s modern scholars for helping me see more clearly the mercy and compassion of The Holy One Blessed Be He. It is my desire that “Repentance: God Inhales” shed soft, warm light on a few of the often overlooked, but no less sublime features of God’s character.
March 29, 2000
Early in his gospel Mark reported that Jesus went into Galilee and began proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:14-15). The nearness of the kingdom of God required two responses: first, belief that the kingdom of God was in fact at hand, and secondly, repentance to prepare one to welcome the kingdom.
Genuine repentance calls for a reforming of one’s daily habits. The needed change begins with the individual and ideally should permeate the society at large. For instance, a slave owner would need to apply the Golden Rule in his treatment of his own slaves. When enough individual slave owners had made such an application of the Golden Rule, the next step would be for the state to reflect a more Godlike character resulting in the abolition of slavery. Tragically, however, it was not repentance that brought about the change in our country, but a bloody civil war.
God wants to reform the individual and the culture. The story of Zacchaeus illustrates well what happens when an individual repents (Luke 19:1-10). A chief tax collector living in Jericho, Zacchaeus was as rich as he was despised. Because Zacchaeus worked hand-in-glove with their harsh Roman overlords, the other citizens harbored ill-will toward him.
Once as Jesus passed through Jericho, probably en route to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus saw him. Abandoning the propriety proper to someone his age and social status, Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to command an unobstructed view of Jesus. When Jesus came to the spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” The kingdom of God, centering on the person of Jesus, went straight to Zacchaeus. The chief tax collector responded by reshaping his life. “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is an instructive example of individual repentance. Jesus implied this by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost.”
As an example of corporate repentance, the story of Jonah and the Ninevites splendidly illustrates how turning from sin can extend far beyond the individual and affect an entire city. After Jonah’s encounter with the sea monster, he decided to obey God and go to Nineveh. The result was dramatic. The Ninevites believed God, declared a fast, and all of them from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth. When the king heard about it, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, and issued this decree: “Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands” (Jonah 3:7-8).
The Ninevites responded to Jonah’s proclamation, and God responded to their corporate act of repentance: he spared the 120,000 citizens of that city as well as its many animals. Their repentance triggered God’s compassion
The Old Testament prophets recognized that corporate sin required corporate repentance. For example, Daniel confessed in prayer before the Lord: “Indeed all Israel has transgressed thy law and turned aside, not obeying thy voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against [God]…for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people have become a reproach to all those around us” (Daniel 9:11, 16). Group sin requires confession of that sin and a collective change in the people’s behavior.
When Artaxerxes was king of Persia, he appointed Nehemiah to be governor of Judah. Nehemiah returned to the land of his ancestors to find the walls of Jerusalem in disrepair and God’s people lacking the prosperity that they had been promised. The ninth and tenth chapters of Nehemiah record a liturgy of God’s people repenting for sin:
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dirt upon them. And the descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God… But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; they became stubborn and would not listen to Thy commandments. And they refused to listen. And did not remember Thy wondrous deeds which Thou hadst performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But Thou art a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness; and Thou didst not forsake them… However, Thou art just in all that has come upon us; for thou hast dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. For our kings, our leaders, our priests, and our fathers have not kept Thy law or paid attention to Thy commandments and Thine admonitions with which Thou had admonished them… Now because of all this we are making an agreement in writing; and on the sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests…we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons. As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt. (Neh. 9:1-10:31)
Nehemiah’s program required that the entire community participate. He coupled corporate confession of sin with a positive, practical plan to amend the people’s bad habits.
Examining the experience of Jesus, we see that he succeeded in calling some of his coreligionists to repentance. He failed, however, in getting his people to repent corporately. Luke recorded Jesus’ reaction once he realized that Jerusalem would not receive His message.
And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Generally speaking, contemporary preachers emphasize belief more than repentance or the reformation of conduct. One exception is J. John of the United Kingdom. Four years ago he began preaching the Ten Commandments. He proclaims a simple, basic message of repentance. “Sin is overlooked in the church,” J. John declared during an interview in November 1999. He also commented, “…as the Ten Commandments are preached, the Holy Spirit convicts of sin; people return stolen goods and begin to tithe and so forth.” The results have been outstanding with Christians being revived and nonbelievers coming to faith. Repentance and the changing of habits is J. John’s message.
Today despair wreaks havoc in many people’s lives because they suppose that their sin is too great for God to forgive. Drug addicts who have compiled a long, sordid personal history suffer from despair. Women who have aborted their children regard their sin as heinous and unpardonable. They torture themselves daily with condemning thoughts until they learn of God’s mending love and liberating mercy. In a way they resemble Judas because he too lacked confidence in the Master’s readiness to forgive. Judas’ gross miscalculation of God’s merciful character constituted a graver error than his betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
Herein lies the service that Joseph Frankovic has rendered to us: a bold underscoring of God’s unflagging and fierce desire to forgive. Jesus (whose name in Hebrew means “salvation”) occupies himself with saving, healing, and forgiving people. A principle feature of his messianic task is calling people (and even society at large) to a radical redirecting of their lives toward our merciful Heavenly Father.
Fr. Richard Thomas
The Lord’s Ranch
Vado, New Mexico
Repentance: God Inhales
Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. Blessed are thou, O Lord, who delightest in repentance.
This benediction comes from a version of a Jewish prayer older than the one that appears in contemporary prayer books. Blessing God as one who delights in repentance has rich theological implications. Nevertheless, this blessing runs the risk of inaccuracy by understating God’s reaction to repentance. He not only delights in it but displays peculiar patterns of behavior when under its influence.
Rabbi Jose once said: “God has declared, ‘make for me an opening as the eye of a needle; and I will make for you an opening through which armies of soldiers with heavy equipment can enter.’”
Preserved as a comment on Song of Songs 5:2, Rabbi Jose’s words underscore God’s sensitivity to repentance. The slightest indication of it rouses God to action. He stands ready to assist the penitent offender. God acts like the stereotypical salesman: once he gets his toe in the door, he works it until the door is finally wide open.
Psalms 32:10 offers a consoling message with which many Christians can identify: “Many are the sorrows of the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, loving-kindness shall surround him.”
This verse requires no explanation for the reader to grasp its literal meaning. The psalmist merely described two different types of people, the wicked who deserve punishment, and those who trust in the Lord. The ones trusting in the Lord benefit from his loving-kindness surrounding them.
After the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a new group emerged to join the ranks of Israel’s biblical tripartite leadership model of priests, prophets, and kings. The new group constituted the sages (or in Hebrew, the hachamim). As champions of innovation and reform, these learned men played a lead role in the transformation and advancement of Judaism during the Second Temple Period. Before the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., many sages were Pharisees, and after the temple’s demise, many contributed to the formation of rabbinic Judaism.
When reading the Bible, they realized that before them lay a very old text. They also realized that they lived in a changing world. To prevent theological ossification and to infuse Judaism with new vigor, they pioneered and developed a method of reading Scripture called midrash.
One way to illustrate the midrashic process is to visualize the man at the carnival who sells long colorful balloons. Imagine a verse of Scripture as being one of those colorful balloons; and the carnival vendor bending and squeezing and twisting and knotting it to the point of bursting. After bending, squeezing, twisting, and knotting, he presents us with a delightful animal or flower. The carnival man sees greater potential than first meets the eye, and by manipulating the balloon, he entertains and surprises us. In a way, this resembles what the sages did with the biblical text. Believing that the Bible contained unlimited potential, they bent and squeezed the text through the process of midrash until it yielded a gem that at first had been imperceptible. One parable in rabbinic literature suggests that when God gave the Children of Israel his Torah, he entrusted them with raw material rather than a finished product—an idea quite foreign to a modern Protestant view of Scripture.
Consider again Psalms 32:10. The average reader can easily appreciate its message. Moreover, the person of faith finds comfort and assurance in it: “But he who trusts in the Lord, loving-kindness shall surround him.”
Nevertheless, the rabbis squeezed and bent this text until it yielded a more profound message. I also suspect that they may have had misgivings about the type of thinking that the verse could foster. It contrasts and separates two groups of people: 1) the wicked—all of us know what they deserve; and 2) those that trust in the Lord—all of us know what we deserve.
By the time that Jesus arrived on the scene, Jewish thinking had evolved and matured quite a bit from that which we see reflected in various parts of the Old Testament. Judaism had also become more diversified. It contained a plurality of approaches to piety. For instance, in Matthew 5:45, Jesus said, “…for He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Jesus did not say that God sends rain on the righteous and lightning on the unrighteous: he does good to both parties. Matthew 5:45 typifies the sort of achievement which occurred in Jewish theology after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jews in the first century recognized that God loves people, and does good things for them, even when they do not deserve it.
When the rabbis read Psalms 32:10, they may have felt a little apprehensive because this verse can easily be enlisted to promote a “we-and-they” mentality. I would be willing to suggest that this same theological virus plagues even the thinking of a number of evangelically-minded and fundamentalist Christians. Such a mentality adversely affects our conduct. Few sins inhibit the activity of the Holy Spirit as does spiritual or theological elitism. Once such thinking has infected our souls, it masquerades as piety and eludes most efforts to root it out, because the Bible contains ample number of verses to which we may appeal for defending our unholy attitude.
Faced with the potentially divisive implications of Psalms 32:10, the rabbis circumnavigated the verse’s plain meaning. They accomplished this by creatively expanding the wording of the verse: “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but even if the wicked one repents and trusts in the Lord, loving-kindness will surround him.”
In order to achieve that reading, the rabbis squeezed and bent this verse to the point of bursting. Nevertheless, interpreting midrashically, they highlighted a foundational theological concept: a person cannot accumulate more iniquity than repentance can remove. It is this message that the rabbis sought to coax out of the verse. With the assistance of a midrashic rendering of the text, they refocused the reader’s attention on a more sublime feature of God’s character.
From this rabbinic comment on Psalms 32:10, we learn that God remains on alert for any sign of repentance from a sinner or wicked person. He responds to the repentant cry of a thoroughly wicked person just as he does to the repentant cry of an average sinner. Once remorse is detected, he moves in and surrounds even the most morally depraved with loving-kindness.
Thirteen chapters later in the Psalter, another psalmist opened by speaking about the inspiration welling up within his heart to write lyrics for a royal occasion. English translations of Psalms 45:1 read something like the following: “My heart overflows with a good theme; I address my verses to the King” (author’s emphasis). The Hebrew literally says: “My heart is stirred with a good word, I will tell my deeds to the King” (author’s emphasis).
Exploiting a literal reading of the verse, the rabbis offered this comment: “When a person is unable to confess with his or her mouth, as soon as the heart is stirred toward repentance, God receives it.”
Thus, not only is God ready to respond to repentance at the slightest indication and assist the process, and not only is he willing to forgive any amount or type of iniquity, here he accepts the meditations of one’s heart (without or before verbalization). The rabbis interpreted “I will tell my deeds to the King” as a description of one repenting before God. Once that interpretation had been fixed, they read “my heart is stirred with a good word” as paralleling “I will tell my deeds to the King.” Hence, both sentences speak of repentance.
Commenting on Jeremiah 30:18, the rabbis employed a common hermeneutic technique of isolating a phrase of Scripture and interpreting it independent of its original context. The rabbis were fond of breaking up a verse into small parts. They interpreted each part as an independent unit and/or recombined it with parts from other verses. This midrashic process of breaking up a verse into smaller parts and recombining the parts generated additional meaning. The rabbis delighted in squeezing every possible drop of meaning from Scripture.
English translations of Jeremiah 30:18 read something like: “Behold I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob…” Where the English reads “I will restore,” the Hebrew literally says, “I am returning.” From a hyper-grammatical perspective שָׁב (shav), which has been translated above as “will restore,” could be translated “I am returning” or even “I am repenting.” This verb appears in the Pa’al (or Qal) conjugation and, therefore, is intransitive. This attracted the attention of the rabbis. They simply treated the verb shav hyper-literally and read the phrase as, “Behold I am repenting.”
Now that is a curious reading. Does God have need of repentance? Of course not! So why would God be repenting? The rabbis answered this question by telling a parable in which they compared God to a father whose child lay ill. A doctor came and prescribed medicine for the child. Reacting to the bitter taste, the child recoiled from the medicine. What did the father do? He went to his child and said, “Dear One, I will take the medicine first, and then you take it after me.” Wow! The rabbis portrayed God in a manner which suggests that God himself is prepared—if we can even imagine it—to repent! Surely, he has no need of repentance. Nevertheless, in order to make repentance a more attractive option, God behaving like a father who loves his ill child swallows the bitter medicine first with the hope that the child will follow his example. Although the rabbis gave Jeremiah 30:18 a thorough midrashic reworking, and leveled its simple meaning, their depiction of God and his profound love for us leaves the reader dumbstruck.
Allow me to relate one other story from rabbinic literature. The story deals with King Manasseh, who was one of Judah’s most wicked kings. Openly worshipping idols, he even sacrificed his children to them. 2 Chronicles 33 describes his capture by the King of Assyria. While a prisoner, Manasseh repented. The rabbinic version of the story recounts Manasseh’s experience as a prisoner. The verses on which the rabbis zeroed in are 2 Chronicles 33:12-13:
And when he was in distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.
The rabbinic retelling of the story relates how Manasseh, while incarcerated, prayed to all of his idols for deliverance, but to no avail. One day, however, he remembered a passage of Scripture that he had heard his father read in the synagogue.
That passage came from Deuteronomy 4:25-31:
When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you shall surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but shall be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the Lord shall drive you. And there you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God: He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.
Remembering these verses which he had heard in his youth, Manasseh reasoned that he might as well try calling out to God. If his fortune did not change after praying to God, Manasseh could assume safely that there is no difference between God and an idol. If, however, God answered his prayer, then he would repent and quit his idolatrous ways. So, Manasseh prayed, and as his prayer was ascending on high, the angels of the heavenly court quickly got to the windows and closed the shutters. They simply did not want Manasseh to have any chance of repenting and gaining future admittance through the heavenly gates.
One can imagine the angels walking around the heavenly palace and trying to act as if they were not up to something. But God discerned that something was afoot, and he realized that Manasseh was supplicating him in prayer. Discovering that Manasseh’s prayers were rising up to heaven, but bouncing off the shutters, God became very restless. As each prayer hit the bolted shutters, God became more agitated. Finally, out of desperation, he ripped a hole through the throne of glory, and poof! Up the prayers came through the hole that he had dug through his throne. Greatly relieved, God happily accepted Manasseh’s prayers, and as a result of Manasseh’s turning toward him, God returned him to Jerusalem and restored his royal throne.
This rabbinic story depicts God enduring the unbearable: not having access to the prayers of a penitent sinner. The situation so distressed God that he responded by ripping a hole through his throne!
These excerpts from rabbinic literature reinforce what I wrote at the beginning. To say that God delights in repentance is an understatement. Not only does he delight in repentance, but in the light of the rabbinic literature, God acts incomprehensibly when affected by it.
What motivates God’s peculiar behavior? Speaking through Ezekiel the prophet, God once declared: “…As I live!…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live…” (Ezek. 33:11).
Here God clearly indicated that he finds no pleasure in the ruin of a wicked person. Rather, he hopes for his or her repentance. The rabbis latched on to this theme. They searched for opportunities in Scripture to underscore this point. They found such an opportunity in Proverbs 11:7: “In the death of a wicked man, hope perishes.” I have translated this verse literally from the Hebrew in order to help explain how the rabbis interpreted it. Notice that the Hebrew does not indicate specifically whose hope perishes. The rabbis read the verse in a manner to suggest that it is not the hope of the wicked, but God’s hope that perishes. God’s hope for what? Repentance. In other words, if a person persists in the pursuit of wickedness up to the point of his or her death, the opportunity for repentance passes away too, and, obviously, God’s hope of redeeming that person will never be realized.
Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
Likewise 2 Peter 3:8-9 reads:
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
In the light of these passages from the New Testament, should Christians pray for the soon return of the Lord? That would be similar to seeking a wicked person’s untimely death. When the wicked person dies, God’s hope perishes. When the Son of Man comes, apparently the terrible Day of the Lord will be at hand. That day will be a day of judgment. Could the delay in the coming of the Son of Man be interpreted as an expression of God’s grace? The longer the delay, the greater the opportunity for the wicked to repent.
We live in an age (or dispensation) that Jesus called the days of “the Kingdom of Heaven.” What is happening during this unprecedented span of time? The good news is preached to the poor, release is proclaimed to the captives, the downtrodden are set free, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up. The days of the Kingdom of Heaven constitute a favorable period in salvation history. What is the Kingdom of God doing right now? What it has always done since the time of John the Baptist—expanding. From a spiritual-metaphorical perspective, we are enjoying the longest running bull market in salvation history!
Let us now turn to the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—in order to survey how God’s character is depicted in them. Look first at Luke 15:4-6:
What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep, and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!”
How is God’s character portrayed in this parable? Is he passively waiting for people to repent? God remains assertive—he (or his messianic representative) goes out and seeks for that lost individual who has strayed. Is this consistent with the picture that the rabbis sketched? Rabbi Jose claimed that God actively facilitated the process of repentance.
Consider another passage from Luke 15:11-21:
A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” And he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight: I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired men.’” And he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
If a wicked person repents and trusts in the Lord, loving-kindness will surround him. Is the rabbinic interpretation of Psalms 32:10 consistent with the portrayal of the father’s response to his repentant son in Luke’s parable?
Consider Luke’s version of The Wicked Husbandmen. Jesus told this parable during his final visit to Jerusalem. The aristocratic Sadducean priests controlled the temple precincts. They had begun conspiring against Jesus because of his denunciation of their abusive and corrupt practices. In response to the aristocratic priests and not the Pharisees, he told this parable:
A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time. And at the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers in order that they might give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty handed. And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out. And the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, “This is the heir; let us kill him that the inheritance may be ours.” And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, therefore, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? (Luke 20:9-15)
Which character in the parable defies reason? Whose behavior is irrational? Early in the plot of the parable, the wicked tenant farmers establish a pattern of reckless conduct. They beat the first three servants (who represent the prophets of old). Nevertheless, the owner of the vineyard concludes that if he sends his only son to these wicked tenant farmers, they will respect him. What is wrong with the owner of the vineyard? Is he naive? Based on their previous conduct, what are the chances that the tenant farmers will treat his son with respect? Once again the ancient literature portrayed God in a manner in which his behavior seems incomprehensible.
In the parable, Jesus cast God in the role of the vineyard’s owner and, being the landlord, he must deal with these wicked tenants (who represent the aristocratic Sadducean priests). The tenants make no effort to receive hospitably their visitors—rather, they mistreat them. Yet God decides that they need to be treated more kindly. So he sends his only son in a final effort to win them over. And, of course, the parable concludes with an easily anticipated ending—the death of his son.
Once again, we see that God’s behavior becomes very strange when the hope for repentance is at stake. God seems irrational and unpredictable. But thank God for his irrational, unpredictable behavior, or most of us would not belong to him.
In Jewish theology, when somebody sins against another person, receiving forgiveness requires not only repenting before God, but also going to the offended party and asking him or her for forgiveness. Once while commenting on topics related to the day known as Yom Kippur, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah touched upon this idea: “For transgressions that are between man and God, the Day of Atonement will effect atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow.”
Does that remind us of something Jesus taught? “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the alter, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24). Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s remark and Jesus’ words simply reflect standard Jewish theology on sin, repentance, and reconciliation.
When setting right a transgression committed against another party, an offender can approach God and ask his forgiveness without difficulty. Asking God for forgiveness is the easy part of the equation. Seeking reconciliation with the offended or injured party is another matter. In fact, the rabbis formulated a vivid teaching to illustrate this:
When a man insults his fellow in public and later seeks to apologize, the insulted one says,“You insulted me in public, but now you apologize in private. Go! Bring the very people before whom you insulted me, and I will accept your apology.” The Holy One, blessed be he, does not act in such a manner. When a man curses and reviles him in the market place, the Holy One says to the offender, “Repent in private and I will accept your apology.”
In light of the rabbinic passages that I have assembled above and of the gospel passages, we gain insight into God’s nature and his acute sensitivity to repentance. What is ultimately underlying God’s peculiar behavior? Love. God loves us so much that he is anxious that none of us should perish. His love for us motivates his distinctive, peculiar, incomprehensible behavior.
In this brief study, we have encountered ideas that may prove relevant for becoming better disciples of Jesus. In Jewish tradition, there exists a well-known principle, which is called imitatio dei. The principle is built upon the simple concept of emulating God: as the Great Teacher, he serves as our role model. We should, therefore, pattern our behavior after his. In addition to being an amusing lesson about God’s nature in contrast to human nature, the rabbinic story about the man offended in public challenges us. We should not turn away a remorseful person with harsh words. Rather, we should follow God’s example and accept an apology in private for a public offense.
I am reminded of Matthew 18:21 where Jesus in response to Peter’s question indicated that forgiving a penitent brother up to seven times was not sufficient. Jesus simply instructed Peter to exhibit the same attitude which God has toward a person repenting of sinful, shameful, hurtful conduct. Of course, this means, too, that our behavior will take on an element of irrationality. Love sometimes requires that both God and people abandon propriety.
Ultimately, is not this sort of attitude consistent with the objectives of God’s redemptive activity? Upon saying “yes” to Jesus and making him Lord, we become participants in God’s redemptive program. We rejoice at the slightest hint of repentance. We join God in doing good to all, so that even the wicked will be touched by his love. God is trying to reach those who are far from him. Living in submission to Jesus’ leadership, we become conduits of love and redemption, channels of healing, forgiveness, and mercy to a hurting world.
Our involvement in people’s lives should gently escort them to a place where they want to return to God. Like a parent who is motivated by love and takes the bitter medicine first, we should be contrite, acknowledging our shortcomings and seeking reconciliation with those who harbor enmity toward us. Let us go forth today and imitate the excellent but very challenging precedent established by our Father in heaven who causes the sun to shine and rain to fall on all people.
-  Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1993), 342. ↩
-  Pesikta de Rav Kahanah (ed. Bernard Mendelbaum; 2nd rev. ed.; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987), 369. ↩
-  “While a definition of a midrash is a difficult task, its function can be explained quite clearly…. The midrash (from a functional point of view) is the result of the inherent paradox which haunts a religion based upon a body of sacred scriptures: the conflict between the wish and the need to innovate, and the religious maxim which states that all truth is to be found in the scriptures. This means that, in order to be true, every new statement should be old. The midrashic technique is the traditional Jewish answer to this paradox” (Joseph Dan, “Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah,” in Midrash and Literature [eds. Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986], 127). While reading Joseph Dan’s explanation of the function of midrash, a student of the synoptic gospels may think of Matthew 13:52 where Jesus’ words echo a similar idea. ↩
-  Seder Eliahu Zuta, ch. 2 (Meir Friedmann ed.; Jerusalem: Wehrmann Books, 1969), 171. ↩
-  Midrash Wayyikra Rabbah 15:4 (Mordecai Margulies ed.; v. 1; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993), 330. ↩
-  Compare Exodus 20:5, 6; 34:6; Psalms 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2. ↩
-  Joseph Dan’s comment that follows underscores the inherent limiting nature of an English translation while calling attention to the manifold interpretive approaches allowed by the original Hebrew language of the text: “The possibility of using the totality of the text is created by the nature of the original Hebrew language of the Jewish scriptures…. Even in regard to the simple meaning of the text, there is a vast difference between reading a text in what is believed to be the language of revelation and reading a translation. Many, probably most, of the verses in the Old Testament, for example, can be translated in more than one way, because there are at least several shades of meaning and sometimes even complete obscurities in the text. A translator has to choose between all possible interpretations and present one of them, losing in this way the richness, as well as (from a religious point of view) the profundity of the original. The translated text thus conveys a sense of clarity which is completely missing from the original. The translator does not transmit the text, but one possible meaning of it, creating a new text which is much more flat and unequivocal than the original” (Midrash and Literature, 128-129). ↩
-  Midrash Tehillim (ed. Solomon Buber; New York: OM Publishing, 1947), 270. ↩
-  While discussing a literary form unique to midrash (the petihta), David Stern remarked that a fundamental tendency of midrashic literature is “…the urge to unite the diverse parts of scripture into a single and seamless whole reflecting the unity of God’s will. This tendency derives directly from the rabbinic ideology of the canonical Torah—Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings—as the inspired Word of God, a timeless unity in which each and every verse is simultaneous with every other, temporally and semantically; as a result, every verse, no matter how remote, can be seen as a possible source for illuminating the meaning of any other verse” (David Stern, “Midrash and the Language of Exegesis: A Study of Vayikra Rabbah, Chapter 1” in Midrash and Literature, 108). ↩
-  See Joseph Frankovic, Reading The Book (Tulsa, OK: HaKesher, 1997), 35-37. ↩
-  Pesikta Rabbati (ed. M. Friedmann; Wien: Josef Kaiser IX, 1880), 184. ↩
-  Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 376 (28c). ↩
-  Note that 2 Chronicles 31:20-21 indicates that Manasseh’s father Hezekiah remained faithful to the Lord. ↩
-  Kohelet Rabbah (Vilna ed.; v. 2; Israel: Books Export Enterprises, n.d.), 40. ↩
-  See the NIV of Matthew 11:12-13. The Kingdom of Heaven (or God’s redemptive power) has been breaking forth since the days of John the Baptist. It continues in our day and will not end until the Son of Man suddenly comes. Hence Jesus spoke of three periods in salvation history: 1) The Law and the Prophets; 2) the days of the Kingdom of Heaven; and 3) the Coming of the Son of Man, which apparently ushers in Haolam Habah or the World to Come. See David Flusser, Jesus (2nd corrected and augmented ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1998), 258-275. ↩
-  Compare Luke 4:18-19 and Matthew 11:4-5. ↩
-  See Joseph Frankovic, The Kingdom of Heaven (Tulsa: HaKesher, 1998), 43-44. ↩
-  See Luke 20:9-15a. ↩
-  See Joseph Frankovic, “Remember Shiloh!” Jerusalem Perspective 46 and 47 (Sept.-Dec. 1994): 24-29, and Shmuel Safrai, “Insulting God’s High Priest,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (Apr.-Jun. 1999): 34-36. ↩
-  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (eds. F. W. Gingrich and F. W. Danker; 2nd rev. and augmented ed. of Walter Bauer’s 5th ed; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 6. ↩
-  Note the phrase “all the mysteries of the words of his servants the prophets” (Die Texte Aus Qumran [ed. Eduard Lohse; Munchen: Kosel-Verlag, 1986], 234). ↩
-  For a fuller discussion of this parable, see Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 215-224. ↩
-  The Mishnah, Seder Moed (ed. Hanoch Albeck; Jerusalem/Tel Aviv: Bialik Institute/Dvir Publishing, 1988), 247. ↩
-  Pesikta de Rav Kahana 24:12, Mandelbaum ed., 370. ↩
-  I am reminded of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai’s saying about love and hate. Regarding love he said that it stimulates a person to act in ways that violate propriety. As examples of Biblical personalities who were motivated by love and accordingly did things that were incompatible with their social status and elevated stature, he cited Abraham and Joseph (Bereshit Rabbah [eds. Theodor and Hanoch Albeck; 2nd printing with corrections; Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1965], 592-593; 55:8). ↩