–The Woman and the Lost Drachma, Domenico Fetti, 1618-22
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. [v. 7]
An old proverb says, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell God you have a plan.’ This series of parables says, ‘If you want to make God happy, tell God you have a sin to repent of.’ According to Luke’s Jesus, God is happy when we repent— happier in fact when we sin and repent than when we don’t sin and have no need to repent.
So in a perverse sort of way you could say it’s a good thing that one lamb strayed from the flock, one small coin rolled into a dusty crevice, one willful boy took the money and ran; because if they’d all stayed put and been good, if they hadn’t gotten themselves so lost, then a woman, a shepherd, all their friends and neighbors, and a patient father would never have known what it was like to be glad like that when all those lost things got found.
The ‘good’ sin is an early (and odd) Christian conceit. On the eve of Easter, Christians who gathered for the Great Vigil used to sing a hymn that, among other things, actually praised the granddaddy of all sins, the ‘original’ sin of Adam: O felix culpa! ‘O happy fault!’
Why is this sin a happy one? Because, the hymn continues, “you gained for us so great a savior!” If human beings had not sinned, the song implies, we wouldn’t be as happy as we are now, for we would never have known the sweetness of Christ’s love. Even God would not be as happy as God is now, for God would never have known the peculiar, sublime joy of human repentance.
Now, it’s weird to say sin is a ‘happy’ thing because of the repentance and mercy that follow. It’s theologically dicey and maybe even morally indefensible in fact. Human sin causes untold misery, after all, and not even the most profound repentance can undo its harmful effects. So what kind of religion is this that appears to like people more and holds out more hope for them when they mess up than when they don’t? What kind of teaching is it that delights more in a careless boy than in a careful one? What sort of justice blithely informs an aggrieved long-loyal son to suck it up, for virtue is its own reward?
And if God loves the fallen more than the upright, why not stop trying to be good, do whatever we want and, when we get in trouble bank on the shepherd’s care, the woman’s diligence, the old man’s mercy? If even desperate repentance born of starvation in a pigsty makes God so all-fired happy, why not let loose?
Questions like these have no answer. They have no answer because they’re the wrong questions. We usually ask them in the hope of justifying ourselves. The truth is that Jesus’ isn’t telling stories to be reasonable and moral. His teachings are not common sense. He tells these stories to disarm logic, to blow apart ordinary categories of good and bad, fairness and recompense. Stories are not explanations or arguments for anything. They are a pure shock of recognition. I mean, don’t you see yourself more clearly, even a little bit, when Jesus tells you that sinning and repenting is better than preserving your innocence? (Julien Green put it this way: “’I want to get rid of sin from my life,’ says the Christian. ‘Oh, good; I will help you,’ says Pride.”)
Jesus wants us to know that striving to be upright is laudable and necessary in one sense, but ridiculous and doomed in another. He wants us to know that there are worse things we could be than bad: we could be good like the Pharisees. In Luke’s caricature of them, they are all about avoiding sin, which is a good thing, but it turns out that they do it mostly by avoiding sinners, and their program was to teach others to do the same. That’s why they are depicted as grumbling about Jesus: his program was about being with sinners, and teaching others to be with them too.
As Luke depicts them, the Pharisees make it possible for observant people to exempt themselves from the sinner category. Their program allows ‘good’ people to create groups of ‘bad’ people whom they are to spend their lives avoiding, spurning, placing beneath them. It gives good people divine permission to hold designated bad people in contempt, making contempt itself a kind of virtue.
But here’s the problem Jesus saw in that approach: if we take this road of self-exemption and contempt, we end up distanced not only from others but also from ourselves. Because we are all in fact sinners, distancing ourselves from sinners sets us not only against ‘them,’ but also against our own hearts. Putting ourselves in the category of the good, creating an imaginary place of innocence and occupying it, means we have to delude ourselves daily and live by a false conscience that sets up impossible, judgmental, perfectionist demands. If you’ve ever tried to live like this, if you’re living like this now, you know that being good can be bad.
And sinning? Being bad? Falling flat on our weak, wounded and willful faces? Being stupid or selfish or hurtful or indifferent or unforgiving or resentful or full of fear? Well, those things are not truly good exactly, but at least being bad does not separate or distinguish us from anybody else, and God knows that any kind of human solidarity is better than distance, exclusion, and cold contempt. We also know that sin is the one thing that keeps God hot on our trail, and since God never loses the scent, that’s a good thing too. Beyond that, there’s not much to say that isn’t even odder and even more mysterious.
So maybe it’s best not to say anything else. Maybe it’s enough simply to remember that Jesus himself joined a line of sinners asking for John’s baptism of repentance. That story has the same ending as the ones we read today: God was so happy with him!
Maybe it’s enough to close our eyes and let our hearts be lured by party music wafting over the fields from inside a delirious farmhouse, lured into rejoicing over our sins too. And if we are not yet capable of rejoicing over our sins, perhaps we haven’t yet understood where we’d be without them.
So if all else fails, let’s at least pray. Pray that this Lent, as we go up again with Jesus to Jerusalem and see him die, as we traditionally say, ‘for our sins,’ the Holy Spirit will help us grasp just a little what it might mean for us and the church to contemplate our poor pathetic condition, to look more clear-eyed at our sins, and then to sing with joy and confidence in Christ that perverse little phrase, ‘O felix culpa: O happy fault!’