Is God Soft on Sinners?
I want to share some reflections today on sheep, on being lost, and on God’s attitude towards sinners.
To start at the end: Is God soft on sinners? We hear the phrase “soft on crime” from time to time, to describe a certain attitude towards crime and criminals that is supposedly not punitive enough. Crime is meant to have harsh consequences, this thinking goes, so that criminals are deterred from further bad behaviour, and society can see that they get what they deserve.
God in the Bible is portrayed sometimes as being very tough on crime and harsh towards sinners. The first reading today (Exodus 32: 7-14) is a case in point. Moses has been up the sacred mountain for 40 days, receiving the ten commandments and many others, and while he’s been gone the Israelites have despaired of his return and have made themselves the image of another god to worship, in the form of a golden calf.
God of course sees this, and tells Moses he must go back down the mountain at once. He says he’s going to destroy the lot of them, and make just Moses and his descendants his chosen people, not that bad lot. And at that point Moses pleads with God and reasons with him and tries to persuade him to change his mind. And finally God does. He changes his mind and lets the people live (- though Moses has 3000 people killed, and God sends a plague on the rest, and promises further punishments later).
This God is not soft on sinners. Sin must be punished one way or another.
And now compare that to the parables of Jesus about sinners. The religious legalists and fundamentalists are criticizing him for spending time with notable sinners, welcoming them and eating with them. Surely he should be denouncing them or calling down fire from heaven on them! And Jesus responds by telling a series of parables on what is to be lost and then found – the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15).
For Jesus the focus isn’t on punishment as the consequence of sin, but on being lost. And the punchline isn’t about what terrible things will happen to sinners for their sin, but on how much joy there is in heaven when a sinner turns around and is found.
Here’s the heart of it: when we wander off from the way God has in mind for us, either “through ignorance, through weakness, or through our deliberate fault,” as a prayer in the Church of England says, we get lost. We get lost from our true and best and holy self; we get lost from the community of those who love us; we get lost in habits and actions that are destructive. And we suffer as a result, and cause suffering to others.
I think of those two young men from Campbell River this summer, who went on a road trip up the Alaska Highway and ended up killing three people and then themselves. What might have happened differently if they’d been found in the wilderness of their thinking and brought back before harm was done? They were lost: literally, morally, spiritually. And tragedy was the outcome.
For Jesus, the key is that the person be called back, searched for and found, welcomed and brought back, so that they are lost no longer. Punishment is missing the point. God wants us to be found, not beaten for getting lost in the first place.
So these twp parables today, of the shepherd searching and searching for the lost sheep, and the woman scouring her house for the precious lost coin, illustrate the direction of God’s energy: not in the direction of punishment, but in the direction of an amazing grace that won’t give up on us.
When David and I were walking across Scotland we saw a lot of sheep. It was lambing season, and we saw the little newborns taking their first wobbly steps, then sticking very close to their mothers, and we saw the more audacious older ones, risking going off in their kindergarten groups further afield.
One day we were walking up a long mountain trail with fencing on either side where the sheep were, and we saw a lamb on the path ahead of us that had wriggled under the fence and got separated from its mother. It was bleating and crying and running up and down looking for a way to get back, and as we got closer it ran further and further away from the rest of the flock, in its fear of us.
Its mother was a beautiful image of Christ, to me. She simply stayed with the lamb on the other side of the fence, bleating in what seemed to me to be a calm, reassuring way, and going along beside it until it finally turned and got back to the gap under the fence where it had wriggled through. Then there was a joyful reunion, with much waggling of tails and drinking of milk.
Being lost is awful, whether you’re a freaked out little lamb, a hardened criminal, the deluded pawn of someone else, or a victim of circumstances. And Jesus’ teaching about the state of lostness/sinfulness is that the lost person, that person we’re often so quick to despise and judge, is worthy of being searched for and called back and found. Because no-one is worthless; no-one is junk.
That’s a very hard teaching. We’d often rather be like the God who Moses argued down from a lot of smiting: we’d often rather see the bad guys punished, locked up and the key thrown away. But it’s that teaching of Jesus about endless grace that sent Sister Helen Prejean visiting the inmates in Death Row with such compassion. It’s what led the Mennonites to set up what they call Circles of Support and Accountability, where volunteers (like Michael) spend time very regularly with former inmates who have served prison terms for often terrible crimes such as rape, child abuse, murder, and help prevent them from re-offending.
Jesus’ teaching is that God is always seeking. Sometimes we’re the ones who need to be found; sometimes we can help in the searching by reaching out to others. But grace doesn’t give up. No one is beyond the scope of God’s searching love. It’s amazing grace.