Who rejoices over one sinner who repents? We all know the answer. Or do we?
When the Pharisees complained about Jesus hanging out with irreputable tax collectors and sinners, he told them three stories. First, the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that’s lost. Then the woman with ten coins who searches for one. Finally, the father and his two sons.
At the end of the second story, after the woman finds her coin, she asks all her neighbors to celebrate with her. Jesus concludes, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
It’s the angels. Right?
“There is rejoicing. . .” Jesus doesn’t actually say who is doing the rejoicing, only where it is–“in the presence of the angels of God.” And who is in the presence of the angels? Whose joy might they be witnessing? God is the one celebrating. God throws the party, inviting the whole celestial neighborhood to join in–and he’s the one setting off the fireworks.
Yes, we can assume that the angels are inspired by their honored host to join in. But they are secondary. God’s joy is primary, like the shepherd who invites his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him, like the woman who does the same, and like the father who kills the fatted calf so the whole town can enter into the festivities.
Why would Jesus be indirect about who is rejoicing? Was he trying to be unclear? No, he was simply using a customary practice of not referring to God directly. To avoid any possibility of using God’s name inappropriately, Jews simply didn’t speak his name at all. Instead they used substitutes like “Ancient of Days” or “Lord” or even “Heaven.”
Sometimes we are so used to hearing and reading a familiar passage of Scripture a certain way that we fail to see what it actually says. But look what happens when we look.
We see that God is not the grump we sometimes imagine, mad at sinners, and only begrudgingly forgiving us. On the contrary he is looking, waiting, hoping for us to return to him so he can run out to meet us, throw his arms around us, and tell everyone to let the feast begin.
Yes, it is wonderful that the angels experience God’s joy. But how much more miraculous is it that God himself throws a big bash whenever we turn back to him.