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Luke 15:7:

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.

What is meant by those "who do not need to repent"? Are they:

  1. Not intended to be real people, just illustrations in the text. So they can have the status "do not need to repent".
  2. People who think they don't have the need to repent.
  3. People who genuinely do not need to repent.
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  • Down / close voter: care to explain? Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 22:47
  • 2
    Wikis, the proposed close reason is, “this question is off topic because it is about systematic theology.” My impression is that you didn’t intend it that way, so I made a couple minor changes that I hope make it clear that it is focused on the intended meaning of the text without requiring us to assume a particular systematic framework. Feel free to roll back if you disagree with the way it is now worded.
    – Susan
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 10:20
  • Hi @Susan: thanks very much for the explanation and edits. I don't think the edits make a great difference but if it helps the question be on topic I welcome them, thanks. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 11:29

6 Answers 6

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In a way it’s a combination of “1” and “2”. With Jesus choosing the exact number of 99 without that total present, he’s illustrating in order to simplify and stress his point.

He does the same with the next story, about the woman and her lost one of ten coins. (Luke 15:8-10)

As you noted Romans 3:23 says, all have sinned, so we temporarily only think we need not repent. In stories such as this with the 99 sheep, people are judging others yet should be repenting themselves. Another example for that is with the Adulterous Woman with no stones being thrown. (John 8:1-11)

“Those are self-condemned who judge others, and yet do the same thing. All who are any way called to blame the faults of others, are especially concerned to look to themselves, and keep themselves pure. In this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save.”Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary

The quantity of ninety-nine is used for illustration. In reality every one of us may only think we need not repent.

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It does not seem that there is enough here to determine one of those three categories would best fit, as the context is focusing more on the one which is lost than those which are not lost.

To get a little further context, here's the text translated "ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance":

ἐννενήκονταεννέα δικαίοις οἵτινες οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν μετανοίας

I have highlighted some things to note. The second part is what the question focused on, and yes, it clearly is saying that they "no have need" to repent. So, it is clear that literally, they don't have a need to repent. However, I also wanted to point out the first word highlighted. In the Greek, an adjective, "righteous", unlike English, does not need a noun to modify. We had to put that in. So, while it is good in English to translate it as "righteous person", it could just as easily be "righteous thing" or "righteous creature", etc. Therefore, from this text alone, he could just as easily be referring to angels, people who already repented, or even the types of theoretical people you mentioned. Whatever these things are, for the sake of this passage, they actually do not have any need to repent. There are many things which have no need to repent and are righteous.

Who are what these things are is the weakest part of this text, meaning that rather than forming a doctrine from what these things are, one would be better to question what these things could be by the rest of their understanding. For instance, if you believe that there are people who already repented so that they need to have no further repentance at the moment, then you might assume that is who he was talking about. Other passages focus more on the universal need for repentance, and so we can rule out people who never needed to repent, though not from the text itself.

These verses are there to show to the Pharisees, who thought they were righteous, that their state, even if it were so, is not better than those who are indeed lost but then found. The final account in this passage is the Prodigal Son, which is a rebuke of the Pharisees who only thought they were already righteous sons, but who Christ shows that they should be rejoicing in the return of the sinning brothers. It seems to me that Christ, in his diplomatic way, was not attempting to focus on whether there actually were some righteous people, avoiding condemning or confirming the Pharisees, but on the fact that being found would be even more of a cause for rejoicing.

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Luke 1:5-6 (DRB)

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. 6 And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame.

In Luke (and as he records the words of Jesus, Jesus also), being blameless (i.e. without need for repentance) is relative, not absolute. That is, they are more righteous than they are sinners, marked by holiness of life. We might assume that this unqualified but relative 'blamelessness' refers to someone who makes an effort in their life specifically not to sin (over and against the 'lazy' spiritual life), to the end that they actually do sin in relatively minor matters.

Compare with Job, for example:

Job 1:1-31:1-4 (DRB) There was a man in the land of Hus, whose name was Job, and that man was simple and upright, and fearing God, and avoiding evil. ... 1 I made a covenant with my eyes, that I would not so much as think upon a virgin. 2 For what part should God from above have in me, and what inheritance the Almighty from on high? 3 Is not destruction to the wicked, and aversion to them that work iniquity? 4 Doth not he consider my ways, and number all my steps?

Job wasn't literally sinless, but he was markedly concerned with not offending God (cf. e.g. Job 1:4-5 where even in case his children sin, he made sacrifices for them), something for which he is rightly called 'upright,' i.e. not a 'sinner' (even if everyone sins in at least minor ways).

Consider also that "sinner" and "one who has not need of repentance" are in parallel, and specifically juxtaposition. This necessitates that "one who has not need of repentance" is the inverse of "sinner" in some real sense (I suggest the relative, qualified sense described above).

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Mark sheds some light on the parable of the lost sheep in Luke.

Mark 2:15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In both Luke and Mark, the context is the righteous Pharisees vs. tax collectors and sinners. Here, we have to be careful about these labels: righteous and sinners. For the discussion of the parables, these are just handy labels to distinguish two different types of professionals. It does not mean that Pharisees are not sinners in real life.

In Luke, Jesus distinguished between the ninety-nine righteous persons against one who was lost.

In Mark, Jesus distinguished between the healthy from the sick.

In his gracious way, Jesus diplomatically associated the Pharisee professionals as healthy people who knows the righteous laws of Moses. The tax collectors and sinners were professionals who were sick and lost and needed to be taught the law of love.

The parable of the lost sheep is also found in Matthew 18

12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? 13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices more over that one sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Here the lost sheep is a little child while the 99 didn't wander off.

Luke 15:7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.

To directly answer the excellent OP question, the ninety-nine righteous people symbolically represents those who know the Law and healthy and do not need to repent. Jesus was being extremely nice here to the Pharisees in this parable. However, they were not the focus. The focus was the lost one.

Besides the professions of Pharisee and tax collector, there was a third profession: the doctor. Jesus, the doctor, wanted to focus on healing the tax collectors at this point of His ministry. Later on, he would deal with the bad practices of the Pharisees confrontationally without any indirect parables.

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Translation & Exegetical Issue

The lack of a comma may have been the cause of confusion. Of course, needless to say, there is no comma in the ancient Greek manuscripts. It is only a matter of exegesis/translation, that we would articulate the clause as essential or non-essential.

The righteous, by definition, need no repentance, they are already righteous and pure. Only the sinners need repentance, as the passage contrasts the sinners with the righteous. The punctuation or comma functions to mark the relative clause as non-restrictive. The need for repentance is a non-essential quality of the righteous, it is merely additional information. It can be removed or broken as a separate clause, without affecting the meaning of the sentence: "righteous persons".

Almost all new versions are interpreting the relative of clause (of repentance) restrictively. The New versions imply that this information acts restrictively, and is essential to identify these 99 righteous. In other words, there may be other righteous who do need repentance, according to the new versions. This contradicts the very definition of righteousness.

ESV; NASB: ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance
NIV: ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent
NLT: ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away
RSV: ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
NET: ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.

Compare the couple of correct translations:

ASV: I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.
YLT: ninety-nine righteous men, who have no need of reformation.

What Is a Non-restrictive Clause?

A non-restrictive clause is a clause that provides additional, non-essential information. In other words, a non-restrictive clause is not needed to identify the word it modifies, i.e., it's just bonus information. As a non-restrictive clause is not essential to the meaning of a sentence, it is offset with commas (or some other parenthetical punctuation such as dashes).

Here is another example of a non-restrictive clause.

  • Peter Jones , who plays goalkeeper for our village football team, has worked at his father's greengrocers for twenty years. (The shaded text is a non-restrictive clause. It describes "Peter Jones," but it does not identify him. It is merely additional information about him. Deleting this clause would not affect the meaning.)

Non-restrictive clauses contrast with restrictive clauses. Look at this example of a restrictive clause:

  • The man who plays goalkeeper for our village football team has worked at his father's greengrocers for twenty years. (The bold text is a restrictive clause. It describes "the man," and it identifies him. It is not just additional information. It is essential for meaning.)

I doubt the error in the New versions may have been due to grammatical ignorance of their editors, though it could certainly have been caused by the inclination towards the amoral/relativistic doctrine of nominal-morality, which is a denial of moral realism. In this view, men are not really righteous or sinners; but these labels are forensic, pertaining to mere formality, and may even contradict reality. In other words, some people can be counted righteous (by God) in spite of actually being sinners.

I saw this example in An Analysis of the Attributive Participle and the Relative Clause in the Greek New Testament (Michael Hayes, 2018). There is another example of Romans 11:2a: God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Where some new versions like NIV, CEB, LEB have placed a comma after people, making the clause nonrestrictive. "Whom he foreknew" does not identify the "people" Paul is talking about; rather, it explains why God remains faithful to that people.

The problem we aim to address consists of a lack of clarity concerning how rightly to interpret certain adjectival clauses (both attributive participles and relative clauses). For example, the exegete/translator has some decisions to make with the relative clause in Rom 11:2a: οὐκ ἀπώσατο ὁ θεὸς τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ὃν προέγνω. The NIV translates the clause, "God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew," while the ESV translates the clause, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew." By placing the comma after people, the NIV seems to be saying something additional about God's people. That is, God did not reject all of his people, and by the way, he foreknew all his people. The ESV, however, by not placing the comma after people, seems to be saying that God may have rejected some of his people, but the ones he foreknew, a subset of all of his people, those he did not reject. So, did God not reject all of his people or did he not reject only a remnant of them?

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Maybe the Pharisees, who claimed themselves to be righteous, thought righteous people don't need to repent. Jesus is saying that his saving sinners is good and praise worthy, whereas the Pharisees see sinners as lowly and therefore can't see the value of their repentance and salvation.

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