The gospel reading for this Sunday raises difficult questions around repentance and judgement. Anyone who has any knowledge of the Bible at all will be aware that it is populated from beginning to end by bad characters who are pressed into God’s service to do great things. The mighty theme of the Scriptures is God’s continual overriding of our failures to accomplish the divine purpose for good. Bad characters are the only kind of characters God has to work with; there are X marks over against everybody in one column or another. Human frailty cannot prevent God from recapturing the world that he loves. “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord to his disobedient people, “Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

So, fellow bad characters, there is absolutely nothing that you can do that is so terrible that God cannot overcome it. God’s purpose toward you is gracious. God’s purpose toward you is merciful. God’ purpose toward you is unconditionally loving. That is the foundation on which we stand.

That said, there are many passages in Scripture that portray God as judge, God as arbiter of good and ill. What see in these passages is that in a thousand different ways God’s judgement is an instrument of divine mercy. Judgement does not mean everlasting condemnation, as we are conditioned to think. It means a course correction in the direction of salvation. Wise parents have always known this. Rebuking a child, correcting a child in the context of unconditional love is an action taken for the child’s health. Permitting a child anything and everything is harmful to that child’s development.

“Never explain,” goes the saying attributed to the Duke of Wellington, “Never apologize.” The famous first line of the novel Love Story goes, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Never was there worse advice. Confession of wrongdoings lies at the very heart of Christian faith. People who can acknowledge their sins and repent are people after the Lord’s own heart. There is nothing God loves more than a repentant sinner. Jesus, in so many of his parables and actions, definitively demonstrated God’s special welcome for the penitent.

In the first few verses of Luke 13, Jesus points out rather bluntly that it is easy to point the finger at someone else. What really counts in the Christian life is the capacity for looking into one’s own heart and discerning the sin that lies embedded there. What really makes the difference in human relationships is a readiness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness. It is not a weakness to acknowledge that one has been wrong; it is a sign of strength. The parable in Luke 13:6-9 affirms that there is a second chance. Repentance – a deep change of heart – is the royal road to redemption and new life, life that bears fruit.