Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Nature of Repentance


This Sunday's gospel is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Actually, I don't like that title because it focuses on only a third of the story, but that's another post for another day.) Unlike some Sundays, when the gospel lesson is largely unfamiliar to the congregation, I feel an invitation to dive right into the theological depths of the passage. I don't need to spend any time trying to explain what Jesus was trying to say. We know what he was saying. We get that the younger son is shameful and that the father is unbelievably forgiving and that the older son has a hard time understanding that. So we can quickly move past all of that and ask the really tough questions like "Does God love axe murderers and terrorists the same whether they repent or not?" and "Is reconciliation a product of repentance, or does repentance only follow when reconciliation is already implied?" Yeah, it's a fun kind of Sunday.

Earlier this week, I focused in detail on the father's interactions with the older son. I looked at some of the language from their dialogue and noted how the father described the celebration thrown for the prodigal as necessary. Today, I want to switch back to earlier in the passage and look in detail at the younger son before, during, and after he is reconciled to his father.

Let's start with verse 17: "But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!" I love the image of coming to one's self. As if snapping out of a daze and in a moment assessing one's circumstance, one suddenly realizes exactly what's going on and asks, "What the hell happened?" I feel that. I identify with that. The son came to himself. Poor, starving, and feeding pigs the pods he would gladly have eaten, suddenly the son "came to himself." And who is "himself?" He is the (former) son of a farmer--a man with enough resources to employ him as a hired hand. Consider how much revelation is happening there.

The son first recognizes the ridiculousness of his circumstance. "Why am I here when I could be somewhere else?" He also remembers to whom he belongs--even if that relationship is over. "I have a father who has hired hands." And he also recognizes that things aren't the same. He knows that he cannot go back and resume the position of a son. He has asked for his inheritance and has exhausted it. He has no more legal claim of inheritance, nor does he have any claim to the relationship of father and son. Verses 18 and 19 complete the thought: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'" All of that recognition in that epiphanic moment of trouble.

But what makes that possible? The return of the prodigal son is itself an act of repentance. Even before he reaches his father--before he utters even a word--the first footstep back toward home is an act of repentance. And what enables that first step? I find it remarkable that he would assume his father would hire him on as a farmhand. Considering the shame he has brought both on himself and on his family, I am amazed that he doesn't just allow himself to starve to death in a foreign land. What sort of father would even accept him back under those terms? Yet the promise of that acceptance--its own form of forgiveness--makes it possible for him to return. If he expected to be rejected by his father, he would not come. And so, in no small way, it is indeed the father's love and the son's confidence in that love that enable repentance in the first place. Of course, when the son arrives to make his humble confession, he is surprised to discover that his place in the family has been restored--not a product of his repentance but an expression of the father's love.

I'm looking forward to Sunday. I'm not looking forward to trying to pare down this sermon. The ideas I stuck in a box to germinate earlier this week have mushroomed and become too big for one sermon. It must be cut back, but that's the joy of a text like this.

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