“But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ So he got up and came to his father.” (Luke 15:17-20 NASB)
In the previous two parables, someone searches diligently until they find what was lost; shepherd for sheep, woman for a coin. But in this parable the father remains at home looking at the horizon. In the previous two parables, the rejoicing at having found what was lost was to illustrate the rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. In the third parable, the change in the younger son describes repentance.
I have been asked what repentance is, what it looks like and and so on. Normally people refer to the word “turn” or “return” with repentance when that is the least common word used for it in Scripture. The most common word used is a “change of mind”. This meaning is the least common explanation of repentance. The repentance of the younger son didn’t happen on the way back. That would simply be return. The repentance of the younger son happened in the far country.
“But, having come into himself…” doesn’t use the word, “afterthought”, but it does describe it. He was thinking one way, living one way, seeing things one way, and suddenly stops. He comes to himself. There’s a part of him that “wakes up” as if from day dreaming. That’s the first part of repentance.
The younger son, having come into himself, then takes honest stock of his circumstances compared with what he has known. Not the wasteful living he has known, but the life he has known with his father. He compares his circumstances with those of his fathers field workers. He’s actually worse off than they are.
Keep in mind that his assessment is a comparison with the results of his choices versus the circumstances of his life with the father. This parable presupposes an experience with the father with which to compare current circumstances. In other words, for the popular understanding of repentance, he had something to return to; it is going back to something once possessed and enjoyed. This is going to have meaning for us as we apply this concept to any evangelistic endeavor.
The younger son then comes up with an apology. He will go back and ask to be a hired person. This is the humbling part of the process, the part where we acknowledge we are entitled to nothing. That’s difficult for us as people. Regardless of culture, we have this concept of entitlement of one sort or another. But repentance brings us to a place where we renounce any entitlement.
Finally, the younger son stood up and went back. This is the final part of a process that included much more. We’d love to skip to this part, and return to the robe and ring and sandals and veal without honesty and humility. Then, when the robe, ring, and veal are missing from our “return” we are upset with the results, thinking we did our part, where’s God’s part? Repentance cannot simply be a return. It must be a process of changing how we think about what we did and do.
Having been in a 12-step program for years, I described the program to those outside and inside as a spiritual discipline of repentance. I got a lot of confused stares doing that. I was okay with such a response. I still believe it is a spiritual discipline of repentance. And to an extent, I still follow those tenants. The program systematized repentance so people had steps to follow instead of a word to figure out. And it also brilliantly illustrates how difficult the process can be.
So this is what I learn from the parable of the lost son, or one of the things. What do you learn?