Unfortunately, the word “repentance” has negative associations for some people.
Christianity is supposed to be uplifting. Christianity is supposed to be a celebration of God’s grace and love, a celebration of God’s abundance. Christianity reminds us that we are beloved children of God, created in God’s own image and likeness. Our faith should inspire us. Our faith should fill us with faith and hope for God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace and justice and love. As our Presiding Bishop says, Christianity is all about God’s dream for our world, for the world that God is bringing about, for the world that God invites us to help bring about.
And then there is the call to repent, which can seem so negative, so depressing, so contrary to true joy and hope. When my family and I went to New York City after Christmas last year, we wandered through Times Square. It was packed with people having a good time. And in the middle of the Square stood a man holding a sign telling us all to repent or face God’s judgment. Who wants that?
But rightly understood, repentance does not have to be depressing. We can repent with joy because repentance means turning to God.
Repentance begins with the recognition that we have turned away from God somehow, that instead of moving towards God, we are moving in the opposite direction. And so we repent. We turn around. We turn back towards God.
That is what we see in the parable of the prodigal son.
The younger son claims his inheritance, leaves home, and travels to a distant country. That is a move away from his father, who represents God. That is bad.
While in the distant country, the prodigal son squanders everything in dissolute living. Jesus does not elaborate. No doubt the younger son does the kind of things we normally think of when we think of sin, things like wine, women, and song.
But dissolute living is not the real problem for this young man. Dissolute living is a symptom of the real problem. The real problem, the root of everything else that goes wrong for this young man, is that he has turned away from his father. And the solution to that problem is to turn back around, to return to his father. That is repentance, that turn back to God when we have been moving away.
Jesus tells us that the young man “came to himself.” That is part of repentance. The young man had forgotten who he was. The young man had forgotten that he was a beloved child of his father. But now he remembers. That is why he turns around and begins the long journey home.
The young man remembers who he is, but he still has more to learn about his father. The young man is so focused on the bad choices he has made, the bad things he has done, that he assumes his father will be too angry to ever really forgive him, to ever really take him back. So he plans to say to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
The young man is right, of course. He really has sinned. He really has acted in a way that is not worthy of his father’s love.
But he does not understand the depth of his father’s love, and that makes all the difference.
“While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The son has not yet said anything. He has not had a chance. The son has not even made it all the way home yet. All he has done so far is turn around and start back towards his father. And already he is experiencing is father’s love.
The son launches into his rehearsed confession about how he is not worthy. And here is the key point: the father has no interest in hearing any of it. The father does not ask about all that dissolute living. The father does not reprimand him for having gone away in the first place. The father does not demote the son to the status of a servant. The father does not even ask for an apology. Instead, the father throws a party.
This is REALLY good news. God is not sitting up in heaven steaming about how many rotten things we do. God does not expect us to sit down and list every bad choice we have made before God will even consider forgiving us.
Sin, the root sin from which all our particular sins come, is turning our backs on God. Repentance is turning back around, coming face to face with God. And the good news of our parable is that, despite our unworthiness, God is waiting for us with open arms. God is waiting to take us back as beloved children. God is waiting to throw a party to celebrate our return.
In the terms of our parable, repentance is turning from the pig sty to the party, from dissolute living that can never really satisfy us to the abundance of God’s love that does give us everything we need. Repentance is about coming home and being welcomed in love.
We should be sorry for the bad things we have done and the good things we have left undone. But we repent with joy because we are putting our sin behind us so that we can go to God’s party.
This is where the eldest son totally misses the point. The eldest son refuses to go to the party. The eldest son believes that his prodigal brother does not deserve a party. He is right about that.
But the elder son is wrong at a much deeper level. The elder son seems to think that life with the father is just a dreary round of chores. It is as if the elder son wished that he, too, could have gone away. The elder son is more dutiful than his irresponsible brother, but he, too, has turned his back on his father. He, too, has ignored his father’s love. And that sin, the self-righteousness of the dutiful son, may be even harder to overcome than the more obvious sin of his younger brother.
The father—God—tries to enlighten him. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
We do not know how either son responded to the father’s love. Could the younger son let go of his guilt and bask in the undeserved glow of his father’s love? That is harder than it sounds. Could the elder son let go of his self-righteousness, his sense of entitlement, and bask in the warmth of his reunited family? That is hard, too.
And those are our questions. Can we turn away from our dissolute living? Can we turn away from our self-righteousness? Can we repent? Can we turn back to God? Can we enter into the fullness of God’s forgiveness and love and joy?
The season of Lent is one big invitation to repent. And the goal of all that repentance is to experience God’s love with a new power. My prayer is that we can accept that invitation with the great joy it deserves.
In the name on Christ, who invites us to know the love of our Father God. Amen.
Passage: Luke 15:11-32