Last week, we visited this text in Luke 15, where Jesus uses parables, and particularly, this parable of the prodigal son, to emphasize our relationships to the Father, God, and to our fellow believers, the Father’s family. Our visit then, focused more on the older son; our focus today will be on the younger son… the one that walked away, and eventually, repented and returned.
Let me start with a definition of repentance. It is one of those words that we all would probably claim to know the meaning of. Yet, I have found it hard to give a definition, and I suspect I’m not the only one. So… I looked it up.
Repentance comes from the Greek word METANOEô which means literally “to perceive afterwards, … in contrast to pronoeô, to perceive beforehand, hence METANOEô signifies to change one’s mind or purpose… involving a change for the better…and …of repentance from sin.”
The best definition I have found wasn’t in a dictionary, it was in story in Leadership Journal. There, Brian Weatherdon, tells how:
Even I can understand that. Repentance is like I’m going one direction and then realize I’m going the wrong way and so I turn completely around and face the other direction. And start moving away from my previous destination.
So that’s repentance. But turning around can be hard. Just think back (or ahead) to your driver’s license exam. And the three-point turn. It’s not always quick and easy. And if you happen to be in a big vehicle, say a school bus or a semi, and on a small road, say one made of dirt, it takes a lot of time and careful deliberation and consideration of what will happen if I turn this way or angle the wheels that way. And it requires a complete, 180° turn. You cannot go both ways. And you cannot stop halfway through the turn-around.
Sandwiched in the middle of this parable, Jesus tells of the process of how the prodigal son came to repentance… and had a homecoming with his father’s family. And I believe the principles of repentance are included there for our benefit as well.
First, how does this repentance start? The prodigal son has been heading down the road of sin and separation from the family. The more time that passes, the more things turn sour. He finally realizes he’s on the wrong road. How? What was the occasion that caused him to realize this was the wrong road? It wasn’t running out of money and it wasn’t the famine. Jesus tells us that “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.” But still he didn’t want to leave the independent life he had chosen. He still thought he could take care of the problems all on his own. He did want not feel he needed his father’s help nor counsel. The next verse tells us his response to his new poverty and the famine: “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country.”
How many times do we, the people who claim Jesus Christ as our Savior, how many times do we struggle on in a desperate situation and remain convinced that we don’t need help? And all the while, Jesus is ready to help and waiting patiently until we are ready to allow him to help us.
How many times, especially as parents, do we see our children trying so hard to accomplish something, and we can see that they are not going to be successful, but they are convinced they can do it on their own. And even if we offer to help, they adamantly refuse. You cannot help someone who is convinced they do not need help.
But we don’t need to throw up our hands in despair, for where there is life, there is hope. The grace of God can soften the hardest heart. But we have to come to that frustration moment when we cry out in desperation.
I remember as a child being so intent that I could do something that I would become almost obsessed with it. One time in particular comes to mind, when I was probably about eight years old and I wanted to find out how this mechanical type toy of my little brother’s worked. I remember intently working on that thing, removing screws, springs, gizmos, and gadgets in order to find out how it did what it did. When I got it all apart, it still didn’t make much sense to me. Well, I couldn’t put it back together properly. There were more springs to put back in than what I remembered taking out. And there weren’t enough holes for all the screws I had. I tried and tried and tried. And became more and more frustrated and angry and teary eyed… and scared that my folks would find out.
I was just like that prodigal son headed down the wrong road and didn’t know it. My error began when I decided I was going to secretly do something I knew was wrong. But all the way through the tearing apart process, I wasn’t worried, nor afraid. I was convinced I could take care of any problem and still fix everything like it was supposed to be…as does this prodigal as well.
He runs out of money and he’s still convinced he’s OK. He encounters a famine and runs out of food and he’s still convinced he’s OK. It wasn’t until he had to wallow with pigs and found that NO ONE was willing to help, that he realizes there’s a problem. Just like I didn’t realize that I had a problem, until I tried to put that dumb toy back together.
The prodigal’s desperate situation causes him to begin examining his situation and considering the options. THAT’S when we begin to change. When we consider how bad our situation is and how much better it could be if we repented and returned to the family.
Notice in verse 17, he doesn’t start considering his return because he’s hungry. It’s because, as the King James says: “I perish with hunger.” He’s not just hungry. He’s hungry and no longer sees any way of changing that situation. That’s when he remembers his father’s house and how he had had it good there, although he hadn’t realized it at the time.
What follows in the next three verses is the crux of my message this morning. It follows the boy’s train of thought from the moment where he realizes that there is a place where he wouldn’t have to live in such a bad situation to where he decides to return to his father’s house.
Look with me at verses 17-19 in Luke 15:
14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
20 “So he returned home to his father.
The King James Version puts the boy’s decision like this: “I will arise and go to my father.” He will not spend any longer in this deplorable condition, but will immediately arise and return. Even though he’s in a far country, a long way away from his father’s house, yet he will return. When we walk away from our Father’s house, and our heavenly family, we too will find that there are many long walks ahead before we undo the damage we’ve done.
The son begins to determine what to say and how to approach the father when he gets back. Let’s look at what he purposed in his heart to say:
“Father, I have sinned…”
The first step after we recognize our need to return to the family and the father, is to admit that we have sinned. Without that confession, no matter how much we try, we will not be able to return. And we will be stuck in our sin, even though we won’t admit it. And we’ll pay the consequences.
But the son doesn’t stop there. He says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He not only admits he has sinned, he acknowledges that he has sinned against his father and against God. It is important to remember that when we offend someone else, or treat them wrong, we are also sinning against God.
Next, this son acknowledges that by his own choice, he has forfeited any right to the privileges of the family. Verse 19 reads: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” He had already demanded, and received, all the portion of the inheritance that would rightfully belong to him. To return does not guarantee that he will receive more of the same. But he hopes that he can at least serve his father as a hired man for no reward other than his daily provisions.
And, still, the story of his repentance is not finished.
He has finally realized, through his frustration and anguish, that he needs to repent and return to the father. Then he purposes what he needs to do. And then, in the beginning of verse 20, he finally does it: “So he got up and went to his father. “
So many times we make a decision to respond to the Lord in one way or another, but then don’t ever quite get around to actually doing what he’s asked us to do. Unlike us, this prodigal decides what he’ll do, and then gets up and does it right away.
And the father, while the prodigal is still far off, sees him coming and runs to meet him. God, our Father, as soon as we start back to the family, runs to meet us and welcome us home as well. And as the story continues, not only is there provision for the son, there is a feast as well.
When we first addressed this parable last week, we emphasized the fact that this boy was already a member of the family before he walked away from it all into his sin. And we spoke of how there are many of us in the Christian family, and even in our local church family, who have, by their own choice, chosen to walk away from both God and the family of God.
I want to stress that. Because the whole turn around in this story today, is not limited to sinners who have never known the Lord. They cannot remember how great it was in the Father’s house, because they’ve never been to the Father’s house; Never known the Father; Never eaten at the Father’s table.
There’s still a need for non-Christians to repent, and they too must realize their need, confess their sin, and go to the Lord. But this story is an even stronger message for those of us who are already in the family. Because we may come to the place sometime where we feel we want to walk away from the family, because of whatever imagined reason. And, according to what this story seems to say, God the Father will let us go and do what we want. And will let us reap the rewards and consequences of sin. And will allow us to rot and starve in a far away land until we, like that prodigal, acknowledge that we need the Father, and the Father’s household, and then confess our sins and return to the family.
And, according to statistics, there are many of us in Christianity that have already walked away, even though we are still in the pews on a lot of Sundays. Leadership magazine quotes George Gallup, the famous pollster as saying, “There’s little difference in… behavior between the churched and the unchurched. There’s as much pilferage and dishonesty among the churched as the unchurched.”
How many of us have already hired our souls out to evil in a far country, far from the spiritual realm of the Father and the Father’s house? How many of us say we believe this and that, but yet, our hearts are full of the pleasures of sin and the telltale signs of bitterness, anger, judgmentalism, and hatred?
We need to willingly return to the Father and the family, BEFORE we face afflictions, or it becomes too late.
For the Father is just waiting for us to turn around so that he can welcome us for our coming home.