I read an incredible story in the Washington Post. A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.
It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance. Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.
We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.
I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.
Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:
2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.
2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.
So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.
What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!
He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.
This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:
What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.
The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.
In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.