Because we heard the Parable Commonly Known As "The Prodigal Son" this weekend, I've been thinking about repentance more than I usually do. Especially I've been thinking about the whole argument about whether the younger son was "repentant" or not, when he returned home. So, I thought I'd clear up a few common misconceptions about repentance.
1. Repentance is primarily about how you feel.
Actually, the word repentance means "to change your mind." It doesn't mean "to feel really sorry or guilty." Certainly, we may experience a deep sorry associated with the act of repentance. There also might be a deep joy about it. But what's more important is change. To repent is to change your mind, to change your direction, to turn around. A lot of the conversation about whether the younger son "repented" or not has to do with whether he turned around and went home out of genuine sorrow, or if he was just hungry and thought he would get a better deal from dad. Was the big speech he practiced the way he really felt, or was he just reciting a speech?
What if it's not that important how he felt? What if what's most important is that he just went home?
2. Repentance is a dramatic, life-changing event.
You know, it's the one moment, when your whole life turned around and you saw things differently and you were never the same again, ever, after that. It's like conversion, similar to a conversion experience.
We like to think that life works that way. It would be simple if there was one flash of insight, one moment where we turned around, and then, after that, everything was different, forever and ever. amen. But actually, repentance is a daily event, at least, in Lutheran terms. Martin Luther, in the small catechism, called repentance a daily return to our baptism, a daily dying to sin and rising to new life. Daily we turn away from sin, from our illusions that we can make it on our own, from our self-absorption. Daily we rise to trust the promises of God, and the identity that God has given us. If there is one moment, it is the moment that God claimed us, the moment God threw his arms around us, not the moment we saw the light. Because the truth is, we need to see the light again, and again, and again.
So, it matters more what happens every day after the younger son returns home, and learns to live in his father's house than what happened in that one moment. Every day does he return to that moment when his father embraced him?
3. You have to repent in order to get forgiven.
If this statement were true, the relationship between God and us would be a transaction. If you repent, then you will be forgiven. Those are the rules.
Instead, the opposite is true. We repent because we have been forgiven. When we hear God's words of forgiveness, and new life, we turn toward that promise, and at the same time turn away from the old life. God has already promised to set us free, to give us life, to feed us, to heal us, to never let us go. Again and again we turn toward this promise.
I'm thinking about the two sons again: the prodigal and his bitter older brother. We know the prodigal returned home, whether he "felt sorry" or not. He went in to the party prepared for him, where day after day he would experience the presence of his father. If the older son did, finally, decide to take his father's invitation and come to the party, maybe he would come in grudgingly. Maybe he would come in to the party with a chip on his shoulder, saying, "dad always liked you best." But still, he would be in his father's presence, and maybe that's the point.
Maybe it is really true, after all, that we are being changed, from one degree of glory into another. We are turning, and turning around, daily astonished by the love of God, happy and sad and amazed all at the same time.