In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus paints a compelling picture of the character of God. A simple story can sometimes communicate more effectively than a detailed theological analysis. There’s so much here – the folly of sin, the father’s love, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. I think that if I had to choose, this would be my favourite parable. Perhaps my favourite story of all time.
It illustrates well the meaning of repentance. The Greek word is metanoia which means to change your mind. Turning round and heading back home to God. We have become accustomed to thinking of repentance and forgiveness as instantaneous things. But that is not what we see here.
In fact, the son had a long walk home. He had taken his journey to a far country, and now, broke and broken, his only way back was to walk. Repentance begins when he says “I will arise and go to my father.” But all the way home he apparently had no assurance of forgiveness and restoration. He had prepared a speech pleading to be given at least the place of hired servant.
It also strikes me that the father had forgiven him long before he saw him trudging over the hill. “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and ran to him.” He’d been watching and longing for this day. It’s not that God only forgives us when we come asking for forgiveness – he has forgiven us, but we have to choose to head back home. And in one sense, heading back to home to God is a lifelong process.
When he got home, everything was not just OK in an instant either. He came back dishevelled, smelly and dirty. He was malnourished and perhaps in poor health. Maybe he had a scar or two or a broken nose from getting into bar-room brawls – despite being forgiven, those would always be with him. And there were other issues too, such as mending the relationship with his elder brother. Anyone coming to God in repentance will have “issues”.
Finding faith is a beginning not an ending. There was unconditional reconciliation with the father in an instant. There was no question of being treated as a hired servant – he was a son. But the cleanup and the healing would take time.