This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C: the Prodigal Son. The parable offers that the father has extended unconditional forgiveness to both sons prior to their repentance. What then does this say about the fuller meaning of repentance?
The parable of the Lost Sheep ends with: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” The parable of the Lost Coin ends with: “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Taken at face value, the idea of a sheep repenting is only slightly less absurd than the idea of a coin repenting.
Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p.167) suggests “The only possible action in this story that could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found. Jensen goes on to write, “Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own “lostness.” [p. 169]. He points this out specifically in the case of the prodigal son: “The father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace. The son accepts. He repents: he accepts being found!” [p. 175]
If we take the meaning of repentance/metanoeo as “to change one’s mind,” then it seems that Jensen is suggesting that the object of “changing one’s mind” is not a generalized view of things – although that is good and helpful – but rather one’s understanding of one’s relation to the other is changed. The moment of repentance is not the prodigal son’s speech of vv.18-19, but the action of the father in restoring him to sonship and the prodigal son’s acceptance of that state.
Brian Stoffregen notes that “A slightly different image of repentance might be noted when one realizes that what was lost originally belonged to the owner/father from the start. Repentance, then, might be understood as the restoration of a lost relationship, rather than the creation of a relationship that never existed before. I wonder how this applies to evangelism which frequently assumes that the “lost” are people who have no relationship with God. Should [our] starting point be that God, as Creator, has established a relationship with all people? Or that Christ’s death and resurrection establishes a relationship with all sinners?”
In such a dynamic of repentance, joy is an appropriate response. And such is Luke’s message: “Rejoice with me” (sygchairo vv. 6 & 9). This emotion is written large throughout the entire chapter: cf. chairo = “rejoice” in vv. 15:5, 32; chara = “joy” in vv. 15:7, 10; and euphraino = “rejoice, celebrate” in 15:23, 24, 29, 32. Joy is the emotion of repentance! The Pharisees and scribes in the introduction will not rejoice with Jesus over the sinners who eat with him. Instead they criticize. The older son will not rejoice; he criticizes.
In a sense all three parables end with unanswered questions: Will the friends and neighbors of the shepherd rejoice with him? Will the friends and neighbors of the woman rejoice with her? Will the older son rejoice with his father who eats with his son? Often the point of a parable is the unanswered question which the hearer is left to answer. Will we rejoice with the heavenly host over sinners being found and repenting?
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 298) expands this thought and perhaps suggests another aspect of “repentance” (metanoeo = literally, “to change one’s way of thinking”) required in these parables:
Neither sheep nor coins can repent, but the parable aims not at calling the “sinners” to repentance but at calling the “righteous” to join the celebration. Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God’s grace. (cited in Stoffregen)
If one refuses to join our Father in heaven with all the angels in rejoicing, then we are in need of repentance. If we insist on reward for our obedience and righteousness, we need only remember that God does not commend the righteous for what they ought to be in the first place. Nor has he criticized their standards. When God reaches out to those we consider in need of repentance, what God expects of us is that we share His joy over what was once lost but now found. That we set aside bread, water, ashes, sackcloth, tears, and prostration for the fatted calf, the finest robes and rings, music and dancing, and the celebration of joy. Quite the Lenten image, heh?