‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father.
– Luke 15.17-20
There’s a time and a place to focus on our sin and the realisation that we need to repent. Repentance is more than simply feeling guilty, sitting around and seeing what happens. As we see with the Prodigal Son, repentance requires action.
In his case, his action has two components: he has sin he needs to repent of, against his Father and against heaven; and there’s the need to change his circumstance, he has no resources and he’s starving to death.
There’s no rule which says that every sin which we repent of has these two aspects, but generally speaking it’s probably fair enough. Let’s expand on them slightly.
1) Relational Change
One way of talking about faith and theology which is (and has been for a while) fashionable in both the pews and the academy is to speak of God, and therefore of us humans who are made in his image, as being relational.
This means that God is understood as being the relationships which make up who he is as one God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It means that the purpose of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is to restore a broken relationship between us and God (in particular, our Heavenly Father – with whom we have this relationship by the presence of the Holy Spirit who unites us with Jesus Christ his Son). When we think about humans being relational we’re thinking about humans being defined by three basic relational categories: our personal relationship with God, our personal relationships with other people (friends, families, work colleagues etc.), and our relationship to creation (whether it be through whether we litter, or take care of our pets, or our participation in acts of more global implications such as using fossil fuels).
Sin, then, is generally talked about as damaging these relationships. In the case of the Prodigal Son he recognises that he has damaged his relationship with heaven (first, interestingly) and with his Father. His relationship with his Father has been damaged ever since he said ‘Dad, I wish you were dead‘. And his relationship with heaven has been damaged by his wild living, by his abandoning of his Jewish heritage and following the Law, going so far as to work with the religiously unclean pigs.
2) Circumstantial Change
Circumstances are essentially formed of two things: those we can influence, and those we can’t.
The things we can’t influence include things such as our race, our nationality, who our parents are and when we are born. These are all things we have no control over and as such are not our fault. Some of these things may well impact the things we can influence.
The things we can influence: our behaviour, our actions. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Some of our actions are conditional on things which we have no control over. For instance, where you are born or live impacts the quality of the education you receive.
It is not for us to decide which time or circumstances we find ourselves in. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time which we are given.
Our actions have consequences, and some of these consequences are fortunate and others less so. Through our actions, we can change and influence our circumstances.
The Prodigal Son finds that the result of his sin against his Father is the change in his circumstances. First he has the high life, then he finds himself, literally, in a pig sty.
I’ve called these two elements ‘change’, because these things are not fixed. Relationships can change. A friendship can grow and become a romantic relationship and even become a marriage. A child starts off as entirely dependant on their parents and as they grow and become more independent the dynamic changes – in the case of the Prodigal Son, that change was not a positive one. Circumstances can also change, there are things beyond our control but even within our control we can still change our circumstances drastically.
When the Prodigal Son finds himself feeding the pigs and starving to death, he comes to his senses and realises that his circumstances are the product of his damaged relationships with God and his Father. He becomes acutely aware that he needs to repent but he is also aware that it is beyond his influence to return as a Son to his Father, all he can do is appeal to him to hire him as a worker. However, he says to himself: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
Instead of just sitting in the slop with the Pigs and dreaming of an idealised alternative,
the Prodigal Son ‘got up and went to his Father’.