Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.
Our culture has added a lot of things to the meaning of the word "repentance," most of which seem to focus on tears, wailing and expressions of shame and humiliation.
The Hebrew word we usually translate "repent" doesn't have much to do with any of those things. It's much more closely related to the idea of a traveler figuring out that he or she has been on the wrong path and then turning around to head in the right direction. In modern times, it might be like realizing you're on the wrong highway or maybe the wrong airplane. No matter how nice the road or how comfortable the seats, you'll still wind up in the wrong place.
When we look at the younger son in the story of the prodigal, we see him live a lifestyle that values himself and his own desires more than anything else. He doesn't value his father, just the stuff he will get when his father dies. And having received it, he gets as far away from home as he can and then starts the party. The very proper Luke simply says he spent it in asotos living, which gets translated "loose," "dissolute" or "riotous" depending on which version you read. Even if we don't know the details, we can gather that he spends it on whatever pleasure he wanst at the moment. His god was not just himself, but his own desires; Paul would say it was his belly or appetite like the people he warns against in Philippians 3:19.
But he finds this lifestyle a dead end, because when he has no more money he has no more friends, and when the famine hits he's stuck feeding pigs and thinking about how much ketchup he might need to choke down what he's giving them. So he decides to return home, reasoning that if he's going to be a hired worker, he's going to be one where the wages are better and where he might have a chance to repay his father and repair some of the damage he's done.
Such a change would be a complete reorientation of his life -- he would no longer have the guaranteed roof and meals that a relative or even a household servant received, but his living would depend on how much extra work there was to do around the estate. He would have to find his own place to live and buy his own food, and once he's done that he plans to use the small leftover amount to eventually pay back his father for all the money he wasted. He's been focused entirely on himself, but he now plans to live a life focused totally on his father. He has repented of his wrongs in a very real way.
Did you ever wonder why the son thought this would work? Why did he think his father would accept his return, even as just a hired worker rather than as a son? He knew he'd wronged his father and he knew the customs of his society demanded he be held accountable for the loss of family honor. He knew that one way the father could restore than honor would be to refuse to have anything to do with him. In fact, when he made his request the standard response of a family patriarch in his society would have been five across the eyes and a very colorful suggestion to get out of the house, both repeated as needed, so the story listeners would have had every reason to expect the father to reject the younger son's request to return.
The father hadn't behaved like a standard family patriarch, though, and I believe that's the reason the son thought he might have a chance. "He gave me the money when he shouldn't have," he might think, "so maybe he'll give me a second chance." He knew he should repent, and believed it would be possible, because the father had shown him love at every step of their relationship even when he couldn't recognize it.
And on his return, he finds his father has been waiting for him. Not just a casual glance now and again out the window, not just a seat on the porch in the evening with a look at the road once in awhile. When he was far off, his father saw him and ran to him, overjoyed to see him again.
The father's love had never stopped, no matter how far away his son went. The son's repentance and return, to borrow a word Timothy Keller uses in describing this story, detonates that love and the welcome back into the family. Because Jesus means us to see the father in the story as a representation of God, we can have the exact same hope because of the exact same kind of love shown by God.
We can squander every gift God gives us to make our own pleasure instead of devoting it to him. We can focus on nothing but ourselves and center our lives on our appetites instead of on God. But some day, in some fashion, we will come to ourselves and realize we've become a servant to pigs, so empty we'd take what they had just to find something to fill us up. It may happen all at once or it may happen a little at a time, and it certainly will continue happening throughout our lives, but we will look up and resolve to return to God's design and path for us.
And we will find him running to greet us in welcome, even before we've gotten back to the front gate.