Have you ever noticed that the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) never allows his son to fully proclaim his repentance? Instead of allowing the son who took and wasted half his wealth to speak his rehearsed apology and offer himself as a hired hand, the father cuts him off in the middle of his declaration that he’s not worthy by saying, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his fingers and sandals on his feet…” The apology is interrupted by the father’s celebration of the son’s return. The son isn’t given any space to prove his repentance or wallow in his sorrow. He’s returned. It’s time to celebrate.
Is this how people are treated when they return to God and step into the Christian community? In my experience, I don’t think Christian culture at large has practiced this well. We tend to want people to really prove their repentance before we celebrate their return. We want to see the “fruit” before we put the robes and rings on them. By fruit we generally mean show some real sorrow and agony over the bad stuff done in the past. Then when they’ve realllly demonstrated that they’re back to stay we can celebrate. But not too much, lest someone get the idea that sinning and leaving the father isn’t that big of a deal.
Does that align with God’s attitude and practice? Not if the father in this well known parable is an accurate reflection of God the Father.
Say you’re sorry
This kind of attitude has given us a mode of evangelism that’s aimed mainly at getting people to feel bad about their sin (i.e. be convicted) so that the forgiveness offered by Jesus will be appealing. They’ll see the beauty of the savior when they feel the fear of God, right? When they realize how far down their sin has taken them they’ll reach out for a savior to rescue them, won’t they?
There’s absolutely biblical merit to this. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that the law was given so that we might realize just how sinful sin was. The Old Testament prophets play strong and loud the note of God’s judgment and justice. John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness for repentance and fleeing from the wrath to come.
Here’s the thing though. In each of those instances the message is directed primarily at the people of God; those who already knew the law, had been raised with the stories of the Exodus, and had the context for a just God and a baseline knowledge for what sin was. They already had the mental framework on which to build that message.
For those of us in modern America, particularly those working with young adults and the coming generations, that’s no longer our context. It’s increasingly common to talk with people who have literally never read the Bible, have been to church maybe twice, and don’t have the moral groundwork that traditional bridge-diagram type Gospel presentations assume.
I believe the story of the prodigal son an often-overlooked element that can help us communicate the gospel to a culture that doesn’t have that context. We need to ask the question, what was it that made the prodigal son return home to the father?
The Son’s Realization
Was it that he realized how sinful he was and that what he’d done was wrong? No. The text tells us that the son says to himself, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v.17) It was the son’s realization of his need (“here I am starving”) and remembrance of how good his father’s servants had it (they “have food to spare”) that drove him home.
It wasn’t a conviction that he had done something wrong that drove him home. If anything that conviction and shame of his wrongdoing is what kept him away for so long after squandering his inheritance. It was his need for food and memory of the good things that his father did for his servants that inspired his return.
Are our churches places where the goodness of God is on display? Are they places where people see something that they long for? Does our life together in Christ communicate that the Father’s children and servants “have food to spare”? When we present the Gospel, are we communicating it in a way that is actually good news for those to whom we are speaking?
Where Jesus, John, and the other apostles are blunt, often brutally so, about the need to repent when talking to religious people, the tone changes drastically when they are speaking to pagans who feel the shame of their sin but don’t have the knowledge of the law. Rather than trying to convince them that they’re sinners in need of grace (as most modern evangelistic trainings would have you do) they start with grace.
Witness the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) – Jesus welcomes and answers her questions, offering her the water of life and true connection before he ever mentions her sin. The thief on the cross simply hears the words “today you will be with me in paradise,” no repetition of the wrongs he’s done. In John 8 we see the woman caught in adultery who Jesus actually defends from the justice that the law demanded be meted out to her, explicitly saying “neither do I condemn you” before gently telling her to leave her life of sin. Zaccheus too, that wee little man, is never told to repent in Luke 19. Jesus simply says that he’s coming to stay at his house. It is Zacheus himself who brings up the wrong he’s done, repenting in that very moment.
My friends, If we want to reach those who are not religious, we need to give them an encounter with the goodness of God rather than beginning with the battering of God’s wrath and justice. In their spirits they already know those things well, because the Holy Spirit is at work. As Paul writes in Romans 2, it’s the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God that leads people to repentance.
When you’re sharing the Gospel with someone for the first time, begin with the infinite grace that is found in Christ. Welcome prodigal sons into your midst where they can taste and see how good the sons and servants of the Heavenly Father have it! As we do so it’s like setting up a beautiful feast at the Father’s house next door to the pig sty that they’ve been living in. They’ll smell the rich food, hear the joy and laughter, and see just how good the Father’s servants have it. They will come home, and the Father will once again be ready to run to them with arms wide to clothe them with the righteousness of Christ.