Sorry Not Sorry
MARCH 9, 2023
When I was about seven or eight years old, me and a buddy peed in a neighbor kid’s bike helmet when he wasn’t looking. Just for fun. Unknowingly, he put it back on his head.
Those who remember the cruelty of early childhood play might get a chortle out of that. But for the record, peeing in someone’s helmet is really, really mean. And bad. And I maybe never quite said sorry the way I should have. Of course he tattled on me and my buddy and I got taken to the woodshed as they say.
After enduring the whoopin I had coming to me, if I remember right, I gave a less than heartfelt apology to the kid. I imagine looking at the ground, kicking the dust and mouthing a perfunctory “sorry” just because I didn’t want to be parted from my Legos any longer than I had to.
I should have gotten grounded into adulthood for that one. But after my discipline, dad never brought it up after that. Not ever. I really appreciate that.
Recently I’ve been thinking about this slice of childhood mischief-making in light of what we Christians often call “repentance.” I was reading the story of the Prodigal Son in the gospel of Luke and his “I’m Sorry” speech stuck out in a fresh way (with the help of William Hordern and Kenneth Bailey).
All believers have got to go through the process of repentance. Say you’re sorry, really mean it, and if you do that, then God will take you back. And this is just what happens in the Prodigal Son story, right? Well, maybe not.
No doubt, when we do wrong, we should realize it, name the offense, acknowledge the hurt it has caused another (namely God), and agree to do things differently next time. But as Rod Rosenbladt has so aptly said, “even our repentance is half-assed.” As much as we’d like to take credit for the depths of our sorrow once we’ve been caught with our pants down (and peeing in the bike helmet), we simply are unable to fully grasp the depth of our offenses. And we certainly aren’t going to “make it up” to God in any satisfactory way.
Didn’t the prodigal repent in the way that we tend to understand repentance? There he was among the pigs after his early inheritance was all spent up on wild living and he “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). This is standard, aw, schucks I blew it sadness over sin, right? According to Kenneth Bailey, the prodigal may not have “repented” the way that we define repentance as much as he was devising a plan for how to get out of the pig slop.
As he is on his way back to the father rehearsing his “I’m sorry speech” (as Sally Lloyd Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible), when he is a ways off, the father comes bolting out to him. Before he can even get a word out, the father is kissing him, and planning a big barbecue party in his honor. Did you see that? The father wasn’t tapping his toe with arms crossed or finger pointing. The son didn’t get a lecture. If the son did “repent” in the traditional understanding of the word, it was, as they say, a “half-assed” repentance.
Let’s step back for a moment and take note of what is not happening in the opener and the closer of this parable. Unlike how we would likely respond, according to William Hordern (Living By Grace, 35), the father does not demand his way, but he certainly could have. Imagine your children are of age, and one of them comes to you and basically says, “Dad, I wish you would drop dead so I could have my inheritance. I have an idea, how about you divvy up my share so I can cash in now. I don’t want to have to wait.” Not only would this be utterly heartbreaking to a parent, but shockingly disrespectful. Especially in Jesus’ strongly patriarchal times.
Now fast forward to the end of the parable and think about how the son comes back. If the father were to even entertain the thought of the son coming back, even as a hired hand, there would be some pretty big dues to pay. He’d have to earn his right back into the family. He’d have to prove that he’d reformed his ways in order to see the relationship restored.
In both the opening and the closer of the story, the father is waging a huge bet. When the son goes asking for his early inheritance, it would seem reasonable that the father would put him in some kind of probationary period. “Work hard for a couple years and we’ll see, son.” Likewise for when he returns after royally blowing it morally and bringing disgrace on the family name.
But if the father were to demand a show of moral reform in his son, he might get outward behavior, but not relationship. The son would feel pressure to do the right thing in appearance, but it wouldn’t have come from good motivations. It would have come from a desire to manipulate the father in order to get some kind of reward. Instead, the father is after the son’s changed heart and restored relationship.
As I plunk this out on my keyboard, I can think of a couple people I’m struggling to forgive. You’re probably more sanctified than I am in the forgiveness category, but sometimes for me, forgiveness is hard work. Some of the offenses are more serious than others. In order to see these relationships restored, these people must “repent” and see their error before I’m satisfied. This probably puts me in the category of the “elder brother” in the parable, but that’s a subject all its own.
The point is, God’s heart is for us even when we don’t see our offenses with complete clarity. Even when our repentance is “half-assed.” This is good news for you and for me. Because if we had to pass each Christian living exam 100% in order to be acceptable, we’d all be doomed. Fortunately God is bolting out to greet us and restore us as true sons.
Buy Matt Johnson’s book, Getting Jesus Wrong