I think one of the most poignant expressions in the bible is when the younger son in the parable in Luke Ch 15 v11 – 31, realises his true situation and starts the journey back home. It says: “And when he came to himself” or as some versions have it “When he came to his senses”.
If we try to analyse the character of the young man, we might come up with words such as foolish, bad or just plain silly, but however we describe him, there is a recognition that what he did was seriously wrong. It is harder to evaluate his elder brother. Reliable, regular, steadfast – possibly, but also morose and maybe jealous.
The interesting thing is that although the younger brother’s wrongdoing was far more obvious, and, by most human standards far more serious, in that situation he could still find a place that the bible describes as “coming to himself”.The bible acknowledges that he wasted all his inheritance on riotous living, which, if the older brother was right, involved squandering at least some of it on prostitutes. Left alone with the pigs, probably in some wood or wasteland, the younger brother had little choice but to contemplate what he had done. He was broke, hungry and bereft of human company, and in that condition he reflects on what he had become and the lost potential of what might have been. He “comes to himself”as if waking from a bad dream.
The fact is he cannot get himself out of his predicament by himself. No amount of wishful thinking or effort on his part will change the situation one iota. So he comes to a sensible decision “I will get up and go back to my father”. The decision is sensible because he cannot lose. He reasons that his father might take him on and give him a job along with the other labourers on the farm. But even if his father rejects him, he is no worse off than sitting starving among the pigs, for he can starve at home just as easily as he can starve away from home. We all know the happy ending of the story. His father does not reject him or take him on as a worker, but welcomes him back as a full member of the family. The only sad bit of the story is that the father’s grace to one son reveals the pent up anger harboured by the other son.
As someone who identifies more closely to the younger, rather than the older son, I am probably prejudiced, but it does seem to me, that realising and coming to terms with depths of failure and sin in life, enables a more joyful relationship with the Father, than is possible when concentrating on the sins of others from a place of supposed superiority.
It does seem that amongst those people whom Jesus spoke and ministered to, the most unresponsive were those who thought they were in the right, whereas the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners heard him gladly. I do therefore admit to struggling with the increasing rules and regulations embraced by churches (often because of external societal pressure), which can restrict the participation of those who have mucked it up at some point in their lives. Such restrictions often deny the possibility of the real change made possible because of Jesus, and the reconciliation that he has accomplished for us with the Father.
It is perfectly understandable that as the world refuses to acknowledge the existence of Jesus or the Father, they conclude that real change is not possible. In the world’s agenda, there is no place for true repentance (a turning not merely a saying sorry) and consequently no place for reconciliation and re-instatement. Sin is pushed to one of two extremes: it is either legitimised and made acceptable, or it becomes so unacceptable that any measure of failure becomes a handicap for life. Both extremes are based on the denial of the possibility of change.
However the Church is not the world and Christian thinking must cut right across the world’s thinking. Wrongdoing should be treated even more seriously by Christians than by the world, but wrongdoing of any description can never be the end. Through the work of Christ applied in human lives by the Holy Spirit, a total change is always a possibility. This means, that whilst rightly recognising the need to protect and safeguard, children the vulnerable and the not so vulnerable among us, we must never lose sight that Jesus himself set out the ‘younger son factor’. In Christ, someone who has sinned in even the most unacceptable categories, may yet actually become a full family member again once they have come to their senses and been reconciled to the Father.
I do not think that I fit into a liberal, ‘softy’ category (I believe that there is some place in our justice system for both capital and corporal punishment), however I do also believe in the God enabled possibility of repentance and change. There is no doubt that the world is pressurising the Church to conform to its understanding of sin. We are moving in a difficult area, and there is no guarantee that we will get it right all the time, but whatever we conclude must be based on the bible and not on the world’s atheistic viewpoint.