The life of God’s son or daughter is a humble life of being God’s servant. It’s a life of following Christ’s example, learning from him how to be like him. Our life of apprenticeship to Jesus should be permeated by what Archimandrite Zacharias calls the greatest commandment of the New Testament:
“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Luke 17:10
The humility exemplified by this commandment can only come through repentance. Elder Paisios of Mount Athos instructs:
“Ask for repentance in your prayer and nothing else, neither for divine lights, nor miracles, nor prophecies, nor spiritual gifts—nothing but repentance. Repentance brings humility, and humility will bring grace of God, because it is a law: grace of God always comes to the humble.”
We see this “law” at work in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Both sons have the same selfish heart. But it is the youngest son who experiences the mercy and grace of his father. Humility released grace. And it was repentance that humbled the son.
The eldest son stands in contrast to his younger brother. His distorted heart was hidden behind a life of “being the good son.” He worked hard and obeyed his father. But his father’s grace toward his younger brother exposed the deep shadows of his heart — anger, resentment, entitlement, and pride. Despite living in the father’s home and doing the father’s work, without repentance the older son lacked humility and completely missed participating in the free grace of his father.
Unfortunately, the idea of repentance has itself become distorted in our culture. It has accumulated a narrow definition, something like “remorse toward ones bad behavior.” But this is not what Jesus was communicating.
During Jesus’ time, repentance had layers of meanings. It meant something like, “Think about everything that you value and trust both personally and as a community. Think about the core of what shapes you and the repercussions. And come to terms that none of it is working.” This larger context encompasses things like individual behavior, but so much more.
It’s my opinion that aligning our perspective of repentance to Jesus’ exhortation (i.e. repent of our culture’s version of repentance) is essential if we want to truly understand his teaching and ministry.
Jesus was not calling “bad” people to repent of their bad behavior. He was calling all people — “good” and “bad” — to repent, to rethink everything that they value and believe and that shapes and directs them as a person and as a people. And frankly, the core of what they needed to repent were things that they would have considered “good,” such as how to be God’s people. Through parables and actions, Jesus was calling people to take a hard look at the symbols, stories, and values that shaped their understanding of being God’s people, God’s children.
Jesus was embodying and demonstrating what God had originally intended for all of Israel to be — how to be a nation of priest so as to bless the other nations. And he did it by embodying and demonstrating how to be truly human. By being truly human as God intended, one can truly be a blessing to the nations and to creation.
Returning to the Prodigal Son, the youngest son’s repentance was not primarily remorse over his attitude toward his dad, the waste of his inheritance, nor his despicable behavior, although all of this and more would have been included. Rather, it was a complete rethinking of his core, of what it meant to be a son. And the conclusion at which he arrived was to be a servant in his father’s home. This humble insight is what transformed everything else and compelled him to return home.
And as he did, he found his gracious father not just waiting for him, but running towards him, eager to restore him back to the very position of which his internal disposition had been transformed.