As we take another step closer to Lent, the Church takes us deeper into the mystery of repentance. With the Gospel of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32), we have a fairly complete picture of this mystery. For it is not only about the recognition of sin and the turning away from it, but also about the blessed fruits of repentance. That is, we see repentance not only from the perspective of the repentant sinner, but also from that of the merciful God.
The first thing we have to do to understand the mystery of repentance is to get rid of the word “repentance.” Now I say this half-jokingly, but only half. This is because the term is inadequate, and the usual understanding of it gets neither to the spiritual heart of the mystery nor to the actual practice of it. The Greek term in the Bible that is translated “repentance” is, as you probably already know, metanoia. This is the term that I will mostly use. The English word “repentance” in common usage has a limited meaning, that of being sorry for sin and perhaps of making some act that indicates contrition. But metanoia goes farther and deeper.
Metanoia is not limited to recognition or regret where sin is concerned, nor even to a declaration of amendment of conduct. If you break a civil law, you can express regret and even decide never to do it again, simply in order to avoid the legal penalty. But you might still go on thinking that the law is stupid and you didn’t really do anything wrong. That might be called repentance from an external point of view, but it is not metanoia.
To experience metanoia is to undergo a real and profound interior change. For metanoia is an actual change of mind and heart, a change in one’s perception, world-view, and hierarchy of values. Therefore it is necessarily also a change in direction, that is, in attitude and behavior—if the metanoia is genuine and not just lip-service. When you see things differently you naturally begin to live according to this new vision. To experience metanoia is to begin to see things as God sees them and thus to live in a manner that is consistent with the word of God, with the principles of his Kingdom and his righteousness.
Let us now see what happened to the prodigal son, how he sinned, repented, and was received back into the love of his father. It may be objected that the prodigal son repented for reasons less profound than a real change of heart. He had first disgraced his father and spurned his love, selfishly living according to the flesh as long as his money lasted. But then he ran out of money, found himself hungry and humiliated, and reckoned that if he humbled himself before his father, he could still at least have a safe place to stay and regular meals. These are the outward facts of the story, but evidently something did happen interiorly, for this parable was told by Jesus as an example of true repentance.
The interior experience of metanoia is indicated by the phrase “he came to himself.” The fathers make much of this and sometimes speak of the “spirit of metanoia,” as a spiritual gift. This is the moment of illumination, of purified perception, of seeing the truth about himself. Usually when we speak of repentance, we speak about something that we do. But I found a rather unusual use of the term metanoia in the Acts of the Apostles. When Peter was testifying before the Sanhedrin, he gave them the reason that God had exalted Jesus as the Savior: “to give metanoia to Israel” (5:31). So repentance isn’t only something we do, it is first of all something that is given to us by God. That’s why it can’t be limited to an expression of contrition or a promise to behave. God gives repentance, that is, He gives us the grace of a change of heart, a new way of thinking and seeing, a true, deep, interior turning—away from sin and toward his love and truth—if He finds any good will in us at all.
So I think that God gave metanoia to the prodigal son when the young wastrel had finally reached the depths of misery, when his pride was broken, when his defenses were down, when he could finally admit: yes, I have failed; I need help. God gave metanoia to him, but this gift does not bear fruit without a personal and wholehearted response. So, when the prodigal received that grace, he did something about it: “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” This is putting the grace of metanoia into practice.
There are four elements of repentance expressed here: the resolve to confess, the confession itself, the realization of what sin does to us, and the doing of some sort of penance to show that the repentance is genuine. Once God gives the grace of metanoia to us, we will be moved to express this change of heart in some concrete way. So we resolve to confess our sin. Then we just get up and do it. It is noteworthy that the son realizes that his sin is against both God and man: “against heaven and before you.” This is one of the main reasons why we confess before a priest and not only privately to God. The priest represents the members of the Body of Christ, against whom we also sin whenever we offend God. Sin is not a private matter, even though it is often hidden from the eyes of others. St Paul says that in the Body of Christ, when one member suffers, all do, and when one rejoices, all likewise share the joy. That means that when you sin you hurt me, and when I sin I hurt you. We sin against Heaven and against our brothers and sisters, and sacramental confession absolves us of both.
But let’s not forget that when you sin you also hurt you, and when I sin I hurt me. This is why the prodigal said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He realized that his sin had deprived him of the right of sonship; it had degraded and debased him; it reduced him to something he wasn’t before, and he was powerless on his own to heal the damage. So he at least offered to do penance, to prove that there was something behind his words of contrition, that he really meant to change his life. “Treat me as one of your hired servants.” He accepted the consequences of what his sin had done to him.
All that is from the perspective of the son. Now let us look at the Father. The son had to go through the soul-searching, the struggle, the sorrow, the painful but salutary awakening, the long journey back from the far country of his self-indulgence and degradation. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been true metanoia. But the Father didn’t have to hold his sin against him, humiliate him further, or punish him perpetually by giving him what he deserved. No, once the father saw him coming (and I’m making the analogy to God the Father here), he knew that the son had undergone a change of heart. So he ran to him. He didn’t stand there with his arms folded, with “I told you so” written all over his face. He ran to him and embraced and kissed him. He didn’t even let his son finish his confession because he knew there was metanoia in his heart, and in the father’s heart there was only love and joy.
We ruin ourselves through sin, but it is within the Father’s power to heal us. We can’t undo the damage, but He can. Our sin makes us unworthy to be called God’s children, but the grace of his forgiveness makes us worthy again. Sin enslaves us, but divine mercy sets us free again and restores us to favor with God. If sin humbles us in a bad way, by reducing us to a wretched state of unrighteousness before God, then God’s mercy humbles us in a good way, making us realize that we don’t deserve the finest robes, the ring, and the shoes, which signify royal sonship. But we receive them gratefully because it is the Father’s good pleasure to lavish them upon us, and now we want nothing more than to please Him.
So the spirit of metanoia works an interior change in us that corresponds to what the Father wants to do for us. True repentance gives us the capacity to receive what the Father wants to give us. We know that the prodigal experienced metanoia because he responded fully to the Father’s love for him.
But there are two sons who are sinners in this parable, and only one of them responded to the spirit of metanoia. The elder son was outwardly righteous but inwardly bitter, resentful, and hateful. He didn’t share the father’s love for the homecoming son, and he refused to understand how his brother’s heart had changed—for the elder son’s own heart was hard and cold and closed to repentance.
The banquet given by the Father for the repentant son is an image of the Kingdom of Heaven. But the proud and hard-hearted elder son was angry and refused to go in. This is what the Lord meant when he once told the Pharisees: “Prostitutes and publicans are entering the Kingdom before you.” The elder son is an image of the self-condemned. The father came out to meet him, too, for he loved both his sons. He pleaded with him to come in and share the joy over the repentant son—Christ also said that there would be great joy in Heaven over even one repentant sinner. But the self-righteous son would not go in. This is why is it said that God does not condemn us to Hell; we condemn ourselves. The Father comes out to invite us to a change of heart; He tries to give us the spirit of metanoia. But if we remain angry and bitter because of our pride, we place ourselves forever outside the Kingdom of Heaven.
So let us heed carefully the message of this Gospel and take seriously the consequences of sin as well as the blessed fruits of mercy. Let us pray for the spirit of metanoia to be given us in full as we approach Lent, so that we will arise and go the Father, lamenting our unworthiness but rejoicing in his goodness, falling before Him with a contrite heart, but allowing Him to raise us up and embrace us in his loving compassion.
Let us pray as Thomas à Kempis prays before Holy Communion in The Imitation of Christ: “But why should You come to me? Who am I that You should give Yourself to me? … And why do You condescend to visit a sinner? … Thus I confess my unworthiness and I acknowledge your goodness. I praise your mercy, and I give thanks for your boundless love.”