17 – A Questionable Confession
‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare,
but here I am dying of hunger!
I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.”
The young man is awakened by the pain of his life. He has finally come to his senses, his bodily senses at least. He has lost everything, and so he cannot buy food. He feels that keenly. The pigs gobbling down their food while he has none, only increases the pain. The almost indigestible pods begin to look appetizing and only increases his longing for food. In a word he is famished.
As his belly aches from the lack of food, he thinks of the meals he had eaten day after day in his father’s house. He sees images of his father’s hired hands munching on their lunches during the noon hour breaks, and he is moved with longing for such a meal. He is currently a hired hand to this pig farmer. Well his father hires such day-workers to work on his farm. As his mind wanders, he comes up with a plan. He will get up and go home. He will apologize to his dad and offer to serve as a hired hand.
There have been all sorts of variations in how the thoughts in his mind should be read. Some have said that he came to penitence in that pigpen. There he repented of his folly. He has seen the sad consequences of his choices, and is truly sorry and has confessed his sin before God, and now resolves to go home and apologize to his father. He is seen to be a humbled young man, willing to be a servant, instead of a renegade against the will of his father. As in all good plans of salvation, he repents in his heart and confesses with his mouth, and so is saved. (Romans 10:9)
But there is another view taken that may be closer to the truth. His motives may not be that pure. He is more aware of his hunger than his sin. It is the promise of food, not the missing of his father’s fellowship, that brings him home. It is his empty stomach, not his empty soul that provides prime motivation. His returning home is one more act of selfishness and self-survival. He is not returning because he has had enough of the old life. He is returning because it offered him too little. He was not disgusted by his former way of life; he will simply die of hunger unless he can get some good meals under his belt.
The text does not say, “He said to himself, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against my father. I am no longer worthy to be called his son; I only deserve to be treated like one of his hired hands.’” It reads, “I will say to my father….” This is a speech that he crafts ahead of time to say to his father upon their meeting. He plans to say the very things his father would love to hear: he is sorry for deserting his father and his home responsibilities, and he is willing to serve the father in subjection to his will. He has fabricated a prayer that says all the right things.
It has been noted that his prayer repeats the words of Pharaoh to Moses, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” (Exodus 9:27, 10:16) But Pharaoh was hardly repentant, simple mouthing the right words without the right intent. And the hungry son may well be preparing a speech to impress his father. He is out to earn his father’s favor.
But when the encounter took place, it did not quite go as he intended. The story reads, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” I am sure that the words “while he was still far off” indicate geographic distance, but this young man may still be a long way from that transformation which will be needed to bring him near. But the story is not ended.
The father is all over him with hugs and kisses. Finally the son catches his breath and begins his speech, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is word perfect, but the father is not listening. He interrupts the confession. He doesn’t need for him to say the words. All he wants is his son home where the relationship that has been broken can be rebuilt.
Some commentators have sensed that the son intended to make the well-prepared and well-rehearsed speech, but in the barrage of hugs, he knew that the offer of servanthood was not an option that such a father would ever consider. He knew in those initial hugs that he was being received as a son.
God has no confessional booth, with a waiting note pad and poised pen, listening for the litany of wrongs done, and if we keep it up long enough, we will finally convince him that we are really, really sorry. That is not the Father ‘s way. He does not demand that memory recount the wrongs. The Father forgave us long before we began our confession. That is why he came bounding down the road towards us. As soon as we begin, he wants to hear no more of it. He shuts our mouth with his kisses to silence our sad confession.
His kiss upon our lips offers us amnesia about such details. He wants us to know that our homecoming is not in any way dependent upon the volume of words, or the clarity of our memory. He reads the shame in our initial words. And the very act of starting a confession is enough for the Father to draw us into his embrace and back into the family.
We may want to be very critical of the son with his base motivations in returning to his father. But there is hardly any one of us who ever came to God who did not come for motivations just as sordid.
We did not come to God out of love for Him. We came usually when we were in desperate circumstances. We may have become addicted to things over which we had lost power, and so we cried out for help and for rescue, our motives being absolutely selfish. Our marriages or our families may have come to such serious straights, that after putting God off as long as we could, we finally came, as C. S. Lewis says about himself, “the most reluctant convert in all Britain.”[i] Some of us sensed our own doom to such a degree that God was seen as a better alternative to hell, but only just. Some of us came because we wanted to go to heaven when we died, and accepting God was seen as the necessary prerequisite.
Many of us were just like Francis Thompson, who writes his own “coming to God” story in his poem, The Hound of Heaven, [ii]
I fled him down the nights and down the days,
I fled him down the arches of the years,
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
And in the midst of tears, I hid from him,
And under running laughter, up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a voice beat
More instant than the feet –
“All things betray thee, who betrayest me.”
I pleaded, outlaw wise
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew his love who followed,
Yet, was I sore adread,
Lest having him
I must have nought beside.)
Most of us, (all of us?) came reluctantly to God. We came sometimes with our prepared speeches to try persuade Him to accept us. Then he surprised the life into us. Coming coweringly and in shame, we found ourselves being surprised by joy, and then becoming gladly grateful for grace, and then finally finding ourselves loving him because he first loved us.
[i] David C. Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).
[ii] Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”, Francis Thompson, the Preston-Born Poet, with Notes on Some of His Works, ed, John Thomson (London: Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1912).