Tuesday 8 February 2011

Chow Sing Chi and repentance (Luke 15:11-24)

I will set out and go back to my father and say to him:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

The Prodigal Son in Luke 15:18

Chow Sing Chi

Every time I read these words, I can’t help but think of Hong Kong actor Chow Sing Chi. I’m a big fan of Stephen Chow movies (which is weird considering how I don’t speak or read Cantonese. I have to read the subtitles!).

Fight Back to School. God of Gamblers II. Kung Fu Hustle. Have you ever noticed how every Chow Sing Chi movie has the exact same storyline? He starts out a jerk (usually with his hair messed up), gets into serious trouble; but ends up always the hero (with his hair gelled and combed back)! Every Chow Sing Chi movie has exactly the same beginning, middle and end!

Some people can’t stand that! I was having dinner last week with friends from church and one of them said, “I don’t like Chow Sing Chi movies. He just seems so full of himself.” Which is true. You’re meant to pity him when he is down in the dumps. Then you’re supposed to admire him when he overcomes all the odds.

And many people think the same way about the younger brother in this famous story told by Jesus. They just can’t stand him. First he insults his father by asking for his inheritance. Then he blows it all in London – a distant country, the bible says – on wild living. We’re not at all surprised when he comes to the end of his cash, ends up working in a pig farm, hungry and penniless, abandoned by all his friends.

But it’s really when he then says, in verse 18, “I know what I’ll do – I’ll back to daddy!” that many think: This guy hasn’t changed one bit. He doesn’t feel sorry at all. You can’t seriously say he’s changed, can you? I mean, he’s just out to con the old man. Again!

What do you think?

I preached this passage 3 years back. It was one of my first messages. Right after, a friend came up to me to confront me about something I said about the younger brother. I had said that this parable was about repentance; and that Jesus was pointing to this younger brother to show us a picture of what repentance looks like. And my friend seriously disagreed. He said the younger brother couldn’t have possibly, sincerely repented. He was just desperate and hungry. Furthermore in verse 19, his plan was to ask his father to make him a “hired man”. Meaning: he wanted to earn his way up. The hired man was the lowest rung of the working class, even below that of a slave. These workers were skilled and paid according to their labour. So what the younger brother was really proposing to do was to save himself, by his own efforts.

I wonder what you think. Has he changed? Is he sorry for what he did to his own father? Or is he just thinking with his stomach – only feeling sorry for himself, and taking advantage of his father’s pity?

The thing is: whatever you think, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Because of verse 20.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.
Luke 15:20

While the son was a long way off. Still in the distance. As soon as the father saw his son across the horizon, making his way home... he already forgave him in his heart.

Before the younger man had any chance to put his plan into action. Before he said a single word. His father already forgive him. My son. My son is home. The father runs out to the son, throws his arms around him and kissed him.


What does repentance mean?

Many people hear the word “repentance” – when they walk into a church and they hear the pastor say, “You must repent!” They think they have to respond by feeling really, really bad about themselves. There must be tears and wailing. “I’m a horrible person! I’m soooo sorry!! I repent!”

The passage does not say – anywhere – that the younger son was in tears. Or that he felt really morose and depressed. If anything the description in verse 17 sounds more like he finally sobered up. “He came to his senses,” the NIV puts it. He came to a rational, clear understanding of what he had done; of what was really going on around him.

This is not to say that repentance should not be accompanied by tears. To be confronted by our sins and the consequences of our sins (especially to those around us) is an overwhelmingly emotional weight. But tears are not what the bible means by repentance. It is not what Jesus means by repentance. Repentance simply means turning back.

I will set out (anastas) and go back to(wards) my father.
Luke 15:18

So he got up (anastas) and went to(wards) his father.
Luke 15:20

[The Greek anastas, meaning leave occurs in both verses – rendered “set out” in verse 18, and “got up” in verse 20. Also elthon in verse 20 – went to(wards) is the same word in verse 17. He went/came to his himself. He came/went towards his father.]

Twice it emphasises the same thing. He left he current direction. He went back to his father. In other words: he turned back. That’s repentance! Repentance in the bible is the turning away from sin, a turning away from our own way of living; and turning towards to face God. A verse in the bible that crystallises the meaning of repentance is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:9

For they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:9

Repentance means turning back – going back – facing God, your heavenly father. Which is why so many people find true repentance such a hard thing to do. It is hard not simply because it means facing up to their sins or the consequences of their sins. It is hard because it means facing God. And we are afraid to face God because we’re afraid he will punish us. We are afraid he will scold us and tell us what a horrible person we’ve been. We’re afraid we’ll see his face of anger. Of disappointment.

That’s why so many people, even when they realise they’ve messed up their lives and truly, honestly feel sorry for their mistakes to the point of tears and sincere regret, still do not repent. They are afraid that if they turn to God, they will just feel worse. But that isn’t the God of the bible. That isn’t the Father that Jesus talks about in this parable.

The love of the father

You know, Chinese culture is very similar to Jewish culture. Both the Jews and the Chinese uphold respect for their elders. Especially respect for fathers. The father is the head of the household. He earns the money. He feeds the family. He sets the rules.

And the father in this story would have been especially revered, in his household, but even in his community. He was elderly. Moreover he was wealthy. People would have looked up to the father; respected his success in business. He would have been an important member in the village and well-known to everyone.

Stanley Ho is name my Hong Kong friends instantly recognise. The 13th richest man in Hong Kong, Stanley operates the one and only casino in Macau and is known as the “King of Gambling”. His is estimated to be worth 3.1 billion US dollars.

Stanley is very, very rich. He is very, very well-known. But recent news about Stanley, is very, very sad. This year, Stanley will be 90 years old and his four wives and many children are in a legal struggle with one another to control his assets; to get their share of the 3.1 billion dollars. It’s hard to keep such news under wraps. The local and international media are having a field day covering every statement, every legal maneuver, every embarassing development in the family drama.

It’s the same with the father in Jesus’ parable. You don’t think everyone knew what the younger son did? “Hey, did you hear about that spoilt brat? What kind of things he is up to?” You don’t think the whole village has been gossiping about the incident?

And yet does it seem at all like the father cares about what the whole village thinks? Of course not! He runs! This old man dashes across the high street in full view of everyone to embrace his son. What is more, he has a big celebration so that everyone knows that his son is home!

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Luke 15:22-24

What kind of father is this?

A good father. A father who loves his son. A father who forgives his son.

That’s God. I mean, you know that is who Jesus has been talking about all this while, don’t you? That’s God, your heavenly father.

The question is: do you know this?

You know, when Christians say that “God is good” or that “God is love”, I’m always worried that people think what we mean is, “God loves me so much, he’s given me my health, my money, my food, a good happy family, the sunshine, birds to chirpy chirp in the air, the rainbow... and my iPod.”

No. What I mean when we say the God is good is this: he forgives us. Even when we break his heart. Even when we live our lives like he doesn’t exist; take him for granted and insult him. God forgives us, embraces us and call us his son; his daughter.

The question is: do you know this God? Will you turn back to the Father?

How deep the Father's love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

[This excerpt is taken from a sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 6 February 2011]

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