March 14, 2010: Rehab or Repentance: Which Lasts Longer?

Let us pray: Lord, teach us today to be honest with ourselves and with You. Show us how dangerous it is to rely on our emotional whims and disregard the consequences of them. Work repentance in our hearts where we are truly sorry for grieving You and hurting others and where we come to rely completely upon Your grace to heal our souls. And then bathe us in the sunshine that stems from such grace. Amen


TEXT: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 excerpts

Fellow Redeemed Sinners:

Is it just me, or does “rehab” seem to be the hot new thing to do? Hardly a week goes by in which some politician, Hollywood star, or sports hero isn’t disgraced by their behavior and then enters “rehab.” It’s almost become a status symbol. Perhaps they should issue buttons proclaiming: “I was in drug rehab.” “I was in sexual addiction rehab.” Or maybe for crooked bankers: “I was in greed rehab.” There once was a time when disgraceful behavior was dealt with quietly by the individual involved and their family. It involved a very personal time of soul-searching, heart-felt acknowledgment of their sin (yes I said: sin), and finally a real need to make amends for past mistakes. And instead of loudly proclaiming their “rehab” victories before the press, such folks quietly did the best they could to show those they loved that they had changed. In short, humility radiated from them.

Of course, the old name for “rehab” was repentance. I know, it’s not popular to utter that word today, but it still is pertinent. And since it is a religious word, it was and still is, a religious experience. God was part, the most important part of the equation. Now, I’m not so naïve to think that rehab never really works, or that repentance is always a success. I’ve seen too much of sin to think that way. Certainly there are many good non-Christian people doing many wonderful things to help others with their problems. But, the one thing that bothers me about most modern “rehab” is that God is left out. Sins against Him are left out. The eternal nature of alienation from God is left out. Hell is left out. The redemption of a person’s soul is left out. “Rehab” deals with the here and now. Repentance deals with today, tomorrow, and forever. Rehab is really based on the Law, or doing proscribed behavior to stay out of trouble. Repentance ultimately is based on the Law and the Gospel, or avoiding sin because it hurts everyone all the time, and then working at modifying your behavior out of pure love and respect for God Who sacrificed His all to save you.

Today is the familiar parable of the “Lost” or “Prodigal” son. Everyone is familiar with its details. So, as we examine it, consider this:



Luke begins: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus then told this parable.”

Recall that tax collectors were Jewish people who worked for the Romans and basically could purchase a license to steal as much as they wanted from the average folk. They were hated for their greed. (Recall also that St. Matthew was once a tax collector.) The “sinners” were comprised of drunkards, the sexually immoral, and well-known ner-do-wells. They were all people of bad reputation. These people were drawn to Christ and He even spent time eating with them! The pompous religious elite looked down their noses at all this and were quick to utter: “Shame! Shame!” That’s because they felt they were above such sins. However, why did such obviously sinful folks want to spend time with our Lord? Isn’t it because their hearts bothered them and they desired to be cleansed from the inside out? These people were not just sorry they got caught—everyone knew their sins already. No, by their presence they were showing they were sorry they did it in the first place. In other words, they were trying to repent.


Since every human is a sinner and needs to recognize their sins and repent of them, Jesus tells His parable to the self-righteous Pharisees. Yes, His concern for souls extended to them, too. It extends to all people. For as the Bible tells us: “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The father in this story stands for God Almighty. He’s kind, patient, and long-suffering. He gives good things, blessings to His child, even when He knows deep down that such blessings, such an inheritance, will be misused and abused. The wayward, or prodigal son, stands for the supposed dregs of society that Jesus has been hosting at His table. Like this lost son, they started out headstrong, ended up hitting rock bottom, and now had crawled back expecting nothing and willing to accept even slavery for a small place at the table. The snotty son who is full of self-importance, wrapped up in false indignation because he thinks his father is being used, stands for the snooty Pharisees. The fact is: both sons abused the Father’s love. One just learned his lesson in a much more visible manner, while the other kept his ignorance about the nature of genuine respect and love hidden behind a veneer of responsibility.


What’s the key sentence in this entire parable? Well, in reality there are two of them. The first is where the lost son says: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Note well that for him, God comes first. Modern rehab seldom if ever focuses on this truth. But, if someone really wants to change their ways they must realize that their sins have hurt God above all. And to really heal such a heart, that heart needs to understand that sinful behavior killed God’s Son, and yet through His death, all sins are paid for and forgiven. Such a heart pleads for nothing other than the mercy of Christ. It knows it doesn’t deserve it, hasn’t earned it, and should be cast aside. And yet, it longs for such mercy above all else. And in that, the difference between rehab and repentance is clearly seen. The former is about living out one’s life here on earth in relative acceptance by others. The latter is about living out one’s life not only here but in eternity at total peace with God Almighty.

Meanwhile, the second key sentence is the father’s response to the arrogant son: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The Holy Father’s huge heart, His love, His patience, His kindness toward all is clearly seen right here. It stands in stark contrast to the pettiness of that snooty son. And while the father’s giving heart stands in contrast to that son’s and thus puts him in his place, and is designed to work repentance within him; that huge giving heart also extends to that son and is designed to pull him upwards toward appreciation and blessing. Again, repentance not rehab brings everlasting peace with God because in rehab it’s all about you, while in repentance it’s all about God.

So, is the church in the rehab business or the repentance business? Which one last longer? Which one best defines our loving Lord? Which glorifies God more? And which one elicits this response: “There but by the grace of God, go I?” Yes, without Christ there can be no lasting “rehab”….. Amen