“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.”
The prodigal has come to a point of repentance.
The common understanding of repentance in the Christian world is a 180-degree turn from sin to God. This is true, although it has resulted in limiting the word to the realm of moral transgressions.
Repentance is more than feeling really bad about the bad things you’ve done.
The word repentance, as it’s used in Mark 1:4, Acts 11:18, and many other places in the NT, comes from the Greek word metanoia. Breaking this word down literally gives us “after perception” or “beyond understanding.”
So metanoia, a.k.a. repentance, is a shift in someone’s perception and understanding. Therefore as I go through life, I can experience repentance in my relationship with rap music, Sunday afternoon naps, and pistachio nut ice cream, just to name a few random things. I can repent of anything.
What is happening in the story Jesus is telling is that the prodigal has undergone a radical change in his worldview. His change of perception revolves mainly around his understanding of himself and his father.
He has gone from believing he needs and wants nothing from his father to understanding he must go back to his father. He remembers his father’s care and providence. While he does not feel worthy to be taken back as a son, he knows his father is a merciful man and will likely take pity on him and hire him as a servant.
The prodigal has been re-educated by his experience. He has learned his lesson well and is ready to go home. He hopes to once again dwell in his father’s house, and he is willing to submit to his father’s authority.
He has repented; his worldview has shifted, and he is no longer the same.