“After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one would give him anything.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever considered someone to be irredeemable? It’s easy for us to do. When someone does something terrible enough, our first instinct is to write them off. Or, when someone falls into a pattern of troubling behavior long enough, the ones who have tried to help them out of it for a long time finally throw up their hands and give up on them. Sometimes, when another person just irritates us enough, we pass a final judgment on their character as terrible, and that’s the end of their story as far as we are concerned. How many marriages have ended with the stated reason given being “irreconcilable differences”? In all of this, we begin to believe a lie: That person or situation will never change. This is certainly a tempting lie to believe, but a convincing lie is still a lie. Let’s talk about the truth this morning.
I suspect you know this story. It is one of Jesus’ most famous stories and for good reason. It first entered the phrase “prodigal son” into the lexicon of humanity. That idea has persisted and is thrown around casually today because of the power of this story. But let’s forget about its powerful ending for just a minute and focus on this first part. Jesus told us of a man who had two sons. The younger son one day came to the father and demanded to receive his share of his inheritance. The thing about an inheritance is that you generally receive it when the person from whom you are getting it has died. In other words, this young man was not merely asking his father for money, he was wishing his father was dead. To his face.
In a move that would have utterly floored everyone in Jesus’ audience, the father complies, cashes out a third of his estate, and gives the money to his younger son. The boy takes his newfound wealth and promptly goes on a Vegas-style binge and blows the whole load. All of it. Finally he finds himself where we see him in these three verses. The economy of the country he’s landed in flops and he is stuck there with nothing. Then it gets worse. He hires himself out to a local who gives him the job of feeding his pigs. In the minds of Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish audience, this was as low as a person could go. At the same time, there would have been no sense of pity for him. He had made the choices resulting in the situation he was in. He deserved every bit of what he was getting. This was God paying him back for his disobedient insolence. They would have perhaps even cheered had Jesus pronounced him an incorrigibly rebellious child who was eventually stoned to death for his crimes. He was never going to change and was getting what he deserved for it.
That’s a made up story. Let’s talk about a real one. There was once a Judean king named Manasseh. Manasseh was a bad dude. Whereas most of the kings of Judah were at least reasonably faithful to God, Manasseh was not. At all. In fact, he was the opposite of faithful. Check out the summary statement of his reign in 2 Kings 21: “Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, imitating the detestable practices of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed and reestablished the altars for Baal. He made an Asherah, as King Ahab of Israel had done; he also bowed in worship to all the stars in the sky and served them. He built altars in the Lord’s temple, where the Lord had said, ‘Jerusalem is where I will put my name.’ He built altars to all the stars in the sky in both courtyards of the Lord’s temple. He sacrificed his son in the fire, practiced witchcraft and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did a huge amount of evil in the Lord’s sight, angering him. . . .Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem with it from one end to another.”
Like I said, a bad dude. And when we read his story in 2 Kings all we know is that he died and that was it. And rightly so. The people suffered greatly under his vile leadership. He needed to go for the sake of the nation itself. A quick and violent end had to be the final chapter of his story. Except it wasn’t. The writer of Chronicles adds a little bit more to his story. Eventually, because of his rank sinfulness and evil, the Lord allowed the Assyrians to attack and defeat Manasseh and Judah’s forces. Manasseh was bound with bronze shackles and taken with hooks to be put on display in Babylon as a conquered trophy for the king. And then, if you’ve paid attention to his story, something entirely unexpected happened. He repented.
Look at this from 2 Chronicles 33:12: “When he was in distress, he sought the favor of the Lord his God and earnestly humbled himself before the God of his ancestors. He prayed to him, and the Lord was receptive to his prayer. He granted his request and brought him back to Jerusalem, to his kingdom. So Manasseh came to know that the Lord is God. . . .He removed the foreign gods and the idol from the Lord’s temple, along with all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the Lord’s temple and in Jerusalem, and he threw them outside the city. He built the altar of the Lord and offered fellowship and thanksgiving sacrifices on it. Then he told Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Quite a turnaround, yes? Manasseh was the most evil of all the kings of Judah. He was every bit as bad as any of the Canaanite kings whom the Lord had brought judgment to using Israel as His instrument. If anyone was beyond the reach of grace and utterly irredeemable in his spirit, it should have been Manasseh. Except he wasn’t. He humbled himself and returned to the Lord. And we know his humble repentance was genuine because the God who knows the human heart perfectly and cannot be fooled by fake piety accepted it and him and restored him to his place. Here’s the thing: If Manasseh could change, then who couldn’t change?
Now, that’s a real story, but it’s also one that is in the neighborhood of 2,500 years old. Let’s talk about a real story that is entirely more recent than that: Yours and mine. There was once a time when you were mired in sin. Maybe you’re there now. You were stuck so deeply in sin it didn’t seem like you were ever going to get out of it. The people around you had written you off. The ones who dared to help you were repelled and disgusted. It seemed there was no hope for you. Except there was.
In Christ there is hope for everyone. No one is beyond the reach of grace. Anyone’s story can take a turn for the good in Christ. We serve the God who can change even the most stubbornly resistant heart. If you let Him, He’ll change yours. He’ll change the hearts of the people around you too. When you think someone’s story is already written, don’t give up on them yet. Repentance and restoration just may be right around the corner. God can do it.