The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 was spoken by Jesus and directed at the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus told it to them, along with the parable of the lost coin and the lost sheep, in response to the Pharisees mutterings about Jesus mixing with sinners. Of course we know that these parables were like carefully aimed arrows intended to pierce the hardened hearts of the Pharisees to bring them to an understanding of the heart of God and His desire to seek the lost sinner. If any of those Pharisees and teachers had been really listening I think they would have also understood that Jesus was talking about themselves. The Pharisees were the sheep left in the field while the shepherd searched for the lost sheep, the sinner; they were the 9 coins kept in the purse; they were the brother who stayed at home and complained about the grace of the father towards the lost son. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, that’s me. I’m sure many of you will relate to this as I do. This is the testimony of a son who was once lost and now by the grace of God has been found.
I was brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, ‘The Edinburgh of the South’. My dad was Church of England (C of E), my mother Catholic. I’m thankful for the Christian heritage of my parents, particularly my mother who loves God sincerely and who insisted that as a family we attend Catholic schools and Church. Unfortunately the Catholic Church often gets a bit of a beat up among protestant churches for not really being Christian. My thought is that in the same way the Jewish faith became corrupted by the sin of man so too has the Christian Church.
I was one of those Catholics who called themselves a Christian, merely because of the social label stamped on me by my heritage. I have a copy of the Good News New Testament that was given to me at school but never read it. I knew something of a “Christian moral code” (Catholics are taught to love and serve and give as per the instructions of Jesus and His Apostles) but I had no motive to keep to that code in a society that is predominantly self-serving. In the right context (at church or in the presence of dignitaries, ladies) the moral code was applied, however my heart sought after another life, one of self indulgence, but not so self indulgent that I would doom myself to Hell. My Catholic upbringing taught me that the choice was either, live a good life and go to a good place, or live a bad life and go to hell. Translated this last sentence meant, if I continued to go to church and confess my sins, I was destined for the good place. As I reflect on this I can see a very strong comparison to the culture of the Jews. I can hear all you Protestants out there (Of which I am now one), “That’s the Catholic Church, hard hearted like the Pharisees and teachers of the law”, however, this I fear, is the testimony of many in the Mainstream Christian Church.
Christianity to me (as I understood it) was no more than religion, (a philosophy for living), and ritualism, an extension of the social environment in which I was raised. Looking back I see that my belief was firmly rooted in a lie that had been infused into me from the Society in which I lived. I subconsciously believed that I was going to live forever and that my eternal destiny was a matter of choice. The good choice was a matter of not going off the rails too much. Satan’s lie recorded in Genesis 3:4, “You will not surely die”, had the same impact on me that it had on Eve and then Adam.
As a teenager and a young man I became increasingly lost to sin and self-indulgence, I don’t want to share the details with you because it is not the sin that brings glory to God but the covering for that sin, His Son, Jesus.
At the age of 24 years, after having finished University, I was far away for God. I had no job, my friends had all left town, I was flatting with strangers and was in a lonely place, often quite depressed. At times I felt haunted by the presence of dark shadows in the night, shadows that lurked in the corner of my room, that sat in the rear of my car, or followed me into the house at night leaving me cold and afraid. I was lost, living in the darkness of a self-centred life. I thought about God often, sometimes I even prayed for his protection from those dark shadows. I was a lost sheep in the field, a lost coin, a lost son.
I remember waking one Sunday morning in late summer of 1987 to the distant ringing of Church bells (That’s February in the Southern Hemisphere). The sun was shining and those bells called me. It had been a long time since I had been to a church service, except for the occasional festive service. I had stopped going in my last years of high school, 7 or 8 years earlier. Yes I had become a “C of E” (Christmas & Easter) Christian. Those bells called me that morning or it was God by His Spirit gently prodding my heart to come home. I went to church that morning, met with my mother, had lunch with my mother and father and that afternoon had a debate with them about the church and my position was that the whole thing was a load of rubbish and ritualistic etc…. I can see now that I was wrestling with the lies that were imbedded in my mind, the conversation (argument with my parents) ended in a discussion about something that I thought was in the book of Revelation somewhere. I can thank my Mum that day for giving me a Bible to take home and find what I was looking for. Unbeknown to me what I was looking for was the truth. In my sin filled mind I thought I had a good grasp on the truth, however, what I knew was my own truth, and I know now was filled with lies and half truths and deceptions. What I had in my mind bore little resemblance to God’s truth. That night I opened my Bible to the book of Revelation and read it through. I never did find the verse that I was looking for to answer my argument against my parents, but it was the beginning of a journey to find the truth. I believe that I was truly blessed that day by reading those words in Revelation.
Revelation 1 verse 3 reads: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (NIV)
The book of Revelation speaks of “life” for those who are in Christ, the overcomers, and “death” and “destruction” for those who are not. Although I didn’t understand much of what I read, that day the course was set for this then ‘heaven and hell, immortal soul’ believing Catholic boy.
In November 1987 I decided to leave Dunedin, I was still very lost and confused. I was heading for Australia. I had an old Morris Minor Car, A beat up old thing. My master plan was to travel to Auckland (About 2000 km North at the other end of the country) sell my car (Aucklanders were buying these cars as collectors items) and go to Australia to make my fortune. I left Dunedin on the 17th of November 1987.
On the way my car broke down in Christchurch (About 500km from Dunedin). I had to borrow money to repair it. During my time waiting in Christchurch I caught up with some friends who had shifted there and let’s say the self indulgent lifestyle left me feeling guilty about my life and unsure about where I was going to end my life.
After leaving Christchurch I arrived in Picton for a night. I had to catch a ferry between the South and North Islands of New Zealand. Picton is the site of the South Island Ferry Terminal. That evening, as I lay alone in my two man tent at the Picton camping Ground, I tried to tune my car radio to one of the radio stations with which I was familiar. The only station I could get was a then small Christian Radio station, know as Radio Rhema. The music and conversation kept prodding me to reflect on my life and its meaning. As I moved further North once again my car broke down, near the timber logging town of Tokoroa which is about a 1 and a half hours drive South of Hamilton where I now live. I limped my car to Hamilton. I had to drive with the windows down to let the smoke out from the engine (it had blown a piston and was running on three cylinders). Once in Hamilton I stayed with my oldest sister, Marie, while I worked to earn money to fix my car and continue my journey to nowhere.
My sister had become a Christian in a Catholic Charismatic Renewal group. It was my sister who shared with me about the living Christ Jesus (Not the dead one I had seen on all the crosses of my youth). Jesus wanted a relationship with me and my heart was ready to hear this truth. On the 29th of December among my sisters Charismatic prayer group I committed my life to God and accepted Jesus as the Saviour of my life. I once was lost but now I was found. I guess there was celebration in heaven when I came to faith. This was the beginning of my walk with Him: a walk that has brought me much joy and comfort and removed much of the internal conflict, and flushed away those dark shadows.
Tom Bennett, his wife Glenyss and four children: Maddison, Sam, Georgia and Holly live in Hamilton New Zealand. Tom and Glenyss are members of the Hamilton Church of Christ (Life and Advent) where they supervise the Sunday School program. Tom is a pharmacist and runs two pharmacies in Hamilton.