Undoubtedly one of the most famous stories ever told, this tale of a father’s unconditional and forgiving love has been told a million times in pulpits around the world. It is a story of grace and if one ever needs an understanding of what that word means, they can find it in the parable of two brothers and their amazing father. The problem, however, with a story that has become so familiar, is that it breeds the proverbial contempt, so it wouldn’t hurt to retell the story, perhaps in a more modern context.
The parable retold
A very rich man had two sons and they were as different from each other as night is from day. The elder son was a studious, industrious sort of chap who plodded day after day through life and was so formal in his approach towards everything, he was positively boring. The younger was wild, like a horse that couldn’t be tamed and his restless spirit yearned to be free. Although he had all the creature comforts anyone could want in a house that had more bathrooms than it had people, he felt stifled by it and one day decided he had enough of the easy life. So he bullied his father into giving him his share of the inheritance and took off as far away as he could get.
With a lot of money in hand, he gave his wildness free rein, drinking, gambling, womanizing, but although he had the time of his life to begin with, he soon began to feel depressed. The wild life wasn’t satisfying him as much as he thought it would; on the contrary it was leaving him very empty and he would wake up in the morning with a bitterness in his mouth and hollowness in his heart. Soon, the drinking, gambling and womanizing increased, but now it was more to fill the empty spaces in his soul rather than the pleasure it brought him. He often thought of home, longing to return, but his pride stopped him. Soon his money began to run out, and as soon as that did, his friends ran out as well. Now it became a struggle to survive. To make matters worse a recession hit the country and there were no jobs to be found. One day, lying in his bed staring at the ceiling fan that remained motionless because his electricity had been cut for nonpayment of the bill, he came to his senses. “This is madness,” he thought. “What am I doing here in this heat, hungry and broke when my father’s servants are provided with everything. Better for me to be a servant in my father’s home. Let me see if my father will hire me.” So he trudged back home, a dirty, dejected, dismal boy. As he approached the wide wooden doors of his home, they were flung open and there stood his father. He opened his mouth to make his excuses, but before he could utter a word a pair of arms enveloped him in a warm embrace. “I missed you, son,” his father said. “Welcome home.”
Scripture tells us that it is by grace we are saved, by the unmerited favor of God upon us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We were all like the younger son in this story, dead, as Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians, through the trespasses and sins in which we lived. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). It is an understanding of this great love that changes us, as it must have changed the boy in our story, shocked not only by the unconditional and immediate forgiveness he received, but also by the restoration of all that he had lost. He had been prepared to work as a servant in the household, but he was restored to his original place as the son and heir of the father. We will look at how this happened, but let us look at this entire story in proper context.
Jesus always had a huge audience, although one suspects many were there more for the miracles than the message. Most of these were ordinary people, despised by the religious elite comprising the Scribes and the Pharisees, not so much for their lack of wealth as for their “sinfulness”. Although they were constantly at loggerheads with Jesus, it didn’t prevent them from coming to check out the things he was saying, and they were horrified at the manner in which he consorted with these people. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled (cf. Luke 15:2). They couldn’t imagine how anybody who was “holy” would contaminate himself with somebody who was not.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus had said to them on one occasion. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”(Matthew 9:12). This time, however, he decides to tell them a few stories, hoping that they would understand how self-righteous they were being and how hypocritical they were. One story was about a shepherd who goes looking for a sheep who had wandered off from the others, another was about a woman who found a coin she had misplaced, and the third was about a father whose wayward son returned to him. The theme in all of them was finding what was lost.
The main characters in this story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother, are a man and his two sons. The man is rich, something we know by the fact that he has estates, servants and cattle. Now in an agrarian society (the cattle points to that!), a rich man occupies a very prominent place in society. He has honor, power and respect in the community. It was honor, power and respect that the sons were entitled to, but it wasn’t something that the younger son seemed too interested in. Unlike the elder son who was loyal and obedient, he smarted under his father’s authority and wanted to do his own thing, go his own way. So one day he went to his father and asked him for his share of his inheritance.
There is no culture in the world where the property of a man is divided before his death. True, there are occasions when a father might divide his property because he wishes to discontinue active interest in his business, go on a cruise, or some other reason, but the initiative for this lies with the father. Never is a child permitted to ask his father for his inheritance without intending serious disrespect, because the demand effectively implies the child wishes his father dead. Despite his shock, sorrow and shame, the father undoubtedly tried to talk his son out of the folly of his ways, but seeing his son was so adamant, he acceded to his demands and divided his property between the two. The younger son took his share of the estate, which according to Mosaic law would be one-third of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17), and then went about doing something totally illegal: He sold his inheritance and with the money he obtained from the sale, he skipped town! Settling down in a new place, far from his family, he began to spend his life in wasteful living. (That is where the term “prodigal” comes from: it means “wasteful”.) And like most fortunes that aren’t earned with hard work, this one quickly began to dwindle, until one day there was nothing left. As fate would have it—or as God would have it—there was a famine in the country and there was no food or work to be found. His friends—who had been with him all these months living off him—were nowhere to be found, and in desperation, the young man took a job feeding pigs to support himself. In Jewish culture, pigs were unclean animals (see Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 15:8), and it is indicative of how low the young man had sunk that he had to support himself feeding them. There in the pig sty, as he found himself envying the pigs the food they were eating, the young man came to his senses.
Coming to One’s Senses
It was inevitable that the young man came to his senses, just as it is inevitable that all of us will come to our senses. The only question is: Where will it be? In the comfort of your armchair, as you read this? In a pig sty, like this boy found himself? In a jail cell, like this author found himself? (see: The Return of the Prodigal) Or after we are dead, when there is precious little we can do about it? But all of us will come to our senses. What does this mean? Three things:
One: understanding that there is a problem. As the prodigal son fed the pigs and envied them the food they ate, he thought, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger” (Luke 15:17). The realization that he had a problem might seem obvious to many of us who are reading this, but it isn’t always so obvious when we are in a similar situation ourselves. We rationalize the situations in our lives, even when they are very bad. This boy thankfully didn’t. Two: acknowledging one’s responsibility for the problem. We often blame others for the bad state of affairs. This boy didn’t. He acknowledged his mistake. “I have sinned against heaven,” he admitted (Luke 15:18). Three: taking the steps necessary to rectify the problem. The boy said, “I will get up and go to my father” (cf Luke 15:18).
Let’s do a brief side-step here to look at Jesus’ mastery over the art of story telling. Though he is talking to a whole mix of people, he is addressing himself especially to the Pharisees. He has led them to an entire gamut of emotions in the span of a few minutes, beginning with outrage (the son asks his father for his inheritance), then through anger (the son wastes his money on wild—read: sinful—living), followed by disgust (the boy feeds pigs!), which is accompanied by a certain sense of satisfaction (the guy got what he deserved!). Now that he is set to return home, they are waiting for the payback! They are sure that the son is going to get the whipping of a lifetime, if not worse and they can’t wait for it to happen! Boy, are they in for a shock!
Scripture tells us that “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20). Many of us picture the father eagerly waiting on the roof of his house for his son to come home, but although he undoubtedly longed for the return of his son, it is highly unlikely that all he did was wait for him. As the boy trudged home, villagers on the outskirts of town would have seen him approach and somebody would have recognized him. Word would have spread rapidly and by the time the boy reached his father’s house (weak from hunger and tired from his journey he couldn’t have been walking very fast), his father would have received the news about his return. Like the Pharisees, the villagers who had gathered around were waiting for the certain retribution that would follow. But to everybody’s surprise, including the son’s, the father embraced him, and then turned to the servants and said to them: “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24). While this story is essentially one of forgiveness, it is also one of tremendous love, and we see it in the instructions the father gives to the servants. What do they signify?
The Robe, the Ring and the Sandals
He tells the servants to bring out the best robe. The best robe in the house is the one worn by the father. The next time the boy goes into the marketplace wearing his father’s robe, people are going to see him coming and believe it is the father coming and give him the respect due the father!
The second thing he asks the servants to bring is a ring. A ring is a symbol of power and authority. This boy, who has squandered his father’s wealth in wild living, can go about his father’s business, telling people what they need to do and they will have to do it, because he wears the ring on his finger. The third thing he tells the servants to bring is sandals. In a Jewish household, the only people allowed to wear footwear in the house was the father and his sons. He was declaring in no uncertain terms that the boy, despite everything he had done, was still his son, entitled to the rights of a son. We all know this story is illustrative of God (the father) and us (the sons). When we return home to the father, we get more than forgiveness; we get special gifts: a robe, a ring and sandals. What do these gifts represent to us?
In Isaiah 61:10, we see the prophet describing a “robe of righteousness” as being one of the garments of salvation. This is the robe of righteousness that is given to all of us who return to the father in repentance and are baptized in the name of Jesus (cf. Romans 3:22). We also see a robe described in Revelations 6:11 that is going to be given to all the saints who enter heaven.
It’s the best robe in the house! Intended for us! And what happens to us when we wear it? We become like the father! “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells us to be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect. We are all called to be perfect. But we can’t be perfect by our own efforts. However, when we put on the robe of righteousness that comes through faith, we are gradually transformed into the likeness of the father.
A ring is given to us too, a ring of power and authority. What power, though? In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We receive the power of the Holy Spirit. To do what?
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus says, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is how we go about our father’s business, being witnesses to the ends of the earth and making disciples of all nations, all through the power of the Holy Spirit with the authority of Jesus.
We too are made sons of God when we return home. John proclaims it boldly in his first letter. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).
Paul too confirms that “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ ...” (Romans 8:16-17). We are inheritors, not only of the kingdom of heaven, but also of earth, and all of God’s promises.
The Fatted Calf
The story ends with a celebration, a fatted calf killed in honor of the returning son. As Jesus says, “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
The celebration has deeper meaning, however, and a teacher who told her young class the parable of the prodigal son tried to bring this deeper meaning to the children. At the end of the lesson, she asked the children who they thought suffered the most: the father, the elder son, or the younger son. A bright spark at the back of the class chirped, “The fatted calf!” This was, of course, a joke, but the child was right. It was the fattened calf who suffered the most. In our parable this is Jesus, the lamb of God. Sin demands sacrificial atonement because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and “life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement“ (Leviticus 17:11). This used to be the blood of animals. In Leviticus 9 we see Moses telling Aaron and the elders of Israel to “take a bull calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. Take a male goat for a sin-offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt-offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain-offering mixed with oil. Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded” (Leviticus 9:2-3,7). To ensure the sacrifice was perfect, the Israelites would separate a lamb, calf or goat that was without blemish at birth and raise it up, often with more care than they would a little child, until it was ready to be sacrificed at the altar. They would then take it to the priest, where they would place their hand on the animal, identifying with the animal and in some metaphysical way, transferring their sins onto the animal. Then the animal would be killed, it’s blood sprinkled over the altar. When we are baptized in Jesus, the same transference happens, only it is for all time. Made righteous in him, we can simply walk through the door to our Father’s house, wearing the robe of righteousness, the ring of power and authority, and the sandals of sonship, and reign in love, joy and peace forever. And remember the party is forever.