Which Son Are You?

The prodigal said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v. 17b). “Food to spare” translates a phrase which means to be surrounded by loaves as by a flood (Robertson 210). So, “I will set out and go back to my father” (v. 18a). But how could he? The legal documents were signed and executed. He had no further claims on the estate, no rights to his previous status. The father had no reason or obligation to receive such a sinful, dishonorable prodigal.

The young son knew it was so: he would declare 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 men” (vs. 18b-19). He “sinned”—the word means to miss the mark (Robertson 210), to miss the purpose and meaning of life. He sinned against heaven, against his heavenly Father. This recognition is the first step to genuine repentance, for all sin is first and foremost against our holy Father (cf. Psalm 51.4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight”).

And he sinned against his earthly father: “and against you.” He missed the mark with his family, with this man who loved him so much. And now it was too late to earn it back: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He could do nothing to deserve restoration. He was right, and repentant (Geldenhuys 408; Fitzmyer 1089).

So, his repentance sincere and his resolve sure, “he got up and went to his father” (v. 20a). But his father was not done with grace. The same grace which gave the inheritance the son did not earn, now refused to give the punishment he deserved. Refused to continue the consequences for sins his son confessed. He is just like our Father in heaven.

Here is one of the most poignant verses in all the word of God: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20). The father had been looking for his son, from the moment he left to the moment he returned (Robertson 210). He was “filled with compassion” for this son now limping back in rags and repentance. He “ran” to his son, regardless of Eastern dignity and the proprieties of advancing years (Bruce 581), exactly the opposite of the way his son has come home to him (Barnes 105).

He “kissed him,” in language which means to kiss fervently and frequently, over and over again (Bruce 581; Robertson 210). This act was the ancient sign of forgiveness (Rienecker 187; Fitzmyer 1089). When King David kissed Absalom, his wayward and sinful son, he extended to him this same forgiveness (2 Samuel 14.33). Now the father gave such grace to his shocked and sinful boy.

The prodigal started his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But his father wouldn’t let him finish. He heard enough. He heard words of repentance from a heart of grief and guilt and genuine sorrow. And that was all he needed to hear.

The father welcomed the boy as his son. He was “justified”—”just as if I’d never sinned.” He was restored, publicly and powerfully. He received “the best robe” (v. 22a), a stately garment coming down to the feet, worn by kings (Robertson 211), replacing the wretched rags the boy wore home (Bruce 582). A ring was placed on his finger (v. 22b), Jewish tradition for one honored as his father’s deputy (Rienecker 187; Esther 8.2). The son was not only received, but promoted. And he was given “sandals on his feet” (v. 22c). No slaves wore sandals, only sons (Bruce 582).

But the father was not done with grace: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (v. 23). Wealthy landowners kept a calf fattened for festive occasions. And so the father kept the calf, perhaps hoping for his son’s return and the party he would give in his honor (Robertson 211).

Why the celebration? “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24a). “This my son” is the literal wording. The father claimed his boy publicly, introducing him to attendants who did not know him from before he left for the far country. And telling the world that he was proud of his boy. He had been “dead” spiritually (cf. Romans 6.13; Revelation 3.1; Ephesians 2.1-5), but now he was alive. He had been lost, but now he is found. “So they began to celebrate” (v. 24b).

The prodigal thought he was coming home to face wrath and works, and deservedly so. But he found instead grace and gifts. Not grace he must earn, for that is no grace at all. Grace he could only receive in wonder, faith, and joy.

Theologian Paul Tillich described such an encounter with true grace, in words so meaningful they deserve a slow and careful reading:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.