If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Scammers now daily bombard us with ridiculous offers of vast imaginary wealth—and it is wise to ignore the hucksters of this world who have no intention of making good on their fantastical promises.
The God of the Bible is nothing like that. His riches are immeasurable, and His promises are guaranteed forever. God’s lavish generosity knows no bounds in providing for sinners. And Christ’s story of the prodigal son insistently points us to this reality.
The prodigal returned to his father destitute and carrying a mountain of guilt. He had lost his inheritance, squandered his possessions, and been abandoned by his “friends.” He understandably expected retribution from his father. He hoped merely to be tolerated as a menial servant on his father’s property. But nothing could have prepared this profligate for the unrestrained love and generosity he experienced upon his shameful homecoming.
As Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, He mentioned three gifts that the father immediately gave his penitent son—before the boy even had a chance to apologize! “The father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet’” (Luke 15:22, ESV). The shocking implications of those three gifts—the shoes, the robe, and the ring—were clearly understood by Christ’s pharisaical audience. And they couldn’t have been more offended.
Shoes—The Gift of Sonship
The shoes may sound like the least of the gifts, but they were highly significant. They made an unmistakable, symbolic statement about the father's acceptance of his son. Hired servants and household slaves customarily went barefoot. Only masters and their sons owned footwear. So the shoes were an important emblem signifying the former rebel’s full and immediate reinstatement as a privileged son. To anyone familiar with the culture, this was no small thing.
On a certain level, and even in that society, the father’s great gladness and relief were completely understandable. But the extravagance with which he forgave was not. His unwillingness to make the wayward boy work off the smallest part of his debt by consigning him to servitude was itself an extraordinary, over-the-top act of kindness.
But surely before the father gave this son any public honor like a costly banquet, he needed to take a more measured approach. Shouldn’t the father withhold some privileges—at least until the boy demonstrated how serious he was? Didn’t he need to lay down some ground rules for this reprobate? Wasn’t it fair to expect to see the fruits of repentance first? A year or two would not have been too long to ask such a boy to prove his faithfulness before granting him the full rights of a loyal adult son.
A sensible degree of restraint somewhere along the line would have seemed only prudent. But there’s no hint of anything like that. The father’s acceptance of his son was immediate and complete.
Robe—The Gift of Honor
The robe was an even higher honor. Every nobleman had a choice robe—an expensive, ornate, embroidered, one-of-a-kind, floor-length outer garment of the highest quality fabric and craftsmanship. It was a garment so special that he wouldn’t even think of wearing it as a guest to someone else’s wedding. It would have been reserved instead for his own children’s weddings or equivalent occasions. The closest twenty-first-century parallel might be an expensive tuxedo that stays in someone’s closet except perhaps once a year (or less). Even in that culture, if you were invited to a very formal occasion and did not own a suitable garment, you might have had to buy or rent one.
But every head of a well-to-do family in the first century owned a special robe like that. It was his most beautiful, finely crafted piece of formal wear. The Greek expression in Luke 15:22 literally means “first-ranking garment.”
He wanted to put that on this reformed swineherd before the boy even had an opportunity to clean himself up? Everyone in the village would have been aghast at such a thought. Giving him the robe signified a greater honor than one would normally even think to confer on any son. This was the kind of courtesy reserved for an extremely prestigious visiting dignitary. The father was publicly honoring his returning son not only as guest of honor at the banquet but also as a person of the utmost distinction.
Ring—The Gift of Authority
That’s not all. The father also called for a ring to put on the boy’s hand. This was a signet ring that had the family crest, or seal, so when the ring was pressed into melted wax on a formal document, the resulting seal served as legal authentication. The ring therefore was a symbol of authority. Exactly how much and what kind of authority is a matter we shall examine next time.
But for now, consider the big-picture significance of all this: The shoes, robe, and ring all belonged to the father and were symbols of his honor and authority. The father was also calling for the greatest celebration that had ever occurred in that family—perhaps the grandest banquet that village had ever seen. In giving the three gifts to his son, he was in effect telling him, “The best of all that I have is yours. You are now fully restored to sonship, and even elevated in our household to a position of honor. No longer are you a rebellious adolescent. Now you are a full-grown adult son, with all the privilege that comes with that position, and I want you to enjoy it fully.” Like a king passing his robe and signet ring to a prince, the father did this ceremoniously and publicly, to eliminate any question from anyone’s mind about whether he really meant it or not. This was yet another self-emptying act by the father.
Even in our culture, it is hard to conceive of any father taking forgiveness that far. But it is yet another proof that this father seems not to be the least bit concerned about his own honor in the eyes of the critics.
It is also a powerful reminder that the father here is a symbol of Christ,
who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
Notice that Christ emptied Himself not by ceasing to be God, and not by divesting Himself of His divine nature or attributes, but by taking a real, authentic human nature on Himself and thereby covering His glory with the shroud of His humanity. He thus stepped down from His grandeur and majesty and became a man. He put Himself on our level. Then He humbled Himself even further by suffering the most ignominious kind of death by capital punishment—as if He embodied all the worst traits of the lowest dregs of human society. That’s what the phrase “even death on a cross” signifies. It’s a far greater act of humiliation than any indignity the prodigal’s father suffered. So if the behavior of the father in the parable seems exaggerated, don’t miss the fact that the disgrace he bore could not possibly be exaggerated enough to even begin to be in the same league as the humility of Christ.
Moreover, this parable reminds us that Christ receives sinners who are in exactly the same situation as the prodigal son—unclean, clothed in filthy rags, utterly bereft of any assets, with nothing whatsoever to commend themselves to Christ. He receives them with the same kind of gladness seen in this parable—and infinitely more. In the words of Romans 4:5, Christ “justifies the ungodly.” If that thought doesn’t make you want to weep with gratitude, then you have probably never felt yourself in the place of the prodigal son, and you need to pray for repentance.
Of course, that was the very issue that put the scribes and Pharisees at odds with Christ. They refused to see Jesus’ ministry of seeking and saving sinners as the activity of God. The idea that Jesus would receive filthy sinners was positively repugnant to them. It was beneath their notion of what the Messiah should be like. And the fact that He would justify sinners through faith alone and instantly treat them as if they had a perfect standing with God (cf. Luke 18:14) was simply more than the Pharisees could bear. After all, most of them had labored their whole lives at their religion, and Christ treated them with less deference than He showed to the tax collectors and other lowlifes who came to Him. In their minds, Jesus was defiled by those associations with sinners. The Pharisees had therefore convinced themselves that they were far more righteous—and therefore even more glorious—than He was.
How badly they misunderstood what true glory looks like! Although Christ stepped down from His heavenly glory, He now inherits an even higher honor. As a matter of fact, His suffering and death (which soon would become the biggest stumbling block of all to people who thought like the Pharisees) put on display some of the greatest features of God’s eternal glory: His loving grace and forgiveness.
It is because of Christ’s substitutionary life, death, and resurrection—on behalf of His sinful people—that our Heavenly Father can lavish those gifts on us. When we come to Him in repentance and faith, He welcomes us as sons and grants us honor in His kingdom. There is nothing in this world that could possibly compete with that.
(Adapted from The Prodigal Son)