Perhaps the most surprising moment in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son is when the father finally reunites with his rebellious and shameful son. Here was a father, running with open arms to the son who had brought so much reproach on his family. Furthermore, he lavished the prodigal with staggering gifts. “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 ceremonial presentation of the three gifts was no mere sentimental gesture. The father was making a public declaration that carried profound and far-reaching legal weight. Just as the shoes signified that the prodigal was to be a treated as a son rather than a hired servant, and the robe demonstrated that he was not merely a son but a highly favored one, the signet ring carried a meaning that everyone in that culture understood. It formally endowed the prodigal son with a legal right known as usufruct.
Those familiar with legal terminology—especially probate law—will immediately recognize that term. The legal principle of usufruct has a long history that goes back at least to early Roman law, and it is still a recognized right in most systems of civil law today. Usufruct is from a Latin expression that literally means “use and enjoyment,” and it describes the legal right to use someone else’s property or assets freely and reap the fruits of them as if they were one’s own personal possessions.
In other words, usufruct confers all the rights of ownership without actually transferring the title of ownership, per se. The usufructuary (the nonowner receiving this right) is not authorized to sell, damage, or diminish the value of the property in question. But beyond that, he is free to use it any way he likes. If it’s a field, he can cultivate it and reap the profits of the venture without any obligation to pay rent. If it’s real estate, he can use the property as if it were his own, or even lease it out to someone else and collect the proceeds for himself. This was a high and powerful privilege, similar to power of attorney, but specifically with respect to the use of property.
Don’t forget that this family's assets had already been formally divided between the two sons (Luke 15:12). The father had liquidated what he could in order to give a large cash inheritance to the younger son, who promptly threw it all away. Everything that was left was the rightful inheritance of the elder son. That son would not legally be able to take full and unrestricted ownership of the family estate until the death of the father. In other words, as long as the father lived, the elder son’s own property rights were just usufructuary.
But in the elder son’s case, that was a mere temporary formality. He would eventually inherit full title to everything that remained in the estate. That fact could not be changed now. When the inheritance was divided at the prodigal son’s behest, legal arrangements would have been drawn up and executed to guarantee it. The elder son would automatically take sole possession when the father died. All questions about the long-term ownership of the family assets were already settled, legally binding, and absolutely irrevocable. There was no loophole by which the inheritance could be reapportioned. Everything on the property belonged to the elder brother by promise.
But for now, as long as the father was alive, he was still the family patriarch and head of the household. He technically held title to all the property for the time being, and therefore he had every prerogative to make use of the estate and all its assets any way he wished. In effect, what he did here was lay claim to everything he had promised to the elder son, and he told the younger son, “Use it however you like.”
People listening to the parable would have been perplexed at such an expression of grace. How is that fair? How can the father reward the prodigal so lavishly—in a way that almost seems insulting to the good-guy image of the elder son—in spite of the way the younger boy has behaved? How can this man permit the prodigal son to enjoy the same goods, benefits, and privileges as the son who stayed home?
Had the prodigal not returned, the elder son would have eventually worn that robe, or else the father himself would have used it at the elder son’s wedding. That was the sort of occasion when such a robe should be brought out—the wedding of the firstborn son. Such a wedding was the single greatest event that would normally happen in any family. But now the robe was defiled with the younger brother’s pig-stink.
The elder son should have gotten the father’s signet ring and the corresponding legal privilege of acting on his father’s behalf. The elder son was the one who had stayed on the family property in the first place, and he should have had sole usufructuary rights to it. After all, all that property was already his by a binding legal promise.
None of this made any sense, particularly in a culture where honor was so highly valued.
But the father acted quickly, without hesitation, and the firm and confident way he responded made his statement that much more emphatic. Consider once more, in that light, what a profound message this sent to the villagers who witnessed the scene: He put shoes on the prodigal’s feet as fast as possible, making a public, ceremonial statement that instantly eliminated any question about whether the boy’s sonship was still intact. He called for the robe to be brought to the place where they were (Luke 15:22), putting it on him before the boy could even go home and clean off the grime from his life of sin and the long journey home. He wanted the boy’s rags covered as quickly as possible, before the prodigal walked through the village under the disapproving gaze of so many people. He even covered the prodigal in his own best garment, allowing that borrowed glory to serve as a shield against the shame the boy deserved. And he immediately gave him the ring, granting the boy an immense privilege he clearly was not worthy of enjoying.
Even more bizarre than that, the father treated the returning prodigal like an honored prince. He ordered his servants to wait on his son as if the prodigal were royalty: “You get the robe and put it on him; you put the sandals on his feet and the ring on his hand.” The message was clear: The father was granting the boy not only full forgiveness and full reconciliation, but also the full privileges of a nobleman’s son who has come of age and proved himself trustworthy.
Christ’s parable is a stunning picture of how God treats every sinner who comes to Him in penitent faith. He immediately adopts us into His family as full heirs to endless heavenly treasure. He covers our sin by permanently clothing us with His perfect righteousness. And He unreservedly grants us every conceivable privilege as His beloved children.
(Adapted from The Prodigal Son)