“Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say 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 servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “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. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate,” Luke 15: 11-24.
Several suggestions have been put forward to change the title of this parable to, for example, "The Parable of the Waiting Father," "The Parable of the Insensitive Brother," "The Parable of the Lost Children." This last one would be my suggestion, because, in fact, both brothers were lost at home. As we shall notice during our reflection, the youngest left his home and returned converted, while the elder brother remained at home without a transformation of character despite the love of the Father.
Three main characters are mentioned in the parable: the father and the two sons. It seems to be a family of Jewish nobility.
The youngest son seems to be tired of living in an environment where his "freedom" was curtailed. His dream was to leave his father's house and go to a faraway place, perhaps Alexandria, Athens, Rome, or another great city, where he would do as he pleased and at the same time be free from advice or guidance from anyone. He was not content to leave the house and stay close by. He wanted to conquer the world. For this dream to come true, he needed money—a lot of money. With this idea in mind, he approached his father and demanded that he be given the part of the inheritance that would legally belong to him after his father’s death.
The parable states that the father "divided their goods" (Luke 15:12), meaning that a division was made between the two sons. According to the law recorded in Deuteronomy (chapter 21:27), the eldest son would receive two-thirds of the estate for being the firstborn and the youngest son only a third.
The young man considered himself worthy to receive in the present what was to be granted to him in the future. Although his father was not obliged to fulfill the imprudent demand, he divided the property and handed the third of his goods to the young man. That request must have broken the heart of that zealous father. The young man did not intend to but was with that request saying that his father was a hindrance to his happiness and success. He was saying that he had tired of waiting for the father's death to receive his inheritance. The old man was healthy, and it was possible that his son would already have grown old by the time he died. So, he asked for his inheritance to enjoy the life he thought he deserved as a young man.
Sin comes attached to a load of folly and madness. According to the apostle James, it "seduces" (James 1:14). It deceives its victim. When we sin, we make senseless decisions and hurt the people we love. Besides, the person we hurt the most is ourselves. A few days ago, I found myself in a hospital emergency room because of the pain that a gallstone was causing. In the same ward, there were other people receiving medical assistance. Next to me was a young woman who appeared to be about twenty. Wanting to distract myself from the pain, I began a conversation and asked her if she was there for the same reason. She told me she was having an IV because of a drinking binge. When I went back to the doctor's office to see if I was okay and to be discharged, I commented on the incident with her. It was almost midnight on a Saturday. She explained to me that this girl was possibly the first in a series of other young people who would be cared for that night at that hospital. She told me that some arrive so altered that they do not accept care and give extra work to the first responders. The doctor said that the worst nights are those in which shows take place at a well-known point in the city. Many young people are brought into the emergency room in a state of complete drunkenness or convulsing due to the use of drugs. Doesn’t that seem crazy? The best years of a person's life are wasted with the use of alcohol and drugs in the name of supposed “fun”. How can it be fun to jeopardize one's life?
A few days later, now in possession of the money, the young man in the parable gathered his belongings and traveled to a distant country (Luke 15:13). To do everything the young man wanted to do, he had to stay out of his father’s sight. When we want to plunge into sin, we must stay away from God. For this reason, Augustine taught that the "distant land" was the "forgetting of God". Paul refers to this condition as being "separated from the life of God" (Ephesians 4:18). We can imagine that young man without vision and with lots of money surrounded by many "friends". It appears that he had no economic vision or imagined that his money would never end. However, surrounded by other young people like him, he began to attend promiscuous parties and gatherings that only served to consume his money and destroy his health. The Bible states that he " squandered his wealth in wild living" (Luke 15:13). Not long after, he realized that his "fortune" had disappeared along with the "friends" who surrounded him while he still had resources.
Carlos was a young man who had grown up in the church. However, by the time he reached adolescence his friendship with unbelieving colleagues led him to turn away from God. The youngest son in a family of four, he began attending nightclubs and attending parties. Soon he began to drink. It was not long before a friend offered him something "stronger": drugs. On one of those evenings, he drank so much that he fell unconscious on the lawn of the house where he was partying. His friends were so drunk they thought it was fun to kick the fallen boy like a soccer ball. A friend who was less drunk pitied him, put his friend in a taxi, and gave the driver the address of where he lived. At dawn, the suffering mother receives a dirty and drunk son at the door of the house. But the worst was yet to come. There are people who use drugs for a long time without suffering major health problems, but others are extremely sensitive and have a more fragile health. That was the case of that young man. One day, he developed a psychiatric disorder of bipolarity caused by drug abuse. He lay prostrate on the living room sofa for four days, alternating moments of intense joy with that of deep sadness. Now he laughed, and now he wept. And where were his party friends now? Gone. Carlos was admitted to a hospital for treatment, and the day after he was checked out his "friends" came around to take the boy to parties again. Of course, that mother put all these false friends to run.
In possession of money and health it is easy to be surrounded by "friends", but when the person needs help, these supposed friends are gone. That is what happened to the young man in the story that Christ told.
Being in a "distant region" he found himself without money, without friends, without food, and without a way back. What a tragedy! The young man who had thought of conquering "freedom" was in the most abject slavery. What to do now? To further complicate the situation, that great city faced an economic crisis with a very high level of unemployment. He had no professional experience, and the only skill he had shown up to that point was an ability to spend money. He who had once lived amidst great abundance of everything now began to literally starve.
He began to look for a job worthy of a young Jew, but he succeeded in finding nothing but an occupation degrading for one of his nation: to feed pigs. The profession of a shepherd was already a professional activity offered only to the less qualified people. Caring for pigs was even more humiliating, because to the Jew and to those who believe in the Bible, they are filthy animals.
According to Lockeyer, “The Jews listening to Jesus must have shuddered at these words, ‘to feed swine,’ for to a Jew, there could not be a greater depth of debasement,” All the Parables of the Bible, p. 330. A certain proverb from the Talmud states: “Cursed be a man who rears pigs and cursed be a man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!” To increase his humiliation, he accepted this work without the promise of receiving a salary, just to kill his hunger with the locusts that the pigs ate.
Herodotus, a Greek historian, claimed that even outside of Israel's borders the profession of pig-caretaker was considered an extremely vile occupation. In Egypt, according to this researcher, the care-takers of pigs were not allowed to mingle with civil society, nor to attend public worship of the gods, as they were considered the most miserable classes of the Egyptians. Other classes in society did not want to have any marital bond with them.
Having reached "the bottom of the pit," the Bible states that the young man “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17), implying the idea that before he had been out of it. As we have seen, sin is madness, and repentance is the return to sanity. Unfortunately, many people only realize the seriousness of the situation they are in when they have no other alternatives in life. We are so proud that we believe we can get rid of the problem ourselves. We repeat to ourselves: I can, I can! In this condition, God cannot help or rescue us. We need to surrender to Jesus, to give up fighting with our own strength.
When a lifeguard at the beach or at the pool sees someone drowning, he does not try to grab the person immediately. He surrounds the person, and, when he realizes that the victim has tired, then he rescues the individual. Why doesn’t he do it at once? Why wait so long? He knows that embracing a person who is drowning while she is struggling can cause both to sink. You need to know the right time to help so as not to jeopardize the integrity of two lives by trying to save one.
In a society that values success and independence, it seems a sign of weakness to ask God for help. It seems humiliating to acknowledge that our case has no other exit and that we do not have the answers. As long as we persist in believing that we can live without depending on God, little can He do for us. Maybe that is why He allows us to be tried, to break that pride that drives us away from His love. The younger son only valued his father’s character when he reached this point of despair. What is your “bottom of the pit”?
The young man in our story had turned a beautiful dream into a terrible nightmare. Now he compared his present situation to that of his father's servants who enjoyed an atmosphere of comfort and plenty. What a fool he had turned out to be! He had exchanged true freedom in the Father's house for a mirage of liberty, which was nothing but the most degrading servitude.
After "coming to his senses" he made a wise decision: “I will set out and go back to my father and say 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 servants’” (Luke 15:18, 19). And he did not leave it as just a decision. “So he got up and went to his father,” (verse 20).
What motivated him to return to his father's house? The certainty that his father was a fair and good man. He will only understand the depth of paternal love when the two are reunited. As we shall see, it is when the son returns home that he realizes how much he was loved by his father. Before leaving home, he considered himself worthy of the inheritance. Now, after coming to his senses, he declares himself unworthy. Recognition of our unworthiness is a fundamental step toward turning to God.
The one who had left home well-nourished, well-dressed, mounted on a camel loaded with riches, now returns on foot, thin, covered in rags, sick, and despicable in appearance.
After his prodigal son had left, his father would always look out to see if his unfortunate son had decided to return. Now, in the distance, he perceives a shape like that of his son. Though totally different from when he had departed, his father's love recognizes him. He would not allow strange eyes to see his son's miserable condition. He runs, embraces the sick son who returned, removes his own cloak, and covers the child's nakedness.
Now the son begins to recite the confession he had planned: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” Luke 15:21. The father did not wait for the penitent young man to finish the rehearsed confession but ordered his servants to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals to put on him. The new clothes indicate that the father was worried, not only to protect his son but to make sure he understood that the past did not matter. He orders a ring to be given to him. By this act he wants to demonstrate that the boy’s position of honor and dignity was restored. Tell them to give him new sandals to wear. Only slaves walked barefoot. His dear son was not a servant; he was a dear member of the family who had returned home. He wanted to protect the wounded and dusty feet of the prodigal son who had returned.
Reflecting on this proof of love, Russell Norman Champlin comments:
“The afflicted son had rehearsed his brief speech well, hoping that he might somehow be able to move his father's heart sufficiently to secure for himself a place among his father's workers. But the father's immediate display of affection interrupted him when he began to make his speech, and he could not say to him: “make me like one of your hired servants.” These last words [...] ‘were muffled by the demonstrations of paternal love; the son is so shaken he cannot form the words in the face of so much affection shown by his father; a psychologically tender and delicate representation’ (Meyer, in loc.). We also notice that this humiliating confession did not have to be given, because the father, through his own actions, had already clearly shown that some form of restitution would result from all this. Nevertheless, the son delivered his confession, or at least part of it, and this after the kiss of reconciliation. This shows that his confession had not been prepared for self-profit but was shielded by genuine repentance,” The New Testament Interpreted, Vol. 2, p. 155.
The three objects mentioned in the father’s orders to the servants: the best robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals each had a special meaning.
The young man left the house well dressed, well nourished, and, we imagine, wearing the ring that resembled his status as a member of a noble family.
In his adventures and misadventures, his beautiful clothes were transformed into "rags of filth". He may have pawned his ring in exchange for some resources for his own survival. He returns dressed in rags, thin, undernourished, haggard, barefoot. He would be content with a position as a simple servant in the house where he had enjoyed the position of a son.
The best robe is a symbol of the righteousness of Christ that is freely offered to the repentant sinner. “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels," Isaiah 61:10.
In Zechariah 3, in the vision of Joshua and the Angel, the first appears before the divine presence " dressed in filthy clothes" (Verse 3). Then the Angel of the Lord, who is Christ Himself, commands those who stood before Him, " Take off his filthy clothes." Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you” (Verse 4).
When the sinner comes repentant to Christ's feet, his filthy rags are removed and he is covered with the fine garments of the righteousness of Christ, the pure and splendid linen. God does not look at our life of sin anymore but sees only the pure life that Jesus lived in our place. God accepts us as if we had never sinned, as if we were pure. He does all this because of the righteousness of Christ offered in our place. What a wonderful exchange!
Ellen G. White describes this demonstration of grace with poetic words:
"Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. “With His stripes we are healed," The Desire of Ages, p. 25.
The ring, as was mentioned, is a symbol of the family’s nobility. It was another proof that the young man was received, not as a slave or servant, but as a son with all the rights and privileges bestowed on him as a member of the nobility.
Slaves walked barefoot. Sandals were offered to the young man returning home and were also included in the package offered to the son. He feels that he has been fully forgiven, justified, and accepted as part of the family. This is how God treats every repentant sinner. The repentance itself that is necessary before one is forgiven or justified is a gift of God.
Another order from the father guides the servants as to the preparation for the welcome-back party for the son who had been lost: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate,” Luke 15: 23, 24.
The sinner, far removed from God, is considered dead and lost (Ephesians 2:1). When recovered from the life of sin he is considered alive and found.
Well-known biblical commentator, Russel Norman Champlin, explains:
"The rags were taken from him and he was dressed in the best robe, which in the original Greek speaks of a very fine and princely garment that extends down to the feet, the type of garment worn by distinguished guests and people of importance for special occasions. For the children of God there are no secondary things, no matter how good these may be. The garment signifies honor, recognition, exaltation. We are reminded that the garment of righteousness that is provided through Christ, the attire of the saints, symbolizes holiness and exaltation. It is the same garment of praise (see Isaiah 61: 3); and the garment of righteousness, of the new life... participation in the life and glory of Christ, in which believers assume the position of kings and priests, sons of God led to glory. All this contrasts with the rags with which he arrived, symbols of his former state when he still represented lost humanity, just in its own eyes, which is man isolated from God, without redemption.
"The gold ring given to the son was a sign of favor or special affection from his father; and in this case indicates paternal love...The slaves did not wear such rings, much less gold rings. These gold rings were an indication of distinction and wealth. (See Genesis 41:42.)
"The young man had come home barefoot, as if he were a slave, for slaves ordinarily wore no shoes. But now he was recognized as a free man. Thus, we find here the threefold symbol of freedom and honor—the garments, the ring, and the sandals—all that was the fruit of perfect reconciliation," The New Testament Interpreted, Vol. 2, p. 155.
Jesus declared: “…a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” John 8:35-36.
On this the blessing of salvation, Ellen White wrote:
"Every soul that refuses to give himself to God is under the control of another power. He is not his own. He may talk of freedom, but he is in the most abject slavery. He is not allowed to see the beauty of truth, for his mind is under the control of Satan. While he flatters himself that he is following the dictates of his own judgment, he obeys the will of the prince of darkness. Christ came to break the shackles of sin-slavery from the soul. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” sets us “free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:2.
"In the work of redemption, there is no compulsion. No external force is employed. Under the influence of the Spirit of God, man is left free to choose whom he will serve. In the change that takes place when the soul surrenders to Christ, there is the highest sense of freedom. The expulsion of sin is the act of the soul itself. True, we have no power to free ourselves from Satan's control; but when we desire to be set free from sin, and in our great need cry out for a power out of and above ourselves, the powers of the soul are imbued with the divine energy of the Holy Spirit, and they obey the dictates of the will in fulfilling the will of God.
"The only condition upon which the freedom of man is possible is that of becoming one with Christ. “The truth shall make you free;” and Christ is the truth. Sin can triumph only by enfeebling the mind, and destroying the liberty of the soul. Subjection to God is restoration to one's self,—to the true glory and dignity of man. The divine law, to which we are brought into subjection, is “the law of liberty,” James 2:12. The Desire of Ages, pg. 466.
"Arise and go to your Father. He will meet you a great way off. If you take even one step toward Him in repentance, He will hasten to enfold you in His arms of infinite love. His ear is open to the cry of the contrite soul. The very first reaching out of the heart after God is known to Him. Never a prayer is offered, however faltering, never a tear is shed, however secret, never a sincere desire after God is cherished, however feeble, but the Spirit of God goes forth to meet it. Even before the prayer is uttered or the yearning of the heart made known, grace from Christ goes forth to meet the grace that is working upon the human soul.
"Your heavenly Father will take from you the garments defiled by sin. In the beautiful parabolic prophecy of Zechariah, the high priest Joshua, standing clothed in filthy garments before the angel of the Lord, represents the sinner. And the word is spoken by the Lord, “Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him He said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.... So they set a fair miter upon his head, and clothed him with garments.” Zechariah 3:4, 5. Even so God will clothe you with “the garments of salvation,” and cover you with “the robe of righteousness.” Isaiah 61:10. “Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.” Psalm 68:13.
"He will bring you into His banqueting house, and His banner over you shall be love. (Song of Solomon 2:4) “If thou wilt walk in My ways,” He declares, “I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by”—even among the holy angels that surround His throne. (Zechariah 3:7.)
“As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.” Isaiah 62:5. “He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy; He will rest in His love; He will joy over thee with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17. And heaven and earth shall unite in the Father's song of rejoicing: “For this My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Christ’s Object Lessons, pgs. 206, 207.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death,” Romans 8:1, 2.