“Put shoes on his feet.” (Luke 15:22)
Quite often, it is the little details in the parables of our Lord that tell us the most about his teaching. It is the details that lead us deeper into the Gospel, refining our understanding of the eternal and life-giving Truth, so that we will not be satisfied with vague or careless summaries of the scriptures, such as “the parable of the Prodigal Son is about forgiveness.”
Yes, of course, the parable of the Prodigal Son is about forgiveness, but at the same level of superficiality we might as well say that Huckleberry Finn is “about a boy” or that Gone With the Wind is “about a fire.” We wouldn’t think much of a school that didn’t dig deeper than this into the details of ordinary human books, and so we ought not to be content with our knowledge of God’s Book if our understanding of it is equally shallow.
Why does it matter that the father in the parable, when his prodigal son has returned to him, commands his servants “to put shoes on his feet”? Let us sort out together some of the details that will tell us why those shoes are important.
A “parable” is, first of all, a teaching story that uses comparisons of Earthly things with Heavenly things, so that we might learn about the kingdom of God. Thus, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father represents God himself, the Father in Heaven. His two sons represent the two main kinds of sinners in this fallen world.
The older son is a stand-in for the sort of person who misses the point of life, work, and love in his Heavenly Father’s household. He turns obedience into drudgery and a competition for rewards. He transforms, at least in his own troubled heart, the life of perfect freedom in God’s kingdom into a life-sentence in a prison of his own making.
The younger son, the “prodigal son,” has a different set of weaknesses. He has no gratitude, either towards his Earthly father or to the Heavenly Father that he represents. When he demands his “share” of his family’s goods, the prodigal is the model of every human being that has ever taken God’s creation of the world and God’s many gifts of grace for granted. “These things are mine,” he says, ignoring the fact that everything good comes from God — every dime we ever possess, any talents or skills that we are given, every capacity of our senses and minds to know and touch and taste and see what is good and beautiful.
The prodigal, and those like him, are the exact opposite of the faithful Christian who knows that he must pray to God every day, as we prayed together in this morning’s Collect, “that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
To live in Jesus Christ is to live in his Father’s house, and to be adopted by grace so that the Father and his house become our own as well. The adventures of the Prodigal Son, when he leaves his father’s house to run his own life in his own way, is an illustration of what awaits those who insist on living apart from the eternal household of the Eternal God.
The prodigal does not find freedom. He finds bondage to his appetites. He finds slavery to money, and to other people’s money when his own money runs out. He finds total degradation as a hired man feeding swine, an unclean animal for a Jew, even as his hunger makes him long to squat down at the trough with the pigs to fill his belly. This downward spiral of decay is what awaits anyone who sets his life apart from God, but even this self-imposed self-destruction has its purposes in God’s mercy.
Many are redeemed only after they have “hit bottom,” only after their sins have made their lives so miserable that they are forced to face the alternatives of life with God or death without him. Thus, it is a mercy, albeit a hard mercy, when the father in the parable lets his prodigal son have his own way. It is a mercy of God, as well, when he permits us to face the consequences of our sins and departures from his will, so that we may “come to ourselves,” that is, “come to our right selves,” as the Prodigal Son in the parable did.
The Prodigal Son becomes a penitent — one who confesses that his sin is sin and that sin is hateful, accepting that the only remedy for sin is forgiveness. And so, the prodigal son plans what he will say to his father: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)
These words are a powerful confession of sin, and a model for every confession of sin. But even more terrible is the sentence that the prodigal, now repentant, son imposes upon himself: “make me as one of thy hired servants.” At the time and in the place where our Lord preached, a hired servant was even less than a slave. A slave, at least, was a member of his master’s household. A slave had certain rights to food, shelter, clothing, and care, which were part of the bond between a slave and his master. A hired man, on the other hand, was entitled to nothing but his wages, was not a member of his employer’s household, and could be dismissed at any time.
Thus it was that the Prodigal Son was willing to accept the worst possible position with the lowest possible dignity, if only his father would allow him under his roof again. Thus the parable illustrates the truest form of repentance — a willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of atonement, for the sake of reconciliation with God. The lowest place in the Kingdom of God, after all, is higher than the highest thrones of the Earth.
But true repentance always leads to better graces than we can imagine. When the prodigal son was still a long way off, his father (who had never ceased to look for him) spotted him in the distance and ran to him. (Luke 15:20) The father’s kisses and hugs taught the Prodigal Son immediately to drop his self-imposed sentence and to trust in his father’s judgment and love. This is why the son does not say, “Make me as one of thy hired servants,” but only, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (Luke 15:21)
And the father responds by commanding his servants, “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24) So there are those shoes, and what do they tell us?
Slaves did not wear shoes. The prodigal has been received, not as a hired man and not as a slave, but as a son. The ring and the robe tell us that the prodigal has also been received as an heir. And the feast of the fatted calf tells us that the now repentant son and heir has received a whole new life from his father, and not just his old, sullen, sinful life to take up once again.
There’s an old spiritual that says, “All God’s children got shoes.” In its homely way, this hymn tells us with the parable of the Prodigal Son that God does not make us slaves when we turn to him. He makes us children of grace and heirs of his kingdom. If we even begin to turn towards him, God, who watches for us and over us forever, will rush to our aid and rescue us at once and clothe us in his grace and mercy. And it is the final irony of our fallen nature that only when we are willing to become the slaves of God are we ready to become his sons and daughters and to be given a place of honor in his eternal kingdom.