“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But 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 15.18-22.
For a third morning I am looking at the tokens of the father’s love — those things that he immediately bestowed on the prodigal when he returned. I have thought about the robe and the ring; and now I come to the shoes.
A shoe here is simply hypodema which is literally just something “bound under” the foot and may signify either a shoe or a sandal. But the significance does not lie in the particular form the foot-covering took but rather that a foot-covering of some kind was immediately given. Only members of the household wore sandals or shoes; slaves (and only slaves) went barefoot. The prodigal had returned looking like a slave but the real slaves — the father’s barefooted douloi (here translated “servants”) — are told to put shoes on his feet and, by doing so, to demonstrate that he has been restored to sonship and to acknowledge that, far from being a slave, he is now a master over them.
It was more than the prodigal had expected and more than he had sought. He came back to the father hoping to be taken on as a “hired servant” — a misthios. He didn’t want to be a slave — a doulos — but he knew he was no longer “worthy” to be called the father’s son. So he wanted to be something in between; he wanted to earn a place in the father’s house by working for the father.
It strikes me this morning that that is a pretty accurate picture of many people I’ve encountered in the church over the years. People with a deep sense of “unworthiness” to have any real place in God’s affections — who even when they say “Our father who art in heaven …” regard the word “father” as a title devoid of any real meaning — and who hope that their devoted, rota-driven busyness in the service of God will somehow earn them a place with their loved ones in heaven — whatever and wherever heaven might be. It is so very sad because God does not want slaves or hired servants — he wants only, only, only sons and daughters.
It is significant that when the prodigal’s brother finds that the prodigal is back and that the father has thrown a party to celebrate his return he refuses to take part because “it isn’t fair”. His actual complaint to the father is “‘Look, these many years I have served you …” (Luke 15.29) and there “served” is the verb douleuo which means “to slave for”. All the time that he has been a son, he has been “slaving away” at trying to earn his father’s favour — favour that he already had. He simply could not understand a relationship that was not performance-based. He was simply not open to grace. It had never got through to him that there was nothing he could do to make the father love him less and nothing he could do to make the father love him more.
Did the elder brother wear shoes? If so, he did not understand their significance. He might as well have left them in his wardrobe. But on the prodigal’s feet, they were the shoes of grace, shoes of sonship, shoes of freedom.
Father, help me never to forget the shoes I wear, never forget the amazing grace in which I stand, never try to earn from you what you give me so freely, never become an elder brother. Amen.