Safe and sound
Every story has a turning point? What’s the turning point of the Prodigal Son?
Perhaps we think it’s in the pigsty. There he is, hungry and helpless, and the prodigal hatches a plan…
“17 When he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15:17-19)
It’s common to hear this moment explained as the turning point for the prodigal. I’m not so sure. It seems to me that a prodigal truly returning to the father is as likely as a lost sheep trotting back to its pen. No, verse 17 descibes the kind of “turning” that happens in the far country. ”He came to himself.” It’s himself he’s thinking about. And his apology in v18 is actually a famous apology from the Old Testament. Many of Jesus’ hearers would have remembered it. Someone in Hebrew history famously said “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you”… Pharaoh. When Pharaoh was in deep trouble with plagues crashing down on his head, he also came to himself and said to Moses, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.” (Exodus 10:16; “heaven” is a common way for Hebrews to avoid saying the LORD’s name). But of course Pharaoh’s “repentance” lasted only a matter of hours.
So here in the far country, the prodigal devises a pig-sty plan to make some Pharaoh repentance. And not so he can be restored to his relationship as “son.” No, instead the prodigal makes a job application. This sinner resolves to become a slave. That’s the only change that happens in the pigsty – and it’s the only change that happens when churches preach “pigsty repentance.” Many prodigals have resolved to clean up their act, to give up the far country and exchange it for hard work in the field. They leave the pigsty and enter the slaves’ quarters. But it’s not what the father wants!
Halfway through verse 20 we see the real turning point of the story.
20 …But when [the younger son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
Before the father has heard a word from this sinner… he has bolted out the door, up the front drive and smothered his wretched boy in kisses. Before he’s heard a word!
And did you notice how the father cut his son off at the end of verse 21. The son was about to make his job application: “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” The father is having none of it. “Bring forth the best robe!”
Here’s what brings the sinner home – not his pigsty plan, not his Pharaoh sorry-speech, not his dutiful job application. Here is what brings him home – the father! Just as the shepherd hoists the lost sheep onto his shoulders and strides home. Just as the woman finds the lost coin and celebrates, so the father reconciles his son still stinking of pig.
Filled with compassion he runs to his son. Dignified, middle-eastern men did not run. They would have to hitch up their robes. They would look ridiculous. But this father doesn’t mind looking undignified and unfatherly. In fact he would look very motherly, hitching and running and hugging and kissing.
He robes the boy with the best robe – which would be his robe. He puts a ring on his finger – a sign of authority. He puts sandals on his feet – which would set him apart from the servants. He kills the fatted calf – which would feed hundreds. And the father publicly, expensively and joyfully invites this sinner right back into the heart of the family.
The world only knows how to turn sinners into slaves. This man turns sinners into sons!
As the servant will say in verse 27, the father has him back “safe and sound.”
By the way, the phrase is a lovely amplified translation of a single Greek word (the way “laughed to scorn” is an amplified translation of a single Hebrew word).
The prodigal is now secure, healthy and whole – that’s the sense of “safe and sound”. True freedom was not found in the far country. And true change did not come in the pigsty. Here is where he finds freedom and change – in the father’s embrace.
There’s one kind of humility required for a sorry speech. That’s a kind of self-abasement in which you are still in possession of yourself. It’s an entirely different kind of humbling when the One who has been so mortally offended falls on your neck and kisses you, when He welcomes you, celebrates you and lavishes you with undeserved kindness. True repentance happens when the sinner – still stinking of pig! – slumps in the arms of the father.
No doubt, next morning the sinner would awake and remember his chequered past. The riotous living, the shameful uncleanness. But he arises in the father’s house, in the father’s robe, in the father’s love. His sin was not stronger than his father’s forgiveness. Nothing can separate him from the love of this man who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” With this father he is forever “safe and sound.”