But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had 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; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’

Luke 11:20-24

In the last reflection, we spoke about a son who demanded half of his father’s wealth, his share of the inheritance he would receive at his father’s death. His father acquiesced to the request, even though it really was a disrespectful one. The son took the inheritance and wasted it. The new life he planned out for himself away from his father didn’t last long. He had no money, no friends and no food. Sitting with pigs eating their food, he had a moment of clarity and decided to come back to his father and ask to be treated as a hired servant.

We can imagine the anguish of the father, weeping for the son who rejected him, sitting on the front porch of his house looking down the street, wondering if this might be the day his son came home. He must have worried that he would never see his son again, and what might have befallen the son. Undoubtedly, he lost sleep over it, had relationships affected because of it, carried a pit in his stomach about it. A big part of his life was probably ruined over it.

And then one day, he sees his son coming from a distance. He is probably in tattered clothes, looks unkempt, and appears nothing like the young man who struck off with half of his property. The father has every reason to be disappointed. Half of his wealth is gone. His son squandered all of it. He left with riches and came back in ruins.

The father sees his son and runs to him. He doesn’t wait for the son to come to him and demand an explanation for what happened to him and to the fortune he left with. He runs to the son and embraces him, kisses him. It’s almost as if the son needs to push the father away, to break off his embrace, so that he can make his confession, that he has sinned against heaven and before him and is no longer worthy to be considered as his son. The son gets those words out. They are sincere. He really would be grateful to be a servant. The response of the father must shock and surprise him.

The father responds by calling his servants to bring the son a robe, a ring, and shoes and to put them on his son and to kill the fatted calf and to have a feast in honor of his return. There is something significant about these gifts. Most people did not have many robes back then. Having two was a luxury. To offer his son the best robe would mean that the father would have the second-best robe. He still preferred his son to himself. For many centuries, people have worn family rings, called signets, that featured the family crest, something people would use as a type of signature for themselves. They would dip the ring in wax and use it to sign documents. The fact that the father would put a ring on the son’s finger was a statement that he still belonged to the family. His act of betrayal didn’t exclude him from the family. The son came home without shoes on his feet. We know how difficult it is to go anywhere without shoes. Whether it is hot pavement, sharp stones, thorny plants, or some other unpleasant thing, we can’t get too far without shoes. The father offered the son shoes, meaning he gave him the means to leave again if he chose to. The father didn’t take away his son’s freedom or free will. As for the fatted calf, this represents the best meal that the father could offer. Families that kept livestock would have one they would fatten up with a special diet so that it could be used for a special celebration. Killing this animal would only be done for a very special occasion. And the father felt that the return of his son merited this gesture of extravagance.

In those times when we feel estranged from God our Father, we have to remember the father in this parable. First, God just wants us back. When we come back to Him in repentance, He forgives as quickly as the father in the parable. God will clothe us in the robe of restoration, not a robe of shame. We receive the “family signet” when we are baptized and welcomed into the family of God. This is why there is no re-baptism. Even if we left the church for many years and returned, there would not need to be a new baptism. The “ring” is an invisible mark that we wear. Someone could take away everything we have, but we will still have our “ring.” We can sin in the worst way possible, but the ring will still be there if we come back and ask for it. As for the shoes, God will never take away our free will. Human beings may deprive other human beings of freedom, but God will never take away our freedom to act, or to think, to believe or not to believe. Once we come back to God, we still have the freedom to leave again. And as for the fatted calf, this represents the banquet of the Eucharist, where we received the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, which is there both for those who return to the Father and those who have not left. Except that when we sin, we all leave, whether that journey is catastrophic like the Prodigal Son, or something small. When we sin, we all leave the presence of the Father. Yet the banquet of the Eucharist is available to those who return.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
Give ear to the groaning of my soul, and accept the tears that fall from my eyes; O Lord, save me.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode One, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

In our moments of spiritual despondency, we have to remember that the Father still loves us, we still have our ring, and as long as we come back, there will always be a place for us in the family of God.