18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
There are two key issues with translation here. First, in verse 19, “I am no longer worthy” can be translated two ways. It could mean that he permanently is no longer worthy. This is how it is most often translated within Western Christianity. However, it could also mean “I am presently not worthy” leaving open the option that he might once again be worthy at some future date. In other words, his current status renders him unable to be worthy but he could alter his status. This later connotation is the one Kenneth Bailey suggests.
Second, “hired hands” is not equivalent to slaves. In ascending rank were slaves, bond servants, free laborers and family in a large household. The younger son sees himself occupying a role just one step below a family member while he earns his way back into his father’s good graces. He seems to see this largely as matter of financial mismanagement and is oblivious the damage he has done to relationships.
Bailey suggests the religious leaders listening to the story would almost certainly have been nodding their heads in approval up to this point in the story. “We must first acknowledge our guilt and then earn our way back into God’s good graces” they would say. They likely envisioned the father’s response to the approaching son as one of disgust and anger. The village would likely cut him off from community life and the father might relent enough to allow the son to work on his estate. (The key word is “might.”)
20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Our Modern cities tend to have the poor in the urban core with increasing prosperity as you move to the periphery of the city. Not so in Jesus’ day. The wealthy lived at the center with decreasing wealth as you moved to the periphery. The fields would be just beyond the periphery of the village.
We know from the details of the story that the father is a wealthy man and therefore lives at the center of the city. Such a man would have had much dignity and respect. In public, they wore robes that covered them down to their ankles. They moved about gracefully in keeping with their social position.
The image Jesus paints is of this father at his estate in the center of the village looking diligently into the distance, anticipating the return of his son. It is entirely possible that if the son reaches the village and is recognized, the townspeople may assault him.
The father sees him “while he was still far off.” The double meaning is distance both in geography and relationship. Jesus says the father “was filled with compassion” and then Jesus says “he ran!”
To run to meet his son the father would need to gather up his robes, thus exposing his legs as he ran. (Envision some time when you have seen a woman in our culture wearing a long wedding dress and trying to move quickly and you will get the picture.) For such a man to even show his ankles in public was not dissimilar to someone dropping their pants today. The image is of the father humiliating himself before the village as runs out to greet his son. Bailey points out that this image is so unseemly that many Arabic translations throughout the centuries have tried to translate it into something more dignified.
Jesus says the father hugged and kissed his son. A son in a good relationship with his father would approach, bow and kiss his fathers hand. However, a son who had committed such travesties against his father would be expected to fall to the ground and kiss his father’s feet. Here the father runs a grabs his son before the son can greet him and kiss his son the neck signifying complete acceptance and welcome. It is hard to overstate the shocking impact this picture painted for the first hearers of the story.
21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Notice what is missing from this passage. The son has dropped off the “treat me like one of your hired workers” idea from the greeting to his father. The astonishing love of the father has finally awakened the son to the reality that there is no way he can earn his way back into his father’s graces. He now realizes how much the father loves him and how horrendous were his deeds. He is overwhelmed by the grace his father shows him.
The father’s dramatic sprint through the city was certain to draw a crowd. These events were happening before the community. Before the community the father tells the servants to bring his best robe, a ring, and sandals. The robe means that the father’s status is now conferred on the son. The ring is likely a signet ring signifying the son has the father’s authority. The sandals signify that the son is a free man, as only free men wore sandals. The father imputed his character to his son in front of all the witnesses. Who would now dare to initiate a ceremony to cut the son off from the community?
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
Killing a calf for the village to celebrate is the kind of action that would be done for visiting royalty like a king or prince. To kill a fattened calf would mean that you are expecting a very large crowd. Once an animal was killed it was assumed it would be consumed then and there. Truly the father intended this to be a celebration of celebrations for his lost son.