No one who saw him could quite believe what they were seeing! This highly respected village elder with the skirts of his robe in his hands – his legs bared for all to see running as fast as he could down the dusty path from his home through the village streets. Older men in his culture did not run, it was unheard of – shocking, disgraceful, demeaning, totally outrageous. What on earth could have possessed this normally sane, sedate man, highly regarded by all who knew him for his wisdom and graceful way of life to be doing such a thing? Some thought he had at last taken leave of his senses – after all he had suffered greatly when his much loved youngest son had abused his love and grace before walking away from the family never to return. They knew his heart had been broken and, in the process, the young man had brought disgrace to the whole community. If he ever returned they would certainly deal with him accordingly. Others thought some dignitary of great importance must be coming and the old man had forgotten until the last moment. In his panic he had lost all sense of decorum and propriety. Others were already leaving their houses to see what on earth this was all about – ready to shout after him – ready to rebuke him and remind him of who he was – of the position he held in the community and which he was now demanding in the most public way. By this time the old man’s servants were also running after him, concern written all over their faces – obviously alarmed at the behaviour of their master.
One villager, his name Jacob, had also left his house and begun to follow the runner. Looking in the direction he was heading he could see in the distance a single person approaching the village. It was hard to make him out but he appeared to be a stranger – probably a beggar. As he followed the village elder he began to see the approaching stranger a little more clearly – what a shocking sight. He was emaciated, wearing only rags for clothes, his feet were filthy and bleeding – his hair long and matted – no one he recognised. Yet, as the beggar and the elder met, they both stopped and stood still feet apart looking at one another. Then suddenly the elder opened his arms wide. The filthy beggar stood for a moment in apparent disbelief and then walked straight into the arms spread open wide to receive him. And then this shocking scene became, if such a thing was possible, even more shocking. The elder began to kiss the filthy beggar – not once or twice – but was smothering him in kisses – a public display in his culture, if there ever was one, of welcome and acceptance. By this time Jacob is standing closer to the two men. Tears are flowing freely between them – and then, in a moment of recognition, he realised who the beggar was – the old man’s estranged, rebellious son. But he is now only a shadow of the young man who had left years before – indeed a wreck of humanity. He is still holding tightly onto the older man who seems totally oblivious to the awful condition and smell of the man he now holds in his arms.
Jacob knew the elder was a kind and compassionate man – someone who had given his life, his everything for his children – but, for this boy, it had never been enough. He had always wanted more – especially what he considered to be his own freedom. Freedom from the constraints of home, freedom from love, freedom from the safety and security of his father’s house. And so he had turned against his father in the most public and hurtful of ways possible – as good as telling him he would rather him dead. But in the very moment he turned away from the tear-stained face of his brokenhearted father and walked out the door Jacob knew something in the boy had died – and for that matter something in the heart of his father as well. Was that not what his father was now shouting in his abandonment, joy and tears – ‘This son of mine was dead and has now returned to life.’ Oh, Jacob knew his bible – he knew that just as sure as Adam had died the day we walked out of Eden – so this boy had committed virtual suicide the day he had decided to live apart from his father. He knew that the primordial sin of the human is separation, to live, in self-love, apart from God – the God who is himself life. And so yes – the lad had surly died the day he walked out of the father’s house – no longer, as Adam, bearing the image of the father. He was in fact running away from the light into the darkness of his freedom. But now, many years later, here he is being embraced in the arms of the very father he had so abused and disgraced in the eyes of the whole community.
With bated breath Jacob waited for the inevitable – the lecture from the father to his rebellious but now broken son. The demand for a grovelling apology and then the terms, conditions and cost of repentance and restoration – if indeed that was even possible in the circumstances. But he waited in vain. There was no lecture – there were no terms or conditions of repentance, no punishment declared, no sacrifice required. The truth is in the face of such overwhelming love he had nothing left to offer anyway. Oh, he had had a well-prepared speech. Even in his return, he had thought the only way back was to offer to work his way into his father’s favour. But, in the light of the embrace, the tears, the kisses of total unconditional acceptance, he had absolutely nothing left to give. The last remnants of his selfish, hardened heart had melted before the intense heat of such radical love – and he had fallen into the outstretched, welcoming arms of his weeping father.
Then, above the noise and chatter of an increasingly large crowd, Jacob heard the voice of the father addressing his awestruck servants – ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.’
But there were murmurs in the crowd – ‘He is still filthy – he hasn’t even washed his feet!’ ‘Surely this is not possible – what about the requirements of the law?’ Standing nearby Jacob saw one of the religious leaders in the community – his face like thunder. As the man turned to a companion Jacob strained to hear what they were saying. ‘This cannot be allowed’ he declared far more loudly than Jacob expected. ‘No’ replied his companion – ‘I agree something must be done, there is no evidence of true repentance here whatsoever – no promise of any attempt at restitution, nor a guarantee he will behave from now on – no no, this is completely unacceptable!’ And yet in spite of their reservations, a party atmosphere had already descended on the crowd over which they had absolutely no control – and the man’s father is at the centre of it all – calling for rejoicing and a feast to celebrate!
Suddenly two servants arrived at the edge of the crowd pushing their way through. One is carrying the elder’s ceremonial robe, seen only on the great feast days and special occasions. Another is carrying a new pair of sandals and, just visible in his right had a ring. Again Jacob know the meaning of these – they were symbols.
The ring, no doubt a signet ring, indicated not only his restoration but his restoration to a position of full authority within the family. Again, servants did not wear shoes – so he is being accepted fully as a son. And the robe – Jacob’s mind wandered to scriptures he knew very well, found in the prophecy of Isaiah – ‘For He has dressed me with the clothing of salvation and draped me in a robe of righteousness.’ And also – ‘to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garments of praise for the spirit of heaviness.’
And so the father takes his beautiful robe from the servant and gently places it over the head of his still weeping child. As he slips it over his body the robe covers the filthy rags and his emaciated body. The ring is gently placed by the father on a thin, dirty finger before he stoops down, kneeling before his boy and again, gently slips the new sandals onto his bloodied and blistered feet. Moments later, with arms still around each other, they slowly move down the dusty road back toward the village – and the party begins!
To be continued ..