Home » The must-know meaning of the robe, ring, and sandals in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

The must-know meaning of the robe, ring, and sandals in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

(Jewish perspective to Luke 15:22-23)

by Dr. Eitan Bar
8 minutes read

This verse is what true grace and forgiveness look like. The father demonstrates what is grace to the prodigal son upon his return. The father’s actions remind me of Paul’s famous chapter about love (1 Cor. 13).

We see no judgment of the son by the father for his sins, no preaching to him what true repentance should look like, and no reminding him of his past mistakes to embarrass him. It’s a portrait of redemption, an act of letting go of your own pride in order to restore someone else’s honor, and an undeniable testament to unconditional love. The father didn’t love and forgave the son because he came back or said the right things. He forgave and loved the son because he was his child.

Notice that the father doesn’t ask his servants to bring a cane and Bible so he can punish him and put a Bible in his hands. In fact, by delving into the historical context, we gain a deeper understanding of each item the father instead asked to bring his son.

The “best robe” belongs not to one of the servants but to the father and is saved for special events and celebrations. This wasn’t just any robe; the word used (στολὴν) means a long robe. That kind of robe was worn by the upper classes in the East. It was a symbol of honor and status. By requesting this robe for his son, who had just returned after squandering his father’s wealth, the father wasn’t just covering his physical nakedness, but he was reinstating his honor, his place in the family, and erasing the shame that came with his prior actions. This gesture, especially in front of the household servants, is a public proclamation that the son’s past is forgotten, and his original status in the family remains unchanged. The father didn’t only show compassion by forgiving his past mistakes. He gave grace by reminding his son—and everyone else around—that he is still his loved child.

The father achieves multiple symbolic purposes by putting the best robe on his returning son. First, he restores his son’s position in the family, signifying that the son is not a mere servant but holds all the rights and privileges of being a family member. The robe also serves as a clear sign of acceptance, acting as a physical manifestation of the father’s unconditional love and forgiveness for his wayward son. This gesture additionally reaffirms the son’s identity as a beloved family member, tapping into biblical symbolism where clothing often relates to one’s identity. The robe sets the tone for the following celebratory feast, emphasizing the immense joy surrounding the son’s return. Furthermore, the robe stands in sharp contrast to what the son was likely wearing—probably filthy rags—which amplifies the transformative power of his father’s acceptance and love. Imagining the prodigal son, who was swept away by his sins, was dressed while entering the family estate probably evoked the memory of Isaiah’s words in the minds of Jesus’ hearers:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

Isaiah 64:6

The father decided to cloak the sins of his son with his own glory. The sins of the son were covered with the father’s luxurious robe. But that’s not the first time our heavenly Father has done such a thing. In the Garden of Eden, God also cloaked Adam and Eve’s sins with the ancient robe, the tunics of skin He had made for them.

The “ring” also held significant value. It wasn’t just a piece of jewelry. The ring likely was one of the father’s signet rings. In ancient times, a signet ring would often be used to seal official documents, representing the king’s authority and confirming tribal identity. By looking at the ring, you can tell what family legacy the person wearing it belongs to. This ring would have had more than just financial value; it symbolized the father’s authority and trust, effectively restoring the son’s position in the family. Given that a ring is a circle without a beginning or end, it can also be seen as a symbol of eternity, continuity, and completeness, which parallels the themes of endless love and grace throughout the parable.

Symbolized by authority, identity, and family heritage, they were used to seal documents, essentially serving as a signature. By giving the ring to the son, the father was bestowing trust and authority and reinstating his son fully into the family’s operations and decisions.

Lastly, the “sandals.” Remember, in his prepared speech, the son had said he was no longer worthy to be called a son and hoped to find work as a hired servant. This might suggest that either the son took off his sandals or he had none because they were already worn out, and he couldn’t afford to replace or even fix them.

In the cultural context of the time, slaves typically went barefoot, whereas free members of the household wore sandals. By giving his son sandals to wear, the father is making a clear statement: “The son is not to be treated as a slave or a servant but as a free person and a full member of the family.” This simple act of providing footwear reinstates the son’s lost dignity and reaffirms his status within the familial structure.

The sandals also serve a functional role—they protect the feet, enabling travel and interaction with the world. Symbolically, this could represent the son’s renewed ability to walk a righteous path, now guided by the wisdom gained from his previous misadventures and the forgiving love of his father. Most understand either love and grace or sin and judgment better. The act of putting sandals on his son’s feet can also be seen as a gesture of that father recognizing his son’s growth, now being able to lead because he experienced and now understands perfectly well what love and grace look like, but also what suffering for sin looks like. That’s the dual major degree needed for any true leader.

Thus, the sandals are not just an afterthought; they are integral to the theme of restoration and reconciliation in the parable. They encapsulate the father’s desire to fully reintegrate his son into both the family and society, emphasizing dignity, freedom, and care.

Let’s delve deeper into the feelings and motives of each character:

The father’s actions are filled with profound compassion and urgency. His priority wasn’t to lecture or reprimand; it was to restore and heal. The fact that he did not even let the son finish his prepared speech shows he had no interest in dwelling on the past. His immediate instructions to the servants reflect a heart that’s bursting with joy and a desire to right every wrong, not by words, but by actions. This is a clear reflection of the God of the Christian narrative – a deity not focused on our past mistakes but on our return to Him.

The father didn’t need to punish him in order to forgive. Nor did he need to punish someone else to “release his wrath” before granting forgiveness. True forgiveness doesn’t require any conditions or exchanges; instead, one absorbs and takes on the burden personally.

The son, on the other hand, must have been overwhelmed. After preparing himself for a possible rejection or, at best, a conditional acceptance, he’s met with gifts of honor, authority, and identity. These gestures, which came without even hearing a full confession, would have instilled a sense of deep humility, gratitude, and perhaps even disbelief. It’s an encapsulation of the sheer magnitude of grace – receiving not just forgiveness but also honor that he did not feel he deserved.

The servants play a subtle but important role here. In Jewish culture, the household staff would be keenly aware of family dynamics. They act as silent witnesses to this restoration, and their participation in these acts of grace signifies the entirety of the household, acknowledging the son’s return to his original status. Their actions also demonstrate the ripple effect of grace – its impact isn’t limited to the individual receiving it but extends to the entire community. If a family doesn’t show grace, it’s only because its members won’t. A nation that doesn’t show grace, it’s only because its members won’t. A truly Christian nation lives out grace, even to enemies.

“Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” (Luke 15:23)

This single verse, nestled in the heart of the prodigal son parable, is teeming with significance. It provides a window into the narrative’s historical, cultural, and emotional context, offering a deep understanding of the depth of the father’s joy, the communal nature of celebrations, and the theological reflections on God’s nature.

Historically and culturally, slaughtering the “fattened calf” was not an everyday occurrence. Fattened calves were especially fattened for special occasions and were reserved for significant festivities such as weddings and holidays. The choice of the calf, as opposed to a lamb or goat, also underscores the magnitude of the celebration. It was meant to feed a very large number of people, indicating that this was not just a family dinner with close friends but a grand feast, possibly involving the entire community.

The mere act of slaughtering the fattened calf reveals a lot about the father’s character and emotions. In his state of despair, the prodigal son probably hoped at best for a bowl of yesterday’s leftover rice, maybe even heated up, and a lowly position in his father’s house. However, instead of offering a mere morsel or a simple meal, the father opts for an elaborate celebration. This choice is a testament to his overwhelming joy and relief upon his son’s return. If you have ever owned a dog and can remember how excited and thrilled they get when you return home, that’s probably how the father felt when his son returned home. The sheer happiness of reuniting with his lost child overshadows any traces of anger or disappointment. This grand gesture communicates that the son’s return is not a somber moment but a time of jubilation.

But here is the problem: It takes a very long time, several months, to fatten a calf. That must mean the Father prepared in advance, explaining why he was outside waiting and looking.

For the prodigal son, witnessing preparations for such a feast with no less than a fattened calf in his honor might have been overwhelmingly humbling. He had returned home with guilt, expecting perhaps condemnation or, at most, conditional acceptance. However, the father’s decision to throw a grand celebration symbolizing complete restoration might have left him with feelings of profound gratitude, unworthiness, and awe. This was more than just about physical sustenance; it was an affirmation of his place in the family, an assurance of unconditional love, and a clear message that his past was forgiven and forgotten.

In this narrative, the wider community or the household also plays a part, even if indirectly. Hosting a feast requires preparation, and the servants, as well as the community members invited, would share in the joy, partaking in the festivities and rejoicing for the upcoming celebration. This communal celebration symbolizes the collective joy that the return of a lost one brings. It emphasizes that in close-knit communities, personal joys and sorrows are deeply intertwined with the collective experience.

The threat of death that overshadowed the prodigal son in this story wasn’t because of something the father would do to him if he didn’t repent. There was no torture chamber the father kept hidden in some faraway basement where he planned to burn him alive. The son’s real hell was simply being away from his father’s house.”

Theologically, this verse has profound implications regarding the Christian understanding of God’s nature. In this parable, the father symbolizes God, and his actions offer insights into God’s character. The father’s joy mirrors God’s joy in heaven over one child of God willing to put their faith in Him. The grandeur of the feast, represented by the fattened calf, mirrors the joy in heaven of all who are celebrating with the Father. It’s as if they are all celebrating the graduation of the son—the graduation from the school of sacrifice, grace, and humility. Now he finally learned what love is and trained to be a compassionate leader.

Moreover, the feast is also an emblem of communion, a sacred act in Christian tradition. It echoes the Last Supper, where Jesus broke bread with His disciples, and the eschatological feast, the great banquet believers look forward to in the heavenly realm. In both contexts, the meal is symbolic of God’s fellowship with humanity and His desire to be in intimate communion with His creation.

In conclusion, Luke 15:22-23, while seemingly straightforward, is a narrative powerhouse. It encapsulates the cultural norms of the time, portraying a lavish celebration reserved for the most special occasions. The father’s decision to hold such a feast underscores the depth of his love, forgiveness, and joy upon his son’s return. The prodigal son’s probable feelings of awe and gratitude became the moving force for his greatest transforming moment in life. This proves that it is the grace of God, not fear, that enables us to grow spiritually.

You, dear reader, are a child of God as well. Quit bringing up every mistake you made, quit dwelling on last week’s failures, and start declaring the name of God again! Begin declaring, “I’m not going to fall again the way I did. With God in me, I’m bigger than my sin. And even when I do fall, there’s always more grace to life me up!”

This article was a copy-paste from my new upcoming micro-book: “God as Father: Unveiling God’s Love for the Oppressed, Sinners, and Outcasts Through the Prodigal Son”

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist