21 – Rings on his Fingers & Bells on his Toes
“put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet”
With the placing of the robe on his son, the father is not done dressing him. He commands that a ring be placed on his hand.
In that ancient world a ring was not simply a matter of vanity. It was no mere item of excess wealth. A ring carried as great a significance to them as an engagement or wedding ring does in our world.
In the story about Joseph his father honors him with a long robe. As that story continues, however, Pharaoh too wants to honor Joseph. What does he do? “Pharaoh said to Joseph, see I have set you over all the land of Egypt, and removing his signet ring from his own hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand, and then arrayed him in garments of fine linen.” (Genesis 41:42) There it is. The robe and the ring!
In the continuing story about Mordecai, the King has already clothed him with a robe, but now wants to give further honor to this good man. Listen to the words of the book of Esther. “Then the king took off his own signet ring and gave it to Mordecai.” There it is again, the robe and the ring in combination.
What does this giving of a ring mean? It is the granting of authority to a person. Whoever has such a ring has the power of attorney for his master. He has authority, his master’s authority, to make decisions and to help the master govern his realm.
And when the father places the ring on the hand of his son, he not only welcomes him back home as a son, as was indicated by the robe, but he welcomes him back to responsibility and authority. The young man is not to sit on the bench; he is to play on the team! He is to be co-ruler with his father and his brother.
Do you remember that difficult conversation after the resurrection, when Jesus asks Peter that series of piercing questions which brought back to Peter’s memory the night of his threefold denial? Each time there is a reminder of his earlier defection; but there is also a renewal of his calling. Jesus re-issues, in triplicate, the commission of Peter to care for his sheep.
And when any person comes back to God, he invites us to be partners together with Him in the work of his Kingdom. We are not to be mere wards of the state, but workers together with God in a new life of usefulness.
There is one other change in the young man’s clothes. The father asks the servants to bring sandals for his feet. As noted earlier, either his feet were shod with broken down shoes, or he was barefoot, and the father wanted to remedy that as soon as possible.
Shoes can be quite significant. We were reminded of that in 2008 when a journalist in Iraq took off his shoes and threw them at US president George W. Bush. Throwing a shoe or taking off your shoe and giving it to someone goes all the way back to the Book of Deuteronomy (25:9-10) and Book of Ruth (4:7-8). It is still the ultimate insult in the Middle East.
When shoes were taken off it also served as a sign of mourning. When Ezekiel’s wife dies, God says, “Do not weep. Do not take off your shoes.” for the normal practice is to remove them when mourning, as David does as he flees from Absalom. That passage reads that “David went weeping, with his head covered, walking barefoot.” (II Sam. 15:30) But the returning son is to sorrow no more. Shoes are provided! Time to put aside the sadness. Though there may not have been multiple rings on his fingers nor bells on his toes, I suspect that the shoes did become dancing slippers before that day ended.
When captives were taken as prisoners of war, to add insult to injury, their shoes were taken away. Isaiah was commanded by God to walk barefoot for three years as a symbol of the judgment that awaited the nation of Judah. (Isaiah 20:2) Exiles had their shoes confiscated, and so must the prophet. So when the self-exiled son returns, the father is saying in the granting of shoes, “you are no longer an exile. You are home!”
In ancient Palestine there was another custom. Servants in the house were always to be barefoot. It was the mark of their servanthood. The wandering son had come back saying “I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me as one of your hired servants”. The father is saying, “No way! You are my son; you are not my servant.”
There was further custom in the middle east. When guests were invited into a home, they took off their shoes as they entered the house, usually with the help of a servant, who washed their feet. But, the master of the house wore his sandals in the house. This was his house and the mark of his belonging there was his shod feet. The father is saying that the son is no guest visiting for a while! He is home!
Did you notice the instructions? The father said to the servants,
“Put the best robe on him, put a ring on his hand, put sandals on his feet!”
The Robe, the ring and the running shoes are not thrown at him, saying, “Hey, put these on, you look a mess.” Instead the returning son is treated as he always would have been in a noble home. It is the task of servants to remove and put on the shoes of the masters of the house. It is servants that help on and off with the outer clothing. This young man is treated in every way as a son of the household. He had come planning to say, “I am not worthy to be called your son, bring me on as a hired hand.” The Father’s vivid sign language says, “No way!”
In giving him the shoes, the father is making the declaration to his returned son, “You are no servant in this house. You are no visitor to our home. This is where you belong as a son and heir.”
The son is sandaled, robed and ringed before his entrance into his home! The father wants no signal to be given, to this son, or to anyone else in the house, including the older brother, other than this: the wandering son is fully restored to the center of the family. He is a son in full standing once more, and is to be treated as such.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation a controversy erupted into public view over the relationship between “Faith” and “Works”. The Protestant leaders believed that the Church of Rome had muddied the waters of salvation. They accused Rome of teaching that we are saved by faith plus works. The Book of James (2:14-26) provided the touchstone text for that view. The conclusion of the passage reads, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
Luther entered the fray with his bold assertion “Sola Fides!” Faith alone is required for salvation. The primary text for that view point came from the Book of Ephesians. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:8-9) Within various branches of the Protestant movement there developed a suspicion of doing anything to facilitate becoming a Christian.
Two hundred years after the Reformation, John Wesley encountered the Moravians who had developed an understanding of “finding salvation” that insisted that we should do nothing but wait. This was called “quietism” or “stillness”. The unconverted should not use any means to try to find salvation, such as go to church, read the Bible, or pray. Those were seen as “good works” and should be avoided in the search for God.
John Wesley in response began to exhort his fellow Anglicans to use all “the means of grace” that God has provided. This is what he says in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick.”
“It is generally supposed, that the means of grace and the ordinances of God are equivalent terms. We commonly mean by that expression, those that are usually termed, works of piety; viz., hearing and reading the Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, and fasting. And it is certain these are the ordinary channels which convey the grace of God to the souls of men. But are they the only means of grace? Are there no other means than these, whereby God is pleased, frequently, yea, ordinarily, to convey his grace to them that either love or fear him? Surely there are works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace. They are more especially such to those that perform them with a single eye. And those that neglect them, do not receive the grace which otherwise they might. Yea, and they lose, by a continued neglect, the grace which they had received. Is it not hence that many who were once strong in faith are now weak and feeble-minded? And yet they are not sensible whence that weakness comes, as they neglect none of the ordinances of God. But they might see whence it comes, were they seriously to consider St. Paul’s account of all true believers: “We are his workmanship, created anew in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before prepared, that we might walk therein.” (Eph. 2:10.)
It seems like faith and works can be good traveling companions!