In the parable of the prodigal son, why did the son want to be a hired hand, independent, working for pay, instead of a bond slave who recieved no pay, had no legal rights and no freedom (Luke 15:17-20)?
Bond slaves in the New Testament are symbolic of the believer’s position in Christ. We have been bought with a price and are His possession with no rights of our own, no independence, and totally under the authority of our Master. Why then, in Jesus’ parable, does the son seek a paid position in which he retains his independence?
The primary difference between a hired servant and a bond slave is, of course, that one gets paid while the other does not. It would seem on the surface that the prodigal son saw himself as deserving to get compensation for his work (if his father would even hire him), whereas in the role of a slave he could reasonably expect no more than food, shelter and the level of protection extended to any “property” owned by the father.
In New Testament times, however, when up to one out of every three persons was a slave, a bond slave was usually a permanent fixture in a family. That in itself provided a nearly guaranteed “job security” that a hired servant could only dream about. A hired servant could be let go when no longer needed, fired, have his pay withheld, etc. Not only so, but he was paid only for work actually performed, which may or may not have been sufficient to meet his needs. A bond slave, on the other hand, was fed, clothed and housed regardless of the fluctuations in workload from day to day. Slavery, in that sense, was much like a salaried position with benefits.
In addition to all this, because bond slaves were such a permanent part of the household, they were more often than not treated as family, even loved as family. Those who served with distinction and loyalty frequently received pay or bonuses to acknowledge their hard work and faithfulness. The life of a slave in many cases was much more comfortable than the hired servant who worked just as hard or harder, but received less for his trouble.
So, for the prodigal son to beg his father to take him on as a hired servant rather than a bond slave meant that he was offering himself for a position with no job security, no benefits and no sense of family or belonging. His independence would be a detriment rather than an asset.
In Jesus’ parable, the prodigal son does not see himself worthy of the privileges a bond slave has over a hired servant. He no longer hopes for any special treatment whatsoever. The depth of his repentance makes him willing to be cut off from any meaningful relationship with his family, resigned to a life of independence that will make him a slave of loneliness. Fortunately, his father’s love and mercy save the son from such a fate, providing what the son could never provide for himself. What a beautiful story of God’s saving grace!