The Bible is full of examples of God giving someone a new name, their true name. After a season of struggle or redemption, God bestows a new identity on someone. Saul becomes Paul. Abram becomes Abraham. Jacob becomes Israel.
My favorite example is a little less obvious though. The name change is not so direct, but it is powerful. And I uncovered it while working on what might someday be a book about the prodigal son.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables. The first is about losing one of 100 sheep. The second is about a woman who loses one of 10 coins. And the third, the prodigal son story, is about a father who loses one of two sons.
I once heard pastor Rick McKinley say that you can feel the tension building in the chapter. From 100 sheep to 10 coins to 2 sons, it builds. And in the first two parables, Christ does something really interesting. In the parable of the sheep he starts the story by saying, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.” In the parable of the coins, he says, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one.”
The pattern has been established.
So does he start the third parable about the prodigal son the same way? He’s got a rhythm going, shouldn’t he? You’d think so, but he doesn’t.
The story doesn’t start with, “Suppose there was a man who had two sons.” Instead Christ says, “There was a man who had two sons.” He jumps into the parable with two feet, as if he is relating a true story of how grace works, not a “what if” example of sheep or coins.
He also explains the other two parables. At the end of the parable of the sheep he says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety‑nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” At the end of the parable of the coin he says, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
He connects the dots for the audience of sinners and Pharisees, but doesn’t do that with the prodigal son parable. He drops that off like a grenade, and doesn’t explain it at all, content instead to create a tale with a thousand doorways to enter.
But that’s all lead up. Where’s the part about the prodigal son’s name? Where’s the identity tale? It’s there. Trust me. There’s a veritable hot potato of identity happening here.
In verse 11, Christ establishes who the sons belonged to right out of the gate. “There was a man who had two sons.” They were not just two men. They were two sons. They had a father.
In verse 19, after coming to his senses and returning home, the son says, “I am no longer to be called your son.” He’s right. By his actions, he’s renounced his identity. He realized he had forfeited his identity. He continues, “Make me like one of your hired men.” The son tries to take on a new identity.
In verse 24, the father, representing God, turns to his servants and says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Is there a more beautiful word to hear from a father you’ve wronged? A God you’ve forsaken?
This son of mine.
Not this man. Not this filthy, tattered drifter who we’ve come upon along the road. Not this person who broke my heart or wasted his life chasing things that don’t matter.
This son of mine. Identity shouts from these verses.
In verse 27, the identity discussion continues as the servants tell the angry older brother what has happened. They say, “Your brother has come.” They understand who the son is because the father has established that firmly.
In verse 30, driving a stake into his own identity, the older brother tries to sever his ties with the family by saying to his father, “This son of yours.” This is the equivalent of saying, “He is not my brother. He is your son, not my blood. Yours.”
Is the father wounded by this? Does he allow the older brother to take on a new identity? That’s what the brother is trying to do, separate himself from a family that throws parties for families. Look at how he starts his response to the second family member who has tried to renounce their identity in this short parable:
“”My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The father refuses to let his son change his identity. By starting the sentence that way, he again says, “Mine.” My son, you are mine. He then begins a full out assault of identity and love.
You are always with me.
Everything I have is yours.
We had to celebrate. Not I. We!
This brother of yours has returned.
Over and over again, God pulls both brothers into his arms. Over and over again, he says you are mine.
And that’s my hope for you and me.
That, even in moments when our arms and are actions try to push God away, we will hear his voice say, “You are mine.”
That, even in moments where it feels quiet or desperate or the world’s name for us weighs heavy, we will hear the father’s voice say, “You are mine.”
You are mine.
You are mine.
You are mine.