There once was a king who loved being king. He liked sitting on the throne and making decisions. He liked living in the castle; he liked the symbolic functions of his office; he liked visiting the towns and villages of the kingdom and meeting his subjects; liked the authority and power because he could use them to help his people.
Not only did the king like being king, but his people all over the kingdom praised him for ruling so benevolently and wisely. The people knew they could trust their king to do the right thing for them and for the kingdom, and they were right. Because of the king’s wisdom, the kingdom was prosperous and peaceful.
When the king’s son was born, the people put on a great celebration. Now there was an heir! The people knew the king would be a good father and that his son would someday be as great and as wise as his father.
The king loved his son more than his own life. His greatest joy was to spend time with his son. Each evening after the day’s duties were done, the king would go out into the formal gardens behind the castle and play with his son. The thought of those times with his son often made the hard task of ruling a little easier. Sometimes when he faced a difficult decision or had to settle a dispute or complete a project, the king would think, “When this is over, I can be with my son,” and he would smile.
One day the king’s son got lost. It was one of the most tragic days that ever passed in the kingdom. He didn’t mean to get lost. The loved his father as much as his father loved him, and those times in the evening with his father were the happiest times of his young life.
But one day his father had a really busy day and was late for their daily meeting in the castle gardens. So the boy decided to explore. He went on an adventure. There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with that, except this boy was very little and very young, and nobody had told him how easy it is for a little boy to get lost.
It happened before the boy knew it. He was just walking and thinking about his father when, looking up, he found himself deep in the forest behind the castle. Nothing looked familiar. He was confused and turned around. At first, he was calm because his father would come soon and find him, but, as he waited, he began to see things in the shadows and hear things moving in the brush and he began to panic. Then he began to run. But he didn’t know which way to run. But the more frightened he became the faster he ran. All the while he was running away from the castle. His clothes caught on broken limbs and tore. A couple of times he fell in mud holes, and once he cut himself on a jagged rock.
Eventually the little boy wandered into one of the villages of the kingdom. To be perfectly honest, by that time he looked more like a little street urchin or a beggar than a prince. He would go up to someone on the street, and grab their coat, and pull on it and say, “Mister, I’m the king’s son. Would you help me get home?”
“Sure you are, kid” the man would laugh, “ And I’m his wife.”
“But you don’t understand. I got lost, and I can’t find my father,’ he would say to another.
Most folks simply ignored the little boy, and those who didn’t ignore him laughed at him. Pretty soon the little boy was forced to beg for pennies just so he could buy bread to keep from starving.
Meanwhile, back and the castle, the king spent many sleepless nights looking for his son. He looked everywhere he knew to look, but the boy was nowhere to be found. By morning of that first day the king suspected that someone had kidnapped his son and feared that we would never see the boy again.
The king called all his armies together, and told them what had happened, and sent them into the kingdom looking for his son. He offered great rewards to anyone who could give him information leading to the discovery of his son. But to the king’s great sorrow, the little boy was not found.
Hours blended into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. The little boy was no longer a little boy; he had grown into a strong young man.
At first he really had thought he was the king’s son, but so many adults had told him differently that he began to think maybe it had all been a dream. After all, adults know those kinds of things. As the years passed, he forgot about the castle and about his father.
Then the young man began to run with the wrong crowd. Murder, stealing, rape—nothing was beneath him. But he was still a prince. If you are a prince (even when you don’t know it), it shows. Eventually the young man became the leader of a gang. He was meaner than all of his friends. He murdered the most. He stole the most. He raped the most. Years after he had left the castle and his father, the king’s son had become the most wanted criminal in the kingdom.
Then one day, through a strange set of circumstances, the king found out that his own son was the kingdom’s most wanted and notorious criminal. At first he couldn’t believe it, but the more he checked, the more it became clear that he had found his beloved son, and in finding him, the king faced a terrible dilemma.
The king loved his son, but he was also just and fair. He knew if he released his own son who had committed terrible crimes, he would need to release all the others who had committed crimes. That was unacceptable.
And so the king’s son was arrested and brought before a judge who condemned him to be executed for his crimes. The verdict was just. The king’s son was thrown in a dungeon beneath the castle where he had once lived to wait for his execution.
On the night before the young man was to die, the king made his way to the prison beneath the castle. Opening his son’s cell, he walked in and sat on the bunk across from his son. The king sat there a long time looking at his son before he spoke.
“You are my son. Did you know that?”
“Yeah. Someone told me.”
“Have you ever wondered, over these years, about your parents?”
“Sometimes, but I had a good life, and it wasn’t that important.”
“Well, I have never stopped wondering about you—where you were and what had become of you. You have never been out of my mind and heart.
“My son,” the king continued, voice trembling with emotion and tears running down the age lines in his face, “I loved you with a great love, but you became lost. I did everything I knew to do. I sent out my soldiers; I offered a great reward; I have never ceased to search for you. But now it has come to this and tomorrow you are to die.
“But, son, I have decided to allow you to go free.”
With those words, the old king got up and walked out of his son’s cell into the crisp night air.
The young man went over to the cell door and tested it. WELL, WHAT DO YOU KNOW? THAT OLD MAN LEFT IT OPEN.
The king’s son quickly grabbed his coat, threw it over his shoulder, and with a cynical smile said: “That stupid old man!! He thinks because he has set me free, I will come back to his castle and be his slave. Well, he is more senile than I thought.” And with that the young man disappeared up the stone stairs and into the night air.
Some two weeks later the king’s son found out what price his freedom had cost. On the day of his scheduled execution, the requirements of the law had been met. His own father had taken his place—he had died that his son might be free.
You probably have some questions: What did the son do? Did he return to the castle and become king? Did he accept his heritage? Did he even care about the price his father had paid for his freedom? Did he decide to obey the law?
I’m not sure because, you see, you are that son.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8