The Forgiven Cowboy


The parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about God’s redemptive mercy and forgiveness. It is about the grace that our Heavenly Father so freely extends to us. This narrative testifies to God’s  unconditional love for us. Jesus told this parable to show that no matter how far we may have strayed, He is waiting with open arms for us to return. But what if this story did not take place 2000 years ago in Palestine? What if it had taken place about 150 years ago in America’s wild and unsettled West – on a family ranch in Texas?

Pastor John B. Hickman
New Hope Family Church 

July 14, 1857
Luke spit and watched with disgust as the turgid brown stream of tobacco missed the scorpion, and splattered against the granite boundary marker. The scorpion’s tail raised defensively and Luke growled at it, “You can have it. The whole dang valley. This rat hole place ain’t good for nothing anyway but sidewinders and scorpions.” He shifted in the saddle and picked up the reins. He looked forlornly at the small herd of cattle and the two saddle horses he had talked the old man into giving him. He figured he could sell them for just enough to buy a stake in a small saloon somewhere. He spurred the big bay horse into a walk and the cattle obediently began to move. He never looked back. Not once. Abilene was a two week ride and he had some ground to cover before dark.

March 26, 1860
Luke slumped in the saddle as he stared at the granite boundary marker. He recalled his conversation with the scorpion. But that was a long time ago and now he felt fear like he had never felt fear before. He had faced men in the saloons, faced them in the street and faced them on the range. He had gone up against men who were bigger, tougher and faster than he, and he had never felt the cold chill that seemed to be overtaking him. He looked at his gun hand. He had never seen it shake before. He thought about the last three years since he had passed this boundary marker going the other way.  The wrong way, as it had turned out.

The miserable job of working that ornery bunch of cattle on hot dusty trails and in the cold rains had come to an end a month after he’d left the ranch. He had joined up with a larger herd going to Montana, but when they’d caught him branding that maverick calf with his own brand, they had run him off and kept his cattle. He knew that he should have been hung from a cottonwood tree for cattle rustling, but the owner’s daughter had taken a liking to him, and they even gave him his saddle and horse before running him out. 

He thought about the small time saloon jobs, the fights and the shootings. He thought about the money he’d wasted on the saloon girls. He remembered with shame the one job herding goats just so he could get some square meals and a place to wait out the winter. He wondered how differently things would have been if he’d never left home.

From the high ridge that ran along the north west boundary of his father’s ranch, he could see the entire valley stretched before him. The ranch had done well since he had left, and a new bunk house stood where the old hog pen used to be. Cattle dotted the hillsides, and several ranch hands were working some new calves at the branding fire. Right now Luke was hungry and tired.  He had only fifteen cents in his pockets, and the clothes he was wearing had been taken off a cowboy who had been drifting through town and lost a gunfight. Luke had talked the town preacher into giving him the fellah’s boots and clothes in return for digging the grave.

Luke shifted his weight in the saddle and looked down at the new bunk house. He grumbled bitterly to his horse, “Even the ranch hands at the Bar JH are living like kings around here.” 

“But it’s too late for me.” Luke thought, “The old man didn’t need me then and he probably don’t need me now.” Besides, his older brother Jake was always following the old man around doing everything he could with that stupid grin on his face like a weasel offering to sweep out the hen house. 

As Luke stared at the sprawling ranch, the memories of that last fight he’d had with his father over Luke’s drinking and gambling came flooding back. He thought again about why he’d come home and what he had to do. He had to tell his Pa he was sorry for what happened. He’d find the old man, tell him he was sorry and maybe he could do some chores and stay awhile. If the old man wouldn’t take him back, he’d just apologize and git. Maybe California would be the place to go next. Some drifters had been talking about gold being found that could make a man rich.  

He wiped sweat and trail dust from his face with his neckerchief and noticed that his stomach wasn’t feeling too good. He didn’t know if his father would welcome him or shoot him right out of the saddle. The hot summer sun was directly over head, but when he thought of his father, and the uncertainty of the old man’s reaction, the cold chill of fear settled over him again and he involuntarily shivered. The worst that could happen is that they’d be planting him that evening among the family graves behind the orchard.

Luke had already made up his mind that if the old man drew on him, he wasn’t going to fight back, and he’d already emptied the bullets out of his gun.  

“Well,” he said to the bay, “Being dead ain’t gonna be any worse than it is right now.” He gently squeezed the horse with his knees and let the horse find his own way down the ridge. This was the old bay’s home too and it didn’t need any help from its rider to find the way back home.
♢   ♢   ♢

The old man looked with disgust at the swollen lump on the side of the heifer’s face and brushed flies away from the oozing discharge. “Dang barb wire,” he said to no one in particular. His world was changing and there just seemed to be too many people around. Twenty miles across the range, settlers had begun to homestead and that was too close for any decent folks to live unless they were kin. 

He looked up to see the lone rider coming through the trees and picked up his rifle. “Dang settlers,” he said as he moved slightly to the left to allow a fence post to provide him with better cover. He sat quietly watching the horse and rider draw closer, but something didn’t feel right to the old man. He couldn’t make out the rider, but he could see the white hairs formed by the brand on the bay’s rump announcing that he was a “Bar JH” horse.

Suddenly the shock of recognition shot the old man to his feet and he began to run towards the horse startling both the big bay and its rider, “Luke!” the old man shouted, “Luke!” The rider stopped a few yards away and then hesitated.

“Howdy Pa,” said the rider cautiously not knowing what else to say. “Luke get your rump off that old nag and greet your Pa right,” grinned the old man. 

Luke slid out of the saddle and was enveloped in a bear hug with two strong work-hardened hands. “Pa.. I’m sorry..” said Luke, but before he could say anything more, the old man grabbed him tighter and held him close. This time Luke could feel the old man’s hot tears against his own cheek.  He had seen the old man cry only once before – that cold day during the blizzard when they’d buried Luke’s Ma.

♢   ♢   ♢

Jake kicked the barn door closed and walked over to the hog pens. He shook with rage as he climbed into the pen and lowered the muzzle of the rifle against the best market hog on the ranch. This was HIS hog and next week they would have loaded it on the wagon to take it to town. Jake was proud of this hog. It was the fattest, finest hog in the county and now they were going to waste it by eating it themselves.

  The deadly muzzle of Jake’s Winchester 30-30 was now pointing at the center of the hog’s two beady black eyes. The old man had told the ranch hands to invite everyone in the county to supper and Jake figured that they would still be whooping and hollering until the next day. 

The old man even had one of the hands ride into town to bring back a brand new pair of boots and a new set of clothes for Luke. To top it off, Luke was now strutting around like a rooster and wearing a gold nugget neckerchief slider that had been one of the old man’s prized possessions. The old man was making a fool of himself, dancing and hollering around the ranch yard, and Jake was wishing real hard right about now that he’d never had a younger brother. 

The hog stared blankly back at Jake and let out a squeal. Right now Jake hated his father, hated the ranch, and hated the land. He realized that most of all, he hated Luke—and he pulled the trigger.

♢   ♢   ♢

The guests had gone and a quiet fog had begun to settle in the valley. Luke was asleep in his old room, and the ranch hands had all retired to the bunk house to sleep off the effects of their rowdiness. The old man relit his pipe and settled back in the rough wood porch chair. “Jake,” he said quietly, “I know you’re angry, and we need to talk about it.”

Jake looked down and kicked at the floor, “Pa, it just ain’t fair. I worked beside you everyday and never run off like Luke did. I worked the herd, mended fence, fixed saddles, plowed ground and fed stock. I did everything you asked me to and more, and you never gave me nothing for it. We both thought Luke was dead after we’d heard about that shootin’ down in Rio Lobo. But as soon as he rides in, we kill the best hog we have. I was the one who always worked hard! Luke is just a scoundrel and a no-count!” 

The old man shook his head and gently said, “Boy, you know you mean the world to me and you meant the world to your Ma too. You’re my first born son and someday this ranch and everything that I have will be yours. But it was right what we did for Luke today. We thought he was dead and gone, and until today he was as good as dead, but now he’s alive again. Three years ago a wild wet-behind-the-ears boy packed up and left, but a man came back home today. A man tough enough to know he did wrong and ask for my forgiveness. Tonight he’s fully forgiven and back where he belongs.”

In the silence, the old man took a long draw on his pipe, and Jake got up and stretched. “Well, Pa, it’s getting late, and I’m gonna turn in, but it sounds like you’re right about Luke.” Jake opened the door and hesitated. “Ya know what I think I’ll do, Pa? First thing in the morning maybe me and Luke’ll ride over to the north pasture. I think I’ll let him have his pick of them new colts we branded last week...”


I.   Questions for Reflection 
     or Group Discussion 

II.  New Living Translation:
     The Prodigal Son

Questions for Reflection or Group Discussion   

1. What do you think were the reasons that Luke left home? How much of Luke’s desire to leave do you think had to do with his dissatisfaction of living in his father’s house and not being able to live life his own way? Have you ever walked away from God in order to do things your own way? 

2. Luke returned to his father in fear. He expected his father’s harsh judgement. Instead he found immediate love and forgiveness. Can you think of a time when God’s loving response to you was not what you expected or deserved?

3. When Luke left, his father gave him his portion of the inheritance. Through careless living, Luke wasted and lost all that had been given to him. Have there been times in your life when you have not wisely used the good gifts given to you by God? What are your God-given gifts that are still not being used to their greatest potential? What can you do about that?

4. What do you think about Jake’s attitude toward his younger brother? Have you ever found yourself in the position of being envious of God’s favor on someone who you felt was less deserving than you? In the story, who did the father love more?  Jake? Luke? Or, did he love both equally? Can we measure God’s love for us by our material acquisitions or by what we have received through God’s favor? How do we know that God loves us?

5. Think about being a parent (imagine being one if you’ve never been). What would your response be to a son or daughter who rejected their family, ran away and then disgraced the family with their bad behavior? If they came home and told you they were sorry and would mend their ways, what would your response be?  Why?

6. Did you notice that Luke did not come running home to throw himself at his father’s feet? Luke came home repentant but reluctant. He was  grumbling, complaining and feeling sorry for himself. But notice that his father did run to him in unconditional love and forgiveness. What does that say to you about God’s character – His mercy and grace – and what does that tell you about His acceptance of us?

7. Jesus told this parable to a crowd of Jewish Pharisees to show that salivation comes not from the works we do, but from the grace of God. The Pharisees would have identified with the resentment the older son had toward the father’s loving treatment of the “bad” son. They would have agreed that the son who turned against his father deserved to be punished and not forgiven. Who are those you can think of who have turned against God? Who are those who have become stubborn and squandered God’s gifts? Who are those who have turned to a lifestyle of unrepentant sinful  living? What do you think God’s response to them would be if they came back to Him in repentance? Is that response always the “right” thing for God to do? How do you think that you should pray for those who the Holy Spirit is putting on your heart right now?

Luke 15:11-32
New Living Translation

To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: "A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, 'I want my share of your estate now before you die.' So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. 13 "A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. 17 "When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, 'At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, "Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant."' 20 "So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.' 22 "But his father said to the servants, 'Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.' So the party began. 25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 'Your brother is back,' he was told, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.' 28 "The older brother was angry and wouldn't go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, 'All these years I've slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!' 31 "His father said to him, 'Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!'"

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Dear Friend,

Jesus placed His parables in the context of Jewish culture in order to help convey truths about the Kingdom of God. We hope that this “cowboy version” of the Prodigal Son revealed truths about your Heavenly Father’s grace and forgiveness and was helpful in your own spiritual journey.  Please consider contacting us:

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The Forgiven Cowboy
First Edition, © 1997
Second Edition Revised, © 2003
Third Edition with Discussion Questions, © 2012
 John B. Hickman
New Hope Ministries 
P.O. Box 33841
Granada Hills, CA 91394