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Publicans and sinners - See the notes at Matthew 9:10.
Murmured - They affected to suppose that if Jesus treated sinners kindly he must be fond of their society, and be a man of similar character. “They” considered it disgraceful to be with them or to eat with them, and they, therefore, brought a charge against him for it. They “would” not suppose that he admitted them to his society for the purpose of doing them good; nor did they remember that the very object of his coming was to call the wicked from their ways and to save them from death.
Receiveth sinners - Receives them in a tender manner; treats them with kindness; does not drive them from his presence.
And eateth with them - Contrary to the received maxims of the scribes. By eating with them he showed that he did not despise or overlook them.
This parable - See the notes at Matthew 13:3.
See the notes at Matthew 18:12-13.
Likewise joy ... - It is a principle of human nature that the “recovery” of an object in danger of being lost, affords much more intense joy than the quiet “possession” of many that are safe. This our Saviour illustrated by the case of the lost sheep and of the piece of silver. It might also be illustrated by many other things. Thus we rejoice most in our health when we recover from a dangerous disease; we rejoice over a child rescued from danger or disease more than over those who are in health or safety. We rejoice that property is saved from conflagration or the tempest more than over much more that has not been in danger. This feeling our Lord represents as existing in heaven. “Likewise,” in like manner, or on the same principle, there is joy.
In heaven - Among the angels of God. Compare Luke 15:10. Heavenly beings are thus represented as rejoicing over those who repent on earth. They see the guilt and danger of people; they know what God has done for the race, and they rejoice at the recovery of any from the guilt and ruins of sin.
One sinner - One rebel against God, however great may be his sins or however small. If a sinner, he must perish unless he repents; and they rejoice at his repentance because it recovers him back to the love of God, and because it will save him from eternal death.
That repenteth - See the notes at Matthew 9:13.
Just persons - The word “persons” is not in the original. It means simply “just ones,” or those who have not sinned. The word may refer to angels as well as to people. There are no “just” people on earth who need no repentance, Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalms 14:2-3; Romans 3:10-18. Our Saviour did not mean to imply that there were any such. He was speaking of what took place “in heaven,” or among “angels,” and of “their” emotions when they contemplate the creatures of God; and he says that “they” rejoiced in the repentance of one “sinner” more than in the holiness of many who had not fallen. We are not to suppose that he meant to teach that there were just ninety-nine holy angels to one sinner. He means merely that they rejoice more over the “repentance” of one sinner than they do over many who have not fallen. By this he vindicated his own conduct. The Jews did not deny the existence of angels. They would not deny that their feelings were proper. If “they” rejoiced in this manner, it was not improper for “him” to show similar joy, and especially to seek their conversion and salvation. If they rejoice also, it shows how desirable is the repentance of a sinner. They know of how much value is an immortal soul. They see what is meant by eternal death; and they do not feel “too much,” or have “too much anxiety” about the soul that can never die. Oh that people saw it as “they” see it! and oh that they would make an effort, such as angels see to be proper, to save their own souls and the souls of others from eternal death!
Ten pieces of silver - In the original, ten “drachmas.” The drachma was about the value of fifteen cents, and consequently the whole sum was about a dollar and a half, or six shillings. The sum was small, but it was all she had. The loss of one piece, therefore, was severely felt.
There is joy in the presence ... - Jesus in this parable expresses the same sentiment which he did in the preceding. A woman would have more immediate, present, joy at finding a lost piece, than she would in the possession of those which had not been lost. “So,” says Christ, there is joy among the angels at the recovery of a single sinner.
And he said - Jesus, to illustrate still farther the sentiment which he had uttered, and to show that it was proper to rejoice over repenting sinners, proceeds to show it by a most beautiful and instructive parable. We shall see its beauty and propriety by remembering that the “design” of it was simply to “justify his conduct in receiving sinners,” and to show that to rejoice over their return was proper. This he shows by the feelings of a “father” rejoicing over the “return” of an ungrateful and dissipated son.
And the younger of them said - By this younger son we are to understand the publicans and sinners to be represented. By the older, the Pharisees and scribes.
Give me the portion - The part.
Of goods - Of property.
That falleth to me - That is properly my share. There is no impropriety in supposing that he was of age; and, as he chose to leave his father’s house, it was proper that his father should, if he chose, give him the part of the estate which would be his.
He divided unto them his living - His property, or “means” of living. The division of property among the Jews gave the older son twice as much as the younger. In this case it seems the younger son received only money or movable property, and the older chose to remain with his father and dwell on the paternal estate. The lands and fixed property remained in their possession. Among the ancient Romans and Syrophoenicians, it was customary, when a son came to the years of maturity, if he demanded his part of the inheritance, for the father to give it to him. This the son might claim by law. It is possible that such a custom may have prevailed among the Jews, and that our Saviour refers to some such demand made by the young man.
Gathered all together - Collected his property. If he had received flocks or grain, he sold them and converted them into money. As soon as this arrangement had been made he left his father’s house.
Took his journey - Went, or traveled.
Into a far country - A country far off from his father’s house. He went probably to trade or to seek his fortune, and in his wanderings came at last to this dissipated place, where his property was soon expended.
Wasted his substance - Spent his property.
In riotous living - Literally, “Living without saving anything.” He lived extravagantly, and in the most dissolute company. See Luke 15:30. By his wandering away we may understand that sinners wander far away from God; that they fall into dissolute and wicked company; and that their wandering so far off is the reason why they fall into such company, and are so soon and so easily destroyed.
A mighty famine - Famines were common in Eastern nations. They were caused by the failure of the crops - by a want of timely rains, a genial sun, or sometimes by the prevalence of the plague or of the pestilence, which swept off numbers of the inhabitants. In this case it is very naturally connected with the luxury, the indolence, and the dissipation of the people in that land,
Joined himself - Entered the service of that citizen. Hired himself out to him. It would seem that he engaged to do any kind of work, even of the lowest kind.
A citizen - One of the inhabitants of one of the cities or towns of that region, probably a man of property.
Into the fields - Out of the city where the owner lived.
To feed swine - This was a very low employment, and particularly so to a “Jew.” It was forbidden to the Jews to eat swine, and of course it was unlawful to keep them. To be compelled, therefore, to engage in such an employment was the deepest conceivable degradation. The “object” of this image, as used by the Saviour in the parable, is to show the loathsome employments and the deep degradation to which sin leads people, and no circumstance could possibly illustrate it in a more striking manner than he has done here. Sin and its results everywhere have the same relation to that which is noble and great, which the feeding of swine had, in the estimation of a Jew, to an honorable and dignified employment.
He would fain - He would gladly. He desired to do it.
The husks - The word “husks” with us denotes the outward covering of grain. In this there is little nourishment, and it is evident that this is not intended here; but the word used here denotes not only “husks,” but also leguminous plants, as beans, etc. It is also used to denote the fruit of a tree called the “carob or kharub-tree,” which is common in Ionia, Syria, and Rhodes. The tree is more bushy and thick set than the apple tree, and the leaves are larger and of a much darker green. The following is Dr. Thomson’s description of the fruit of this tree (“The Land and the Book,” vol. i. p. 22): “The ‘husks’ - a mistranslation - are fleshy pods, somewhat like those of the locust-tree, from six to ten inches long and one broad, laid inside with a gelatinous substance, not wholly unpleasant to the taste when thoroughly ripe. I have seen large orchards of this kharub in Cyprus, where it is still the food which the swine do eat. The kharub is often called John’s Bread, and also Locust-tree, from a mistaken idea about the food of the Baptist in the wilderness.” The cut will give an idea of these “pods,” or “husks,” as they are called in our translation.
No man gave unto him - Some have understood this as meaning “no one gave him anything - any bread or provisions;” but the connection requires us to understand it of the “husks.” He did not go a begging - his master was bound to provide for his wants; but the provision which he made for him was so poor that he would have preferred the food of the swine. He desired a portion of “their food,” but that was not given him. A certain quantity was measured out for “them,” and “he” was not at liberty to eat it himself. Nothing could more strikingly show the evil of his condition, or the deep degradation, and pollution, and wretchedness of sin.
He came to himself - This is a very expressive phrase. It is commonly applied to one who has been “deranged,” and when he recovers we say he has “come to himself.” In this place it denotes that the folly of the young man was a kind of derangement - that he was insane. So it is of every sinner. Madness is in their hearts Ecclesiastes 9:3; they are estranged from God, and led, by the influence of evil passions, contrary to their better judgment and the decisions of a sound mind.
Hired servants - Those in a low condition of life - those who were not born to wealth, and who had no friends to provide for them.
I perish - I, who had property and a kind father, and who might have been provided for and happy.
I will arise - This is a common expression among the Hebrews to denote “entering on a piece of business.” It does not imply that he was “sitting,” but that he meant immediately to return. This should be the feeling of every sinner who is conscious of his guilt and danger.
To My father - To his father, although he had offended him, and treated him unkindly, and had provoked him, and dishonored him by his course of conduct. So the sinner. He has nowhere else to go but to “God.” He has offended him, but he may trust in his kindness. If “God” does not save him he cannot be saved. There is no other being that has an arm strong enough to deliver from sin; and though it is painful for a man to go to one whom he has offended - though he cannot go but with shame and confusion of face - yet, unless the sinner is willing to go to “God” and confess his faults, he can never be saved.
I have sinned - I have been wicked, dissipated, ungrateful, and rebellious.
Against heaven - The word “heaven” here, as it is often elsewhere, is put for God. I have sinned against “God.” See Matthew 21:25. It is also to be observed that one evidence of the genuineness of repentance is the feeling that our sins have been committed chiefly against “God.” Commonly we think most of our offences as committed against “man;” but when the sinner sees the true character of his sins, he sees that they have been aimed chiefly against “God,” and that the sins against “man” are of little consequence compared with those against God. So David, even after committing the crimes of adultery and murder after having inflicted the deepest injury on “man” - yet felt that the sin as committed against “God” shut every other consideration out of view: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” etc., Psalms 2:4.
Before thee - This means the same as “against” thee. The offences had been committed mainly against God, but they were to be regarded, also, as sins against his “father,” in wasting property which he had given him, in neglecting his counsels, and in plunging himself into ruin. He felt that he had “disgraced” such a father. A sinner will be sensible of his sins against his relatives and friends as well as against God. A true penitent will be as ready to “acknowledge” his offences against his fellow-men as those against his Maker.
No more worthy ... - “Such has been my conduct that I have been a disgrace to my father. I am not fit to be honored by being called the son of a man so kind and virtuous.”
Make me as one ... - “Treat me as a servant. Let me come again into your family, but I do not ask to be treated as a son. I am willing to come in if you will give me only the support that you give to a servant.” This evinced,
- Deep humility - such as a sinner should have.
- Love for his father’s house - such as all penitents should have toward God’s dwelling-place in heaven.
- Confidence in his father that he would treat him kindly, even if he treated him as a servant. Such confidence all returning penitents feel in God. They are assured that God will treat them kindly that whatever he gives them will be more than they deserve, and they are, therefore, willing to be in his hands. Yet,
- He had no adequate sense of his father’s kindness. He did not fully appreciate his character. He was far more kind than he had dared to hope he would be; just as all sinners undervalue the character of God, and find him always more kind than they had supposed. No sinner comes to God with a just and adequate view of his character, but “always” finds him more merciful than he had dared to hope.
He arose, and came - Was coming. But here is no indication of “haste.” He did not “run,” but came driven by his wants, and, as we may suppose, filled with shame, and even with some doubts whether his father would receive him.
A great way off - This is a beautiful description - the image of his father’s happening to see him clad in rags, poor, and emaciated, and yet he recognized “his son,” and all the feelings of a father prompted him to go and embrace him.
Had compassion - Pitied him. Saw his condition - his poverty and his wretched appearance - and was moved with compassion and love.
And ran - This is opposed to the manner in which the son came. The beauty of the picture is greatly heightened by these circumstances. The son came slowly - the father “ran.” The love and joy of the old man were so great that he hastened to meet him and welcome him to his home.
Fell on his neck - Threw his arms around his neck and embraced him.
And kissed him - This was a sign at once of affection and reconciliation. This must at once have dissipated every doubt of the son about the willingness of his father to forgive and receive him. A kiss is a sign of affection, 1 Samuel 10:1; Genesis 29:13. This is evidently designed to denote the “readiness of God” to pity and pardon returning sinners. In this verse of inimitable beauty is contained the point of the parable, which was uttered by the Saviour to vindicate “his own conduct” in receiving sinners kindly. Who could “blame” this father for thus receiving his repenting son? Not even a Pharisee could blame him; and our Saviour thus showed them, so that “they” could not resist it, that “God” received returning sinners, and that it was right for “him” also to receive them and treat them with attention.
The best robe - The son was probably in rags. The joy of the father is expressed by clothing him in the best raiment, that he might appear well. The “robe” here mentioned is probably the outer garment; and the father told them to put on him the best one that was in the house - one reserved for festival occasions. See Genesis 27:15.
A ring on his hand - To wear a ring on the hand was one mark of wealth and dignity. The rich and those in office commonly wore them. Compare James 2:2. To “give” a ring was a mark of favor, or of affection, or of conferring office. Compare Genesis 41:42; Esther 8:2. Here it was expressive of the “favor” and affection of the father.
Shoes on his feet - Servants, probably, did not usually wear shoes. The son returned, doubtless, without shoes a condition very unlike that in which he was when he left home. When, therefore, the father commanded them to put shoes on him, it expressed his wish that he should not be treated “as a servant,” but “as a son.” The word “shoes” here, however, means no more than “sandals,” such as were commonly worn. And the meaning of all these images is the same - “that God will treat those who return to him with kindness and affection.” These images should not be attempted to be “spiritualized.” They are beautifully thrown in to fill up the narrative, and to express with more force the “general” truth that “God” will treat returning penitents with mercy and with love. To dress up the son in this manner was a proof of the father’s affection. So God will bestow on sinners the marks of his confidence and regard.
Be merry - Literally, “eating, let us rejoice.” The word “merry” does not quite express the meaning of the Greek. “Merriment” denotes a light, playful, jovial mirth. The Greek denotes simply “joy - let us be happy, or joyful.”
Was dead - This is capable of two significations:
- “I supposed” that he was dead, but I know now that he is alive.
- He was “dead to virtue” - he was sunk in pleasure and vice.
The word is not unfrequently thus used. See 1 Timothy 5:6; Matthew 8:22; Romans 6:13. Hence, to be restored to “virtue” is said to be restored again to life, Romans 6:13; Revelation 3:1; Ephesians 2:1. It is probable that this latter is the meaning here. See Luke 15:32.
Was lost - Had wandered away from home, and we knew not where he was.
In the field - At work. This eldest son is designed to represent the Pharisees who had found fault with the Saviour. Their conduct is likened to that of this envious and unnatural brother.
Music and dancing - Dancing was not uncommon among the Hebrews, and was used on various occasions. Thus Miriam celebrated the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt in dances as well as songs, Exodus 15:20. David danced before the ark, 2 Samuel 6:14. It was common at Jewish feasts Judges 21:19-21 and in public triumphs Judges 11:34, and at all seasons of mirth and rejoicings, Psalms 30:11; Jeremiah 31:4, Jeremiah 31:13. It was also used in religious services by the idolaters Exodus 32:19, and also by the Jews, at times, in their religious services, Psalms 149:3; Psalms 150:4. In this case it was an expression of rejoicing. Our Lord expresses no opinion about its “propriety.” He simply states “the fact,” nor was there occasion for comment on it. His “mentioning it” cannot be pleaded for its lawfulness or propriety, any more than his mentioning the vice of the younger son, or the wickedness of the Pharisees, can be pleaded to justify their conduct. It is an expressive image, used in accordance with the known customs of the country, to express joy. It is farther to be remarked, that if the example of persons in Scripture be pleaded for dancing, it can be “only for just such dances as they practiced” - for sacred or triumphal occasions.
Safe and sound - In health.
A kid - A young goat. This was of less value than the calf; and he complains that while his father had never given “him” a thing of so little value as “a kid,” he had now given his other son the “fatted calf.”
Make merry with - Entertain them give them a feast. This complaint was unreasonable, for his father had divided his property, and he “might” have had his portion, and his father had uniformly treated him with kindness. But it serves to illustrate the conduct of the scribes and Pharisees, and the folly of their complaint.
This thy son - This son of “thine.” This is an expression of great contempt. He did not call him “his brother,” but “his father’s son,” to show at once his contempt for his younger brother, and for his father for having received him as he did. Never was there a more striking instance of petty malice, or more unjustifiable disregard of a father’s conduct and will.
Thy living - Thy property. This is still designed to irritate the father, and set him against his younger son. It was true that the younger son had been guilty, and foolish, and ungrateful; but he was penitent, and “that” was of more consequence to the father than all his property; and in the joy that he was penitent and was safe, he forgot his ingratitude and folly. So should the older son have done.
All I have is thine - The property was divided. What remained was in reality the older son’s. He was heir to it all, and had a right, if he chose, to use it. He had, therefore, no right to complain.
This instructive and beautiful parable was designed to vindicate the conduct of Jesus to show that it was right to receive sinners, and that the conduct of the Pharisees was unreasonable. The older son represents the Pharisees; the younger, the returning sinner, whether Jew or Gentile; and the father, God, who is willing to receive them. The parable had the designed effect. It silenced the adversaries of Jesus and vindicated his own conduct. There is not, perhaps, anywhere to be found a more beautiful and touching narrative than this. Every circumstance is tender and happily chosen; every word has a meaning; every image is beautiful; and the narrative closes just where it is fitted to make the deepest impression. In addition to what has been suggested, we may learn from this parable the following lessons:
1. That the disposition of a sinner is selfish. He desires to get all that he can, and is impatient of delay, Luke 15:12.
2. Sinners waste their blessings, and reduce themselves to a state of want and wretchedness, Luke 15:13. A life of sin brings on spiritual want and misery. It destroys the faculties, benumbs the mind, hardens the heart, abuses the beneficence of God, and makes us careless of him who gave us all that we have, and indifferent to the consequences of our own conduct.
3. Sinners disregard the future woes that will come upon them. The young man cared not for any calamities that might be the result of his conduct. He went on heedlessly - like every sinner to enjoy himself, and to squander what the toils of his father had procured for him.
4. Afflictions are often the means of bringing sinners to reflection, Luke 15:14. While his property lasted the prodigal cared little about his father. When that was gone, and he was in the midst of a famine, he thought of his ways. When sinners are in prosperity they think little about God. When he takes away their mercies, and they are called to pass through afflictions, then they think of their ways, and remember that God can give them comfort.
5. We have here an impressive exhibition of the wants and woes of a sinner.
(1)He had spent all. He had nothing. So the sinner. He has no righteousness, no comfort.
(2)He was far from God, away from his father, and in a land of strangers. The sinner has wandered, and has no friend. His miseries came upon him “because” he was so far away from God.
(3)His condition was wretched. He was needy, in famine, and without a friend. So the sinner. His condition is aptly denoted by that of the prodigal, who would gladly have partaken of the food of the swine. The sinner has taken the world for his portion, and it neither supplies the wants of his soul, nor gives him comfort when he is far away from his Father’s home and from God.
6. The sinner in this situation often applies to the wrong source for comfort, Luke 15:15. The prodigal should at once have returned to his father, but he rather chose to become a servant of a citizen of that region. The sinner, when sensible of his sins, should return at once to God; but he often continues still to wander. He tries new objects. He seeks new pleasures and new friends, and finds them equally unsatisfactory. He engages in new pursuits, but all in vain. He is still comfortless, and in a strange, a famished land,
7. The repentance required in the gospel is a return to a right mind, Luke 15:17. Before his conversion the sinner was alienated from God. He was spiritually deranged. He saw not things as they are. Now he looks on the world as vain and unsatisfactory, and comes to himself. He thinks “aright” of God, of heaven, of eternity, and resolves to seek his happiness there. No man regards things as they are but he who sees the world to be vain, and eternity to be near and awful; and none acts with a “sane mind” but he who acts on the belief that he must soon die; that there is a God and a Saviour - a heaven and a hell.
8. When the sinner returns he becomes sensible of the following things:
- That he is in danger of perishing, and must soon die but for relief - “I perish with hunger.”
(2)That God is willing and able to save him - “How and to spare.” There is abundance of mercy for all, and all may come.
(3)He begins to cherish a hope that this may be his. God is willing, and he feels that all that is needful is for him to go to him.
(4)He resolves to go to God - “I will arise and go.”
(5)He comes to him willing to confess all his sins, and desirous of concealing none - “I will say, Father, I have sinned.”
9. True repentance is a voluntary act. It is not forced. It is the resolution of the sinner to go, and he cheerfully and cordially arises and goes, Luke 15:18.
10. A real penitent feels that his sins have been committed against God, Luke 15:18.
11. A true penitent also is willing to acknowledge his offences against his parents, brothers, friends, and all people, Luke 15:18.
12. A real penitent is humble, Luke 15:18. He has no wish to conceal anything, or to be thought more highly of than he “ought” to be.
13. God is willing to receive the true penitent, and has made the richest provision for his return and for his comfort. None need to hesitate to go. All who go, feeling that they are poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked, will find God willing to receive them, and none will be sent empty away.
14. The joy at the return of sinners is great. Angels rejoice over it, and all holy beings are glad.
15. We should not be envious at any favors that God may be pleased to bestow on others, Luke 15:32. He has given “us” more than we deserve; and if, by the sovereignty of his grace, he is pleased to endow others with more grace, or to give them greater talents, or to make them more useful, “we” have no cause to complain. We should rather rejoice that he is pleased to give such mercies to any of our race, and should praise him for the manifestation of his goodness, whether made to us or to other people.
16. The sensible joy when the sinner returns to God is often greater than that which may be felt “after” the return, and yet the real “cause” of rejoicing be no greater. In times of revival, the sensible joy of Christians may be greater than in ordinary seasons. Their graces are quickened, their zeal kindled, and their hopes strengthened.
17. If God is willing to receive sinners, if all holy beings rejoice, then how should Christians strive for their conversion, and seek for their return!
18. If God is willing to receive sinners “now,” then all should at once return. There “will” be a time when he will not be willing to receive them. The day of mercy will be ended; and from the misery and want of this wretched world, they will go down to the deeper miseries and wants of a world of despair where hope never comes; from whence the sinner can never return; and where the cheering thought can never enter the mind that in his Father’s house there is bread enough and to spare, or where he must feel that if there “is,” it will be forever untasted by the wretched prodigal in the land of eternal famine and death.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30