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Ch. 15 Parables for Publicans and Sinners. The Love and free Forgiveness of God
1 10. The Lost Sheep
1 . Then drew near unto him ] Rather, And there were drawing near to Him all the tax-gatherers and the sinners to listen to Him . St Chrysostom says that their very life was legalised sin and specious greed. On the publicans, see 3:12, 5:27. ‘The sinners’ mean in general the degraded and outcast classes. See Introd. and Wordsworth, ad loc.
2 . the Pharisees and scribes ] See Excursus VI.
murmured ] Rather, were loudly murmuring (19:7; Joshua 9:18 ). “With arid heart they blame the very Fount of Mercy,” Gregory the Great. In all ages it had been their sin that they ‘sought not the lost.’ Ezekiel 34:4 .
and eateth with them ] Even their touch was regarded as unclean by the Pharisees. But our Lord, who read the heart, knew that the religious professors were often the worse sinners before God, and He associated with sinners that He might save them. “Ideo secutus est … usque ad mensam, ubi maxime peccatur.” Bengel. It is this yearning of redemptive love which finds its richest illustration in these three parables. They contain the very essence of the Glad Tidings, and two of them are peculiar to St Luke.
3 . he spake this parable ] Matthew 18:12-14 . In these three parables we have pictures of the bewildered sinner (3 7); the unconscious sinner (8 10); the voluntary sinner (11 32).
4 . an hundred sheep ] And yet out of this large flock the good shepherd grieves for one which strays. There is an Arab saying that God has divided pity into a hundred parts, and kept ninety-nine for Himself.
in the wilderness ] i. e. the Midbar , or pastures; see 2:8. The sheep are left of course under minor shepherds, not uncared for. Some see in the Lost Sheep the whole human race, and in the ninety-nine the Angels: as though mankind were but a hundredth part of God’s flock.
until he find it ] Strange that utterances so gracious as this should be utterly passed over, when so many darker details are rigidly pressed!
5 . he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing ] Literally, “ his own shoulders .” All anger against the folly of the wanderer is swallowed up in love, and joy at its recovery. “He bare our sins in His own body,” 1 Peter 2:24 . We have the same metaphor in the Psalm of the shepherd king (Psalms 119:176 ; comp. Isaiah 53:6 ; John 10:11 ), and in the letter of the Apostle, to whom had been addressed the words, “Feed my sheep,” 1 Peter 2:25 . This verse supplied a favourite subject for the simple and joyous art of the catacombs. Tert. De Pudic. 7. See Lundy, Monumental Christianity , pp. 150 sqq.
6 . calleth together his friends and neighbours ] See on 14:12.
Rejoice with me ] “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross,” Hebrews 12:2 ; comp. Isaiah 53:11 .
7 . I say unto you ] I who know (John 1:51 ).
in heaven ] See vs. 10; Matthew 18:13 .
just persons, which need no repentance ] See 5:32. The ‘Pharisees and scribes’ in an external sense were ‘just persons,’ for as a class their lives were regular, though we learn from Josephus and the Talmud that many individuals among them were guilty of flagrant sins. But that our Lord uses the description with a holy irony is clear from the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (see 18:9). They trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. They did need repentance (carebant), but did not want it (non egebant). It was a fixed notion of the Jews that God had “ not appointed repentance to the just , and to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee ” (Prayer of Manasses).
8 . having ten pieces of silver ] Ten drachmas. This parable is peculiar to St Luke. The Greek drachma (about 10 d .) corresponds to the Latin denarius. Each represented a day’s wages, and may be roughly rendered shilling. Tob. 5:14; Thuc. iii. 17; Tac. Ann. i. 17. These small silver coins were worn by women as a sort of ornamental fringe round the forehead (the semedi ). The loss might therefore seem less trying than that of a sheep, but (1) in this case it is a tenth (not a hundredth ) part of what the woman possesses; and (2) the coin has on it the image and superscription of a king (Genesis 1:27 ; Matthew 22:20 ). “We are God’s drachma” “I feel more strongly every day that everything is vanity; I cannot leave my soul in this heap of mud.” Lacordaire (Chocarne, p. 42, E. Tr.).
light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently ] We should notice the thorough and deliberate method of the search. Some see in the woman a picture of the Church, and give a separate meaning to each particular; but “if we should attribute to every single word a deeper significance than appears, we should not seldom incur the danger of bringing much into Scripture which is not at all contained in it.” Zimmermann.
till she find it ] If it be admissible to build theological conclusions on the incidental expressions of parables, there should be, in these words, a deep source of hope.
9 . I have found the piece which I had lost ] She does not say ‘my piece.’ If the woman be intended to represent the Church, the loss of the ‘piece’ entrusted to her may be in part, at least, her own fault.
10 . Joy in the presence of the angels of God ] The same as the ‘joy in heaven of vs. 7; the Te Deums of heaven over the victories of grace.
over one sinner that repenteth ] “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Ezekiel 33:11 .
11 32. The Son lost and found
11 . had two sons ] The primary applications of this divine parable, which is peculiar to St Luke, and would alone have added inestimable value to his Gospel are (1) to the Pharisees and the ‘sinners’ i. e. to the professedly religious, and the openly irreligious classes; and (2) to the Jews and Gentiles. This latter application however only lies indirectly in the parable, and it is doubtful whether it would have occurred consciously to those who heard it. This is the Evangelium in Evangelio . How much it soars above the conceptions of Christians, even after hundreds of years of Christianity, is shewn by the ‘elder-brotherly spirit’ which has so often been manifested (e. g. by Tertullian and all like him) in narrowing its interpretation.
12 . the portion of goods that falleth to me ] This would be one third (Deuteronomy 21:17 ). The granting of this portion corresponds to the natural gifts and blessings which God bestows on all alike, together with the light of conscience, and the rich elements of natural religion. Here we have the history of a sinful soul. Its sin (12, 13); its misery (14 16); its penitence (17 20); its forgiveness (20 24).
he divided unto them his living ] See 6:35. “The Lord is good to all ,” Psalms 145:9 . “God is no respecter of persons,” Acts 10:34 . “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil, and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Matthew 5:45 .
“God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers;
And flings the thing we have asked for in our face,
A gauntlet with a gift in it.”
E. B. Browning.
13 . not many days after ] This shadows forth the rapidity (1) of national, and (2) of individual degeneracy. “In some children,” says Sir Thomas Elyot in The Governour , “nature is more prone to vice than to vertue, and in the tender wittes be sparkes of voluptuositie, whiche norished by any occasion or objecte, encrease oftentymes into so terrible a fire, that therwithall vertue and reason is consumed.” The first sign of going wrong is a yearning for spurious liberty.
took his journey into a far country ] The Gentiles soon became ‘afar off’ from God (Acts 2:39 ; Ephesians 2:17 ), “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” So too the individual soul, in its temptations and its guiltiness, ever tries in vain to escape from God (Psalms 139:7-10 ) into the ‘far country’ of sin, which involves forgetfulness of Him. Jer. Ep. 146. Thus the younger son becomes “Lord of himself, that heritage of woe.”
with riotous living ] Literally, “ living ruinously ” asōtōs . The adverb occurs here only, and is derived from a ‘not,’ and σώζω ‘I save.’ The substantive occurs in 1 Peter 4:4 ; Ephesians 5:18 . Aristotle defines asotia as a mixture of intemperance and prodigality. For the historical fact indicated, see Romans 1:19-32 . The individual fact needs, alas! no illustration. One phrase two words is enough. Our loving Saviour does not dwell upon, or darken the details, of our sinfulness.
14 . And when he had spent all] Historically ,
“On that hard Roman world, disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.”
Individually , “The limits are narrow within which, by wasting his capital, a man obtains a supply of pocket-money.” G. Macdonald.
there arose a mighty famine in that land ] God has given him his heart’s desire and sent leanness withal into his bones. The worst famine of all is “not a famine of bread or a thirst of water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11 ); and in such a famine even “the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst” (id. vs. 13). “They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water,” Jeremiah 2:13 .
he began to be in want ] The whole heathen world at this time was saying, “Who will shew us any good?” Weariness, despair, and suicide were universal. Individually this is the retributive anguish of those who have wasted the gifts of life.
“My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flowers and fruits of love are gone,
The worm, the anguish, and the grief
Are mine alone.
The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze
A funeral pile.”
15. joined himself to a citizen of that country ] Rather, one of the Citizens . Even in its worst and most willing exile the soul cannot cease to be by right a citizen of God’s kingdom a fellow-citizen with the saints, Ephesians 2:19 . Its true citizenship ( πολίτευμα ) is still in heaven (Philippians 3:20 ). By ‘the citizen of the far country’ is indicated either men hopelessly corrupt and worldly; or perhaps the powers of evil. We observe that in this far-off land, the Prodigal, with all his banquets and his lavishness, has not gained a single friend . Sin never forms a real bond of pity and sympathy. The cry of tempters and accomplices ever is, “What is that to us? see thou to that .”
he sent him ] ‘Freedom’ from righteousness is slavery to sin.
to feed swine ] The intensity of this climax could only be duly felt by Jews, who had such a loathing and abhorrence for swine that they would not even name them, but spoke of a pig as dabhar acheer , ‘the other thing.’
16 . he would fain ] Literally, “ he was longing .”
filled his belly with ] The plain expression purposely adopted to add the last touch to the youth’s degradation gave offence to some copyists, who substituted for it the verb ‘to be fed.’ The reading adopted in our text is, however, certainly the true one, and perhaps implies that from such food nothing could be hoped for but to allay the pangs of famine. He only hopes to ‘fill his belly,’ not to sate his hunger. Even the world’s utmost gorgeousness and most unchecked sensuality could not avail to raise the soul of men or of nations out of utter misery.
the husks that the swine did eat ] Literally, “ the carob-pods of which the swine were eating .” The word rendered ‘husks’ means ‘little horns,’ i. e. the long, coarse, sweetish, bean-shaped pods of the carob tree ( ceratonia siliqua , St John’s bread tree), which were only used by the poorest of the population. Some (incorrectly) give the same meaning to the ἄκριδες (‘locusts’) which formed the food of St John the Baptist.
and no man gave unto him ] No one ‘was giving,’ or ‘chose to give’ him either the husks or anything else. Satan has no desire for, and no interest in, even the smallest alleviation of the anguish and degradation of his victims. Even the vile earthly gifts, and base sensual pleasures, are withheld or become impossible. “Who follows pleasure, pleasure slays.”
17 . And when he came to himself ] His previous state was that of his false self a brief delusion and madness ‘the old man with his affections and lusts.’ Now he was once more beginning to be “in his right mind.” “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live,” Ecclesiastes 9:3 .
How many hired servants of my father’s ] The hired servants correspond to any beings who stand in a lower or more distant relation to God, yet for whom His love provides.
18 . I will arise and go to my father ] The youth in the parable had loved his father, and would not doubt about his father’s love; and in the region which the parable shadows forth, the mercy of God to the returning penitent has always been abundantly promised. Isaiah 55:7 ; Jeremiah 3:12 ; Hosea 14:1 , Hosea 14:2 , &c.; and throughout the whole New Testament.
Father, I have sinned ] “Repentance is the younger brother of innocence itself.” Fuller, Holy War .
20 . And he arose and came to his father ] A mere flash of remorse is not enough; a journey must be taken: the back must be at once and finally turned on the far land; and all the shame of abandoned duties and forsaken friends be faced. “The course to the unific rectitude of a manly life” always appears to the sinner to be, and sometimes really is, “in the face of a scorching past and a dark future.”
But when he was yet a great way off ] “Now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13 .
had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck ] On this full, frank, absolute forgiveness, see Psalms 103:8-10 , Psalms 103:12 . On the tender Fatherly love of God see Isaiah 49:15 ; Matthew 7:11 , &c.
and kissed him ] Literally, “ kissed him warmly or closely ,” Genesis 33:4 .
21 . And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned ] Rather, I sinned . Like a true penitent he grieves not for what he has lost , but for what he has done . Here again the language of David furnishes the truest and most touching comment, “I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,” Psalms 32:5 . “There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared,” Psalms 130:4 . The Prodigal’s penitence is not mere remorse or sorrow for punishment.
sinned against heaven ] This includes and surpasses all the other guilt, which is the reason why David, though he had sinned so deeply against man, says “against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight,” Psalms 51:4 .
22 . But the father said to his servants ] It is as though he had purposely cut short the humble self-reproaching words of shame which would have entreated him to make his lost son like one of his hired servants. “While they are yet speaking, I will hear,” Isaiah 65:24 .
Bring forth ] The true reading is probably ‘Bring forth quickly ’ א , B, L, &c.
the best robe ] The talar or stolê podērēs , 20:46; John 19:23 ; Isaiah 61:10 ; Revelation 3:18 . Compare the remarkable scene of taking away the filthy rags from the High Priest Joshua, and clothing him with change of raiment, in Zechariah 3:1-10 . It is literally ‘the first robe’ and some have explained it of the robe he used to wear at home the former robe.
shoes on his feet ] Another sign that he is to be regarded as a son, and not as a mere sandalled or unsandalled slave (see on 10:4). Some have given special and separate significance to the best robe, as corresponding to the ‘wedding garment,’ the robe of Christ’s righteousness (Philippians 3:9 ); and have identified the seal-ring with Baptism (Ephesians 1:13 , Ephesians 1:14 ); and the shoes with the preparation of the Gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15 ; Zechariah 10:12 ); and in the next verse have seen in the ‘fatted calf’ an allusion to the Sacrifice of Christ, or the Eucharist. Such applications are pious and instructive afterthoughts, though the latter is as old as Irenaeus; but it is doubtful whether the elaboration of them does not weaken the impressive grandeur and unity of the parable, as revealing the love of God even to His erring children. We must not confuse Parable with Allegory . The one dominant meaning of the parable is that God loved us even while we were dead in sins, Ephesians 2:1 , Ephesians 2:5 .
kill it ] Rather, sacrifice it (comp. Herod. i. 118 where there is a sacrifice and supper for a son’s safety). Hence perhaps one reason for assigning to St Luke the Cherubic symbol of the calf (Introd. p. 13).
24 . was dead, and is alive again ] The metaphor of ‘death’ to express the condition of impenitent sin is universal in the Bible. “Thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead,” Revelation 3:1 . “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead,” Ephesians 5:14 . “You hath He quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1 . “Yield yourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead ,” Romans 6:13 .
was lost ] This poor youth had been in the exact Roman sense perditus a ‘lost,’ an ‘abandoned’ character.
25 . Now his elder son was in the field ] Many have felt a wish that the parable had ended with the moving and exquisite scene called up by the last words; or have regarded the remaining verses as practically a separate parable. Such a judgment not to speak of its presumption shews a narrow spirit. We must not forget that the Jews, however guilty, were God’s children no less than the Gentiles, and Pharisees no less than publicans from the moment that Pharisees had learnt that they too had need of repentance. The elder son is still a son, nor are his faults intrinsically more heinous, though more perilous because more likely to lead to self-deception than those of the younger. Self-righteousness is sin as well as unrighteousness, and may be even a worse sin, Matthew 21:31 , Matthew 21:32 ; but God has provided for both sins a full Sacrifice and a free forgiveness.
musick and dancing ] Literally, “ a symphony and chorus .”
28 . he was angry ] The feelings of the Jews towards the Gentiles (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 ) when they were embracing the offers of the Gospel (“The Jews … were filled with envy and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming,” Acts 13:45 ) and the feelings of the Pharisees towards our Lord, when He ate with publicans and sinners, are the earliest historical illustrations of this phase of the parable. It illustrates feelings which refer more directly to such historical phenomena; the earlier part is of more universal application. Yet envy and lovelessness are too marked characteristics of modern religionism to render the warning needless.
would not go in] “Foris stat Israel,” sed “ Foris stat non excluditur .” Ambrose.
therefore came his father out and intreated him ] “How often would I have gathered thy children together … but ye would not,” 13:34; see Acts 17:5 , Acts 17:13 , Acts 17:22 :21, Acts 17:28 :27. The yearning chapters addressed to the obstinacy of Israel by St Paul (Romans 10:11 ) furnish another illustration of this picture.
29 . do I serve thee ] Rather, I am thy slave . He does not say ‘Father:’ and evidently regards the yoke not as perfect freedom but as distasteful bondage. The slave is ever dissatisfied; and this son worked in the spirit of a ‘hired-servant.’
neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment ] This is the very spirit of the Pharisee and the Rabbi, 18:11, 12. “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” Such self-satisfaction can only spring from an ignorance of the breadth and spirituality of God’s commandments. The respectable Jews, sunk in the complacency of formalism and letter-worshipping orthodoxy, had lost all conception that they were, at the best, but unprofitable servants. Like this elder son they “went about to establish their own righteousness” (Romans 9:14 ); and though they kept many formal commandments they ‘transgressed’ the love of God (11:42). Observe that while the younger son confesses with no excuse, the elder son boasts with no confession. This at once proves his hollowness, for the confessions of the holiest are ever the most bitter. The antitheses in the verse are striking, ‘You never gave me a kid , much less sacrificed a fatted calf ; not even for my friends , much less for harlots .’
thou never gavest me a kid ] The reward of a life near his father’s presence, and in the safety of the old home, was nothing to him. He is like the rescued Israelites still yearning for the flesh-pots of Egypt.
30 . this thy son … which hath devoured thy living with harlots ] Every syllable breathes rancour. He disowns all brotherhood; and says ‘came’ not ‘ returned ,’ and tries to wake his father’s anger by saying ‘ thy living,’ and malignantly represents the conduct of his erring brother in the blackest light.
31 . Son ] Rather, Child .
thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine ] Literally, “ all mine are thine .” “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the Shechinah, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom after the flesh Christ came who is God over all, blessed for ever,” Romans 9:4 , Romans 9:5 . Religionists of the Elder-brother type cannot realize the truth that they are not impoverished by the extension to others of God’s riches (Matthew 20:14 ). Let us hope that after this appeal the elder son also went in.
32 . It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad ] “They glorified God … saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life,” Acts 11:18 . It would be impossible to mark more emphatically God’s displeasure at the narrow, exclusive, denunciatory spirit which would claim for ourselves only, or our party, or our Church, a monopoly of heaven. The hard dogmatism and speculative theories of a self-asserting Theology “vanish like oppressive nightmares before this single parable in which Jesus reveals the heavenly secrets of human redemption, not according to a mystical or criminal theory of punishment, but anthropologically, psychologically, and theologically to every pure eye that looks into the perfect law of liberty.” Von Ammon, Leb. Jesu , iii. 50.
this thy brother ] For he is thy brother, and I thy Father, though thou wouldest refuse this name to him, and didst not address that title to me.
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the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18