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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Luke 15

Verse 1

XV.

(1) Then drew near unto him . . .—Better, and all the publicans and the sinners were drawing near to hear Him. There is not quite the same direct sequence in the Greek as in the English, but what follows comes naturally after the mention of the “multitudes” in Luke 14:25. Publicans and sinners knew that Jesus had turned, as in indignation, from the house of the Pharisee, and this, it may be, gave them courage to approach Him.

Verse 2

(2) And the Pharisees and scribes . . .—Here, too, we may well believe that the speakers were some of the guests of Luke 14:15. They had followed Him to see what He would do, and were at once startled and shocked to find the Teacher who had spoken so sternly to those who were professedly godly, not only talking to, but eating with, those who were, at any rate, regarded as ungodly and sinful.

Verse 4

(4) What man of you, having an hundred sheep . . .?—The meaning of the parable is so clear that it requires but little in the way of explanation. It gains, however, fresh force and interest if we remember that it followed on the great parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-16, and on the compassion for the lost sheep of which we read in Matthew 9:36. The thought was, if we may use the language which rises to our lips, a dominant idea in the mind of Him who spoke. The primary application of that idea is clearly to be found in the immediate occasion of the parable, in the love which bids the Son of Man to concentrate His thoughts and energy and prayers on some one soul among those publicans and sinners who were thus gathered together; but it is, at least, a legitimate extension of it to think of it as embracing also His whole redemptive work as the Son of God, leaving the “ninety and nine,” the hosts of unfallen angels and archangels, or, it may be, unfallen beings more like ourselves in other worlds than ours, and coming to the rescue of the collective humanity which had fallen and wandered from the fold.

Verse 5

(5) And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders.—Here again we have a three-fold series of parallel applications: the love of Jesus for each wandering sheep, bearing and sustaining it in its weakness; the love which led Him to take upon Him our nature, and to bear its infirmities; the love which leads those in whom the mind of Christ is formed to follow in His footsteps, and to act as He acted.

Verse 6

(6) He calleth together his friends and neighbours.—The recurrence of the two words so soon after Luke 14:12 is suggestive. There are times when we do well to recognise the natural and social ties that bind man and man. Chiefly is it right to do so when we make them sharers in our own spiritual life, and raise and purify their life by calling on them to sympathise, not with our sufferings only, but with our purer and nobler joys. In its bearing upon our Lord’s own work we may think of His “friends and neighbours” as being the disciples whom He had chosen; we may think also of “the angels of God,” and the spirits of the just made perfect, who rejoice over one sinner that repenteth.

Verse 7

(7) Ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.—As regards the men and women among whom our Lord carried on His work, we cannot see in these words anything but a grave and indignant protest, veiled under the form of an apparent concession, against the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. His call to repent had been addressed to all. That all offended in many things; that for a man to say he had not sinned was a lying boast—this was the first postulate of every preacher of the gospel, whatever school of thought he might represent (Romans 3:23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). Once, indeed, the opposite thought had appeared in the devotional utterance of a penitent Israelite—“Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of ‘the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against Thee” (Prayer of Manasses in the Apocrypha); but there it was accompanied by personal contrition and confession. The man felt in his humility, how unlike he was to those saints of God. It was reserved for the Pharisees to develop the thought into the conviction that they were the just persons who needed no repentance, and that all their worship should consist in thanksgiving that they were so. (See Note on Luke 18:11.)

Verse 8

(8) Either what woman having ten pieces of silver.—The main lesson of the parable that thus opens is, of course, identical with that of the Lost Sheep. We are justified, however, in assuming that the special features of each were meant to have a special meaning, and that we have therefore more than a mere ornamental variation of imagery. Looking to these points of difference we note (1) the use of the silver coin (the drachma) as a symbol of the human soul. Here the reason of the choice lies on the surface. The coin is what it is because it has on it the king’s image and superscription. Man is precious because he too has the image and superscription of the great King, the spiritual attributes of Thought and Will, by which he resembles God, stamped upon him. (2) There is, perhaps, a special significance in the fact that the coin is lost in the house, while the sheep strays from the fold. What seems implied here is the possibility that a soul that is precious in the sight of God may be lost even within the society, Israel or the Church of Christ, which is for the time being the visible house of God. (3) It is a woman who seeks, and not a man, and the change, at least, reminds us of the woman in the parable of the Leaven. (See Note on Matthew 13:33.) It is hardly an adequate explanation in either case, though it may be true in itself, that the variation was made to interest a different class of hearers, the women who were listening, who had no experience in going after the sheep that was lost. We must at least see in it the lesson that what we call feminine virtues and graces are needed for the deliverance of souls that have fallen—patience, and diligence, and minute observation—not less than what we think of as the more manly qualities of courage, and enterprise, and endurance. Lastly, in the “woman” of the parable we may venture to see that which answers in part to the ideal representation of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs (Luke 8:9), in part to the Church as answering in its collective unity to the ideal of womanhood, as Christ Himself does to the ideal of manhood (Ephesians 5:23).

Doth not light a candle, and. . . . seek diligently . . .?—The symbolic meaning of each act lies almost on the surface. To “light the candle” can be nothing else than to put forth the full power of truth and holiness. To “sweep the house” can be nothing else than to use all available means for discovering the possible good that lies hidden or seemingly lost. In the later actual life of the Church, faithful preaching of the word answers to the one, faithful organisation of charity to the other. The rest of the parable is simply an identical reproduction, mutatis mutandis, of the conclusion of the former.

Verse 11

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons.—We enter here on one of the parables which are not only peculiar to St. Luke’s Gospel, but have something of a different character, as giving more than those we find in the other Gospels, the incidents of a story of common daily life. As with the Good Samaritan, it seems open to us to believe that it rested on a substratum of facts that had actually occurred. It is obvious that in the then social state of Palestine, brought into contact as the Jews were with the great cities of the Roman empire, such a history as that here recorded must have been but too painfully familiar.

In the immediate application of the parable, the father is the great Father of the souls of men; the elder son represents the respectably religious Pharisees; the younger stands for the class of publicans and sinners. In its subsequent developments it applies to the two types of character which answers to these in any age or country. On a wider scale, but with a less close parallelism, the elder son may stand for Israel according to the flesh; the younger for the whole heathen world. Looking back to the genealogies of Genesis 5:10; Genesis 9:18, and even (according to the true construction of the words) Genesis 10:21, they correspond respectively to the descendants of Shem and those of Japheth. It is obvious from the whole structure of the parable that the elder son cannot represent the unfallen part of God’s creation; and, so far as it goes, this tells against that interpretation of the ninety and nine sheep, or the nine pieces of silver.

Verse 12

(12) The younger of them said to his father.—In its bearing on the individual life, the younger son represents the temper that is eager for independence, self-asserting, energetic; the elder that which is contemplative, devout, ceremonial, quiescent. As the latter pre-eminently characterises, as noticed above, the sons of Shem as distinguished from those of Japheth, the Semitic as distinct from the Aryan race, the younger son represents primarily the Jew who has yielded to non-Jewish tendencies; and on the wider scale of interpretation, stands for the whole Gentile world. The contrast between the Esau and Jacob types of character is reproduced (Genesis 25:27), only here the elder brother answers to Jacob and the younger to Esau, the variation indicating that the former is with all its short-comings the natural heir of the double portion of the first-born in the spiritual inheritance of God’s kingdom. Israel remains within comparatively narrow limits of thought and habitation. Japheth is “enlarged” (Genesis 9:27) and goes forth with all his marvellous gifts of speech and thought, and fancy and invention.

Divided unto them his living.—In the normal scale of distribution, the elder son would have as his portion two-thirds of the personal, and possibly also of the real, property, the younger the remainder. In the framework of the story, the father and the elder son become, as it were, tenants in common (Luke 15:31), the former still retaining the general direction of affairs. The state of things so described represents roughly the life of Israel under its theocracy, acknowledging God as its true King and Father.

Verse 13

(13) Took his journey into a far country.—Such instances of emigration were, we may believe, familiar things in most towns of Galilee and Judæa. The young man left his home, and started, bent on pleasure or on gain, for Alexandria, or Rome, or Corinth, and rumour came home of riotous living, and a fortune wasted upon harlots, sabbaths broken, synagogues unvisited, perhaps even of participation in idol feasts. In the interpretation that lies below the surface, the “far country” is the state of the human spirit, of the Gentile world, in their wanderings far off from God. The “riotous living” is the reckless waste of noble gifts and highest energies on unbridled sensuality of life, or sensuous, i.e., idolatrous, forms of worship. The fearful history traced in Romans 1:19-32, is but too faithful a picture of the wanderings of the younger son.

Riotous.—The exact meaning of the word is prodigal, thriftless.

Verse 14

(14) There arose a mighty famine in that land.—This again was no unwonted incident. The famine which “came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar” (Acts 11:28) was more extensive and memorable than others, but it was far from standing alone. And now the pinch came. His treasure was gone, and for the fulness of bread there was hunger and “cleanness of teeth” (Amos 4:6). In the individual interpretation of the parable, the mighty famine is the yearning of the soul’s unsatisfied desire, the absence of its true food, of “the bread that cometh down from heaven.” (See Notes on John 6:32.) In its wider range it is the craving of humanity for what it cannot find when appetites are not satisfied, and their wonted supply ceases—the famine, not of bread and of water, but of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11); the want of a message from the Eternal Father to sustain the life of His children.

Verse 15

(15) Joined himself.—Literally clave to, or, attached himself to. The verb is the same as that used of the husband cleaving to his wife in Matthew 19:5, and thus expresses the absolute dependence of the famished man upon one who was ready to help him.

To a citizen.—Literally, to one of the citizens. In the outer story of the parable, this would emphasise the misery into which the man had fallen. The son of Abraham had to depend upon the bounty of an alien. In the two lines of interpretation, the “citizen” is one who all along has been of the world, worldly, living for no higher end than gain or pleasure. The prodigal is as one who, called to a higher life, has forfeited its blessedness, and now depends for such joy as he is capable of on those who are more completely identified with evil. It is, perhaps, natural that as we diverge more widely from the primary scope of the parable, its application in detail should become more difficult; and looking at the parable, as giving an outline of the history of the human race, one fails to see who answers to the “citizen.” Not the Tempter, the great author of the world’s evil, for the citizen is one of many. Nor is it the part of the citizen here to tempt to evil, but rather to be half-unconsciously God’s instrument in punishing it—half-unconsciously, again, the means of preserving the evil-doer from perishing, and so of making a subsequent deliverance possible. It is truer to facts, therefore, to see in the “citizen” the representative of the wisdom and knowledge, maxims of worldly prudence or principles of ethics without religion, which for a time sustain the soul, and “still the hungry edge of appetite,” and keep it from sinking utterly, while yet they leave it in its wretchedness and do not satisfy its cravings.

To feed swine.—We feel at once the shudder that would pass through the hearers of the parable as they listened to these words. Could there be for an Israelite a greater depth of debasement? In the inner teaching of the parable, this perhaps implies a state in which the man’s will and energies have but the one work of ministering to his baser appetites. Such, in the long-run, is the outcome of the wisdom described in the previous note as answering to the “citizen.”

Verse 16

(16) He would fain have filled his belly.—It is singular that very many of the best MSS. give the simpler reading, “desired to be filled or satisfied.” It is open to suppose either that they shrank from the reading in the text as too coarse, or that the later MSS. introduced “filled his belly” as more vivid and colloquial; or, as seems probable, that there may have been a variation of phrase even in the original autograph MSS. of St. Luke.

The husks that the swine did eat.—The word is generic, but it is commonly identified with the long bean-like pods of the carob-tree, or Ceratonia siliqua, or St. John’s bread, in which some have seen the “locusts” of Matthew 3:4. They contain a good deal of saccharine matter, and are commonly used as food for swine in Syria and Egypt. Spiritually, they answer to the sensual pleasures in which men who are as the swine, identified with brute appetites, find adequate sustenance. The soul that was born to a higher inheritance cannot so satisfy itself. It seeks to be “like a beast with lower pleasures,” but it is part of the Father’s discipline that that baser satisfaction is beyond its reach.

Verse 17

(17) And when he came to himself.—The phrase is wonderfully suggestive. The man’s guilt was, that he had been self-indulgent; but he had been living to a self which was not his true self. The first step in his repentance is to wake as out of an evil dream, and to be conscious of his better nature, and then there comes the memory of happier days which is as “Sorrow’s crown of sorrow.” The “hired servants” are obviously those who serve God, not in the spirit of filial love, but from the hope of a reward. Even in that lower form of duty they find what satisfies their wants. They have not the craving of unsatisfied desire which the son feels who has cast away his sonship. He envies them, and would fain be as they are.

Verse 18

(18) I will arise and go to my father.—This, then, was the firstfruits of repentance. He remembers that he has a father, and trusts in that father’s love; but he dares not claim the old position which he had so recklessly cast away. He is content to be as one of the “hired servants.” Spiritually, the first impulse of the contrite heart is to take the lowest place, to wish for the drudgery of daily duties, or even menial service, if only it may be near its Father in heaven, and by slow degrees regain His favour and earn the wages of His praise.

I have sinned . . .—More strictly, I sinned, as going back in thought to the first act of sin as virtually including all that grew out of it.

Verse 20

(20) When he was yet a great way off.—In the story of the parable we must think of the wanderer as coming back weary, foot-sore, hungry, and in rags. In the interpretation, the state of the penitent is that of one who is poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:6), with knees that are feeble and hands that hang down (Hebrews 12:12), conscious of his nakedness and needing something else than the “filthy rags” of his own righteousness (Isaiah 64:6) to cover it. And he is yet “a great way off”—not as yet near the home of peace, the light of the Father’s countenance—but even there, there comes to him the joy of all joys, the love of the Father finds him, and he is conscious of the love. There is the contact of his soul with the Divine Presence which answers to the Father’s kiss.

Verse 21

(21) Father, I have sinned against heaven.—The iteration of the self-same words comes to us with a wonderful power and pathos. The contrite soul does not play with its contrition, or seek to vary its expression. But the change is as suggestive as the repetition. Now that he has seen his father, he cannot bring himself to say again, “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” That had been a natural and right wish before; it would savour of unreality and hypocrisy now. This also has its analogue in the history of true penitents. In the first stirrings of contrition they stand afar off, and as they confess their sins hardly dare to hope for restoration to the blessedness of sons; but when they have felt the Father’s kiss, though still confessing that they are unworthy to be called sons, they cannot be satisfied with anything less than sonship.

Verse 22

(22) Bring forth the best robe.—It is hardly necessary, perhaps, in such a parable, to press the symbolic interpretation of each minute detail; but in this instance the symbolism lies so near the surface that it is at least well to ask ourselves what meaning either earlier or later associations would lead the disciples to attach to them. The “best robe” cannot well be other than the “garment of praise” (Isaiah 61:3), the vesture of righteousness, the new life and immortality with which it is the desire of the penitent to be clothed upon; the ring, as the signet upon the right hand (Jeremiah 22:24), must be the token of the special favour of the Giver, the seal of his “calling and election;” the shoes must answer to that “preparation” or “readiness” which comes from the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15), and which makes him eager to do his work as a messenger who proclaims that gospel to others, and which he need not lay aside (comp. Exodus 3:5) even when he treads on the “holy ground” where man holds communion with God, the forgiven and restored son with the Eternal Father.

Verse 23

(23) Bring hither the fatted calf.—It is interesting to remember the impression which this part of the parable made on one of the great teachers of the Church as early as the second century. Irenaeus (see Introduction) saw in it an illustration of what seemed to him the special characteristic of St. Luke’s Gospel, viz., the stress which it lays on the priestly aspect of our Lord’s work and ministry. We note, after our more modern method, (1) that in the framework of the story, the definite article points to “the calf” that had been fattened as for some special feast of joy. It answers accordingly to the “feast of fat things” of Isaiah 25:6 - i.e., to the joy of the full fruition of the presence of God; and there is, perhaps, in the command to “kill it” (the word used is the technical one for slaying a sacrificial victim) a half-suggestion that this was only possible through a sacrifice and death. The fatted calf thus comes to represent to us that of which the Eucharistic feast is at once a symbol, a witness, and a pledge.

Verse 24

(24) This my son was dead.—The words, looked at merely as part of the story, have a wonderful pathos. Absence, alienation, the self-chosen shame, this had made the father think of the son as “dead.” Death would indeed have been far easier to bear. Spiritually, we are taught that repentance is nothing less than the passing from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, from the “graves of lust” (Numbers 11:34) to the power of the resurrection. The “lost” and “found” appear as furnishing the link that connects this with the preceding parables, and makes the trilogy, as it were, complete.

Verse 25

(25) He heard musick and dancing.—This brings in a new feature. The father, like the chief actors in the other parables, had called together his “friends and neighbours,” and they were rejoicing after the manner of the East. There was “musick,” literally, a symphony, or concert, implying voices as well as instruments. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but it is found in the LXX. version of Daniel 3:5; Daniel 3:10, Where indeed the Hebrew, or rather the Aramaic, word is but the Greek transliterated. The word for “dancing,” also, is found here only in the New Testament, and is the same as that used, in classical Greek, for the chorus of the Greek drama, and from which we get our English “choir.” It probably implied, i.e., song as well as dancing. Spiritually, these outward signs of gladness answer to the overflowing demonstrative joy which thrills through the hearts of those whose sympathies with God’s work in the souls of men are keen and strong, and to which those who live only in the colder religionism of outward service are so insensible that they cannot understand it. They ask now, as the elder son asked, as the Pharisees were in their hearts asking, what it means? Why this departure from the even tenor of men’s wonted life?

Verse 27

(27) Because he hath received him safe and sound.—Literally, in health. The participle is the same which we have noted as characteristic of St. Luke and St. Paul in Luke 5:31; Luke 7:10.

Verse 28

(28) And he was angry, and would not go in.—This, then, was the first feeling. He who professed obedience to his father is out of harmony with his father’s mind. He “shuts love out,” and, as by a righteous judgment, is himself “shut out from love.”

Verse 29

(29) Lo, these many years do I serve thee.—The very word “I serve,” as a slave serves, is eminently suggestive. The obedience had all along been servile, prompted by fear and hope, even as the slave’s obedience is. The language put into the mouth of the elder son is clearly meant to represent the habitual thoughts of the Pharisees. They are taken, as it were, after our Lord’s manner, as seen in the previous parables, at their own valuation of themselves. They are conscious of no transgressions; but in that very unconsciousness lies the secret of the absence of any sense of joy in being forgiven, of any power to sympathise with the joy of others, even of any satisfaction in the service in which they pride themselves. (Comp. Notes on Luke 7:47-50.) They are scandalised at the gladness which others feel when a penitent returns to God. It seems like an insult and wrong to themselves. Their life has been one of uniform obedience; they have performed their religious duties. Why is so much stir made about those who have fallen as they never fell?

Verse 30

(30) As soon as this thy son was come.—The feeling of discontent passes into scorn and bitterness. The sin of the wanderer is painted at once in the coarsest and darkest colours. The very turn of the phrase, “this thy son” speaks of a concentrated malignity.

Verse 31

(31) Son, thou art ever with me.—As applied to the Pharisees in its primary bearing, or to others like the Pharisees in its secondary, it appears at first sight as if the words were spoken from their own point of view, their own self-appreciation, and were therefore ironical. We need not, however, so take them. The words were literally true of the Pharisees, of Israel as a nation, of all who reproduce the Pharisee temper. All outward gifts that God could bestow, the covenants and the law, and the promises, outward ordinances of worship, and the instruction of wise men and scribes—these had all been given to Israel, as like blessings are offered now to all members of the visible Church of Christ, the great family of God. All that was wanted was the power to use these things rightly, as the Father wills, and therefore to enjoy them.

All that I have is thine.—More literally, all mine is thine.

Verse 32

(32) It was meet that we should make merry.—The Greek expresses moral necessity rather than mere fitness. “We must needs rejoice;” it could not be otherwise. The repetition of the same words that had been used before, “he was dead . . .” is singularly-emphatic. This, and nothing more or less than this was the true account of the change that had passed over the wanderer; and this ought to be a source of joy to all his kindred. There is, perhaps, a touch of tenderness as well as reproof in the way in which the scornful “this thy son” is met by “this thy brother.” The elder son had forgotten that fact, and had almost disclaimed his own sonship in his scorn for the offender.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/luke-15.html. 1905.