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Bible Commentaries
Luke 15

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Verses 1-2

5. The Parables of Grace: chap. 15.

This piece contains: 1 st. A historical introduction ( Luk 15:1-2 ); 2 d. A pair of parables, like that of the previous chapter ( Luk 15:3-10 ); and 3 d. A great parable, which forms the summing up and climax of the two preceding ( Luk 15:11-32 ). The relation is like that between the three allegories, John 10:1-18.

1 st. Luke 15:1-2. The Introduction.

If Weizsäcker had sufficiently weighed the bearing of the analytical form ἦσαν ἐγγίζοντες , they were drawing near, which denotes a state of things more or less permanent, he would not have accused Luke (p. 139) of transforming into the event of a particular time a very common situation in the life of Jesus. It is on the basis of this habitual state of things that the point of time (aor. εἰπε , Luk 15:3 ) is marked off when Jesus related the following parables. Holtzmann finds nothing in this introduction but an invention of Luke himself. In any case, Luke places us once more, by this short historical introduction, at the point of view for understanding the whole of the following discourse.

What drew those sinners to Jesus was their finding in Him not that righteousness, full of pride and contempt, with which the Pharisees assailed them, but a holiness which was associated with the tenderest love. The publicans and sinners had broken with Levitical purity and Israelitish respectability; the former by their business, the others by their life. They were outlaws in Israel. But were they finally lost on that account? Undoubtedly, the normal way of entering into union with God would have been through fidelity to the theocracy; but the coming of the Saviour opened another to those who, by their guilt, had shut the first against them. And that was exactly the thing which had exasperated the zealots of Levitical observances. Rather than recognise in Jesus one who had understood the merciful purpose of God, they preferred to explain the compassionate welcome which He gave to sinners by His secret sympathy with sin. Προσδέχεσθαι , to receive with welcome, refers to kindly relations in general; συνεσθίειν , to eat with, to the decisive act in the manners of that time by which He did not fear to seal this connection.

Verses 1-32


A great contrast marks the synoptical narrative: that between the ministry in Galilee, and the passion week at Jerusalem. According to Matthew ( Mat 19:1 to Mat 20:34 ) and Mark (chap. 10), the short journey from Capernaum to Judea through Perea forms the rapid transition between those two parts of the ministry of Jesus. Nothing, either in the distance between the places, or in the number of the facts related, would lead us to suppose that this journey lasted more than a few days. This will appear from the following table:

The fourth part of the Gospel of Luke, which begins at Luke 9:51, gives us a very different idea of what transpired at that period. Here we find the description of a slow and lengthened journey across the southern regions of Galilee, which border on Samaria. Jerusalem is, and remains, the fixed goal of the journey (Luke 9:51, Luke 13:22, Luke 17:11, etc.). But Jesus proceeds only by short stages, stopping at each locality to preach the gospel. Luke does not say what direction He followed. But we may gather it from the first fact related by him. At the first step which He ventures to take with His followers on the Samaritan territory, He is stopped short by the ill-will excited against Him by national prejudice; so that even if His intention had been to repair directly to Jerusalem through Samaria (which we do not believe to have been the case), He would have been obliged to give up that intention, and turn eastward, in order to take the other route, that of Perea. Jesus therefore slowly approached the Jordan, with the view of crossing that river to the south of the lake Gennesaret, and of continuing His journey thereafter through Perea. The inference thus drawn from the narrative of Luke is positively confirmed by Matthew ( Mat 19:1 ) and Mark ( Mar 10:1 ), both of whom indicate the Perean route as that which Jesus followed after His departure from Galilee. In this way the three synoptics coincide anew from Luk 18:15 onwards; and from the moment at which the narrative of Luke rejoins the two others, we have to regard the facts related by him as having passed in Perea. This slow journeying, first from west to east across southern Galilee, then from north to south through Perea, the description of which fills ten whole chapters, that is to say, more than a third of Luke's narrative, forms in this Gospel a real section intermediate between the two others (the description of the Galilean ministry and that of the passion week); it is a third group of narratives corresponding in importance to the two others so abruptly brought into juxtaposition in Mark and Matthew, and which softens the contrast between them.

But can we admit with certainty the historical reality of this evangelistic journey in southern Galilee, which forms one of the characteristic features of the third Gospel? Many modern critics refuse to regard it as historical. They allege:

1. The entire absence of any analogous account in Matthew and Mark. Matthew, indeed, relates only two solitary facts ( Mat 8:19 et seq. and Luk 12:21 et seq.) of all those which Luke describes in the ten chapters of which this section consists, up to the moment when the three narratives again become parallel ( Luk 18:14 ); Mark, not a single one.

2. The visit of Jesus to Martha and Mary, which Luke puts in this journey ( Luk 10:38-42 ), can have taken place only in Judea, at Bethany; likewise the saying, Luke 13:34-35, cannot well have been uttered by Jesus elsewhere than at Jerusalem in the temple ( Mat 23:37-39 ). Do not these errors of time and place cast a more than suspicious light on the narrative of the entire journey? M. Sabatier himself, who thoroughly appreciates the important bearing of this narrative in Luke on the harmony of the four Gospels, nevertheless goes the length of saying: “We see with how many contradictions and material impossibilities this narrative abounds.”

It has been attempted to defend Luke, by alleging that he did not mean to relate a journey, and that this section was only a collection of doctrinal utterances arranged in the order of their subjects, and intended to show the marvellous wisdom of Jesus. It is impossible for us to admit this explanation, with Luke's own words before us, which express and recall from time to time his intention of describing a consecutive journey: Luke 9:51, “He stedfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem;Luke 13:22, “He was going through the cities and villages... journeying toward Jerusalem;Luke 17:11 (lit. trans.), “And it came to pass, as He went to Jerusalem, that He traversed the country between Samaria and Galilee.”

Wieseler, taking up an entirely opposite point of view, finds in those three passages the indications of as many individual journeys, which he connects with three journeys to Jerusalem placed by John almost at the same epoch. It is hoped in this way to find the point of support for Luke's narrative in the fourth Gospel, which is wanting to it in the two first. The departure mentioned Luk 9:51 would correspond with the journey of Jesus, Joh 7:1 to John 10:39 (feast of Tabernacles and of Dedication), a journey which terminates in a sojourn in Perea ( Joh 10:40 et seq.). The mention of a journey Luk 13:22 would refer to the journey from Perea to Bethany for the raising of Lazarus, John 11:0, after which Jesus repairs to Ephraim. Finally, the passage Luk 17:11 would correspond with the journey from Ephraim to Jerusalem for the last Passover ( Joh 11:55 ). It would be necessary to admit that Jesus, after His Ephraim sojourn, made a last visit to Galilee, proceeding thither through Samaria (Wieseler translates Luk 17:11 as in E. V., “through the midst of Samaria and Galilee”), then that He returned to Judea through Perea (Matthew 19:0; Mark 10:0).

We cannot allow that this view has the least probability. 1. Those three passages in Luke plainly do not indicate, in his mind at least, three different departures and journeys. They are way-marks set up by the author on the route of Jesus, in the account of this unique journey, by which he recalls from time to time the general situation described Luke 9:51, on account of the slowness and length of the progress. 2. The departure ( Luk 9:51 ) took place, as the sending of the seventy disciples proves, with the greatest publicity; it is not therefore identical with the departure ( Joh 7:1 et seq.), which took place, as it were, in secret; Jesus undoubtedly did not then take with Him more than one or two of His most intimate disciples. 3. The interpretation which Wieseler gives of Luk 17:11 appears to us inadmissible (see the passage).

It must therefore be acknowledged, not only that Luke meant in those ten chapters to relate a journey, but that he meant to relate one, and only one.

Others think that he intended to produce in the minds of his readers the idea of a continuous journey, but that this is a framework of fiction which has no corresponding reality. De Wette and Bleek suppose that, after having finished his account of the Galilean ministry, Luke still possessed a host of important materials, without any determinate localities or dates, and that, rather than lose them, he thought good to insert them here, between the description of the Galilean ministry and that of the passion, while grouping them in the form of a recorded journey. Holtzmann takes for granted that those materials were nothing else than the contents of his second principal source, the Logia of Matthew, which Luke has placed here, after employing up till this point his first source, the original Mark. Weizsäcker, who thinks, on the contrary, that the Logia of Matthew are almost exactly reproduced in the great groups of discourses which the first contains, sees in this fourth part of Luke a collection of sayings derived by him from those great discourses of Matthew, and arranged systematically with regard to the principal questions which were agitated in the apostolic churches (the account of the feast, Luke 14:1-35, alluding to the Agapae; the discourses, Luk 15:1 to Luke 17:10, to questions relative to the admission of Gentiles, etc.).

Of course, according to those three points of view, the historical introductions with which Luke prefaces each of those teachings would be more or less his own invention. He deduces them himself from those teachings, as we might do at the present day. As to the rest, Bleek expressly remarks that this view leaves entirely intact the historical truth of the sayings of Jesus in themselves. We shall gather up in the course of our exegesis the data which can enlighten us on the value of those hypotheses; but at the outset we must offer the following observations: 1. In thus inventing an entire phase of the ministry of Jesus, Luke would put himself in contradiction to the programme marked out ( Luk 1:1-4 ), where he affirms that he has endeavoured to reproduce historical truth exactly. 2. What purpose would it serve knowingly to enrich the ministry of Jesus with a fictitious phase? Would it not have been much simpler to distribute those different pieces along the course of the Galilean ministry? 3. Does a conscientious historian play thus with the matter of which he treats, especially when that matter forms the object of his religious faith?

If Luke had really acted in this way, we should require, with Baur, to take a step further, and ascribe to this fiction a more serious intention that of establishing, by those prolonged relations of Jesus to the Samaritans, the Pauline universalism? Thus it is that criticism, logically carried out in questions relating to the Gospels, always lands us in this dilemma historical truth or deliberate imposture.

The historical truth of this journey, as Luke describes it, appears to us evident from the following facts: 1. Long or short, a journey from Galilee to Judea through Perea must have taken place; so much is established by the narratives of Matthew and Mark, and indirectly confirmed by that of John, when he mentions a sojourn in Perea precisely at the same epoch ( Luk 10:40-42 ). 2. The duration of this journey must have been much more considerable than appears from a hasty glance at the first two synoptics. How, in reality, are we to fill the six or seven months which separated the feast of Tabernacles (John 7:0, month of October) from that of the Passover, at which Jesus died? The few accounts, Matthew 19:20 (Mark 10:0), cannot cover such a gap. Scarcely is there wherewith to fill up the space of a week. Where, then, did Jesus pass all that time? And what did He do? It is usually answered, that from the feast of Tabernacles to that of the Dedication (December) He remained in Judea. That is not possible. He must have gone to Jerusalem in a sort of incognito and by way of surprise, in order to appear unexpectedly in that city, and to prevent the police measures which a more lengthened sojourn in Judea would have allowed His enemies to take against Him. And after the violent scenes related Joh 7:1 to John 10:21, He must have remained peacefully there for more than two whole months! Such an idea is irreconcilable with the situation described John 6:1; John 7:1-13.

Jesus therefore, immediately after rapidly executing that journey, returned to Galilee. This return, no doubt, is not mentioned; but no more is that which followed John 5:0. It is understood, as a matter of course, that so long as a new scene of action is not indicated in the narrative, the old one continues. After the stay at Jerusalem at the feast of Dedication ( Joh 10:22 et seq.), it is expressly said that Jesus sojourned in Perea ( Luk 9:40-42 ): there we have the first indication apprising us that the long sojourn in Galilee had come to an end. Immediately, therefore, after the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus returned to Galilee, and it was then that He definitely bade adieu to that province, and set out, as we read Luke 9:51, to approach Jerusalem slowly and while preaching the gospel. Not only is such a journey possible, but it is in a manner forced on us by the necessity of providing contents for that blank interval in the ministry of Jesus. 3. The indications which Luke supplies respecting the scene of this journey have nothing in them but what is exceedingly probable. After His first visit to Nazareth, Jesus settled at Capernaum; He made it His own city ( Mat 9:1 ), and the centre of His excursions ( Luk 4:31 et seq.). Very soon He considerably extended the radius of His journeys on the side of western Galilee (Nain, Luk 7:11 ). Then He quitted His Capernaum residence, and commenced a ministry purely itinerant ( Luk 8:1 et seq.). To this period belong His first visit to Decapolis, to the east of the lake of Gennesaret, and the multiplication of the loaves, to the north-east of that sea. Finally, we learn from Matthew and Mark that Jesus made two other great excursions into the northern regions, the one to the north-west toward Phoenicia (Luke's great lacuna), the other toward the north-east, to the sources of the Jordan (Caesarea Philippi, and the transfiguration). To accomplish His mission toward Galilee there thus remained to be visited only the southern parts of this province on the side of Samaria. What more natural, consequently, than the direction which He followed in this journey, slowly passing over that southern part of Galilee from west to east which He had not before visited, and from which He could make some excursions among that Samaritan people at whose hands He had found so eager a welcome at the beginning of His ministry?

Regarding the visit to Martha and Mary, and the saying Luke 13:34-35, we refer to the explanation of the passages. Perhaps the first is a trace (unconscious on the part of Luke) of Jesus' short sojourn at Jerusalem at the feast of Dedication. In any case, the narrative of Luke is thus found to form the natural transition between the synoptical accounts and that of John. And if we do not find in Luke that multiplicity of journeys to Jerusalem which forms the distinctive feature of John's Gospel, we shall at least meet with the intermediate type of a ministry, a great part of which (the Galilean work once finished) assumes the form of a prolonged pilgrimage in the direction of Jerusalem.

As to the contents of the ten chapters embraced in this part of Luke, they are perfectly in keeping with the situation. Jesus carries along with Him to Judea all the following of devoted believers which He has found in Galilee, the nucleus of His future Church. From this band will go forth the army of evangelists which, with the apostles at its head, will shortly enter upon the conquest of the world in His name. To prepare them as they travel along for this task, such is His constant aim. He prosecutes it directly in two ways: by sending them on a mission before Him, as formerly He had sent the twelve, and making them serve, as these had done, a first apprenticeship to their future work; then, by bringing to bear on them the chief part of His instructions respecting that emancipation from the world and its goods which was to be the distinctive character of the life of His servants, and thus gaining them wholly for the great task which He allots to them.

What are the sources of Luke in this part which is peculiar to him? According to Holtzmann, Luke here gives us the contents of Matthew's Logia, excepting the introductions, which he adds or amplifies. We shall examine this whole hypothesis hereafter. According to Schleiermacher, this narrative is the result of the combination of two accounts derived from the journals of two companions of Jesus, the one of whom took part in the journey at the feast of Dedication, the other in that of the last Passover. Thus he explains the exactness of the details, and at the same time the apparent inexactness with which a visit to Bethany is found recorded in the midst of a series of scenes in Galilee. According to this view, the short introductions placed as headings to the discourses are worthy of special confidence.

But how has this fusion of the two writings which has merged the two journeys into one been brought about? Luke cannot have produced it consciously; it must have existed in his sources. The difficulty is only removed a stage. How was it possible for the two accounts of different journeys to be fused into a unique whole? As far as we are concerned, all that we believe it possible to say regarding the source from which Luke drew is, that the document must have been either Aramaic, or translated from Aramaic. To be convinced of this, we need only read the verse, Luke 9:51, which forms the heading of the narrative.

If we were proceeding on the relation of Luke to the two other synoptics, we should divide this part into two cycles, that in which Luke moves alone ( Luk 9:51 to Luk 18:14 ), and that in which he moves parallel to them ( Luk 18:15 to Luk 19:27 ). But that division has nothing corresponding to it in the mind of the author, who probably knows neither of the two other canonical accounts. He himself divides his narrative into three cycles by the three observations with which he marks it off: 1 st. Luk 9:51 to Luke 13:21 (Luke 9:51, the resolution to depart); 2 d. Luk 13:22 to Luke 17:10 (Luke 13:22, the direction of the journey); 3 d. Luk 17:11 to Luke 19:27 (Luke 17:11, the scene of the journey). Such, then, will be our division.

Verses 3-7

Vers. 3-7. The Lost Sheep.

God seeks sinners, because the sinner is a miserable being deserving pity: such is the meaning of this description. The parable is put in the form of a question. In point of fact, it is at once an argumentum ad hominem and an argument a fortiori: “What do ye yourselves in such a case? And besides, the case is like: a sheep, a man!”

Which of you? “There is not a single one of you who accuse me here who does not act exactly like me in similar circumstances.” ῎Ανθρωπος , man, is tacitly contrasted with God ( Luk 15:7 ).

The hundred sheep represent the totality of the theocratic people; the lost sheep, that portion of the people which has broken with legal ordinances, and so lives under the impulse of its own passions; the ninety and nine, the majority which has remained outwardly faithful to the law. ῎Ερημος , which we translate wilderness, simply denotes in the East uncultivated plains, pasturage, in opposition to tilled fields. It is the natural resort of sheep, but without the notion of danger and barrenness, which we connect with the idea of wilderness. This place where the flock feeds represents the more or less normal state of the faithful Jews, in which the soul is kept near to God under the shelter of commandments and worship. The shepherd leaves them there: they have only to walk faithfully in the way marked out for them; they will be infallibly led on to a higher state (John 3:21; John 5:46; John 6:45; Joh 7:17 ). While waiting, their moral position is safe enough to allow the Saviour to consecrate Himself more specially to the souls of those who, having broken with the covenant and its means of grace, are exposed to the most imminent dangers. The anxiety of the shepherd to recover a strayed sheep has more than personal interest for its motive. One sheep in a hundred is a loss of too small importance, and in any case out of proportion to the pains which he takes. The motive which animates him is compassion. Is there, in reality, a creature in the animal world more to be pitied than a strayed sheep? It is destitute both of the instinct necessary to find its way, and of every weapon of self-defence. It is a prey to any beast which may meet it; it deserves, as no other being in nature, the name of lost. The compassion of the shepherd appears: 1. In his perseverance: he seeks it until ( Luk 15:4 ); 2. In his tender care: he layeth it on his shoulders; 3. In the joy with which he takes his burden ( ἐπιτίθησιν χαίρων ), a joy such that he wishes to share it with those who surround him, and that he reckons on receiving their congratulations ( Luk 15:6 ).

Every touch in this exquisite picture finds its application by means of the situation described, Luke 15:1-2. The search for the sheep corresponds with the act which the Pharisees blamed: He receiveth sinners, and eateth with them; the finding, to that moment of unspeakable joy, when Jesus sees one of those lost souls returning to God; the tenderness with which the shepherd carries his sheep, to the care which divine grace will henceforth take of the soul thus recovered for God; the joy of the shepherd, to that which Jesus, that which God Himself, feels in the salvation of sinners; the congratulations of friends and neighbours, to the thanksgivings and praises of glorified men and angels. It is to be remarked that the shepherd does not carry back the sheep to the pasture, but to his own dwelling. By this touch, Jesus undoubtedly gives us to understand, that the sinners whom He has come to save are transported by Him into an order of things superior to that of the theocracy to which they formerly belonged into the communion of heaven represented by the shepherd's house ( Luk 15:7 ).

Ver. 7 contains the application of the description, or more exactly, the conclusion of the argument: “If pity leads you to show such tenderness to a sheep, am I wrong in showing it to lost souls? I say unto you, that what I feel and do is what God Himself feels and wishes; and what offends you here below on the earth is what causes rejoicing in the heavens. It is for you to judge from this contrast, whether, while you have no need perhaps to change your life, you do not need a change of heart!”

The words: there shall be more joy, are frequently explained anthropopathically: the recovery of a lost object gives us in the first moment a livelier joy than anything which we possess without previous loss. If we found this feature in the parable, the explanation might be discussed. But it meets us in the application, and we cannot see how such a sentiment could be absolutely ascribed to God. We have just seen that the state of the recovered sinner is really superior to that of the believing Israelite. The latter, without having to charge himself with gross disorders ( μετανοεῖν , to repent, in the sense of those to whom Jesus is speaking), has nevertheless one decisive step more to take, in order that his salvation may be consummated, and that God may rejoice fully on his account; that is, to recognise his inward sin, to embrace the Saviour, and to be changed in heart. Till then his regulated walk within the bosom of the ancient covenant is only provisional, like the whole of that covenant itself. It may easily happen that, like the Pharisees, such a man should end by rejecting real salvation, and so perishing. How should heaven rejoice over a state so imperfect, with a joy like that which is awakened among its inhabitants by the sight of a sinner really saved? It is evident that in this saying we must take the word just (as well as the word repent) in the sense given to it by the interlocutors of Jesus, that relative meaning which we have already found, Luke 15:31-32: the just, Levitically and theocratically speaking. This righteousness is nothing; it is the directest way to conduct to true righteousness; but on condition that a man does not rest in it. It thus affords a certain occasion for joy in heaven, this is implied in the comparative, joy more than..., but less joy, however, than the salvation of a single soul fully realized. That is already evident from the contrast established by this verse between the joy of heaven and the discontent of the Pharisees on occasion of the same event ( Luk 15:1 ). The I say unto you has here, as everywhere, a special solemnity. Jesus speaks of heavenly things as a witness ( Joh 3:11 ) and as an interpreter of the thoughts of God. The words in heaven embrace God and the beings who surround Him, those who are represented in the parable by the friends and neighbours. The conjunction ἤ supposes a μᾶλλον which is not expressed. This form is explained by the blending of two ideas: “ there is joy ” (hence the absence of μᾶλλον ), “there is yet more than...” (and hence the ἤ ). This form delicately expresses the idea indicated above, that there is also a certain satisfaction in heaven on account of the righteousness of sincere Israelites.

How can one help being struck with the manner in which Jesus, both in this parable and the two following, identifies His feelings and conduct absolutely with the feelings and the action of God Himself? The shepherd seeking, the woman finding, the father welcoming, is it not in His person that God accomplishes all those divine works?

This parable is placed by Matthew in the great discourse of chap. 18, and

Bleek cannot help acknowledging because of an association of ideas belonging purely to the evangelist himself. Indeed, the application which he makes of the lost sheep to the little ones (Luke 15:1-6; Luke 15:10; Luk 15:11 is an interpolation) is certainly not in keeping with the original sense of this parable. The original reference of this description to lost sinners, as Holtzmann says in the same connection, has been preserved by Luke. But how in this case are we to explain how Matthew has wrested the parable from its original meaning, if he copied the same document as Luke ( Λ , according to Holtzmann)? Besides, how comes it that Matthew omits the following parable, that of the drachma, which Luke, according to this critic, takes, as well as the preceding, from the common document?

Verses 3-10

2 d. Luke 15:3-10. The two parables of the lost sheep and of the lost drachma, as such pairs of parables always do, present the same idea, but in two different aspects. The idea common to both is the solicitude of God for sinners; the difference is, that in the first instance this solicitude arises from the compassion with which their misery inspires Him, in the second from the value which He attaches to their persons. The two descriptions are intended to show that the conduct of Jesus toward those despised beings corresponds in all respects to that compassionate solicitude, and so to justify the instrument of divine love. If God cannot be accused of secret sympathy with sin, how could Jesus possibly be so when carrying His purpose into execution?

Verses 8-10

Vers. 8-10. The Lost Drachma.

The anxiety of the woman to find her lost piece of money certainly does not proceed from a feeling of pity; it is self-interest which leads her to act. She had painfully earned it, and had kept it in reserve for some important purpose; it is a real loss to her. Here is divine love portrayed from an entirely different side. The sinner is not only, in the eyes of God, a suffering being, like the sheep on whom He takes pity; he is a precious being, created in His image, to whom He has assigned a part in the accomplishment of His plans. A lost man is a blank in His treasury. Is not this side of divine love, rightly understood, still more striking than the preceding?

The general features, as well as the minutest details, of the description are fitted to bring into prominence this idea of the value which God attaches to a lost soul. General features: 1. The idea of loss (Luke 15:8 a); 2. The persevering care which the woman expends in seeking the drachma (Luke 15:8 b); 3. Her overflowing joy when she has found it ( Luk 15:9 ).

Details: The woman has laboriously earned this small sum, and saved it only at the cost of many privations, and for some urgent necessity. Jesus leaves out the ἐξ ὑμῶν , of you, of Luke 15:4. Perhaps there were none but men in the throng, or if otherwise, He was addressing them only. For the number 100, Luke 15:4, He substitutes the number 10; the loss of one in 10 is more serious than of one in 100.

The drachma was worth about eightpence. It was the price of a full day's work. Comp. Matthew 20:2, where the master agrees with the labourers for a penny (a sum nearly equivalent to eightpence) a day, and Revelation 6:6.

With what minute pains are the efforts of this woman described, and what a charming interior is the picture of her persevering search! She lights her lamp; for in the East the apartment has no other light than that which is admitted by the door; she removes every article of furniture, and sweeps the most dusty corners. Such is the image of God coming down in the person of Jesus into the company of the lowest among sinners, following them to the very dens of the theocracy, with the light of divine truth. The figure of the sheep referred rather to the publicans; that of the drachma applies rather to the second class mentioned in Luke 15:1, the ἁμαρτωλοί , beings plunged in vice.

In depicting the joy of the woman ( Luk 15:9 ), Luke substitutes the Middle συγκαλεῖται , she calleth to herself, for the Active συγκαλεῖ , she calleth, Luke 15:6; the Alex. have ill-advisedly obliterated this shade. It is not, as in the preceding parable, the object lost which profits by the finding; it is the woman herself, who had lost something of her own; and so she claims to be congratulated for herself; hence the Middle. This shade of expression reflects the entire difference of meaning between the two parables. It is the same with another slight modification. Instead of the expression of Luke 15:6: “For I have found my sheep which was lost ( τὸ ἀπολωλός ),” the woman says here: “the piece which I had lost ( ἣν ἀπώλεσα )”; the first phrase turned attention to the sheep and its distress; the second attracts our interest to the woman, disconsolate about her loss.

What grandeur belongs to the picture of this humble rejoicing which the poor woman celebrates with her neighbours, when it becomes the transparency through which we get a glimpse of God Himself, rejoicing with His elect and His angels over the salvation of a single sinner, even the chief! The ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγ ., in the presence of the angels, may be explained in two ways: either by giving to the word joy the meaning subject of joy, in that case, this saying refers directly to the joy of the angels themselves, or by referring the word χαρά to the joy of God which breaks forth in presence of the angels, and in which they participate. The first sense is the more natural.

But those two images, borrowed from the animal and inanimate world, remain too far beneath their object. They did not furnish Jesus with the means of displaying the full riches of feeling which filled the heart of God toward the sinner, nor of unveiling the sinner's inner history in the drama of conversion. For that, He needed an image borrowed from the domain of moral and sensitive nature, the sphere of human life. The word which sums up the first two parables is grace; that which sums up the third is faith.

Verses 11-13

Vers. 11-13.

Jesus discontinues the interrogative form used in the two previous cases: we have no more an argument; we have a narrative, a real parable. The three persons composing the family represent God and His people. In accordance with Luke 15:1-2, the elder son, the representative of the race, the prop of the gens, and as such more deeply attached than the younger to the land of his household hearth, personifies the Israelites who were Levitically irreproachable, and especially the Pharisees. The younger, in whose case the family bond is weaker, and whom this very circumstance renders more open to the temptation of breaking with it, represents those who have abandoned Jewish legalism, publicans and people of immoral lives. His demand for his goods is most probably to be explained by the fact that the elder received as his inheritance a double share of the patrimonial lands, the younger members a single share (see at Luk 12:13 ). The latter then desired that his father, anticipating the division, should give him the equivalent of his portion in money, an arrangement in virtue of which the entire domain, on the father's death, would come to the elder. Two things impel him to act thus: the air of the paternal home oppresses him, he feels the constraint of his father's presence; then the world without attracts him, he hopes to enjoy himself. But to realize his wishes, he needs two things freedom and money. Here is the image of a heart swayed by licentious appetites; God is the obstacle in its way, and freedom to do anything appears to it as the condition of happiness. Money ought not to be taken as a figure applied to the talents and graces which the sinner has received; it simply represents here the power of satisfying one's tastes.

In the father's consenting to the guilty wish of his son, a very solemn thought is expressed, that of the sinner's abandonment to the desires of his own heart, the παραδιδόναι ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις (Romans 1:24; Romans 1:26; Rom 1:28 ), the ceasing on the part of the Divine Spirit to strive against the inclinations of a spoiled heart, which can only be cured by the bitter experiences of sin. God gives such a man over to his folly. The use which the sinner makes of his sadly-acquired liberty is described in Luke 15:13. All those images of sin blended in many respects, so far as the sinners present were concerned, with actual facts. The far country to which the son flies is the emblem of the state of a soul which has so strayed, that the thought of God no longer even occurs to it. The complete dissipation of his goods represents the carrying out of man's liberty to its furthest limits. Μακράν is not an adjective, but an adverb (Luke 15:20, Luke 7:6, etc.).

Verses 11-24

Vers. 11-24. The younger Son.

This first part of the parable embraces four representations corresponding to the four phases of the converted sinner's life: 1 st. Sin ( Luk 15:11-13 ); 2 d. Misery ( Luk 15:14-16 ); 3 d. Conversion (Luke 15:17-20 a); 4 th. Restoration ( Luk 15:20-24 ).

Verses 11-32

Vers. 11-32. The Child lost and found.

This parable consists of two distinct descriptions, which form the counterpart of one another, that of the younger son ( Luk 15:11-24 ), and that of the elder son ( Luk 15:25-32 ). By the second, Jesus returns completely, as we shall see, to the historical situation described Luke 15:1-2, and the scene is closed.

Verses 14-16

Vers. 14-16.

The liberty of self-enjoyment is not unlimited, as the sinner would fain think; it has limits of two kinds: the one pertaining to the individual himself, such as satiety, remorse, the feeling of destitution and abjectness resulting from vice ( when he had spent all); the other arising from certain unfavourable outward circumstances, here represented by the famine which occurs at this crisis, that is, domestic or public calamities which complete the subduing of the heart which has been already overwhelmed, and further, the absence of all divine consolation. Let those two causes of misery coincide, and wretchedness is at its height. Then happens what Jesus calls ὑστερεῖσθαι , to be in want, the absolute void of a heart which has sacrificed everything for pleasure, and which has nothing left but suffering. We can hardly avoid seeing, in the ignoble dependence into which this young Jew falls under a heathen master, an allusion to the position of the publicans who were engaged in the service of the Roman power. But the general idea which corresponds to this touch is that of the degrading dependence, in respect of the world, to which the vicious man always finds himself reduced in the end. He sought pleasure, he finds pain; he wished freedom, he gets bondage. The word ἐκολλήθη has in it something abject; the unhappy wretch is a sort of appendage to a strange personality. To feed swine, the last business for a Jew. Κεράτιον denotes a species of coarse bean, used in the East for fattening those animals. At Luke 15:16, the Alex. Mjj. are caught in the very act of purism; men of delicate taste could not bear the gross expression, to fill the belly with...There was therefore substituted in the public reading the more genteel term, to satisfy himself with...; and this correction has passed into the Alex. text. The act expressed by the received reading is that, not of relishing food, but merely of filling a void. The smallest details are to the life in this portraiture.

During this time of famine, when the poor herdsman's allowance did not suffice to appease his hunger, he was reduced to covet the coarse bean with which the herd was carefully fattened, when he drove it home: the swine were in reality more precious than he. They sold high, an image of the contempt and neglect which the profligate experiences from that very world to which he has sacrificed the most sacred feelings.

Verses 17-20

Vers. 17-20 a. This representation, which depicts the conversion of the sinner, includes two things, repentance ( Luk 15:17 ) and faith (Luke 15:18-20 a).

The words, when he came to himself, Luke 15:17, denote a solemn moment in human life, that in which the heart, after a long period of dissipation, for the first time becomes self-collected. The heart is God's sanctuary. To come to ourselves is therefore to find God. Repentance is a change of feeling; we find it fully depicted in the regret which the sinner feels for that from which he has fled (the father's house), and in that horror which fills him at that which he sought so ardently (the strange land). As to the mercenaries whom he envies, might they not represent those heathen proselytes who had a place, although a very inferior one (the outer court), in the temple, and who might thus from afar take part in the worship; advantages from which the publicans, so long as they kept to their profession, were debarred by the excommunication which fell on them.

From this change of feeling there springs a resolution ( Luk 15:18 ), which rests on a remnant of confidence in the goodness of his father; this is the dawn of faith. Did we not recollect that we are yet in the parable, the meaning of the words before thee would appear to blend with that of the preceding, against heaven. But in the image adopted the two expressions have a distinct meaning. Heaven is the avenger of all holy feelings when outraged, and particularly of filial devotion when trampled under foot. The young man sinned before his father at the time when, the latter beholding him with grief, he defied his last look, and obstinately turned his back on him.

The possibility of an immediate and entire restoration does not enter his mind. He is ready to take the position of a servant in the house where he lived as a son, but where he shall have at least wherewith to satisfy his hunger. Here is portrayed that publican (described in chap. 18) who stood afar off, and dared not even raise his eyes to God. But the essential fact is, that the resolution once taken, he carries it out. Here is faith in its fulness, actually arising, going to God. Faith is not a thought or a desire; it is an act which brings two living beings into personal contact.

What an impression must have been produced on the publicans present by this faithful picture of their past and present experiences! But how much deeper still the emotion which awaits them when they hear Jesus unveiling, in the sequel, the feelings and conduct of God Himself toward them!

Verses 20-24

Vers. 20b-24. Free pardon, entire restoration, the joys of adoption, such are the contents of these verses. The heart of God overflows in the sayings of Jesus. Every word vibrates with emotion, at once the tenderest and the holiest. The father seems never to have given up waiting for his son; perceiving him from afar, he runs to meet him. God discerns the faintest sigh after good which breaks forth in a wanderer's heart; and from the moment this heart takes a step toward Him, He takes ten to meet it, striving to show it something of His love. This history was exemplified at the very moment as between the publicans present and God, who was drawing near to them in Jesus. There is a wide difference between the confession uttered by the prodigal son, Luke 15:21, and that which had been extracted from him by the extremity of his misery ( Luk 15:18-19 ). The latter was a cry of despair; but now his distress is over. It is therefore the cry of repentant love. The terms are the same: I have sinned; but how different is the accent! Luther felt it profoundly; the discovery of the difference between the repentance of fear and that of love was the true principle of the Reformation.

He cannot come to the end; the very assurance of pardon prevents him from finishing and saying, make me as..., according to his first purpose. The Alex. have not understood this omission, and have mistakenly added here the last words of Luke 15:19.

Pardon involves restoration. No humbling novitiate; no passing through inferior positions. The restoration is as complete as the repentance was sincere and the faith profound. In all those touches the shoes, the robe, the signet ring (the mark of the free man, fitted to express an independent will) a sound exegesis should limit itself to finding the expression of the fulness of restoration to the filial standing; only homiletic application may allow itself to go further, though even it should beware of falling into a play of wit, as when Jerome and Olshausen see in the robe the righteousness of Christ, in the ring the seal of the Holy Spirit, in the shoes the power of walking in the ways of God. Others have found in the servants the image of the Holy Spirit or of pastors! The Alex. reject τήν before στολήν , and that justly. There is a gradation: first a robe, in opposition to nakedness; then, and even the best, because he who has descended lowest, if he rise again, should mount up highest. In the phrase, the fatted calf, Luke 15:23, the article should be observed. On every farm there is always the calf which is fattening for feast days. Jesus knows rural customs. Augustine and Jerome find in this calf an indication of the sacrifice of Christ! According to the tout ensemble of the picture, which should be our standard in interpreting all the special details, this emblem represents all that is most excellent and sweet in the communications of divine grace. The absence of every feature fitted to represent the sacrifice of Christ, is at once explained when we remember that we have here to do with a parable, and that expiation has no place in the relations between man and man. By the plural, let us be merry, the father himself takes his share in the feast (as in Luk 15:7 ). The two parallel clauses of Luk 15:24 recall the two aspects in which sin was presented in the two previous parables; he was dead relates to the personal misery of the sinner (the lost sheep); he was lost, to the loss felt by God Himself (the lost drachma). The parable of the prodigal son combines those two points of view: the son was lost, and the father had lost something. With the words, and they began to be merry, the parable reaches the exact point at which things were at the moment when Christ uttered it ( Luk 15:1-2 ).

Verses 25-28

Vers. 25-28 a. While the house is filled with mirth, the elder son is at work. Here is the image of the Pharisee busied with his rites, while repentant sinners are rejoicing in the serene sunshine of grace. Every free and joyous impulse is abhorrent to the formal spirit of pharisaism. This repugnance is described in Luke 15:26. Rather than go straight into the house, the elder son begins by gathering information from a servant; he does not feel himself at home in the house ( Joh 8:35 ). The servant in his answer substitutes for the expressions of the father: he was dead..., lost..., these simple words: he is come safe and sound. This is the fact, without the father's moral appreciation, which it is not fitting in him to appropriate. Everything in the slightest details of the picture breathes the most exquisite delicacy. The refusal to enter corresponds to the discontent of the Pharisees, who do not understand being saved in common with the vicious.

Verses 25-32

Vers. 25-32. The elder Son.

This part embraces: 1 st. The interview of the elder son with the servant (Luke 15:25-28 a); 2 d. His interview with his father (Luke 15:28-32; Luke 15:28-32). Jesus here shows the Pharisees their murmurings put in action, and constrains them to feel their gravity.

Verses 28-32

Vers. 28b-32. This interview contains the full revelation of pharisaic feeling, and brings into view the contrast between it and the fatherly heart of God. The procedure of the father, who steps out to his son and invites him to enter, is realized in the very conversation which Jesus, come from God, holds with them at the moment. The answer of the son ( Luk 15:29-30 ) includes two accusations against his father: the one bears on his way of acting toward himself ( Luk 15:29 ), the other on his conduct in respect of his other son ( Luk 15:30 ). The contrast is meant to bring out the partiality of the father. The blind and innocent self-satisfaction which forms the heart of pharisaism could not be better depicted than in the words: “ neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; ” and the servile and mercenary position of the legal Jew in the theocracy, than thus: “Lo! these many years do I serve thee. ” Bengel makes the simple observation on these words: servus erat. What in reality was his father to him? A master! He even counts the years of his hard servitude: There are so many years!...Such is man's view of accomplishing good under the law: a labour painfully carried through, and which consequently merits payment. But by its very nature it is totally deprived of the delights which belong only to the sphere of free love; it has no other idea of them than that which it gets by seeing those joys of the reconciled sinner, by which it is scandalized. The joy which is wanting to it is this kid to make merry with its friends, which has never been granted to it.

With the hard and ill-paid labour of legal obedience he contrasts ( Luk 15:30 ) the life of his brother, merry in sin, happier still, if possible, in the hour of his return and pardon. The meaning is, that in the eyes of pharisaism, as virtue is a task, sin is a pleasure; and hence there ought to be a payment for the first, an equivalent of pain for the second. The father, by refusing to the one his just reward, by adding in the case of the other joy to joy, the enjoyments of the paternal home to those of debauchery, has shown his preference for the sinner and his sympathy with sin. Thy son, says the elder son, instead of: my brother. He would express at once the partiality of his father and his own dislike to the sinner. Do not those sayings which Jesus puts into the mouth of the righteous legalist, contain the keenest criticism of a state of soul wherein men discharge duty all the while abhorring it, and wherein, while avoiding sin, they thirst after it? The particular μετὰ πορνῶν is a stroke of the pencil added to the picture of Luk 15:13 by the charitable hand of the elder brother.

The father's answer meets perfectly the two accusations of his son. Luk 15:31 replies to Luke 15:29; Luk 15:32 to Luke 15:30. The father first clears himself from the charge of injustice to the son who is speaking to him; and with what condescension! “ My child ( τέκνον ).” This form of address has in it something more loving even than υἷε , son. Then he reminds him that his life with him might have been a feast all along. There was no occasion, therefore, to make a special feast for him. And what good would a particular gift serve, when everything in the house was continually at his disposal? The meaning of this remarkable saying is, that nothing prevented the believing Israelite from already enjoying the sweets of divine communion, a fact proved by the Psalms; comp. e.g., Psalms 23, 63. St. Paul himself, who ordinarily presents the law as the instrument of condemnation, nevertheless derives the formula of grace from a saying of Moses ( Rom 10:6-8 ), proving that in his eyes grace is already in the law, through the pardon which accompanies sacrifice and the Holy Spirit granted to him who asks Him ( Psa 51:9-14 ); and that when he speaks of the law as he ordinarily does, it is after the manner of his adversaries, isolating the commandment from grace. In the same way as Luk 15:31 presents theocratic fidelity as a happiness, and not a task, so Luk 15:32 reveals sin as a misery, and not as an advantage. There was therefore ground for celebrating a feast on the return of one who had just escaped from so great a misery, and by its arrival had restored the life of the family in its completeness. Thy brother, says the father; it is the answer to the thy son of Luke 15:30. He reminds him of the claims of fraternal love. Here Jesus stops; He does not say what part the elder son took. It lay with the Pharisees themselves, by the conduct which they would adopt, to decide this question and finish the narrative.

The Tübingen school (Zeller, Volkmar, Hilgenfeld, not Köstlin) agree in regarding the elder son, not as the pharisaic party, but as the Jewish people in general; the younger son, not as the publicans, but Gentile nations. “The elder son is unmistakeably the image of Judaism, which deems that it possesses special merit because of its fidelity to the one true God. The younger son...is the not less easily recognised portrait of Gentile humanity given up to polytheism and immorality. The discontent of the first, on seeing the reception granted to his brother, represents the jealousy of the Jews on account of the entrance of the Gentiles into the Church” (Hilgenfeld, die Evangel. p. 198). It would follow, then: 1. that this parable had been invented and put into the mouth of Jesus by Luke, with the view of supporting the system of his master, Paul; 2. that to this invention he had added a second, intended to accredit the former, that of the historical situation described Luke 15:1-2. But, 1. Is it conceivable that the evangelist, who marked out his own programme for himself, Luke 1:1-4, should take the liberty of treating his materials in so free and easy a style? 2. Have we not found in this description a multitude of delicate allusions to the historical surroundings amid which the parable is reputed to have been uttered, and which would not be applicable in the sense proposed (Luke 15:15; Luke 15:17, etc.)? 3. How from this parable St. Paul might have extracted the doctrine of justification by faith, is easy to understand. But that this order was inverted, that the parable was invented as an after-thought to give a body to the Pauline doctrine, is incompatible with the absence of every dogmatic element in the exposition. Would not the names of repentance, faith, justification, and the idea of expiation, have been infallibly introduced, if it had been the result of a dogmatic study contemporary with the ministry of Paul? 4. We have seen that the description finds its perfect explanation, that there remains not a single obscure point in the light in which it is placed by Luke. It is therefore arbitrary to seek another setting for it. The prejudice which has led the Tübingen school to this contra-textual interpretation is evident.

Keim, while discovering, like this school, Paulinism as the basis of the parable (p. 80), thinks that here we have one of the passages wherein the author, with the view of conciliating, more or less abjures his master, St. Paul. The evangelist dares not wholly disapprove the Judeo-Christianity which holds by the commandments; he praises it even ( Luk 15:31 ). He only demands that it shall authorize the entrance of the Gentiles into the Church; and on this condition he lets its legal spirit pass. We should thus have simply the juxtaposition of the two principles which conflicted with one another in the apostolic churches. But, 1. In this attempt at conciliation, the elder son would be completely sacrificed to the younger; for the latter is seated at table in the house, the former is without, and we remain in ignorance as to whether he will re-enter. And this last would represent the apostolic Christianity which founded the Church! 2. Adopting biblical premises, Luk 15:31 can easily be applied to the Mosaic system faithfully observed, and that, as we have seen, according to the view of St. Paul himself. 3. It belonged to the method of progressive transition, which Jesus always observed, to seek to develope within the bosom of the Mosaic dispensation, and without ever attacking it, the new principle which was to succeed it, and the germ of which was already deposited in it. Jesus did not wish to suppress anything which He had not completely replaced and surpassed. He therefore accepted the ancient system, while attaching to it the new. The facts pointed out by Keim are fully explained by this situation.

Holtzmann thinks that our parable, which is not found in Matthew, may really be only an amplification of that of the two sons, which is found in that evangelist ( Mat 21:28-30 ). Does not this supposition do too much honour to the alleged amplifier, whether Luke or any other?

Bibliographical Information
Godet, Frédéric Louis. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Godet's Commentary on Selected Books". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/gsc/luke-15.html.
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