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Bible Commentaries

Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Luke 15

Verses 1-10

THE chapter which begins with these verses is well known to Bible readers if any is in the Scriptures. Few chapters perhaps have done more good to the souls of men. Let us take heed that it does good to us.

We should first observe in these verses, the striking testimony which was borne to our Lord by His enemies. We read that when "all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear Him, the Scribes and Pharisees murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."

These words were evidently spoken with surprise and scorn, and not with pleasure and admiration. These ignorant guides of the Jews could not understand a preacher of religion having anything to do with wicked people! Yet their words worked for good. The very saying which was meant for a reproach was adopted by the Lord Jesus as a true description of His office. It led to His speaking three of the most instructive parables which ever fell from His lips.

The testimony of the Scribes and Pharisees was strictly and literally true. The Lord Jesus is indeed one that "receiveth sinners." He receives them to pardon them, to sanctify them, and to make them meet for heaven. It is His special office to do so. For this end He came into the world. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He came into the world to save sinners. What He was upon earth He is now at the right hand of God, and will be to all eternity. He is emphatically the sinner’s Friend.

Have we any sense of sin? Do we feel bad, and wicked, and guilty, and deserving of God’s anger? Is the remembrance of our past lives bitter to us? Does the recollection of our past conduct make us ashamed? Then we are the very people who ought to apply to Christ, just as we are, pleading nothing of our own, making no useless delay. Christ will receive us graciously, pardon us freely, and give us eternal life. He is One that "receiveth sinners." Let us not be lost for want of applying to Him that we may be saved.

We should observe, secondly, in these verses, the remarkable figures under which our Lord describes His own love towards sinners. We read that in reply to the taunting remark of His enemies He spoke three parables,—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost piece of silver, and the prodigal son. The first two of these parables are now before us. All three are meant to illustrate one and the same truth. They all throw strong light on Christ’s willingness to save sinners.

Christ’s love is an active, working love. Just as the shepherd did not sit still bewailing his lost sheep, and the woman did not sit still bewailing her lost money, so our blessed Lord did not sit still in heaven pitying sinners. He left the glory which He had with the Father, and humbled Himself to be made in the likeness of man. He came down into the world to seek and save that which was lost. He never rested till He had made atonement for our transgressions, brought in everlasting righteousness, provided eternal redemption, and opened a door of life to all who are willing to be saved.

Christ’s love is a self-denying love. The shepherd brought his lost sheep home on his own shoulders rather than leave it in the wilderness. The woman lighted a candle, and swept the house, and searched diligently, and spared no pains, till she found her lost money. And just so did Christ not spare Himself, when he undertook to save sinners. "He endured the cross, despising the shame." He "laid down His life for His friends." Greater love than this cannot be shown. (John 15:13. Hebrews 12:2.)

Christ’s love is a deep and mighty love. Just as the shepherd rejoiced to find his sheep, and the woman to find her money, so does the Lord Jesus rejoice to save sinners. It is a real pleasure to Him to pluck them as brands from the burning. It was His "meat and drink," when upon earth, to finish the work which He came to do. He felt straitened in spirit till it was accomplished. It is still His delight to show mercy. He is far more willing to save sinners than sinners are to be saved.

Let us strive to know something of this love of Christ. It is a love that truly passeth knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable. It is that on which we must wholly rest our souls, if we would have peace in time and glory in eternity. If we take comfort in our own love to Christ, we are building on a sandy foundation. But if we lean on Christ’s love to us, we are on a rock.

We should observe, lastly, in these verses, the wide encouragement which our Lord holds out to repentance. We read these striking words, "Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth." We read the same thought again after a few verses: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." The thing is doubled, to make doubt impossible. The idea is repeated, in order to meet man’s unbelief.

There are deep things in these sayings, beyond doubt. Our poor weak minds are little able to understand how the perfect joy of heaven can admit of increase. But one thing, at any rate, stands out clearly on the face of these expressions. There is an infinite willingness on God’s part to receive sinners. However wicked a man may have been, in the day that he really turns from his wickedness and comes to God by Christ, God is well-pleased. God has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, and God has pleasure in true repentance.

Let the man who is afraid to repent, consider well the verses we are now looking at, and be afraid no more. There is nothing on God’s part to justify his fears. An open door is set before him. A free pardon awaits him. "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9.)

Let the man who is ashamed to repent, consider these verses, and cast shame aside. What though the world mocks and jests at his repentance? While man is mocking, angels are rejoicing. The very change which sinners call foolishness, is a change which fills heaven with joy.

Have we repented ourselves? This, after all, is the principal question which concerns us. What shall it profit us to know Christ’s love, if we do not use it? "If ye know these things, happy are ye if you do them." (John 13:17.)

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Notes

v1.—[Then drew near.] The Greek words so translated do not literally mean a particular act at a particular time. They would be more closely rendered, "And there were drawing near." Alford renders them, "were busied in drawing near,"—"were continually about Him." The beginning of this chapter, be it observed, is an unbroken continuation of the last.

Let us mark the accessibleness and affability of our Lord’s demeanour in this expression. He was one of whom people were not afraid. Such a demeanour is a great gift.

[All the publicans and sinners.] By the expression "all" we are evidently meant to understand "all" in that particular neighbourhood where our Lord at present was.

Let it be noted that no Gospel writer gives so many instances of our Lord’s mercy to sinners as Luke. It is supposed, with much reason, that this was intended for the encouragement of Gentile converts, for whom his Gospel was specially written. Observe, beside this chapter, Luke 18:10; Luke 23:34, Luke 23:43. These passages are all peculiar to Luke.

v2.—[Murmured.] The Greek word here is only used in one other place,—Luke 19:7. It means literally "murmured greatly," or "were constantly murmuring" throughout the journey.

[This man receiveth sinners.] These words should be carefully noted. They are the key note to the whole chapter. A constant recollection of them throws light on the interpretation of all the three parables which follow. The Pharisees found fault with our Lord for "inviting sinners." Our Lord replies, in effect, that the thing which they found fault with was the very thing He came on earth to do, and a thing of which He was not ashamed. He came to do for sinners what the shepherd did for his lost sheep, the woman did for her lost money, and the father did for the prodigal son. As for His murmuring enemies, they were like the elder brother of the prodigal son.

I am persuaded that remembrance of this expression is of great importance in the chapter, and that many strange explanations of things in the chapter have been given by commentators, for want of observing the expression.—The great object of all the three parables is one and the same. They all three exhibit the love and mercy of Christ towards sinners, but under three different aspects. I hold with Bengel, that the lost sheep represents the stupid, foolish sinner,—the lost piece of money the sinner altogether ignorant of himself,—and the younger son the daring and wilful sinner. But I also hold that the love which goes after the sheep, seeks the money, and runs to meet the prodigal, is all through intended to represent the love of Christ.—I cannot assent to the view that the three parables were meant to point to the work of the Three Persons of the Trinity. I cannot hold the view of Bengel, Alford, and Stier, that "the woman" represents the Holy Ghost,—and the view of Ambrose and Wordsworth, that she represents the Church. All these ideas I believe to be foreign to our Lord’s intention when He spoke the three parables. I consider that the right way to view the three parables before us is to suppose that our Lord’s meaning was as follows:—"You blame me for receiving sinners. I am not ashamed of it. I do receive them. I came on earth for that very purpose. If you would know my feeling towards sinners, mark the conduct of a shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost piece of money, and a kind father receiving a prodigal son. In the love exhibited in each of these three cases you have an emblem of my love to sinners."

v4.—[What man of you, &c.] Both in this and the two following verses, I must decline assigning the allegorical meanings to every part of the parable, which many commentators have discovered. The two numbers, hundred, and ninety-nine,—the wilderness,—the shepherd’s laying the lost sheep on his shoulders,—the home,—the friends and neighbors,—all appear to me to be subordinate circumstances of the parable, which were simply intended to illustrate one great leading truth, the deep self-sacrificing love of Christ towards sinners, and the pleasure with which He saves them.

The beautiful fitness of the images chosen in the parable, is very striking. Our Lord speaks of Himself in the 10th chapter of John, as the good Shepherd.—Isaiah says, in the 53rd chapter of his prophecy, "All we, like sheep, have gone astray."

v7.—[I say unto you.] In this verse the Lord drops the language of parables and declares to us a great truth.

[Likewise.] The Greek word thus rendered here, and at the 10th verse, is more commonly translated "so," or "even so."

[Joy shall be in heaven.] The use of the future tense in this expression, has led some to think that our Lord is speaking of the day of judgment, when the saved souls shall be presented before the Father with exceeding joy. I cannot see this. I believe that our Lord simply means that when any sinner shall repent, at any time in the history of the Church, his repentance will be regarded with gladness in heaven, whatever murmuring there may be among Pharisees on earth.

[One sinner.] The exceeding value of one soul, in God’s sight, appears in this expression. It also appears to overthrow the idea entertained by some, that the lost sheep represents the whole church of the elect, or the redeemed world.

Those who are cast down and dispirited in preaching and teaching, by apparently small success, should often think of this expression, and the parallel one in the 10th verse. The value of one soul is not enough considered.

[Ninety and nine just...no repentance.] This expression is remarkable, and has caused much difference of opinion among commentators. Five different explanations are given.

1. Some think that it means the angels who have never sinned.

2. Some think that it means the glorified saints who can sin no more.

3. Some think that it means living saints who have not lost baptismal purity.

4. Some think that it means the inhabitants of other worlds, who have not fallen like man.

5. Some think that it means people who think themselves righteous and just, like the Pharisees, and fancy they need no repentance.

I believe the last to be the true view, and the others to be untenable. It is confirmed by Luke 5:32; Luke 16:15; Luke 18:9. Matthew 9:13. Mark 2:17.

v8.—[Either what woman.] Let us note both here and in the last parable, how simple and familiar our Lord’s illustrations of truth were. A shepherd, and a woman, are his chosen vehicles to convey to our minds some idea of His care for sinners.

Both in this verse, and the following verse, I adhere to the view expressed in the comments on the preceding parable. I decline to assign allegorical meanings to the expressions used. The woman,—the number ten,—the candle lighting,—the house, —the sweeping,—the friends and neighbours, all appear to me nothing more than subordinate circumstances in a story which is intended to teach one great truth, Christ’s care for sinners, and pleasure in saving them.

Many commentators see much meaning in a "piece of silver" being the type of the sinner. They dwell upon the image stamped on the coin, as significant of the image of God, in which man was originally created. Those who wish to see how far this idea may be worked out, will find it fully given in Ness’s History and Mystery of the New Testament.

v10.—[Joy...angels of God.] This expression seems to show that the salvation of sinners is a matter of deep interest to the angels, and the recovery of each one carefully observed. This, be it remembered, is a very different thing from saying that angels can help our souls.

Verses 11-24

THE parable before us is commonly known as the parable of "the prodigal son." It may be truly called a mighty spiritual picture. Unlike some of our Lord’s parables, it does not convey to us one great lesson only, but many. Every part of it is peculiarly rich in instruction.

We see, firstly, in this parable, a man following the natural bent of his own heart. Our Lord shows us a "younger son" making haste to set up for himself, going far away from a kind father’s house, and "wasting his substance in riotous living."

We have in these words a faithful portrait of the mind with which we are all born. This is our likeness. We are all naturally proud and self-willed. We have no pleasure in fellowship with God. We depart from Him, and go afar off. We spend our time, and strength, and faculties, and affections, on things that cannot profit. The covetous man does it in one fashion; the slave of lusts and passions in another; the lover of pleasure in another. In one point only are all agreed. Like sheep, we all naturally "go astray, and turn every one to his own way." (Isaiah 53:6.) In the younger son’s first conduct we see the natural heart.

He that knows nothing of these things has yet much to learn. He is spiritually blind. The eyes of his understanding need to be opened. The worst ignorance in the world is not to know ourselves. Happy is he who has been delivered from the kingdom of darkness, and been made acquainted with himself! Of too many it may be said, "They know not, neither will they understand. They walk on in darkness." (Psalms 82:5.)

We see, secondly, in this parable, man finding out that the ways of sin are hard, by bitter experience. Our Lord shows us the younger son spending all his property and reduced to want,—obliged to take service and "feed swine,"—so hungry that he is ready to eat swine’s food, and cared for by none.

These words describe a common case. Sin is a hard master, and the servants of sin always find it out, sooner or later, to their cost. Unconverted people are never really happy. Under a profession of high spirits and cheerfulness, they are often ill at ease within. Thousands of them are sick at heart, dissatisfied with themselves, weary of their own ways, and thoroughly uncomfortable. "There be many that say, who will show us any good." "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." (Psalms 4:6. Isaiah 57:21.)

Let this truth sink down into our hearts. It is a truth, however loudly unconverted people may deny it. "The way of transgressors is hard." (Proverbs 13:15.) The secret wretchedness of natural man is exceedingly great. There is a famine within, however much they may try to conceal it. They are "in want." He that "soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption." No wonder that Paul said, "What profit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?" (Galatians 6:8. Romans 6:21.)

We see, thirdly, in this parable, man awaking to a sense of his natural state, and resolving to repent. Our Lord tells us that the younger son "came to himself and said, how many servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and say unto him, Father, I have sinned."

The thoughts of thousands are vividly painted in these words. Thousands have reasoned in this way, and are saying such things to themselves every day. And we must be thankful when we see such thoughts arise. Thinking is not change of heart, but it may be the beginning of it. Conviction is not conversion, but it is one step, at any rate, in a right direction. The ruin of many people’s souls is simply this, that they never think at all.

One caution, however, must always be given. Men must beware that they do not stop short in "thinking." Good thoughts are all very well, but they are not saving Christianity. If the younger son had never got beyond thinking, he might have kept from home to the day of his death.

We see, fourthly, in this parable, man turning to God with true repentance and faith. Our Lord shows us the younger son quitting the far country where he was, and going back to his father’s house, carrying into practice the good intentions he had formed, and unreservedly confessing his sin. "He arose and went."

These words are a life-like outline of true repentance and conversion. The man in whose heart a true work of the Holy Ghost has begun, will never be content with thinking and resolving. He will break off from sin. He will come out from its fellowship. He will cease to do evil. He will learn to do well. He will turn to God in humble prayer. He will confess his iniquities. He will not attempt to excuse his sins. He will say with David, "I acknowledge my transgression." He will say with the publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner." (Psalms 51:3. Luke 18:13.)

Let us beware of any repentance, falsely so called, which is not of this character. Action is the very life of "repentance unto salvation." Feelings, and tears, and remorse, and wishes, and resolutions, are all useless, until they are accompanied by action and a change of life. In fact they are worse than useless. Insensibly they sear the conscience and harden the heart.

We see, fifthly, in this parable, the penitent man received readily, pardoned freely, and completely accepted with God. Our Lord shows us this, in this part of the younger son’s history, in the most touching manner. We read that "When he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry."

More deeply affecting words than these, perhaps, were never written. To comment on them seems almost needless. It is like gilding refined gold, and painting the lily. They show us in great broad letters the infinite love of the Lord Jesus Christ towards sinners. They teach how infinitely willing He is to receive all who come to Him, and how complete, and full, and immediate is the pardon which He is ready to bestow. "By Him all that believe are justified from all things."—"He is plenteous in mercy." (Acts 13:39. Psalms 86:5.)

Let this boundless mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ be graven deeply in our memories, and sink into our minds. Let us never forget that He is One "that receiveth sinners." With Him and His mercy sinners ought to begin, when they first begin to desire salvation. On Him and His mercy saints must live, when they have been taught to repent and believe. "The life which I live in the flesh," says Paul, "I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians 2:20.)

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Notes

v11.—[A certain man had two sons.] Of all the parables in the New Testament this is perhaps the most full and instructive. Of the three in this chapter it is far the most striking. The first parable concerns one sheep out of a hundred. The second concerns one piece of money out of ten. The one before us concerns one son out of two. We must not attach too much importance to these numbers. But it is interesting to observe them.

It is common to regard the "father" in this parable as the type of God the Father; and the sons, as types of Jews and Gentiles. I cannot assent to this view respecting the father. As to the sons, I only remark, that it was not the primary idea in our Lord’s mind.

I believe that the younger son was meant to be a type of all unconverted sinners, and that his return to his father’s house was an emblem of true repentance.—I believe that the father’s kind reception of his son was meant to represent the Lord Jesus Christ’s kindness and love toward sinners who come to Him. and the free and full pardon which He bestows on them.—I believe that the elder son was meant to be a type of all narrow-minded self-righteous people in every age of the Church, and specially of the Scribes and Pharisees, who "murmured" at our Lord for receiving sinners. These are what I believe to be the general lessons of the parable. So far I can go in interpreting it, but no further.

I may as well say here, once for all, that I am unable to see that the elder son represents the angels,—or that the "citizen," with whom the younger son took service, is the devil,—or the best robe, Christ’s righteousness,—or the ring, assurance of pardon,—or the shoes, grace to walk with God,—or the servants, Christ’s ministers,—or the fatted calf, the Lord’s supper. All such interpretations are doubtless very ingenious, and are held by many. Maldonatus says wisely, "they are uncertain."

I content myself with remarking that I do not believe they represent the mind of Christ. The parable contains a story which strikingly illustrates Christ’s love toward sinners. That story is told in the most striking manner, and is conveyed in imagery of the most graphic kind. But I am quite unable to see that every part of the imagery employed was intended by our Lord to bear a spiritual meaning.

v12.—[The younger of them said.] Let it be noted that the "younger son" was the one who exhibited self-will, and love of independence. This makes his conduct more reprehensible.

[That falleth to me.] Parkhurst remarks, that "there is reference here to the laws both of Jews and Romans. In this they agreed that they did not allow the father of the family the voluntary distribution of his whole estate, but allotted a certain portion to the younger son. (Deuteronomy 21:16.) The young man, therefore, only desired the immediate possession of that fortune which according to the common course of things, must in a few years devolve to him."

v13.—[With riotous living.] The word would be more literally rendered, "living riotously." The Greek word for "riotously," is only used here. It means strictly "in such a way as to save nothing,—wastefully."

v14.—[A citizen of that country.] Gill says that this means, "A Pharisaical legal preacher." I cannot for a moment see this.

v15.—[To feed swine.] Let it be remembered, that our Lord was speaking to an audience of Jews. They regarded swine, by the law of Moses, as unclean animals. This circumstance of the story, therefore, would probably convey to Jewish minds a most vivid idea of the degraded condition to which the younger son was reduced.

v16.—[He would fain have filled.] Major says that this expression does not mean that he desired and was unable to gratify his desire. It rather signifies "He was glad—he was only too happy." See the same expression in Luke 16:21.

[The husks.] There seems little doubt that these husks mean the fruit of a tree called the carob tree, common in the Levant, and still used for feeding swine, but very unsuitable for the food of man. It probably answers to the beech mast, which swine eat among ourselves.

[No man gave unto him.] This does not mean that "no man gave him husks," as some have supposed. It only means, that "No man gave him anything at all;—he was entirely neglected by every one."

v17.—[Came to himself.] This expression has often called forth the remark that a man must come to himself, before he comes to God.

v18.—[Against heaven and thee, &c.] This is a confession of sin against God and man. It is one of the places in Scripture where "heaven," the place where God dwells, is used for God Himself. See Daniel 4:26; and Matthew 21:25.

v20.—[He arose and went.] The remark is sometimes made that the prodigal son’s boldness in returning to his father’s house, arose from the fact that, fallen as he was, he was yet "a son." An argument has been extracted from this circumstance in defence of baptismal regeneration. Alford remarks, "he nowhere gives up his sonship," and then gives the following quotation from Trench, "What is it that gives the sinner now a sure ground of confidence, that, returning to God, he shall not be repelled, nor cast out?—The adoption of sonship which he renewed in Christ Jesus at his baptism, and his faith that the gifts and calling of God are without recall."

I believe the above argument to be erroneous. I cannot admit that the parable before us gives any aid to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Parabolic expressions must never be strained into proof of doctrines. Those who see baptismal regeneration in the prodigal son’s expressions, "Father, I have sinned," and tell us to remark that, bad as he was, the young man did not forget his sonship, would do well to remember a twice-repeated expression in the parable. Twice over we are told that before the younger son came back he was "dead." Now to be dead is to be without life, and to be without life is to need being "born again." This is precisely what the younger son went through,—he was dead, but he "lived again." If those who hold baptismal regeneration will only concede that all unconverted sinners, whether baptized or unbaptized, are "dead," we ask no more. But will they do this?

The plain truth is, that parables are not those portions of Scripture to which we must turn for accurately-defined statements of doctrine. To find baptismal regeneration in this parable, is to turn entirely away from our Lord’s intention in speaking it.

[A great way off...ran...kissed.] These three expressions are deeply touching. They bring out in strong relief the difficulty with which a sinner turns to Christ, and the readiness and willingness of Christ to receive him.

v21.—[To be called thy son.] Let it be noted that the prodigal does not finish the sentence which he had intended to address to his father. The meaning of the omission probably is, that our Lord desired to impress on us the father’s readiness to receive him. He did not allow him to finish his words, but interrupted him by expressions of kindness.

v22.—[The father said.] Let it be noted that the father does not say a single word to his son about his profligacy and wickedness. There is neither rebuke nor reproof for the past, nor galling admonitions for the present, nor irritating advice for the future. The one idea that is represented as filling his mind, is joy that his son has come home. This is a striking fact.

[The best robe.] Some try to prove that this means that first old robe which the younger son used to wear, before he left his father’s house. This is the view of Theophylact and Calovius. The idea is untenable. Our translators have given the true sense.

[A ring.] This was a mark of honour, and confidence, and distinction. See Genesis 41:42; Esther 3:10; James 2:2.

[Shoes on his feet.] This probably indicated that he was to be regarded not as a servant, as he had thought once he might be, but as a free man and a son. Prisoners and slaves were evidently barefooted. (Isaiah 20:4.)

v23.—[The fatted calf.] This expression means literally, "the calf—that fatted one,"—one kept for a special occasion, a sacrifice or a feast.

Stella, the Spanish Commentator, seems to have been much annoyed by allegorical Commentators, in his day. He says on this expression, with much quaint bluntness, "If you ask me what the fatted calf means, I reply that it means a calf, and nothing but a calf."

v24.—[Was dead and is alive again.] Let this expression be carefully noted. Though part of a parable, it is worthy of remark as our Lord’s language in describing the life of the prodigal son before his repentance, and the change when he repented. The one state was death. The other was life.

[They began to be merry.] The strong contrast between this expression and the one at the end of the 14th verse ought not to be overlooked. Unconverted, man begins to be "in want." Converted, he begins to be "happy."

In leaving this part of the parable, I feel it right to say, that I fully admit that it may be taken in a national sense, and that in that sense it makes excellent divinity. The Gentile nations who departed from God after the flood, and reaped darkness, misery, and hard bondage under Satan, by their departure, may undoubtedly be typified by the younger son.

Their repentance and return to God, through the preaching of the Gospel after our Lord’s ascension, may be typified by the prodigal son’s return to his father’s house. The envy with which the believing Gentiles were regarded by the Jews, may be typified by the conduct of the elder son. The parable would then, as is often the case, be a prophecy.

The words of our Lord are often so deep that they will admit of a double meaning. So it may be here. The parable may be interpreted both of nations and of individuals. All I maintain is, that the individual personal interpretation of it is decidedly the primary one which it ought to receive.

Verses 25-32

THESE verses form the conclusion of the parable of the prodigal son. They are far less well known than the verses which go before them. But they were spoken by the same lips which described the younger son’s return to his father’s house. Like everything which those lips spoke, they will be found deeply profitable.

We are taught, firstly, in this passage, how unkind and ill-natured are the feelings of self-righteous men towards sinners.

This is a lesson which our Lord conveys to us by describing the conduct of the "elder brother" of the prodigal son. He shows him to us "angry" and finding fault because of the rejoicings over his brother’s return. He shows him complaining that his father treated the returning prodigal too well, and that he himself had not been treated as well as his merits deserved. He shows him utterly unable to share in the joy which prevailed when his younger brother came home, and giving away to ill-natured and envious thoughts. It is a painful picture, but a very instructive one.

For one thing, this elder brother is an exact picture of the Jews of our Lord’s times. They could not bear the idea of their Gentile younger brother being made partaker of their privileges. They would fain have excluded him from God’s favor. They steadily refused to see that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs and partakers of Christ with themselves. In all this they were precisely acting the part of the "elder brother."

For another thing, the elder brother is an exact type of the Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s times. They objected that our Lord received sinners and ate with them. They murmured because He opened the door of salvation to publicans and harlots. They would have been better pleased if our Lord had confined His ministry to them and their party, and had left the ignorant and sinful entirely alone. Our Lord saw this state of things clearly; and never did He paint it with such graphic power as in the picture of the "elder brother."

Last, but not least, the elder brother is an exact type of a large class in the Church of Christ in the present day. There are thousands on every side who dislike a free, full, unfettered Gospel to be preached. They are always complaining that ministers throw the door too wide open, and that the doctrine of grace tends to promote licentiousness. Whenever we come across such persons, let us remember the passage we are now considering. Their voice is the voice of the "elder brother."

Let us beware of this spirit infecting our own hearts. It arises partly from ignorance. Men begin by not seeing their own sinfulness and unworthiness, and then they fancy that they are much better than others, and that nobody is worthy to be put by their side.—It arises partly from want of charity. Men are wanting in kind feeling towards others, and then they are unable to take pleasure when others are saved.—Above all, it arises from a thorough misunderstanding of the true nature of gospel forgiveness. The man who really feels that we all stand by grace and are all debtors, and that the best of us has nothing to boast of, and has nothing which he has not received,—such a man will not be found talking like the "elder brother."

We are taught, secondly, in this passage, that the conversion of any soul ought to be an occasion of joy to all who see it. Our Lord shows us this by putting the following words into the mouth of the prodigal’s father:—"It was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

The lesson of these words was primarily meant for the Scribes and Pharisees. If their hearts had been in a right state, they would never have murmured at our Lord for receiving sinners. They would have remembered that the worst of publicans and sinners were their own brethren, and that if they themselves were different, it was grace alone that had made the difference. They would have been glad to see such helpless wanderers returning to the fold. They would have been thankful to see them plucked as brands from the burning, and not cast away forever. Of all these feelings, unhappily, they knew nothing. Wrapped in their own self-righteousness they murmured and found fault, when in reality they ought to have thanked God and rejoiced.

The lesson is one which we shall all do well to lay to heart. Nothing ought to give us such true pleasure as the conversion of souls. It makes angels rejoice in heaven. It ought to make Christians rejoice on earth. What if those who are converted were lately the vilest of the vile? What if they have served sin and Satan for many long years, and wasted their substance in riotous living? It matters nothing.—"Has grace come into their hearts? Are they truly penitent? Have they come back to their father’s house? Are they new creatures in Christ Jesus? Are the dead made alive and the lost found?"—These are the only questions we have any right to ask. If they can be answered satisfactorily we ought to rejoice and be glad. Let the worldly, if they please, mock and sneer at such conversions. Let the self-righteous, if they will, murmur and find fault, and deny the reality of all great and sudden changes. But let the Christian who reads the words of Christ in this chapter, remember them and act upon them. Let him thank God and be merry. Let him praise God that one more soul is saved. Let him say, "this my brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

What are our own feelings on the subject? This after all is the question that concerns us most. The man who can take deep interest in politics, or field-sports, or money-making, or farming, but none in the conversion of souls, is no true Christian. He is himself "dead" and must be made "alive again." He is himself "lost" and must be "found."

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Notes

v25.—[His elder son.] The part of the parable which begins here was evidently intended to apply to the Scribes and Pharisees who "murmured" at our Lord because He "received sinners." The unkindness, moroseness, and self-sufficiency of the elder son, are an exact type of the spirit manifested by those who found fault with our Lord for showing kindness to publicans and sinners.

It is important to keep this point clearly in view. It furnishes a clue to a right understanding of the whole passage. The elder son represents the Pharisee.

[Music and dancing.] Some commentators have carefully dwelt on this expression, and have hinted, not obscurely, that it sanctions recreations and amusements from which many Christians think it better to abstain. Stier exclaims, "A Note for the Pietists!" Alford says more gravely, "Would these festal employments have been mentioned by our Lord on so solemn and blessed an occasion, if they really come among those works of the devil which He came into the world to destroy?"

I can see no force in arguments of this kind. There is not the slightest proof that the dancing referred to in this place was at all like the dancing of modern times. There is no proof that it was at night, or that it was a dance of men and women mingled together. Until these things can be proved, such comments on the verse before us are much to be regretted. I am not aware of any Christian objecting to music. Dancing, as it is conducted in modern times, many excellent Christians object to, and, I frankly say, I think with good reason.

v28.—[He was angry.] Let those who think the elder son Was a good man notice this expression, as well as those in the following verse. It is just the counterpart of the "murmuring" of the Scribes and Pharisees at the beginning of the chapter.

[Entreated.] The kindness of the father’s character appears once more in this expression. He might have rebuked his ill-natured son. He only entreats him.

v29.—[Neither transgressed...at any time.] Let this expression be carefully noted. It is precisely the spirit of the Pharisee, "I am not as other men,—or even as this publican." It shows clearly that the elder son cannot fairly be regarded as a weak believer. He is a type of the self-righteous, ignorant moralist, who cannot bear the doctrine of salvation by grace, or endure the idea of great sinners being completely pardoned and put on a level with himself.

[Thou never gavest me a kid, &c.] The spirit of this expression should be noted. It is the thanklessness of a proud, conceited person, who thinks that nothing is too good for him, and that he is never treated so well as he really deserves.

v30.—[This thy son.] Mark the ill-natured tone of these words. He is speaking of his own brother. He calls him "this thy son." It is an expression of scorn and contempt, like "this publican" in Luke 18:11.

[With harlots.] Let this expression be noted. The fact asserted is an addition to the younger son’s unhappy profligacy, which we hear of for the first time. It may possibly have been true, but it is evidently brought forward here with an uncharitable intention, and in a contemptuous manner.

[Thou hast killed the fatted calf.] This expression should be compared with the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisee said, "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." The elder son’s words here are an exact counterpart to this charge. "Thou hast not only received thy sinful son, but hast even made a feast for him, and eaten with him."

v31.—[Son, thou art ever with me, and all...thine.] These words have made some persons suppose that the elder son is the type of an erring believer, who is stumbled by seeing great sinners pardoned, but who has never departed from grace himself. This idea is untenable. We are not reading a conversation between a child of God and his heavenly Father. We are simply reading an incident in a story which is intended to show Christ’s love towards sinners, and the ignorance of those who are stumbled by it. The words show us no doubt that the elder son had always lived a steady life compared to his brother’s, and that his father had never denied him anything. But they entirely fail to show that he was humble, charitable, or acquainted with his own heart, notwithstanding all the privileges he enjoyed. The words in short show that the elder son had no right to complain of his father, but they do not show that the father had no right to complain of him.

v32.—[It was meet, &c.] This verse concludes the argument of the other chapter, and sums up the case between our Lord and His self-righteous enemies, the Scribes and Pharisees. Whatever the elder son might say, he could not deny these two great facts. His brother, who a short time ago had been as one dead, was alive again. He was lost: he was now found. Before these facts all envious and murmuring feelings ought to go down. It was meet to make merry and be glad.

The application of the words to the case of our Lord’s hearers is clear and plain. However much the Pharisees might murmur at Him for receiving sinners, they must confess it was better for sinners to be saved than lost. If publicans and sinners were made alive unto God through His ministry, the Pharisees, if they had had a right spirit, would have been glad. Instead of finding fault they would have been thankful. Instead of murmuring they would have rejoiced.

Let us observe the difference between the way in which the elder brother and the father speak of the prodigal son. The elder brother says, "this thy son," as if he was not his own brother. The father says, "this thy brother," to remind him of his relationship.

If we take the secondary, or national view, of the parable, the application of it is not difficult. It rebukes the Jews for their unwillingness to see the Gentiles brought into the Church of Christ, and made partakers of the Gospel. The elder brother is a picture of the Jews of Paul’s time, disliking the conversion of the Gentiles, and "forbidding him to speak to them." (1 Thessalonians 2:16.) In this point of view, unhappily, the parable is again a prophecy. Our Jewish elder brother still stands without and refuses to come in.

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Bibliographical Information
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ryl/luke-15.html.