Luke 15:1. To the disciples. To the body of the disciples, including the publicans for whom the parable had a special adaptation. That the Pharisees also heard what He said appears from Luke 15:14.
A certain rich man. This represents God, the Possessor of all things. To none other do men really stand in the relation of stewards. The only objection to this interpretation, arising in Luke 15:8, is answered by that verse itself, which indicates that the whole parable is borrowed from the actions of ‘the sons of this world,’ and only partially applicable to ‘the sons of the light’ The view that mammon is meant involves great difficulties. A reference to Satan is far fetched. Existing political circumstances may have suggested some points in the parable, but a direct application to these things is out of the question. (For example: some think the Romans are represented by the rich man, the publicans by his steward; others that the former represents the Emperor, the latter a governor like Pilate, etc.) Other views seem to imply that our Lord spoke the parable to puzzle His hearers.
A steward. Such stewards were often slaves, but this one was evidently free. He represents Christ’s disciples, but especially then the publicans, who, being in many cases rich, needed such instruction. (Zacchaeus may have heard of the lesson, see chap. Luke 19:8).
Was accused. The accusation was true (Luke 15:3), but probably malicious also.
As wasting his goods. He led a life of luxury on his lord’s means. In how many ways is this accusation true of Christ’s disciples!—The plain statement, that the property of the master was wasted, opposes the explanation that he had added a profit for himself to the rents, etc., of the tenants and debtors. According to this, the transaction in Luke 15:5-7 was simply an alteration to the fair rent. But this would be no real restitution. The view that mammon is the lord, involves, here the strange idea that this waste is equivalent to entering the service of Christ, since they could not ‘serve God and mammon.’ And so throughout the whole, this interpretation compels us to take the worst acts in the parable as representing the best in the application.
Luke 15:1-2. THE OCCASION OF THE DISCOURSE. How all the publicans and sinners. Not all kinds, nor all without exception, but very many, so that this was the rule.
Were drawing near. At this time were occupied in thus coming. There was an increasing throng of these classes, with one distinct purpose: to hear him. It was precisely these who felt they had no means to build the tower, no forces to meet the opposing King; and hence they sought resources from One who manifested power, and through Him desired ‘conditions of peace.’
CONNECTION. We have a single discourse, consisting mainly of parables, from chap. Luke 15:1 to chap. Luke 17:10. It was delivered during the journey from Perea to Jericho, and occasioned by the fact that the publicans and sinners now attached themselves in large numbers to our Lord. The severe remarks mentioned in the last chapter (Luke 15:25-32) probably led to this concourse. Against our Lord’s reception of this class murmurs were uttered by the Pharisees, and the first division of this discourse (chap. 15) was addressed to them; the second (chap. Luke 16:1-13) was addressed to His disciples; the third (chap. Luke 16:14-31), on occasion being given, to the Pharisees again; and the closing part (chap. Luke 17:1-10) to the disciples.
Chap. 15. consists of three parables, all enforcing the same general truth: God’s mercy to sinners, and all making a contrast between the penitent sinner and the self-righteous. Thus the murmurs of the Pharisees were answered. The parables, however, present different types of lost sinners. Bengel and Alford regard the first (lost sheep) as a representation of a stupid and bewildered sinner; the second (the lost piece of money) of a sinner unconscious of himself and his own real worth; the third (the prodigal son) of the conscious and voluntary sinner, the most aggravated case. Hence there is a climax in the representation of God’s mercy. The third is treated, for convenience, in a separate section.
Luke 15:2. What is this that I hear of thee, i.e., explain this report.
Render the account of thy stewardship. No previous reckoning had been made: regular statements were then unusual.
Canst no longer be steward. The correctness of the report is implied. The reference is to the certainty that each must render account at death to God. Death in every case is the consequence of the wasting of the Lord’s goods. The prudence on the part of the steward began when he regarded his dismissal as certain, but took place before the dismissal itself. The reference to mammon as the lord is by no means so apt.
Luke 15:3. What shall I do, etc. In his uncertainty, he carefully considered the case, and this is the point in which the children of this world are so often wiser than the children of light
I have not strength to dig. His life of luxury had unfitted him for that.
To beg I am ashamed. Because of his past position. This graphic description presents certain points of human character, but cannot be further used in the interpretation.
Luke 15:3-7. THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP. Comp. Matthew 18:12-14, where the same parable occurs. There, however, our Lord brings out the preciousness of the one sheep (‘the little one’); here, the mercy of the shepherd in seeking and rejoicing over the one sheep.
Luke 15:4. I am resolved, etc. The plan just strikes him.
They, i.e., the debtors with whom he intends to deal, may receive into their houses. He would thus secure future shelter for himself. Further than this the verse must not be pressed (see Luke 15:9).
Luke 15:5. Each one of his lord’s debtors. The debtors were scarcely tenants or contractors, but more probably men who had bought and not yet paid for certain stores belonging to the rich man.
Said to the first. We have two examples of what happened in each case.
Luke 15:6. Hundred measures, or, ‘baths,’ = the Ephah in dry measure, nearly ten gallons.
Take thy bill, lit, ‘writings.’ The document in the steward’s hands, showing the obligation.
Quickly. The business must be done in a hurry.
And write fifty, i.e., alter the figure. The old bond is not destroyed, but returned to the debtor to be thus altered. The supposition that the steward himself made up the difference is out of the question. There is no sign of penitence, and the man was not able to do it (Luke 15:3).
Luke 15:7. An hundred measures. The Hebrew measure (‘cor’) is here spoken of, equal to ten ephahs.
Write eighty. The variation in the amount deducted is without any special meaning. Still we may find in it a proof of the steward’s prudence. He knew the men with whom he had to deal and acted accordingly. Christian men too often slight such knowledge, but this parable condemns putting a premium on ignorance.
Luke 15:8. And his lord, i.e., the lord of the steward, of course, not the Lord Jesus.
The unjust steward, lit., ‘the steward of unrighteousness.’ This phrase stamps the conduct of the steward as immoral; and in this aspect as unworthy of imitation. But the point to which prominence is given follows: because he had acted wisely, shrewdly, prudently. The master had discovered the trick, yet praises his steward; for in the parable both are sons of this world, or ‘age.’
Wiser (not absolutely, but) for their generation (i.e., in their dealings with one another, since the whole parable is drawn from that sphere) than the sons of the light (those who are really Christians). Worldly men act prudently toward one another. But the sons of the light in their dealings with one another (‘for their generation’), often lack the prudence here commended. In the use of money, in the use of all those powers committed to us by God, which find in ‘this world ‘the only sphere for their use, Christians too often fail to act with prudence. The steward carefully considered his situation; but Christians very often fail to look at their duty in the light of their knowledge, and to act as common sense would dictate, when once the premises about God and Christ, things temporal and eternal, are admitted. There is no self-confessed folly so great as that of a son of the light who lives as if money-getting were the end of his existence. Of course there is a still higher wisdom implied.
Luke 15:8-10. THE PARABLE OF THE LOST PIECE OR MONEY. Peculiar to Luke.
Luke 15:9. And I say unto you. The last verse contains the commendation of one of ‘the sons of this world;’ here we have a recommendation to ‘the sons of the light.’
Hake to yourselves friends out of the mammon. By using money with a prudence like that of the unjust steward, but under a higher motive and with better means than his, gain for yourselves ‘friends,’ rather than estates, mansions, etc. ‘Mammon’ itself is not to be made a friend, but to be used in making the friends.
Of unrighteousness. Mammon, the personification of money, commonly become the occasion and the means of an unrighteous course of conduct; for this and other reasons its inherent character is said to be unrighteousness.
That when it shall fail, i.e., the mammon to which the correct reading undoubtedly refers. The special reference is to death, when a man’s wealth utterly fails; but it may fail before that
They may receive you, i.e., the friends you have made. These ‘friends’ can only ‘receive’ us into the eternal tabernacles, i.e., in the future state of blessedness. They do not open heaven for any one, they only welcome there. Of course only those friends, thus made, who belong to our Lord’s kingdom, are included here. They may help us heavenward by their prayers before they go there to ‘receive’ us. There are numerous other explanations; for example: the ‘friends’ are the angels, who welcome those who have left the service of mammon, using the interval (and also the means gained in that service) so as to make such friends. This leads to inferences bordering on what is immoral.
Luke 15:10. He that is faithful, etc. Lest it should seem strange that so much importance is attached to the proper use of perishing and unrighteous wealth, remember the great principle: ‘He that is faithful,’ etc.
That which is least, or ‘a very little.’ This refers to earthly possessions, and the faithfulness is the wise and prudent conduct suggested by the parable.
In much. In this case this is equivalent to: ‘the true riches,’ ‘your own,’ the inheritance and possession of the sons of the light. But the principle is general, and capable of a great variety of applications. This verse opposes the view that the service of mammon is meant in the parable, for according to that interpretation it is by being unfaithful to mammon that true fidelity is to be reached.
Luke 15:11. In the unrighteous mammon. In your use of it, i.e., ‘faithful in that which is least.’
Who will commit to your trust! Such unfaithfulness proves us unfaithful in much (Luke 15:10), according to the judgment of God, who will not therefore entrust us with the true riches. The word ‘riches’ is properly supplied in the translation, although the literal sense is ‘the true,’ that which is real, as opposed to the deceitful nature of earthly wealth.
THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON. ‘The crown and pearl’ of all our Lord’s parables. It is an advance from the two which precede it. The case of the sinner is represented as more aggravated: his guilt greater, his wretchedness more profound. Hitherto the illustrations have been borrowed from actions prompted by self-interest; now love enters. The sheep, the coin, were valuable, but here a human being is the lost one. Only here, therefore, can the history of the wandering soul and its return be portrayed in its successive steps, and only here can the mercy of God be presented so as to reveal His heart of love. The form of the parable answers to its higher truth. But admiration of its beauty does not necessarily imply a like return to the Father’s house. Farther this single parable, with all its beauty and pathos, does not set forth the whole scheme of salvation in a single parable. The time was not ripe for revelation in regard to the purpose of our Lord’s death; nor was the audience one at all prepared to receive such truth. The main lesson for them (the Pharisees) was that God is merciful to sinners; and this is the fundamental truth of the whole scheme of salvation (Ephesians 2:4). This accords with the view taken of the three parables, as presenting the mercy of God: in the first the son appears as shepherd; in the second, the in working spirit; in this, the Eternal Father with His heart of love. This is the order of the application of God’s mercy to sinners. The main lesson of the parable for ourselves, appears when we call it (as it really is) the parable of the Penitent and Returning Prodigal Son. How to repent and return learn from the cross.
Luke 15:12. In that which is another’s. Earthly wealth is held in trust; the true riches are described as your own. Wealth can never form a part of our being, is never permanently in our possession; we can have the use of it, but in no true sense own it. But that which God gives to us as true riches will form a part of our eternal being, is our inalienable possession. Because this is so much higher, we are urged to be faithful in the use of worldly wealth, believing that it is not ours, but entrusted to us to test our fidelity.
Luke 15:13. Comp. Matthew 6:24. Since the proper use of wealth is for God, those who do not thus use it are slaves to Mammon. The last verse implies that wealth is not our own, this implies that when it is used as our own, the presumed owner not only does not own it, but himself belongs to it.—There is not a word here capable of a communistic interpretation. Our Lord speaks of wealth as ‘that which is least,’ modern socialism regards money as the true riches. In principle, practice, and result, the two systems are totally divergent Christianity is the service of God, socialism the service of mammon,—judged by its fruits, ‘earthly, sensual’ and devilish.
Luke 15:14. And when he had spent all. Probably very soon; the enjoyment of sin is brief. But it is not necessarily implied that all God’s gifts are wasted before repentance. The picture of ‘misery’ begins here; and the sense of destitution is emphasized.
A mighty famine. External circumstances hasten the consequences of sin, and are used by God to lead to repentance. Thus the Father seeks His son, by so ordering events that he shall feel his real condition: He began to be in want. This is the main point: conscious emptiness of soul must lead one way or the other; to despair or to repentance.
Luke 15:15. Joined himself. Attached himself, as it were by force. He makes a determined effort to help himself, as he begins to feel his want
To one of the citizens of that country. Not to be directly interpreted of Satan, for the man was ‘one of the citizens.’ His business is to feed swine, unclean animals, so that the employment was degrading. There may be an allusion to the publicans, as in the employ of an alien power, and engaged in a degrading duty. The main point is that he who, under a sinful impulse, sought to be released from a father’s supervision, is brought into the most abject dependence on a foreigner, who takes no care of him whatever. The freedom into which sin leads is slavery.
Luke 15:16. Would fain have filled his belly. Many ancient authorities read: ‘would fain have been filled,’ and this may be the correct reading, but does not alter the sense. The literal translation of the E. V. corresponds with the coarse craving of his hunger.
With the husks, Greek: ‘pods of the carob-tree,’ or literally, ‘little horns,’ so called from their curved shape. These pods have a sweetish taste; are food for swine, but poor nourishment for men, although they could be eaten. It is uncertain whether the prodigal obtained even this poor food; if he did, it was taken from swine while he tended them.
And no man gave to him. No one provided anything for his needs. This is the reason he so desired the swine’s food. Some explain the matter thus: The swine were fed, after the prodigal had driven them home; he saw them fed, craved a share, ‘and no man gave (even this) to him.’ We prefer the other view, as more direct and suggesting the unsatisfying nature of the ‘husks.’ This state of deepest want was the turning point.
Luke 15:17. Came to himself. This implies that he had been beside himself before. A life of sin is in a certain sense irrational. The free will of the sinner is brought out, as it could not be in the two other parables. The seeking and saving, though necessary to make the prodigal come to himself, are kept in the back ground. The third scene now opens: the prodigal’s penitence. Notice, that the man came to himself more readily among the swine than among the harlots (Luke 15:30).
He said. As the result and evidence of his coming to himself. He regards matters in their true light. The facts of the case are considered; and he does not attempt to philosophize about his father’s mercy, etc., as alas too many sinners do, when seeming to repent.
How many hired servants.—These were the temporary laborers occupying the lowest place on the estate. The servants (Luke 15:22.) would include those more trusted and honored. He was himself now only a ‘hired servant.’
Of my father’s. His penitent thought is based on the feeling, lost while he was beside himself, that he still has a father. The sinner will thus reflect and repent only when he has some ground for this feeling. The true ground is to be found in Jesus Christ
Have bread enough, etc. These lowest servants have abundance, and I (a son still, though so unworthy) perish with hunger. The contrast is made at every point. God’s Providential care is alluded to in this part of the parable.
Luke 15:18. I will arise. Correct reflection led to remembrance of the father, that feeling led to resolve and corresponding action. The will is turned: he proposes to leave the far country.
I have sinned. There can be no return to God which does not include the confession of sin.
Against heaven and in thy sight (as in Luke 15:21), in relation to this. The two are separated in the parable, but are to be identified in the interpretation. He alone really confesses his sins, who has regarded them mainly as sins against God, against a higher, heavenly order of things; and this is the best sign that a sinner has come to himself.
Luke 15:19. I am no more worthy, etc. Genuine penitence!
Make me as one, etc. He does not give up his sonship, but asks only the treatment given to a hireling, for he does not even deserve that. Some explain that he wished by fidelity in that position to prove himself again worthy; but the parable must not be pressed here, since the penitent sinner has at first confused ideas of the return to God. The main point is, that the prodigal makes no excuse for his sins, but acknowledges his unworthiness.
Luke 15:20. And he arose, etc. The action corresponds to the resolve, in the parable, but not always in reality. This is the last scene; the return.
A great way off. The father seems to have expected him; God certainly expects the penitent sinner.
His father saw him, etc. Graphic and true to nature. The father’s conduct is itself a seeking of the lost son. God is waiting to be gracious; He comes to meet us in His mercy; He manifests it before our penitent utterances.
And kissed him. The token and seal of love. ‘The Saviour and mediator is concealed in the kiss’ (Riggenbach).
Luke 15:21. Father, etc. The purposed confession is made, but the conclusion is omitted. ‘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’ (Godet).
Luke 15:22. But the Father. The father’s acts respond; but not according to the worthiness of the son.
Bring forth quickly. ‘Quickly,’ omitted in the E. V., is suggestive.
The best robe. The upper garment of the higher classes among the Jews. (Mark 12:38.) A comparison with Isaiah 61:10, Revelation 3:18 suggests as probable an allusion to the robe of righteousness provided for us by Christ.
A ring, ‘seal ring,’ worn only by freemen, as also shoes, since slaves went barefoot. Some explain: the ring, the seal of the Spirit, the shoes, ‘the preparation of the gospel of peace.’ The sense of the whole verse is: God will restore the penitent, and give him, out of love, all that is necessary to mark him as a son.
Luke 15:23. The fatted calf. Some calf standing in the stall, probably in readiness for a feast, is to be killed, as the best, for this sudden festivity. There is no allusion to any sacrifice.
Make merry. The ‘joy in heaven’ (Luke 15:6) is again alluded to; the parties feasting are ‘the servants’ (Luke 15:22), including the whole family; angels and redeemed men.
Luke 15:24. Was dead, and is alive again. Even in the parable, the father speaks figuratively of moral death; much more in the application is it true; the state of sin is a moral death, the state of salvation a moral resurrection.
Was lost, and is found. This expresses the relation to the father. In the application: Sin is estrangement from God, salvation fellowship with God.
And they began to be merry. The same point is now reached as in the other parables; and the eating with penitent sinners (Luke 15:2) abundantly justified.
Luke 15:25. Now his elder son was in the field. ‘The elder son at the return of the younger brother is not in the house, but has spent the day in hard, self-chosen, slavish service, and now first returns home at evening, when the feast was already in progress’ (Van Oosterzee).
Music and dancing. Usual at feasts in the East. Dancing in the East was usually performed by those hired for the purpose.
Luke 15:25-32. THE ELDER SON. The other side of the picture is equally appropriate to the occasion. The murmuring Pharisees are now to see themselves portrayed. Alford: ‘This part of the parable sets forth the reception he meets with from his fellow-men in contrast to that from his father.’
Luke 15:26. One of the servants. Not the same word as in Luke 15:22; probably an inferior domestic in the permanent employ of the householder, but now standing without.
What these things might be. Offended that this should take place without his knowledge; jealous of the joy in which he would not share.
Luke 15:27. Thy brother is come. The servant states the case as it impresses him. He says nothing of the condition in which the prodigal returned, but simply that the father had received him safe and sound. No special interpretation is to be put upon this verse.
Luke 15:28. But he was angry. The occasion of the anger was the answer given by the servant; the reason of the anger is found in Luke 15:29-30.
Came out and entreated him. The father left the feast of joy to kindly urge the elder brother. This represents the long-suffering of God toward the self-righteous, the efforts to bring them to a better mind. The parable itself, spoken to the Pharisees (Luke 15:3), was an entreaty to the elder brother.
Luke 15:29. Lo, for so many years do I serve thee. The legal idea comes out here, pleading what has been done.
I never transgressed a commandment of thine. The Pharisees virtually said this. The words of the elder son prove that his obedience in the past had not been hearty, and that he was now in opposition to his fathers will.
And yet thou never gavest me a kid. In contrast with ‘the fatted calf.’
With my friends, ‘respectable people,’ he implies, in contrast with ‘harlots.’ This proud, self-seeking, unaffection-ate son is now the lost son. Self-righteousness is dissatisfied with the reward it receives. The essential failure of Pharisaism is its want of love to God despite its external obedience.
Luke 15:30. When this thy son came. He will not say ‘brother.’ In expressing contempt of his brother the greatest sin against his father is uttered; so Pharisees sin most heinously against God in their feelings and acts towards their fellow-men.
Devoured thy living. There is a reproach of the father implied here also.
With harlots. It was preeminently Pharisaical to recall just then this fact
Thou killedst, etc. In contrast with the latter part of Luke 15:29.
Luke 15:31. Son. Still affectionate God has forbearing kindness toward the self-righteous and uncharitable.
Thou art ever with me. No occasion for extraordinary joy had arisen in his case.
All that is mine is thine. Only the portion of the elder son remained in the father’s hands.
Luke 15:32. It was meet to make merry, etc. The form is general, giving justification for the joy, and yet leaving it to the choice of the elder son whether he will share in it.
The elder son represents the Pharisees, and puts forward their claims. These are not directly contradicted in the parable for good reasons. (1.) The Lord would represent the forbearance of God toward the Pharisee as well as His pardoning love toward the prodigal; hence severe rebuke is excluded. (2.) The claim rested upon a correct principle: ‘the doers of the law shall be justified’ (Romans 2:13), but the character of the elder son is so portrayed as to indicate that he failed to stand on that principle. The law was not yet abolished, and the words of the wise Teacher were adapted to the circumstances of His auditors.—It is not said that the son went in. This also opposes the view that He represents the Jewish people. The New Testament loses no opportunity for prophesying the ultimate salvation of Israel, and such a prediction would least of all fail in a parable where love and forbearance alone are depicted. The parable was itself the Father’s entreaty to the elder son, and with each of those whom He represented the responsibility of answering was left. All of us, in whom sin remains, are represented by one or the other of those two sons. Both were offenders, ye the Father calls both sons, and would save both lasses of sinners here depicted.
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
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