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The parable of the lost sheep: of the piece of silver: and of the prodigal son.
Anno Domini 31.
Luke 15:1-2. Then drew near—all the publicans, &c.— To do good unto all sorts of men, was the employment and highest pleasure of the Son of God; accordingly, when the tax-gatherers and sinners came to hear him, he rejoiced at the opportunity, received them courteously, and, though they were persons of infamous characters, went with them to their houses, that he might scatter the seeds of wisdom among them, and, if possible, bring them to a right temper of mind. Some suppose that these publicans and sinners came by a particular appointment from all the neighbouring parts; but, as St. Luke goes on with the history without any intimation of a change, either in the time, or the scene of it, it is most probable that these discourses were delivered the same day that Christ dined with the Pharisee; which being the sabbath-day, would give the publicans, who on other days were employed in their office, a more convenient opportunity of attending him. The Pharisees, whose pride was intolerable, thinking our Lord's behaviour inconsistent with the sanctity of a prophet, were much displeased with him for it, and murmured at his charitable condescension, which ought rather to have given them joy. Wherefore, that he might justify his conversing familiarly with sinners, in order to convert them, he delivered the parable of the lost sheep, which he had spoken once before, (see Matthew 18:12-13.) together with the parables of the lost money and prodigal son. From men's conduct in the common affairs of life, described in the parable of the lost sheep and lost money, Christ proved that every sinner should be sought after by the teachers of religion: for as men are so moved by the loss of any part of their property, that they seem to neglect what remains, while they are employed in recovering that which happens to be missing; and when they have found it, are so overjoyed, that they cannot contain themselves; but,—calling their friends to whom they had given an account of their misfortune,—tell the good news, that they may partake in their joy; so the servants of God should labour with the greatest solicitude to recover whatever part of his property is lost; such of his reasonable creatures as, having strayed from him, are in danger of perishing: and they have powerful encouragement to do so, as the conversion of a single sinner occasions more joy in heaven, than the steadfastness of ninety-nine just persons, who need no repentance; that is to say, conversion; for so the word signifies, as it should be translated, Luke 15:7.—unless by the just persons here mentioned, we understand the glorified saints. By this circumstancelikewise our Lord insinuated, that the Pharisees, who pretended to more holiness than others, instead of repining at his conversing with, and instructing sinners, ought to have imitated the example of the heavenly beings, and to have rejoiced to find these men delighted with his company and discourses; as he enjoined them a much stricter and holier life than they hitherto had been used to;and since this was a good token of their repentance, and seemed to promise a speedy and thorough conversion. The drift of both parables is to shew, that the conversion of sinners is a thing highly acceptable to God; and consequently, that whatever is necessary thereto, is so far from being inconsistent with goodness, that it is the very perfection and excellence of it.See Daniel 12:3.
Luke 15:4. In the wilderness,— Uncultivated ground, used merely as common pasture, was called wilderness, or desart, by the Jews, in distinction from arable, or inclosed land, as we have had occasion more than once to observe. Some would read, Doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which was lost?
Luke 15:7. Likewise joy shall be in heaven— Greater joy will be in heaven over one converted sinner, than over, &c. The design of this parable being to represent divine things by images taken from the manners of men, what is here said of God and of the angels, (see Luke 15:10.) must be understood suitably to the nature of human passions, which are much more sensibly affected with the obtaining of what they have long vehemently desired, or with the saving of that which was looked upon as lost, than they are with the continuance of goods long enjoyed. However, it is clear from Luk 15:10 that the angels are, either during their ministrations here below for the children of God, or by immediate revelation or otherwise, informed of the conversion of sinners, which must, to those benevolent spirits, be an occasion of great joy; nor could any thing have been suggested more proper to encourage the humble penitent, to expose the repining Pharisee, or to animate all to zeal in so good a work as endeavouring to promote the repentance and conversion of others. Indeed, this part of the present and the following parable is beautifully drawn up. The angels, though high in nature, and perfect in blessedness, are represented as bearing a friendly regard to their kindred essences, and as having a knowledge of things done here below. It may be necessary to observe, that it cannot be our Lord's meaning here, that God esteems one penitent or newly-converted sinner more than ninety and nine confirmed and established believers, who are, as it appears to me, the persons spoken of as needing no conversion, — no μετανοια, or universal change of heart and life; for it would be inconsistent with the divine wisdom, goodness, and holiness, to suppose this: but it is plainly as if he had said, "As a father peculiarly rejoices, when an extravagant child is reduced to a sense of his duty, and when one whom he had considered as utterly ruined by his follies, and perhaps as dead, returns with remorse and submission; or, as any other person who has recovered what he had given up for lost, has a more sensiblesatisfaction in it, than in several things equally valuable, but not in such danger; so do the holy inhabitants of heaven rejoice in the conversion of the most abandoned sinners; and the great Father of all so readily forgives and receives them, that he may be represented as having part in the joy." Though, by the way, when human passions are ascribed to God, it is certain they are to be taken in a figurative sense, entirely excluded from those sensations which result from the commotions of animal nature in ourselves. Some have supposed that our Saviour, by the word just persons, meant to glance at the Pharisees, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.
Luke 15:9. She calleth her friends, &c.— Her female friends, —τας φιλας . It might seem hardly worth while to ask the congratulation of her friends on so small an occasion as finding a drachma; (for that is the piece of coin here mentioned, in value not above nine-pence;) but it is represented as the tenth part of her little stock; and the impressible and social temper of the sex may perhaps be thought of, as adding some propriety to the representation.
Luke 15:11. A certain man had two sons:— Our Lord next delivered the parable of the lost or prodigal son, which of all his parables is perhaps the most delightful; not only as it enforces a doctrine full of inexpressible comfort, but because it abounds with the tender pardons, is finely painted with the most beautiful images, and is to the mind what a charming diversified landscape is to the eye.
Luke 15:12. And the younger of them, &c.— Our Lord with great propriety makes use of the youngest son as an example of a depraved mind, youth being naturally impotent in self-government, not only through natural depravity, but through want of experience; hurried away by the impetuosity of the passions; not only deaf, but even too often rude, to the interpositions of advice, and too frequently totally abandoned to the pleasures of sense. It had been usual, in commercial states, to assign some portion to children when of age; and as the proportion was generally settled by law, the propriety of this circumstance, and of the expression, Give me that portion which falls to me, will appear in a strong and beautiful light. It seems to me, that no significant sense can be put upon the last circumstance mentioned in this verse, as referring to the dispensations of God to his creatures: it is one of those ornamental circumstances, which are frequently found in parables, and which it would be frivolous to endeavour to accommodate too scrupulously to the general design.
Luke 15:13. With riotous living.— The phrase Ζων ασωτως implies, that he lived in every degree of luxury and sensuality. The account before us is short.—The interesting and affecting passages with which sucha transaction would necessarily be connected, are left to be supplied by the heart. The story is silent,—but nature is not. Much kind advice, and many a tender expostulation would fall from the father's lips, no doubt, upon this occasion. He would dissuade his son from the folly of so rash an enterprize, by shewing him the dangers of the journey, the inexperience of his age, the hazards that his life, his fortune, his virtue would run, without a guide, without a friend: he would tell him of the many snares and temptations which he had to avoid or encounter, at every step; the pleasures which would solicit him; the little knowledge he could gain, except that of evil: he would speak of the seductions of women, their charms, their poisons; what hapless indulgencies he might give wayto, when far from restraint, and the check of giving his father pain.—The dissuasion would but inflame his desire.—He gathers all together. I see the picture of his departure; the camels and asses laden with his substance, detached on one side of the piece, and already on their way,—the prodigal son standing on the fore-ground, with a forced sedateness, strugglingagainst the fluttering movement of joy upon his deliverance from restraint:—the elder brother holding his hand, as if unwilling to let it go:—the father,—sadmoment!withafirmlook covering a prophetic sentiment, that "all would not go well with his child,"—approaching to embrace him, and bid him adieu.—Poor inconsiderate youth! from whose arms art thou flying? From what a shelter art thou going forth into the storm? art thou weary of a father's affection, or a father's care? or hopest thou to find a warmer interest, or truer counsellor, or kinder friend, in a land of strangers,—where youth are made a prey, and so many thousands are confederated to deceive them, and live by their spoils?
Luke 15:15. He went and joined himself, &c.— So he put himself into the service of one of the inhabitants, who sent him to his farm to keep swine. Heylin. It is true, that among the ancient Greeks, the chief swine-herd was looked upon as an officer ofnoinconsiderablerank, as evidently appears from the figure which Eumaeus makes in the Odyssey;—but this was an age of greater refinement; the unhappy youth was obliged to tend the swine himself; and if considered as a Jew, the aversion of that nationtothisuncleananimalmust render the employment peculiarly odious to him: and probably this circumstance was chosen by our Lord, to represent him as reduced to the most mean and servile state, from a life of the greatest luxury and extravag
Luke 15:16. He would fain have filled his belly with the husks— The version of 1729 renders the word κερατιων, by Carruways, or the fruit of the Carub tree, which bore a mean, though sweetish kind of fruit, in long crooked pods, which by some is called St. John's bread. But if the account which Saubert (who is a great favourer of this interpretation) gives of this plant be true, swine would hardly have been fed with any thing but the husky part of this in a time of extreme famine: possibly these were the husks of a fruit, something of the wild chesnut kind. The last clause signifies For no man gave him meat, the word φαγειν, or εσθιειν, being understood; as is plain from hence, that the clause contains a reason for his desiringto fill his belly with the husks, and not for his abstaining from them. His abstaining from the husks was owing to their being the food of beasts, and not tohis wanting permission to eat them; for this debauched youth cannot be supposed to have possessed such a principle of honesty, that he would rather die with famine, than without his masters leave take so small a matter as a few husks, which the swine seem to have had in great plent
Luke 15:17-19. When he came to himself, &c.— That is, to a true sense, through grace, of his present state, and the right use of his reason, which had before been dethroned and extinguished by the mad intoxications of sensual pleasure. When he says, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, means, that God was, (speaking after the manner of men) injured or insulted by his sins; and injured also in the person of his earthly father; and certainly the common sentiment of mankind teaches this, that whoever is insolent or disrespectful to his parents, rebels against God, who, by making themthe instruments of communicating life to their children, has imparted to them some ofhis own paternal honour. Dr. Goodman observes, This was an acknowledgement, that his father's yoke had been so easy, that his throwing it off had been an act of rebellion against God; and it shewed also, that his heart was touched with a sense, not only of the folly, but of the guilt of his conduct; and that the fear of God began to take hold of him. Having the idea of his undutiful behaviour strongly impressed on his mind, he was sensible that he had no title to be treated at home as a Son: at the same time he knew, that it would never be well with him, till he was in his father's family again; so with joy he entertained the thought of occupying the meanest station in it;—Make me, or treat me, as one of thy hired servants; which he mentions, not because such servants fared worse than slaves, but because himself had been a hired servant; and therefore he naturally compared his own condition with those of that rank in his father's family.—Thus while the liberality of the great parent of men is so grossly abused that they run away from his family, the miseries in which theyinvolve themselves, often, through the grace and spirit of God, prevail upon them to return. By the natural consequences of sin, God in his pity and love frequently makes sinners feel that there is no felicity to be found any where but in himsel
Luke 15:20. When he was yet a great way off,— But he keeping yet at a distance. When he came within sight of home, his nakedness, and the consciousness of his folly, made him ashamed togo in; he skulked about, therefore, keeping at a distance, till his father spied him, and shewed the most affecting paternal kindness towards him. But see on Luke 15:24.
Luke 15:22. Bring forth the best robe,— It is observed by Ferrarius, that the στολη, or long robe, was a garment which servants never wore; so that his father's ordering any such garment, and especially the best, to be brought, was declaring in the most moving manner that can be imagined, how far hewas from intending to treat him like a servant. His mentioning the shoes and the ring (which were worn not only as signs of freedom, but of dignity and honour) speaks the same language. See Genesis 41:42.James 2:2; James 2:2.
Luke 15:23. Bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it;— And sacrifice it. Elsner.
Luke 15:24. This my son was dead, and is alive, &c.— It is by a very common and beautiful emblem, that vicious persons are represented as dead, both by sacred and prophane authors; (Compare 1 Timothy 5:6. Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 5:14.) and the natural death of their children would certainly be less grievous to pious parents, than to see them abandoned to such a course as this young sinner took. Nothing so powerfully calls home the mind as distress; (see Luke 15:17.) the tense fibre then relaxes,—the soul retires into itself,—sits pensive, and susceptible, through grace, of right impressions: if we have a friend, it is then that we think of him; if a benefactor, at that moment all his kindnesses press upon our mind.—Gracious and bountiful God! is it not for this, through thy grace and blessing, that they who in their prosperity forget thee, do yet remember and return to thee in the hour of their sorrow? When our heart is in heaviness, upon whom can we think but thee?—who knowest our necessities afar off, puttest all our tears in thy bottle, seest every careful thought, hearest every sigh and melancholy groan that we utter?—Strange! that we should only begin to think of God with comfort, (if we do then,) when with joy and comfort we can think of nothing else.—Man is surely a compound of riddles and contradictions: by the law of his nature he avoids pain; and yet, unless he suffer in the flesh, he will not cease from sin, though it is sure to bring pain and misery upon his head for ever. Whilst all went pleasurablyon with the prodigal, we hear not one word concerning his father; no pang of remorse for the sufferings in which he had left him, or resolution of returning to make up the account of his folly: his first hour of distress, through the gracious Spirit of God, seemed to be his first hour of wisdom: When he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, whilst I perish! Of all the terrors of nature, that of dying by hunger surely is the greatest; and it is wisely woven into our frame, to awaken men to industry, and call forth their talents.—It had this effect, through Divine grace, with the prodigal: he arose, to go unto his father—Alas! how shall he tell his story?—ye who have had this round, tell me in what words he shall give in to his father the items of his extravagance and folly?—Yet leave the story, it will be told more concisely: when he was yet a great way off, (Luke 15:20.) his father saw him.—Compassion told it in few words:—he fell upon his neck, and kissed him.—The idea of a son so ruined as this was, and yet returning, would double the father's caresses; every effusion of his tenderness would add bitterness to his son's remorse.—"Gracious heaven! what a father have I rendered miserable!" Luke 15:21. And he said, I have sinned,—and am no more worthy to be called thy son.—But the father said,—Bring hither the best robe.—O ye affections! how fondly do you play at cross-purposes with each other?—It is the natural dialogue of true transport; joy is not methodical; and when an offender—beloved—seems, if it were possible, to overcharge himself in the offence, words are too cold, and a conciliated heart replies by tokens of esteem. And he said,—Bring forth the best robe, &c.—and let us eat, and be merry.—When the affections so kindly and graciously break loose, joy is another name for religion: we look up, as we taste it. The cold stoic without, may ask sullenly, (with the older brother, Luke 15:26; Luke 15:28.) "what it means?" and refuse to enter; but the pious and compassionate fly impetuously to the banquet, given for a son who was dead, and is alive again; who was lost and is found. Was it not for this, that God gave man music to strike upon the kindly passions? but we must never forget, that no distress or sorrow is effectual to the salvation of the soul, but that which brings us, in brokenness of heart and genuine contrition for our sins, to our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, by whose grace and merit alone salvation can be obtaine
Luke 15:28. Therefore came his father out,— This act of condescension gives a great heightening to the character of the father, and adds an inexpressible beauty and elegance to the parable; and when we consider it as referring to the love and condescension of our Almighty Father, it must certainly diffuse the highest consolation through our souls, if we have a real desire to be reconciled to him.
Luke 15:29. Lo, these many years do I serve thee, &c.— This is the young man's own testimony concerning his dutifulness: in which respect it fully represented the self-righteous Pharisees. It is his testimony also concerning the returns which his father had made to him for his services; nevertheless his behaviour on this occasion, as well as that of his father, seems to fix on him the lie in both particulars. Indeed, this branch of the parable is finely contrived to express the high opinion which the Pharisees (here represented by the elder brother) entertained of their own meri
Luke 15:31-32. And he said unto him, &c.— "But the father replied, Son, what cause is there forall this discontent, and all these murmuring complaints? you have constantly eaten at my table, which has been supplied with rich provisions every day, and have continually lived under the peculiar tokens of my favour; and I have still enough for you: but here is a fit occasion for expressing more than ordinary joy, in that your brother, whom I love, and you ought to love too, and who was given up for dead and lost, is now returned alive and well, deeply sensible of, humbled for, and reclaimed from, his extravagant wickedness and folly, and is now a dutiful son to me. So God vindicates the free dispensations of his grace to the Gentiles, and to the most infamous sinners, against all the dissatisfaction and murmurings of its enemies: he had been exceedingly liberal to the Jews, confining his peculiar covenant-mercies for many ages to them, among whom he had pitched his tabernacle with the special tokens of his presence; (see Romans 9:4-5.) and if they would not cut themselves off by unbelief, all would still be theirs, he having enough for them and others too: but the conversion of the Gentiles, and of remarkable sinners, is the quickening of those who were most evidently dead in trespasses and sins: and this cannot but be a just occasion of exceeding great joy, in the account of God and angels, and all good men."
There is a lively opposition between the 30th and 32nd verses. In the former the eldest son had indecently said, This thy son; the father in his reply tenderly says, This thy brother: "Though he has devoured my living with harlots, still he is thy brother, as well as now my reconciled son; wherefore thou shouldst not be angry, because he has repented and is returned, after we thought him entirely lost." Thus the goodness with which the father bore the unseemly peevishness of his elder son, was little inferior to the mercy shewed in the pardon which he granted to the younger: and we have herein a moving intimation, that the best of men ought to remember the relation of brother even towards the most abandoned of sinners, when there appears any inclination in such sinners to return.
Although this parable has a peculiar reference to the Jews and Gentiles; and though the murmurs of the Jews against the apostles for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (which was so common an objection at the beginning of Christianity) are represented by the conduct of the elder brother; our Lord had undoubtedly something more in his intention: he meant to shew, that had the Pharisees been as eminently good, as they themselves pretended to be, yet it would have been very unworthy their character to takeoffenceat the kind treatment which any sincere penitent might receive. Thus does he here, and in many parallel texts, condemn their conduct on their own principles; though elsewhere, on proper occasions, he shews the falsehood of those principles, and plainly exposes their hypocrisy and guilt. But to conclude these annotations on the parable, we would just observe, that in the inimitable composition of the character of the prodigal, and the wondrous compassion and tenderness of the father, the amazing mercy of God is painted with captivating colours; and in all the three parables, the joys occasioned among heavenly beings by the conversion of a single sinner, are represented; joys even of God himself, than which a nobler and sweeter thought never was held forth to the mind of man.—Thus high do the souls of men stand in the estimation of God; for which cause they should not cast themselves away in that trifling manner, wherein multitudes destroy themselves; nor should any think the salvation of others a small matter, as many who are intrusted with their recovery seem to do.Had the Pharisees understood the parable, and experimentally felt its truth, how criminal must they have appeared in their own eyes, when they saw themselves truly described in the character of the elder son, angry that his brother had repented! how bitter ought their remorse to have been, on finding themselves, not only repining at that which gave joy to God—the conversion of sinners, but exceedingly displeased with the methods of his providence in this matter, and maliciously opposing them. If these parables had been omitted by St. Luke, as they have been by the other three historians, the world would certainly have sustained a loss unspeakable.
Inferences drawn from the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11, &c.—The son in the parable who made the rash request to his father, was young. Youth is a dangerous season; but young persons have seldom sense enough to know their danger. Their reason is weak, and their passions strong: they have in general great presumption, but little capacity: they are too proud to be directed by others, and too ignorant to direct themselves.
In this season of folly, our young prodigal desires his father to give him his portion. Give me (he said) the portion of goods that falleth to me. He was tired of submitting to the order and regularity of his father's family: he longed to be master of himself, and live without controul or subjection.
The prophet Jeremiah has pronounced, that it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth; but few in their youth are sensible of that benefit. While they are kept in awe and under discipline, they are indeed often restrained from mischief, and in some degree hindered from hurting themselves; but that restraint is too often grievous to them; they repine at it, they strive against it, and are eager for a state of independence as their only happiness, though it often proves their certain ruin.
While we blame this rash youth for his impatience after liberty, only in order to abuse it to licentiousness, I must put the reader in mind that this parable is but too just a representation of our behaviour towards Almighty God, the common Father of us all. He has placed us here in the world as children in his family; he has allotted each person respectively his proper office and business; he has prescribed most wise rules for our behaviour; and with a paternal authority and love requires that we submit to his appointments, perform his commands, and do his will, as dutiful and obedient children; promising to requite our faithful filial service here, with an eternal inheritance in the heavens.
But we, like the head strong prodigal, affect an independent state. The narrow bounds of duty we account an irksome confinement. We would fulfil the devices and desires of our own hearts; and without any regard to our eternal inheritance, we choose our portion in this world, that now in this our lifetime we may receive our good things, wealth, and reputation, and pleasure and success, and our own will in every thing: and when we have got this our portion, we think only how to enjoy it; we forget our Father, we slight his love, and disown his authority.
This our Lord represents to us in the parable of this foolish youth; who, when he had got his portion, would no longer depend upon his father, but went away into a far country.
It was doubtless very grievous to his aged father, thus to be deserted by a son whom he loved so tenderly; a son that he had so lately and signally obliged, by giving him his estate in his lifetime; a son from whom he had probably promised himself (as parents are too apt to promise themselves,) great comfort, support, and satisfaction in his declining years: but the unnatural youth had no regard to his father's grief, no compassion for his grey hairs, which, for aught he knew, his undutifulness might bring with sorrow to the grave. He had received life from him; he had ever since been maintained by him, and had now got an estate from him; what further need of a father? his father had now nothing more to give him but advice; a gift which he was too proud to accept. He apprehended that even his father's presence might be a silent reproach to his extravagance; and therefore, getting over all sense of gratitude, all obligations of duty, and all ties of natural affection, away he went into a far country.
All men must blame and detest this wicked disobedience of the prodigal son; yet most men, in prosperity, behave after the same manner towards our heavenly Father. When they are at ease in the free enjoyment of the good things which he has bestowed on them, they forget that God is their Benefactor, from whom they received them; and their Lord, to whom they are accountable for the use they make of them. They neither love God, nor fear him. They retain no sense of his goodness, no apprehension of his power. Such is the twofold stupidity of the sinner: neither hopes nor fears affect him. His case is exceedingly dangerous. There is but one mean left to reclaim him, and that is affliction, which through grace may incline him to own God for a Benefactor, when he finds what it is to want his goodness; and to own God for his Master, when he finds that he cannot escape his power.
For a lively illustration of this, let us follow our prodigal into that far country, that country far from God, where holiness and virtue were strangers. See him roving from one vanity to another, as appetite, or passion, or capricious fancy led him. He forgot his father and his father's house: he confided in his wealth, as an inexhaustible fund for pleasure and entertainment: and while that fund lasted, his indifference for his father lasted, and would have lasted for ever, could it have been so supported. He never thought of his native home, but with joy and complacence in his deliverance from it, with censure or ridicule of his father's cares and austerities, and with pity or scoffing of his elder brother's domestic regularity and confinement.
Thus this rebellious son, having cast off the yoke of paternal authority, became, as the prophet expresses it, like a wild ass traversing the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure; in her occasion who can turn her away? Wild and wanton, stubborn and violent, wilful and untractable as that ass of the wilderness, he gave a full scope to his appetites and passions, indulged every lust, fulfilled every desire, and, in a word, became a perfect libertine, or, in Scripture language, a son of Belial:—for Belial signifies without yoke, and is one of the names of the devil, used to express the impiety of that arch-rebel, in renouncing his dependence upon his Almighty God: and they are called sons of Belial, who live like him, without any dependence upon God, in an open violation of his laws, and a prophane contempt of his authority.
How many such sons of Belial are there now among us, who live whole years, yea, many years, in an open and almost professed defiance of the laws of God; who never think of him or mention his name, but to prophane or blaspheme it; who despise his revelations, ridicule his servants, and give themselves up to work all manner of uncleanness with greediness! What way is there to reclaim these unhappy men, these thoughtless wretches? To admonish them of their duty, and expose to them the great truths of religion, is to cast pearls before swine, who will trample them under foot, and turn again and rend you. Is their case then quite desperate? Is there no mean left to reclaim them? Yes, affliction may perhaps, through the grace of God; which seems the last resort of divine mercy to reduce these wanton prodigals. For I have observed of many of them, (I mean chiefly young persons of plentiful fortunes,) that they are intoxicated with such a redundancy of animal spirits, arising from a good constitution, high diet and little labour, as renders them incapable of reason: their life is a continual phrenzy, like that of a fever or drunkenness; and there must be some great change wrought in it, before they can be capable of good advice. Mortifications seem absolutely necessary to bring them to, through grace, and keep them in their right senses. While their prosperity continues, their vice will continue, and exclude all possibility of amendment.—Strike then, O Lord, in thy mercy, and make them sensible of their folly by their punishment. Make them know experimentally, that it is an evil thing and bitter, that they have forsaken thee their God. Thy goodness has provided this remedy by natural means, even in the ordinary course of things. Vice soon wastes the stock of mercies bestowed on them; their wealth, health, ease, and cheerfulness of spirits, are soon exhausted by extravagance, lewdness and riot. Strike then, but accompany thy strokes with thy grace, without which all will be unavailable.
So fared it with this rambling prodigal. Thus does the providence of God often strike in to heighten the mischievous consequences of a vicious course. His expensive riotous living did naturally and of itself bring him to want: but the providence of God likewise concurred to make him miserable. At the same time there arose a mighty famine in that land; so that he not only wanted wherewithal to supply himself, but was also cut off from all hopes of being relieved by the superfluity of others.
What should he now do in his distress; whither betake himself in his sad condition? Why, immediately return to his father, beg his forgiveness, and humble himself before him. The shortest follies are the best. Repentance is never too soon; the earliest is ever the most seasonable. But pride and shame forbid to acknowledge his offences. Accursed shame!—he was not ashamed, when he left his father: he was not ashamed of his lewdness, riot, and extravagance; but to own them he is ashamed: and therefore chooses rather to continue in his errors, than confess them. He prefers the vilest office in life to the painful confusion of seeing his father's face.
He was distressed to a strange degree. Where poverty is not our own fault, it is no disgrace to be poor. Honest poverty is a commendable, and perhaps, to an abstracted habit of mind, the most eligible state. But poverty, the fruit of vice,—poverty, the effect of wasteful riot and intemperance, is truly vile and contemptible. This our prodigal had now brought upon himself. He had nobody to blame but himself; it was his own doing, the natural effect of his extravagance, as well as the just punishment of his disobedience.
This poverty pinched him sorely;—for he had known the luscious sweets of plenty, he had been used to superfluity and excess. How does he now regret them! how does he now repent of every lavish expence, every little sum, which in the insolence of his wealth he had squandered away!
His business of tending swine in the field, gave him leisure enough for such reflections. Here he was left a prey to his own thoughts, which were continually at work in making grating comparisons between his past and present circumstances. Though he was not yet converted, he was fully convinced of many truths, which in his prosperity he had disbelieved or derided. He had made great improvements in that costly, dangerous science, the knowledge of the world. He had found experimentally that its enjoyments were vanity, and the end of them vexation of spirit. Riot and debauchery now appear to him stripped of their pleasures, and retaining only their guilt. He knew that it was folly all.
The heat and ardour of youth now no longer animated his courage, and inflamed his passions;—that fire had been made to burn too violently to last long. It had been wasted in voluptuousness; and the poor remains were now quite extinguished by the damps of chilling poverty. It is now no longer the gay, the bold and sprightly adventurer, full of hopes, and confiding in his abundance; no longer that self-willed, opinionative fool, who preferred his own conceits to the solid counsels of age and experience. He is no longer that unnatural son, who despised his father, who thought him useless or troublesome; nor the heedless rover, who preferred the fatigues of a long journey, and the inconveniences of a foreign land, to the odious presence of his parent. He now, through the awakening influences of the Spirit of God accompanying his reflections, regrets the distance from him; for he was without friends, an alien, a poor, hungry, naked vagabond.
At length,—so instructive is misery, when grace accompanies it, and is yielded to,—he came to himself, says the scripture. He became compos mentis,—of a right mind; he thought reasonably; for before he was mad, as wild and mad as great plenty, high health, and unbounded liberty could make him; which, as I observed, are very apt to turn young heads: but pain and hunger tame the wildest natures; and that effect they soon had, through grace, and in a spiritual manner too, upon our young swine-herd. They brought him to himself, and to a sober sense of things.
His serious thoughts began, you see, with comparing his present troubles with the happiness of a regular life. This reflection is common; and, I am persuaded, that there are few old offenders, who have not often made it, who have not often compared the slavery of sin, its meanness, its drudgery, its maladies, with the peace and joy of piety and virtue. But the misfortune is, they do not pursue these thoughts to a consequence. They do not pray; they do not look to Jesus Christ, the only refuge of sinners: they rail at the world, but do not renounce it; they censure its vanities, but do not forsake them. They see nothing, they say, in this world to be fond of; they are weary of it, and heartily disgusted with the bad usage they have met there.—It is very true, that the world gives occasion enough for such complaints: but those who make them most, are often very worldly-minded men. They rail at the world, only because they cannot enjoy it. Their condemning it is the voice of disappointed lust, of baffled concupiscence, and not of aspiring charity. Those who exult in the possession of riches, or repine for want of them, are both alike covetous. Those who love the world, because they enjoy it; and those who hate the world, because they want it, are equally slaves to it. These latter sometimes talk the language of morality, and say, as they have cause enough, how vain and vexatious they have found it; but they will not do themselves the violence necessary for a hearty and effectual renouncing of it. They will not rise from the mire of sloth and sensuality; they will not burst the bands of evil habits, and break through the snares in which they have involved themselves; but after some feeble struggles sink down again;—their good purposes vanish, and all their conversions end in wishing that they were converted. But this is not the fault of grace: for though nothing can be done without it, an ample sufficiency of it would be given, if it were accepted and used.
Not so our exemplary penitent. He arose, he went to his father, though the journey was long, and as tedious and painful, as poverty, nakedness, and famine could make it. But it was better thus to suffer than to sin, to return than to stay. So, through the blessing of heaven, he arose and went to his father.
We have before considered largely the sequel of the parable, which is full of comfort and encouragement for all repentant prodigals; as it gives them the most convincing assurances of a kind reception, and of the remission of their former extravagance, and of all their sins, if they return in prayer and faith to their heavenly Father through the Redeemer. And I beseech Almighty God, that all we, who have gone astray like this prodigal, may like him return penitent to our heavenly Father, in a full assurance of forgiveness and favour through Jesus Christ our Lord.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, Offended, perhaps, with the hard sayings recorded in the former chapter, many of Christ's attendants withdrew, and made way for another set of hearers.
1. The publicans and sinners drew near to hear him. The publicans were usually persons of the most infamous character; and the sinners were either public and notorious offenders, or, it may be, some of the heathen; as from the multitude of strangers who dwelt there, the country was called Galilee of the Gentiles; these assembled around him; they needed such a gracious Saviour.
2. The proud Pharisees and scribes hereupon expressed their displeasure; offended, that one who professed himself a prophet, should deign to permit such wretches to approach him, receive them with kindness, and sit with them at the same table. Their insolent self-conceit would have said to them, Come not near me; but he, who came to be the sinner's friend, did not disdain their company; they were the lost that he came to save. Note; The censure of the self-righteous falls heaviest usually on the most excellent persons, in their noblest exercises of charity.
3. Christ vindicates himself from their reproaches in two parables; and shews, that the highest glory would redound to God from the conversion of these sinners, and joy fill the celestial host, on that occasion. We have,
(1.) The parable of the lost sheep; wherein we may observe, [1.] The case of the sinner; he is lost, gone astray from God's fold; wandering endlessly in the mazes of ignorance and error; a stranger to all spiritual comfort and happiness; running headlong to destruction, and ready to perish everlastingly. [2.] The peculiar tenderness of the Saviour towards sinners in their lost estate: like a shepherd who leaves his flock in the wilderness to seek one straying sheep, so does the Lord pursue the wanderers; he takes them up in the arms of grace, and brings them to his fold with tender pity. [3.] There is greater joy in heaven over one such converted sinner, than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance: which seems to be spoken with a peculiar reference to the Pharisees, who trusted that they were righteous, and needed no repentance. These our Lord left in the wilderness of unregeneracy, to perish in their pride; the conversion of one poor Gentile sinner, the recovery of the most notorious offender, was a matter of greater rejoicing in heaven, and brought more glory to God, than that form of godliness in which they boasted. See the Annotations.
(2.) The parable of the lost piece of money, which is nearly of the same import as the foregoing. The woman represents the Lord, the possessor of all; the silver, the souls of men, infinitely more precious; the nine pieces design the scribes and Pharisees, and all self-righteous persons; the one lost piece, the heathen, or any poor perishing sinner, sunk in the dregs of pollution, or lost in the dirt of worldly-mindedness and sensuality. The candle is the blessed gospel which shines in this dark place the world, where the sinner lies buried in corruption: the sweeping the house represents the diligence of the faithful ministers of Christ, whose instrumentality he uses to seek after lost souls, and great is the joy arising from the conversion of a sinner. The angels of God rejoice at this happy event. To see the chief of sinners brought to repentance, raises their loudest songs of praise. Those therefore, who made such objections to his receiving sinners, evidently shewed themselves destitute of a heavenly mind, and unlike the angels of God.
2nd, Yet farther, to shew how little cause the scribes and Pharisees had to murmur at the favour shewn to the publicans and sinners, he added a third beautiful parable, that of the returning prodigal, wherein miserable and wicked sinners may ever read the compassions of a pardoning God, and be engaged by the riches of his grace to return to the arms of his mercy.
The certain man spoken of in this parable, is God, the common Father of all: the two sons are the Jews and the Gentiles; the elder brother represented by the Jews, the younger by the Gentiles. The character of the miserable sinner is here drawn under the figure of the younger son. We have,
1. His departure from home, and the miseries into which his extravagance brought him.
(1.) He was impatient of restraint, as young men too often are; wanted to escape from his father's eye: conceited himself able to manage better for himself than his aged parent for him, and therefore forwardly demands, Give me the portion of goods which falleth to me. Just such are we all by nature: [1.] Discontented under God's government, and affecting independency. [2.] Desirous to fly from him, and foolishly flattering ourselves that we can be hid. [3.] Puffed up with high imaginations of our own abilities and excellence. [4.] Looking upon God's gifts as our own property, for the use of which we are accountable to none. [5.] Coveting a present portion, and seeking all our happiness from the world, careless and unconcerned about our future state.
(2.) The father graciously divided his substance, and gave the younger son his share; evidently shewing, that he was not that morose and harsh parent, which this headstrong youth probably represented him. Thus God bestows liberally the bounties of his providence even upon the evil and unthankful.
(3.) No sooner had he received his share, than in haste to be gone, he stayed but a few days, and took his journey into a far country, where he apprehended no rebuke from his watchful father; and there giving a loose to every appetite, he soon dissipated his fortune among women, wine, and riotous living. How exact the representation! [1.] Such wanderers are we; as soon as we are born, we go astray. [2.] In this alienation from God the sinner habitually continues, fulfilling the desires of the mind, till he returns to Christ. [3.] We are naturally enslaved by vile affections, and devoted to those youthful lusts which war against the soul. [4.] Present gratification usually weighs with us more than any considerations about futurity. [5.] As extravagance and lewdness have the most direct tendency to rob us of our substance, much more will these, and the like sins, infallibly ruin our souls.
(4.) Great were the miseries in which this prodigal now felt himself involved. When he had spent all, which could not last long in such bad company as he kept, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and as those on whom he had lavished his money, now dropped off from his acquaintance as the leaves in autumn, he began to be in want, without a morsel of bread to appease the cravings of hunger. Reduced now to the greatest distress, without any means of support, without a friend to assist him, necessity drives him to court the meanest drudgery for the preservation of life; he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine; yet even there he could not earn enough to satisfy his hunger; he envied the very swine their husks, and would fain have filled his belly with them; but no man had the least compassion for his case, or gave unto him the least morsel of sustenance: such is the misery of the sinner by nature: [1.] He is in want of all true comfort, and destitute of all grace; the favour of God, as the dew of heaven, he experiences not; his hard heart produces nothing good, and he pines away in his iniquities. [2.] He is the vilest slave in nature; the devil is the citizen, in whose hard service he is employed; he is like the swine, wallowing in the lusts of uncleanness, or grovelling in worldly-mindedness. [3.] His soul is harassed with raging desires, which none of his pursuits can gratify; for they who are without God in the world, or who depart from God to seek satisfaction in the creature, must feel the curse of incessant hunger, and find nothing but husks before them. The world and all the things therein, can provide no solid food for an immortal soul.
Some give a different interpretation of the words. They suppose the citizen of that country to be a Pharisaical legal preacher, to whom the awakened, sinner flies under his distress. He sets him to work in his fields; directs him to moral duties, to the law, to the conditions of the Adamic covenant, in order to obtain peace with God; but the husks of self-righteousness are unsatisfactory; conscience is unappeased; guilt unatoned for; corruption unmortified; and he continues a companion of swine.
2. Distress at last brought him to consider the unspeakable misery of his state, and what possibility there was yet of preventing his dying for want in that strange land. When he came to himself (for hitherto he had acted as a madman, or one possessed), he began to reflect on the plenty which reigned in his father's family, where there was not a hired servant, but had bread enough and to spare; and I, says he, perish with hunger. He resolves therefore to return, and to cast himself on his father's mercy, acknowledging his sin against heaven and against him, owning it his just desert to be disowned for a son, and begging it, as the highest favour he dare ask, to be admitted among the hired servants. And what he resolved upon, he immediately executed; his urgent want admitted not of delay: happy the soul in whom such a gracious purpose is stirred up! Note; (1.) Every impenitent sinner is beside himself; all his thoughts, words, and ways, bespeak the madman, fancying himself wise, great, happy, when infatuated, poor, and miserable; and putting a value upon the straws of his cell, the gain and pleasures of this world, as if they were sterling gold; while he is insensible to all the eternal glories that are above. (2.) In our most desperate estate, while there is hope, it is never too late to return to God; the vilest sinner may find mercy, the most abominable be converted and changed. (3.) Afflictions are often made the blessed means of driving our souls to God: softened by the rod of correction, the heart is made tender and disposed to listen to the words of wisdom, which were before despised and rejected. (4.) Though the conversion of the soul to God, is effected by the power of divine grace; yet the Lord works in such a way, as that it is truly our own choice, and the result of reason, consideration, and conviction. (5.) None need perish who will return unto God right humbly; there is with him grace abounding, bread enough, and to spare. (6.) In our returns to God, we must adopt the prodigal's spirit and language: we have sinned more than we can express or conceive; we should reflect upon all the aggravations of our sins, how ungratefully we have behaved towards the Father of mercies, how impiously affronted the Most High, whose throne is in the heavens; that so we may truly loath ourselves for all our abominations. (7.) We are never truly humbled for sin, till we feel and own our unworthiness of the least mercy, and our just desert of being utterly abandoned and rejected of God; so that if the least favour be shewn us, we shall acknowledge it with deepest gratitude. (8.) Vile and wicked as we may have been, we must not forget that endearing name of Father, to encourage our hopes, to awaken genuine and godly sorrow, and to embolden our faith to approach him. (9.) When God is working with our hearts, all depends upon our immediate obedience to his calls and warnings. Today, whilst it is called to-day, harden not your hearts.
3. His reception was unspeakably beyond his expectations. He came to his Father, and was welcomed with open arms. Let offended parents learn such compassions toward their returning prodigals. When he was yet a great way off, as if the Father's longing eyes had been looking out for his coming, he saw him; and though in rags and nakedness, emaciated and changed, so that another could scarcely have known him, he discerned the long-lost child. Melted with compassion at his piteous case, yet overjoyed once more to see him, he ran with eagerness, and fell on his neck, embracing him with the warmest emotions of parental tenderness, and kissed him, the token of welcome, the seal of pardon. Such are the tender mercies of our God towards poor returning sinners; he sees, well pleased, the first rising desire in our hearts towards him; he pities our misery, though we have brought it upon ourselves, and have so highly dishonoured him; his arms of grace are open to receive us; he will not upbraid our folly, but is ready instantly to pardon our sin, and through Christ Jesus to forgive all that is past, sealing our pardon, and speaking peace to our souls. The prodigal, deeply affected with his own vileness, and now more deeply struck with his ingratitude than ever, under the resentment of such amazing tenderness as his father shewed him, with grief and shame unfeigned, cries, Father, I have sinned, &c. The sense of God's pardoning love, instead of making the sinner proud, abases him to the dust, and makes him abhor himself for having ever offended a God so gracious. The son would have proceeded, but the father's heart is so overjoyed that he prevents him with blessings and loving-kindness, commanding the most splendid dress and the noblest entertainment to be provided for him. So far is the Lord from upbraiding poor returning penitents, that their iniquities, like a cloud, are blotted out, and glory and honour are put upon them.
[1.] The father commands his servants to bring forth the best robe, to put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, that his nakedness may not only be covered, and his filthy garments taken away, but that he may be adorned as became a dear child of that noble family: and how much more glorious the provision which Jesus has made for his returning prodigals! Their filthy garments of sin are taken away; and clothed and beautiful in holiness, they all are seen to be the children of a king. The ring, the seal of reconciliation and union, the Spirit of Jesus gives; and, shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, they run the ways of God's commandments with delight.
[2.] The noblest entertainment is ordered: Bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and be merry. Hungry and faint, he had long been a stranger to such rich provision; and pining in want and wretchedness, was a stranger also to joy: but now he shall be fed to the full, and partake of the general gladness which his return occasions. Note; (1.) In the gospel the richest provision is made for the hungry; Christ with all his fulness is provided, and faith feeds upon him, to the strengthening and refreshing of the soul. (2.) They who are brought by grace to taste of the sweetness of God's love, will truly say, that every thing compared with that, is but as husks. (3.) There is joy among all the household of God, when one poor sinner returns to join the happy family.
[3.] The cause of the father's joy is this, My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found; he was as bad as dead, yea, worse than dead, while living in riot and excess; lost to his family, undone himself; but his return is life from the dead. Note; Every impenitent sinner in the midst of life is in death; spiritually dead to God, and ready to suffer the wages of eternal death in hell.
4. The family readily joined the master of the house, rejoicing with him on the present happy occasion. The elder son alone appeared discontented; he was in the field when his brother returned, and heard with surprise, as he drew near to the house, the music and dancing. Inquiring of one of the servants, he soon learns the occasion, and expresses his disgust and discontent at his father's behaviour, as if the kindness shewn to his brother was an injury done to himself; who, he conceives, had deserved so much better at his father's hands. This character properly belonged to the Pharisees, and is applicable to all who are influenced by the same spirit of pride and self-righteousness. They are in the field of this world, in a state of unregeneracy; the slaves of earth, minding worldly things. They draw nigh to the house, the church of God, in profession, but never enter it by a spiritual union with the head of the church, Christ Jesus. They hear the music and dancing, the sweet sound of the great and precious promises, which makes the hearts of the miserable and guilty dance for joy; and, strangers to this divine consolation themselves, they are vexed that any others should partake of it, and angry that those should be admitted to the enjoyment of all the riches of grace who have behaved so profligately, and be put on a level with themselves who have, as they conceit, deserved so well at God's hands. They will not go in, not submitting to the righteousness of God which is by faith in Christ Jesus, nor content to receive the salvation of God freely, as lost or undone as much as the vilest of mankind. In vain the Lord, by the ministry of the word, remonstrates with them on their perverseness, and urges upon them the necessity of a new birth unto righteousness. They vaunt their own meritorious services, and in their own conceit fancy they never transgressed at any time the commandments, and therefore have a claim to the divine favour. They cannot regard publicans as their brethren; but think the kindness of God to perishing sinners is injustice to them, and unbecoming him; and that these, instead of being received into his arms, should smart under his rod; and at farthest only be received into a lower place, after having done long penance for their offences.
Some suppose that the elder brother represents a gracious man, who, having himself escaped from the grosser pollutions that are in the world, is in danger of entertaining high thoughts of himself, and too little compassion towards such as have more grossly offended. To avoid which, we should learn, (1.) To entertain the lowest thoughts of ourselves, and especially to watch against spiritual pride. (2.) Never to complain of God as unjust to us, but acknowledge ourselves unworthy of the least of all his mercies. (3.) Not to harbour unkindness against, and treat with unjust severity, those who may have dishonoured their profession by their unfaithfulness, but to be happy to give them again the right hand of fellowship, whenever they return to God. (4.) To rejoice in the gifts and graces of those saints who have been most eminent sinners, and not to envy them their mercies, though they may now far outshine and eclipse ourselves.
5. The father silences and rebukes the unreasonable murmurs of the elder brother: Son, thou art ever with me; the scribes and Pharisees, or the Jewish people, enjoyed peculiar privileges, the ordinances of worship, and the special presence of God in the midst of them; and all that I have is thine, if by their unbelief they did not cut themselves off, the mercy shewn to Gentiles, to the chief of sinners, would prove no diminution of the favours which they should enjoy. 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 conversion of the Gentiles and other notorious sinners, dead in trespasses and sins, and ready to perish for ever, so far from being a ground of discontent, should be to all matter of rejoicing. Note; (1.) The abounding grace of God is never exhausted by the myriads who partake of it: the happiness of others is no diminution of our own, but rather should increase our delight. (2.) Whatever God does, is well done; every murmur must be silenced before him; and in all the dispensations of his providence and grace, he is ever to be acknowledged as righteous, just, and good.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Luke 15". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24