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Bible Commentaries
Luke 15

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-32

Chapter 21


IN this chapter we see how the waves of influence, moving outward from their Divine center, touch the outermost fringe of humanity, sending the pulsations of new excitements and new hopes through classes Religion and Society both had banned. "Now all the publicans and sinners were drawing near unto Him, for to hear Him."

It was evidently a movement widespread and deep. The hostility of Pharisees and scribes would naturally give to these outcasts a certain bias in His favor, causing their hearts to lean towards Him, while His words of hope fell upon their lives like the breaking of a new dawn. Nor did Jesus forbid their approach. Instead of looking upon it as an intrusion, an impertinence, the attraction was mutual. Instead of receiving them with a cold and scant courtesy, He welcomed them, receiving them gladly, as the verb of the Pharisees’ murmur implies. He even mingled with them in social intercourse, with an acceptance, if not an interchange, of hospitality. To the Pharasaic mind, however, this was a flagrant lapse, a breach of the proprieties which was unpardonable and half criminal, and they gave vent to their disapprobation and disgust in the loud and scornful murmur, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." It is from this hard sentence of withering contempt, as from a prickly and bitter calyx, we have the trifoliate parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Man, the last of which is perhaps the crown and flower of all the parables. With minor differences, the three parables are really one, emphasizing, as they reiterate, the one truth how Heaven seeks after the lost of earth, and how it rejoices when the lost is found.

The first parable is pastoral: "What man of you," asks Jesus, using the Tu quoque retort, "having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?" It is one of those questions which only need to be asked to be answered, an interrogative which is axiomatic and self-evident. Jesus tries to set his detractors in His place, that they may think His thoughts, feel His feelings, as they look out on the world from His standpoint; but since they cannot follow Him to these redemptive heights, He comes down to the lower level of their vision. "Suppose you have a hundred sheep, and one of them, getting separated from the rest, goes astray, what do you do? Dismissing it from your thought, do you leave it to its fate, the certain slaughter that awaits it from the wild beasts? or do you seek to minimize your loss, working it out by the rule of proportion as you ask, ‘What is one to ninety-nine?’ then writing off the lost one, not as a unit, but as a common fraction? No; such a supposition is incredible and impossible. You would go in search of the lost directly. Turning your back upon the ninety and nine, and turning your thoughts from them too, you would leave them in their mountain pasture, as you sought the lost one. Calling it by its name, you would climb the terraced hills, and awake the echoes of the wadies, until the flinty heart of the mountain had felt the sympathy of your sorrow, repeating with you the lost wanderer’s name. And when at last you found it you would not chide or punish it; you would not even force it to retrace its steps across the weary distance, but taking compassion on its weakness, you would lift it upon your shoulders and bear it rejoicing home. Then forgetful of your own weariness, fatigue and anxiety swallowed up in the new-found joy, you would go round to your neighbors, to break the good news to them, and so all would rejoice together."

Such is the picture, warm in color and instinct with life, Jesus sketches in a few well-chosen words. He delicately conceals all reference to Himself; but even the chromatic vision of the Pharisees would plainly perceive how complete was its justification of His own conduct, in mingling thus with the erring and the lost; while to us the parable is but a veil of words, through which we discern the form and features of the "Good Shepherd," who gave even His life for the sheep, seeking that He might save that which was lost.

The second, which is a twin parable, is from domestic life. As in the parables of the kingdom, Jesus sets beside the man with the mustard seed the woman with her leaven, so here He makes the same distinction, clothing the Truth both in a masculine and a feminine dress. He asks again, "Or what woman" (He does not say "of you," for if women were present amongst His hearers they would be in the background) "having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth together her friends and neighbors, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost." Much objection has been taken to this parable for its supposed want of naturalness and reality. "Is it likely," our objectors say, "that the loss of a small coin like a drachma, whose value was about sevenpence-halfpenny, could be the occasion of so much concern, and that its recovery should be enough to call forth the congratulations of all the village matrons? Surely that is not parable, but hyperbole." But things have a real as well as an intrinsic value, and what to others would be common and cheap, to its possessor might be a treasure beyond reckoning, with all the added values of association and sentiment. So the ten drachmas of the woman might have a history; they might have been a family heirloom, moving quietly down the generations, with whole poems, aye, and even tragedies hidden within them. Or we can conceive of a poverty so dire and strait that even one small coin in the emergent circumstance might grow into a value far beyond its intrinsic worth. But the parable does not need all these suppositions to steady it and keep it from falling to the ground. When rightly understood it becomes singularly natural, the truth of truth, if such an essence can be distilled in human speech. The probable interpretation is that the ten drachmas were the ten coins worn as a frontlet by the women of the East. This frontlet was given by the bridegroom to the bride at the time of marriage, and like the ring of Western life, it was invested with a kind of sanctity. It must be worn on all public occasions, and guarded with a jealous, sacred care; for should one of its pieces be lost, it would be regarded as an indication that the possessor had not only been careless, but also that she had been unfaithful to her marriage vow. Throwing, then, this light of Eastern custom upon the parable, how vivid and lifelike it becomes! With what intense eagerness would she seek for the missing coin! Lighting her lamp-for the house would be but dimly lighted with its open door and its small unglazed window-how carefully and almost tremblingly she would peer along its shelves, and sweep out the corners of her few rooms! And how great would be her joy as she saw it glistening in the dust! Her whole soul would go out after it, as if it were a living, sentient thing. She would clasp it in her hand, and even press it to her lips; for has it not taken a heavy care and sorrow from her heart? That one coin rising from the dust has been to her like the rising of another sun, filling her home with light and her life with melody; and what wonder that she hastens to communicate her joy, as, standing by her door, after the eastern wont, she holds up the missing treasure, and calls on her neighbors and friends (the substantives are feminine now) to rejoice with her.

The third parable carries the thought still higher, forming the crown of the ascending series. Not only is there a mathematical progression, as the lost fraction increases from one-hundreth to one-tenth, and then to one-half of the whole, but the intrinsic value of the loss rises in a corresponding series. In the first it was a lost sheep, a loss which might soon be replaced, and which would soon be forgotten; in the second it was a lost coin, which, as we have seen, meant the loss of what was more valuable than gold, even honor and character; while in the third it is a lost child. We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son; it might with equal propriety be called the Parable of the Bereaved Father, for the whole story crystallizes about that name, repeating it, in one form or another, no less than twelve times.

"A certain man," so begins this parabolic "Paternoster," "had two sons." Tired of the restraints of home and the surveillance of the father’s eye, the younger of them determined to see the world for himself, in order, as the sequel shows, that he might have a free hand, and give loose reins to his passions. With a cold, impertinent bluntness, he says to the father, whose death he thus anticipates, "Father, give me the portion of thy substance that falleth to me," a command whose sharp, imperative tone shows but too plainly the proud, masterful spirit of the youth. He respects neither age nor law; for though the paternal estate could be divided during the father’s life, no son, much less the younger, had any right to demand it. The father grants the request, dividing "unto them," as it reads, "his living"; for the same line which marks off the portion of the younger marks out too that of the elder son, though he holds his portion as yet only in promise. Not many days after-for having found its wings, the foolish bird is in haste to fly-the youth gathers all together, and then takes his journey into a far country. The down grades of life are generally steep and short, and so one sentence is enough to describe this decensus Averni, down which the youth plunges so insanely: "He wasted his substance with riotous living," scattering it, as the verb means, throwing it away after low, illicit pleasures. "And when he had spent all"-the "all" he had scrambled for and gathered a short while before-"there arose a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want"; and so great were his straits, so remorseless the pangs of hunger, that he was glad to attach himself to a citizen of that country as swineherd, living out in the fields with his drove, like the swineherds of Gadara. But such was the pressure of the famine that his mere pittance could not cope with famine prices, and again and again he hungered to have his fill of the carob-pods, which were dealt out statedly and sparingly to the swine. But no man gave even these to him he was forgotten as one already dead.

Such is the picture Jesus draws of the lost man, a picture of abject misery and degradation. When the sheep wandered it strayed unwittingly, blindly, getting farther from its fellows and its fold even when bleating vainly for them. When the drachma was lost it did not lose itself, nor had it any consciousness that it had dropped out of its proper environment. But in the case of the lost man it was altogether different. Here it is a willful perversity, which breaks through the restraints of home, tramples upon its endearments, and throws up a blighted life, scarred and pealed amid the husks and swine of a far country. And it is this element of perversity, self-will, which explains, as indeed it necessitates, another marked difference in the parables. When the sheep and the drachma were lost there was an eager search, as the shepherd followed the wanderer over the mountain gullies, and the woman with broom and lamp went after the lost coin. But when the youth is lost, flinging himself away, the father does not follow him, except in thought, and love, and prayer. He sits "still in the house," nursing a bitter grief, and the work on the farm goes on just as usual, for the service of the younger brother would probably be not much missed. And why does not the father summon his servants, bidding them go after the lost child, bringing him home, if necessary, by force? Simply because such a finding would be no finding. They might indeed carry the wanderer home, setting down his feet by the familiar door; but of what use is that if his heart is still wayward and his will rebellious? Home would not be home to him and with his heart in the far country, he would walk even in his father’s fields and in his father’s house as an alien, a foreigner. And so all embassies, all messages would be in vain; and even a father’s love can do no more than wait, patiently and prayerfully, in hopes that a better spirit may yet come over him, and that some rebound of feeling may bring him home, a humbled penitent. The change comes at length, and the slow morning dawns.

When the photographer wishes to develop the picture that is hidden in the film of the sensitive plate he carries it to a darkened room, and bathed in the developing solution the latent image gradually appears, even to the minutest details. It was so here; for when in his extremest need, with the pinch of a fearful hunger upon him, and the felt darkness of a painful isolation surrounding him, there came into the prodigal’s soul a sweet picture of the far-away home, the home which might still have been his but for his wantonness, but which is his now only in memory. It is true his first thoughts of that home were not very lofty; they only crouched with the dogs under the father’s table, or hovered around the plentiful board of the servants, attracted by the "bread enough and to spare." But such is the natural association of ideas; the carob-pods of the swine naturally suggest the bread of the servants, while this in turn opens up all the chambers of the father’s house, reviving its half-faded images of happiness and love, and awaking all the sweet memories that sin had stifled and silenced. That it was so here, the lower leading up to the higher thought, is evident from the young man’s soliloquy: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight; I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants." The hunger for the servants’ bread is all forgotten now, swallowed up in the hunger of the soul, as it pines for the father’s presence and for the father’s smile, longing for the lost Eden. The very name "father" strikes with a strange music upon his awakened and penitent soul, making him for the time half-oblivious to his present wretchedness; and as Memory recalls a bright but vanished past, Hope peoples the dark sky with a heavenly host, who sing a new Advent, the dawn of a heavenly day. An Advent? Perhaps it was an Easter rather, with a "resurrection from earth to things above," an Easter whose anthem, in songs without end, was, "I will arise and go to my father," that Resurgam of a new and holier life.

No sooner is the "I will" spoken than there is a reversing of all the wheels. The hands follow whither the heart has gone; the feet shake off the dust of the far country, retracing the steps they measured so foolishly and lightly before; while the eyes, washed by their bitter tears-

"Not backward are their glances bent But onward to the Father’s house."

"And he arose and came to his father." He came to himself first; and having found that better self, he became conscious of the void he had not felt before. For the first time he realizes how much the father is to him, and how terrible the bereavement and loss he inflicted upon himself when be put between that father and himself the desert of an awful distance. And as the bright memories of other days flash up within his soul, like the converging rays of a borealis, they all turn towards and center in the father. Servants, home, and loaves of bread alike speak of him whose very shadow is brightness to the self-orphaned child. He yearns for the father’s presence with a strange and intense yearning; and could that presence be his again; even if he were nothing more than a servant, with but casual interviews, hearing his voice but in its commanding tones, he would be content and happy.

And so he comes and seeks the father; will the father-relent and receive him? Can he overlook and forgive the waywardness and wantonness which have embittered his old age? Can he receive him back even as a servant, a child who has scorned his authority, slighted his love, and squandered his substance in riotous living? Does the father say, "He has made his own bed, and he must lie upon it; he has had his portion, even to the swept-up crumbs, and there is nothing left for him now?" No, for there is something left, a treasure which he might scorn, indeed, but which he could not throw away, even a heritage of love. And what a picture the parable draws of the love that "hopeth and endureth all things! But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." As the moon in her revolutions lifts up the tides, drawing the deep oceans to herself, so do the unsounded depths of the father’s heart turn towards the prodigal whose life has set, dropping out of sight behind wildernesses of darkness. Thought, prayer, pity, compassion, love flow out towards the attraction they can no longer see. Nay, it seems as if the father’s vision were transfixed, riveted to the spot where the form of his erring lad vanished out of sight; for no sooner has the youth come within sight of the home than the father’s eyes, made telescopic with love, discern him, and as if by intuition, recognize him, even though his attire be mean and tattered, and his step has no longer the lightness of innocence nor the firmness of integrity. It is, it is his child, the erring but now repenting child, and the pent-up emotions of the father’s soul rush out as in a tumultuous freshet to meet him. He even "ran" to meet him, all forgetful of the dignity of years, and throwing himself upon his neck, he kissed him, not either with the cold kiss of courtesy, but with the warm, fervent kiss of love, as the intensive prefix of the verb implies. So far this scene of reconciliation has been as a dumb show. The storm of emotion so interrupted the electric flow of quiet thought and speech that no word was spoken in the mutual embrace. When, however, the power of speech returns the youth is the first to break the silence. "Father," he said, repeating the words of his mental resolve when in the far country, "I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son." It is no longer the sense of physical need, but the deeper sense of guilt, that now presses upon his soul. The moral nature, which by the anodynes of sin had been thrown into a state of coma, awakes to a vivid consciousness, and in the new awakening, in the broadening light of the new dawn, he sees one thing only, and that is his sin, a sin which has thrown its blackness over the wasted years, which has embittered a father’s heart, and which cast its shadow even into heaven itself. Nor is it the conviction of sin only; there is a full and frank confession of it, with no attempt at palliation or excuse. He does not seek to gloss it over, but smiting his breast with bitter reproaches, he confesses his sin with "a humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart," hoping for the mercy and forgiveness he is conscious he does not deserve. Nor does he hope in vain.

Even before the confession is completed, the absolution is spoken, virtually at least; for without allowing the youth to finish his sentence, in which he offers to renounce his sonship and to accept a menial position, the father calls to the servants, "Bring forth quickly, the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and make merry." In this peal of imperatives we detect the rapid beating of the father’s heart, the loving, eager haste to wipe out all the sad marks that sin has left. In the luminous atmosphere of the father’s love the youth is no more the prodigal; he is as one transfigured; and now that the chrysalis has left the mire, and crept up into the sunlight, it must have a dress befitting its new summer life, wings of gauze, and robes of rainbow hues. The best, or "the first robe" as it is in the Greek, must be brought out for him; a signet-ring, the pledge of authority, must be put upon his hand; shoes, the badge of freedom, must be found for the tired and bared feet; while for the merry-making which is extemporized, the domestic festa which is the crown of these rejoicings, the fatted calf, which was in reserve for some high festival, must be killed. And all this is spoken in a breath, in a sort of bewilderment, the ecstasy of an excessive joy; and forgetting that the simple command is enough for servants, the master must needs tell out his joy to them: "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."

If the three parables were all through coincident, the Parable of the Prodigal Son should close at this point, the curtain dropping over the festive scene, where songs, and music, and the rhythm of the dance are the outward and weak expressions of the father’s joy over the son who comes back from the far country, as one alive from the dead. But Jesus has another purpose; He must not only plead the cause of the outcast and the low, setting open for them the door of mercy and of hope; He must also rebuke and silence the unreasoning murmur of the Pharisees and scribes-which He does in the picture of the Elder Brother. Coming from the field, the heir is surprised to find the whole house given up to an impromptu feast. He hears the sounds of merriment and music, but its strains fall strange and harsh upon his ear. What can it mean? Why was he not consulted? Why should his father thus take occasion of his absence in the fields to invite his friends and neighbors? The proud spirit chafes under the slight, and calling one of the servants, he asks what it all means. The answer is not reassuring, for it only perplexes and pains him the more: "thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound"-an answer which does but deepen his displeasure, turning his sullenness to anger. "And would not go in." They may end the feast, as they began it, without him. The festive joy is something foreign to his nature; it awakes but feelings of repulsion, and all its music is to him a grating discord, a "Miserere."

But let us not be too severe upon the elder brother. He was not perfect, by any means, but in any appraisement of his character there are certain veinings of worth and nobleness that must not be omitted. We have already seen how, in the division of the father’s goods, when he divided unto them his living, while the younger took away his portion, and swiftly scattered it in riotous living, the elder brother took no advantage of the deed of gift. He did not dispossess the father, securing for himself the paternal estate. He put it back into his father’s hands, content with the filial relation of dependence and obedience. The father’s word was still his law. He was the dutiful son; and when he said, "These many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine," the boast was no exaggeration, but the statement of a simple truth. Compared with the life of the prodigal, the life of the elder brother had been consistent, conscientious, and moral. Where, then, was his failure, his lack? It was just here, in the lack of heart, the absence of affection. He bore the name of a son, but he carried the heart of a servant. His nature was servile, rather than filial; and while his hands offered a service unremitting and precise, it was the cold service of an impassive mechanism. Instead of love passing out in living heart-throbs, suffusing all the life with its warmth, and clothing it in its own iridescent coloring, it was only a metallic mainspring called "duty." The father’s presence is not the delight to him; he does not once mention that tender name in which the repenting one finds such a heaven; and when he draws the picture of his highest happiness, the feast of his earthly Walhalla, "my friends" are there, though the father is excluded. And so between the father and the elder brother, with all this seeming nearness, there was a distance of reserve, and where the voices of affection and of constant communion should have been heard there was too often a vacancy of silence. It takes a heart to read a heart; and since this was wanting in the elder brother, he could not know the heart of the father; he could not understand his wild joy. He had no patience with his younger brother; and had he received him back at all, it would have been with a haughty stiffness, and with a lowering in his looks, which should have been at once a rebuke for the past and a warning for the future. The father looked on his son’s repentance; the elder brother did not regard the repentance at all; perhaps he had not heard of it, or perhaps he could not understand it; it was something that lay out of the plane of his consciousness. He saw the sin only, how the younger son had devoured his living with harlots; and so he was severe, exacting, bitter. He would have brought out the sackcloth, but nothing more; while as to the music and the fatted calf, they would appear to his loveless soul as an absurd anachronism.

But far removed as he is from the father’s spirit, he is still his son; and though the father rejoices more over the younger than over the elder, as was but natural, he loves them both with an equal love. He cannot bear that there should be any estrangement now; and he even leaves the festive throng, and the son he has welcomed and robed, and going out, he begs, he entreats the elder brother to pass in, and to throw himself into the general joy. And when the elder son complains that, with all his years of obedient, dutiful service, he has never had even a kid, much less a fatted calf, on which to feast his friends, the father says, lovingly, but chidingly, "Son" or "Child," rather, for it is a term of greater endearment than the "son" he had just used before-"thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found." He plays upon the "child" as upon a harp, that he may drive away the evil spirits of jealousy and anger, and that even within the servant-heart he may awake some chords, if only the far-off echoes of a lost childhood. He reminds him how vastly different their two positions are. For him there has been no break in their intercourse; the father’s house has been his home; he has had the free range of all: to the younger that home has been nothing but a distant memory, with a waste of dreary years between. He has been heir and lord of all; and so completely have father and son been identified, their separate personalities merged the one in the other, that the possessive pronouns, the "mine" and the "thine," are used interchangeably. The younger returns penniless, disinherited by his own misdeed. Nay, he has been as one dead; for what was the far country but a vault of slimy things, the sepulcher of a dead soul? "And should we not make merry and be glad, when thy brother" (it is the antithesis to "thy son" of ver. 30 {Luke 15:30}, a mutual "thy") "comes back to us as one raised from the dead?"

Whether the father’s pleading prevailed, or not, we are not told. We can but hope it did, and that the elder brother, with his asperities all dissolved, and his jealousies removed, did pass within to share the general joy, and to embrace a lost brother. Then he too would know the sweetness of forgiveness, and taught by the erring but now forgiven one, he too would learn to spell out more correctly that deep word "father," the word he had stammered at, and perhaps misspelt before, as the fatherhood and the brotherhood became to him not ideas merely, but bright realities.

Gathering up now the lessons of the parables, they show us

(1) the Divine grief over sin. In the first two this is the prominent thought, the sorrow of the loser. God is represented as losing that which is of worth to Him, something serviceable, and therefore valuable. In the third parable the same idea is suggested rather than stated; but the thought is carried farther, for now it is more than a loss, it is a bereavement the father suffers. The retreating form of the wanderer throws back its shadow across the father’s home and heart, a shadow that congeals and stays, and that is darker than the shadow of Death itself. It is the Divine Grief, whose depths we cannot sound, and from whose mystery we must stand back, not one stone’s cast, but many.

The parables show

(2) the sad state of the sinner. In the case of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin we see his perfect helplessness to recover himself, and that he must remain lost, unless One higher than himself undertakes his cause, and "help is laid upon One that is mighty." It is the third parable, however, which especially emphasizes the downward course of sin and the deepening wretchedness of the sinner. The flowery path leads on to a valley of desolation. The way of transgressors is ever a downward path; and let an evil spirit possess a soul, it hurries him directly down the steep place, where, unless the flight be checked, a certain destruction awaits him. Sin degrades and isolates. Want, sorrow, penury, and pain are but a part of its viperous brood, and he who plays with sin, calling it freedom, will find his rod blossom with bitter fruit, or he will see it grow into a serpent with poison in its fangs.

The parables show

(3) God’s willingness and eagerness to save. The long and eager search after the lost sheep and the lost corn show, though but imperfectly, the supreme efforts God makes for man’s salvation. He is not left to wander unrebuked and unsought. There is no forbidden path along which men insanely rush, but some bright angel stands beside it, warning back the sinner, it may be with a drawn sword, some "terror of the Lord," or it may be with a cross, the sacrifice of an infinite love. Though He could send His armies to destroy, He sends His messengers to win us back to obedience and to love-Conscience, Memory, Reason, the Word, the Spirit, and even the well-beloved Son. Nor is the great search discontinued, until it has proved to be in vain.

The parables show

(4) the eager interest Heaven takes in man’s salvation, and the deep joy there is among the angels over his repentance and recovery. And so the three parables close with a "Jubilate." The shepherd rejoices over his recovered sheep more than over the ninety and nine which went not astray; the woman rejoices over the one coin found more than over the nine which were not lost. And this is perfectly natural. The joy of acquisition is more than the joy of possession; and as the crest of the waves is thrown up above the mean sea-level by the alternate depths of depression. so the very sorrow and grief over the loss and bereavement, now that the lost is found and the dead is alive, throw up the emotions beyond their mean level, up to the summits of an exuberant joy. And whether Jesus meant, by the ninety and nine just persons who needed no repentance, the unfallen intelligences of heaven, or whether, as Godet thinks, He referred to those who under the Old Covenant were sincere doers of the Law, and who found their righteousness therein, {Deuteronomy 6:25} it is still true, and a truth stamped with a Divine "Verily," that more than the joy of Heaven over these is its joy over the sinner that repented, the dead who now was alive, and the lost who now was found!

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Luke 15". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/luke-15.html.
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