The Lord speaks his three parable-stories of the "lost," in which he explains his reason for loving and receiving the sinful.
Luke 15:1, Luke 15:2
Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them; more accurately rendered, there were drawing near to him. This was now, in the last stage of the final journey, the usual state of things. The great outside- class came in crowds to listen to Jesus. These were men and women who, through home and family associations, through their occupations, which were looked upon with disfavour by the more rigid Jews, often no doubt through their own careless, indifferent character, had little or nothing to do with their religious and orthodox countrymen. Poor wanderers, sinners, thoughtless ones, no one cared for them, their present or their future. Do not these in every age make up the majority? The religious, so often Pharisees in heart, despising them, refusing to make allowances for them, looking on them as hopelessly lost ones. But at no time was this state of things so accentuated as when Jesus lived among men. Now, among such care. less irreligious men and women, are man whose hearts are very tender, very listen if the teacher of religion has Mud, wise words for them. The grave and severe, yet intensely pitiful and loving, doctrines of the Galilaean Master found such. His words were words of stern rebuke, and yet were full of hope, even for the hopeless. No man had ever spoken to them like this Man. Hence the crowds of publicans and sinners who were now ever pressing round the Master. But the teachers of Israel, the priestly order, the learned and rigid scribes, the honoured doctors Of the holy Law,—these were indignant, and on first thoughts not without reason, at the apparent preference felt for and special tenderness shown by Jesus to this great outside class of sinners. The three parables of this fifteenth chapter were the apologia of the Galilaean Master to orthodox Israel, but they appeal to an audience far greater than any enclosed in the coasts of the Holy Land, or living in that restless age,
And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness? Now, there are two leading ideas in the three stories—one on the side of the Speaker; one on the side of those to whom the parable-stories were spoken.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. And here the shepherd craves for sympathy from his fellows; he would have others share in his joy in finding the perishing, suffering sheep. This sympathy with his effort to win the lost the Galilaean Master had looked for among the rulers and teachers of Israel in vain. Now, sympathy, it must be remembered, is not merely sentiment or courtesy. True sympathy with a cause means working in good earnest for the cause. This, however, the ruling spirits in Israel, in every sect, coldly refused. They not only declined their sympathy with the acts of Jesus; they positively condemned his works, his efforts, his teaching.
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. "But," the Master went on to say, "what I looked for in vain on earth, see, I have found in heaven. What men coldly refused me, the celestials have joyfully given. These understand me. They love both me and my work, do the holy angels." This coldness, even opposition, on the part of the Pharisees and the religious men of Israel to himself and his works, to his teachings of mercy and love, seems certainly to be the reason why Jesus emphasizes, both here and in the next parable, the sympathy which he receives, not on earth from men, but in heaven from beings, inhabitants of another world. Men, have, however, asked—Why do these heavenly beings rejoice over the one more than over the ninety and nine? It is utterly insufficient to say that this joy is occasioned by the getting back something that was lost. Such a feeling is conceivable among men, though even here it would be an exaggerated sentiment, but in heaven, among the immortals, no such feeling could exist; it partakes too much of the sentimental, almost of the hysterical. This higher joy must be due to another cause. Now, the shepherd, when he found the wanderer, did not bring it back to the old fold, or replace it with the rest of the flock, but apparently (Luke 15:6) brought it to his own home. This would seem to indicate that sinners whom Jesus has come to save, and whom he has saved, are placed in a better position than that from which they originally wandered. This gives us the clue to the angels' joy over the "found one" more than over those who were safe in the old ibid. The Talmudists have taught—and their teaching, no doubt, is but the reflection of what was taught in the great rabbinical schools of Jerusalem before its ruin—that a man who had been guilty of many sins might, by repentance, raise himself to a higher degree of virtue than the perfectly righteous man who had never experienced his temptations. If this were so, well argues Professor Bruce, "surely it was reasonable to occupy one's self in endeavouring to get sinners to start on this noble career of self-elevation, and to rejoice when in any instance he had succeeded. But it is one thing to have correct theories, and another to put them into practice … So they found fault with One (Jesus) who not only held this view as an abstract doctrine, but acted on it, and sought to bring those who had strayed furthest from the paths of righteousness to repentance, believing that, though last, they might yet be first."
Either what woman having' ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? Another and very homely picture is painted in this parable. This time the chief figure is a woman, a dweller in a poor Syrian village, to whom the loss of a coin of small value out of her little store is a serious matter. In the story of the lost sheep the point of the parable turns upon the suffering and the sin of man, under the image of a lost sheep searched for and restored by the Divine pity. Here, in the second parable-story, the ruined soul is represented as a lost coin, and we learn from it that God positively misses each lost soul, and longs for its restoration to its true sphere and place in the heaven life and work for which it was created. In other words, in the first parable the lost soul is viewed from man's standpoint; in the second, from God's. If, then, a soul be missed, the result will be, not only missing for itself, but something lost for God.
Luke 15:9, Luke 15:10
And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. Again, as in the parable of the lost sheep, we find this longing for sympathy; again the finding of this sympathy in heavenly places, among heavenly beings, is especially recorded. There is a slight difference in the language of rejoicing here. In the first parable it was, "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost;" here, "...for I have found the piece which I had lost." In the first it was the anguish of the sheep which was the central point of the story; in the second it was the distress of the woman who had lost something; hence this difference in the wording. "What grandeur belongs to the picture of this humble rejoicing which this poor woman celebrates with her neighbours, when it becomes the transparency through which we get a glimpse of God himself, rejoicing with his elect and his angels over the salvation of a single sinner!" (Godet).
And he said, A certain man had two sons. It seems probable that this and the two preceding shorter parables were spoken by the Lord on the same occasion, towards the latter part of this slow solemn journeying to the holy city to keep his last Passover. The mention of the publicans and sinners in Luke 15:1 seems to point to some considerable city, or its immediate vicinity, as the place where these famous parables were spoken. This parable, as it is termed, of the prodigal sou completes the trilogy. Without it the Master's formal apologia for his life and work would be incomplete, and the rebuke of the Pharisaic selfishness and censoriousness would have been left unfinished. In the apologia much had still to be said concerning the limitless love and the boundless pity of God. In the rebuke the two first parables had shown the Pharisee party and the rulers of Israel how they ought to have acted: this third story shows them how they did act. But the Church of Christ—as each successive generation read this exquisite and true story—soon lost sight of all the temporal and national signification at first connected with it. The dweller in the cold and misty North feels that it belongs to him as it does to the Syrian, revelling in his almost perpetual summer, to whom it was first spoken. It is a story of the nineteenth century just as it was a story of the first. We may, with all reverence, think of the Divine Master, as he unfolded each successive scene which portrayed human sin and suffering, and heavenly pity and forgiveness, man's selfish pride and God's all-embracing love, passing into another and broader sphere than that bounded by the Arabian deserts to the south and the Syrian mountains to the north, forgetting for a moment the little Church of the Hebrews, and speaking to the great Church of the future—the Church of the world, to which, without doubt, this Catholic parable of the prodigal, in all its sublime beauty and exquisite pathos, with all its exhaustless wealth of comfort, belongs.
Luke 15:12, Luke 15:13
And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together. The subject of the story this time is not derived from humble life. The family pictured is evidently one belonging to the wealthy class. There was money to be distributed; there were estates to be cultivated; means existed to defray the cost of feasting on a large scale; mention, too, is made incidentally of costly clothing and even of gems. Like other of the Lord's parable-teachings, the framework of the story was most likely founded upon fact. The family of the father and the two sons no doubt had been personally known to the Galilaean Teacher. This imperious demand of the younger seems strange to us. Such a division, however, in the lifetime of the father was not uncommon in the East. So Abraham in his lifetime bestowed the main body of his possessions on Isaac, having previously allotted portions to his other sons. There was, however, no Jewish law which required any such bestowal of property in the parent's lifetime. It was a free gift on the part of the father. But to the young son it was a hapless boon.
"God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers;
And flings the thing we have asked in our face,
A gauntlet—with a gift in it."
(E. B. Browning.)
And took his journey into a far country. The youth, who probably in the Master's experience had suggested this part of the story, after receiving his share of money, started with unformed purposes of pleasure, perhaps of trade. The man, who was a Jew, left his home for one of the great world's marts, such as Carthage or Alexandria, Antioch or Rome. And there wasted his substance with riotous living. This is an extreme case. Few probably of the publicans and sinners whose hearts the Lord touched so deeply, and who are examples of the great class in every age to whom his gospel appeals so lovingly, had sinned so deeply as the young man of the story. Indecent haste to be free from the orderly quiet home-life, ingratitude, utter forgetfulness of all duty, the wildest profligacy,—these were the sins of the prodigal. It has been well remarked that the line runs out widely to embrace such a profligate, that every sinner may be encouraged to return to God and live. There is a grave reticence in sparing all details of the wicked life—a veil which the elder son with pitiless hand would snatch away (Luke 15:30).
And when he had spent all. True of many a soul in all times, but especially in that age of excessive luxury and splendour and of unbridled passions.
"On that hard Roman world, disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell."
There arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. The "mighty famine" may be understood to represent difficult times. Wax or political convulsions, so common in those days, may have speedily brought about the ruin of many like the prodigal of our story, and his comparatively small fortune would quickly have been swallowed up. Selfish evil-living, excesses of various kinds, had gained him no real friends, but had left him to meet the ruin of his fortune with enfeebled powers, homeless and friendless; hence the depth of the degradation in which we speedily find him. Not an unusual figure in the great world-drama, this of the younger son—the man who had sacrificed everything for selfish pleasure, and soon found he had absolutely nothing left but suffering. Very touchingly the greatest, perhaps, of our English poets writes of this awful soul-famine. In his case fortune and rank still remained to him, but everything that can really make life precious and beautiful had been wasted.
"My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the anguish, and the grief,
Are mine alone.
"The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze—
A funeral pile!"
And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country. "That citizen," says St. Bernard, quoted by Archbishop Trench, "I cannot understand as other than one of the malignant spirits, who in that they sin with an irremediable obstinacy, and have passed into a permanent disposition of malice and wickedness, are no longer guests and strangers, but citizens and abiders in the land of sin." This is a true picture of the state of such a lost soul, which in despair has yielded itself up to the evil one and his angels and their awful prompt-tugs and suggestions; but the heathen citizen is well represented by the ordinary sordid man of the world, who engages in any infamous calling, and in the carrying on of which he employs his poor degraded ruined brothers and sisters. To feed swine. What a shudder must have passed through the auditory when the Master reached this climax of the prodigal's degradation I For a young Israelite noble, delicately nurtured and trained in the worship of the chosen people, to be reduced to the position of a herdsman of those unclean creatures for which they entertained such a loathing and abhorrence that they would not even name them, but spoke of a pig as the other thing!
And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. So low was this poor lost man reduced, that in his bitter hunger he even came to long for the coarse but nutritious bean with which the herd was fed. These swine were of some value when fattened for the market; but he, the swineherd, was valueless—he might starve. The husks in question were the long bean-shaped pods of the carob tree (Caratonia siliqua), commonly used for fattening swine in Syria and Egypt. They contain a proportion of sugar. The very poorest of the population occasionally use them as food.
And when he came to himself. This tardy repentance in the famous parable has been the occasion of many a sneer from the world. Even satiety, even soul-hunger, did not bring the prodigal to penitence; nothing but absolute bodily suffering, cruel hunger, drove him to take the step which in the end saved him. There is no doubt it would have been far more noble on the young man's part if, in the midst of his downhill career, he had suddenly paused, and, with a mighty and continued effort of self-control, had turned to purity, to duty, and to God. Certainly this had been hereto conduct—a term no one would think of applying to anything belonging to the life of the younger son of our story. But though not heroic, is not the conduct of the prodigal just what is of daily occurrence in common life? The world may sneer; but is not such a repentance, after all, a blessed thing? It is a poor mean way, some would tell us, of creeping into heaven; but is it not better to enter into God's city even thus, with bowed head, than not at all? Is it not better to consecrate a few months, or perhaps years, of a wasted life to God's service, to noble generous deeds, to brave attempts to undo past mischief and neglect, than to go sinning on to the bitter end? There is something intensely sorrowful in this consecrating to the Master the end of a sin-worn life; but there is what is infinitely worse. What a deep well, too, of comfort has the Church-taught teacher here to draw from in his weary life-experiences! How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! Among the bitternesses of his present degradation, not the least was the memory of his happy childhood and boyhood in his old home.
"For a sorrow's crown of sorrows
Is remembering happier things."
The family of the prodigal, as we have already remarked, was certainly possessed of wealth, and was probably one of high rank. In the old home there was nothing wanting.
Luke 15:18, Luke 15:19
I will arise and go to my father … make me as one of thy hired servants. The repentance of the prodigal was real. It was no mere sentimental regret, no momentary flash of sorrow for a bad past. There was before him a long and weary journey to be undertaken, and he—brought up in luxury—had to face it without means. There was the shame of confession before dependents and relatives and friends, and, as the crown of all, there was the position of a servant to be filled in the home where once he had been a son, for that was all he hoped to gain even from his father's pitying love.
And he arose, and came to his father. And so he came safe home; sad, suffering, ragged, destitute, but still safe. But, in spite of this, the parable gives scant encouragement indeed to sin, poor hope indeed to wanderers from the right way, like the hero of our story; for we feel that, though he escaped, yet many were left behind in that sad country. We dimly see many other figures in the picture., The employer of the prodigal was a citizen, but only one of many citizens. The prodigal himself was a servant—one, though, of a great crowd of others; and of all these unhappy dwellers in that land of sin, we only read of one coming out. Not an encouraging picture at best to any soul purposing deliberately to adventure into that country, with the idea of enjoying the pleasant licence of sin for a season and there coming home again. Such a home-coming is, of course, possible—the beautiful story of Jesus tells us this; but, alas I how many stay behind! how few come out thence! But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. But although many who wander never escape from that sad country, it is not because they would be unwelcomed should they choose to return. The whole imagery of this part of the parable tells us how gladly the eternal Father welcomes the sorrowful penitent. The father does not wait for the poor wanderer, but, as though he had been watching for him, sights him afar off, and at once takes compassion, and even hastens to meet him, and all is forgiven.
Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Many, though not all, of the older authorities add here (apparently taking them from Luke 15:19) the words, "make me as one of thy hired (servants)." The selfsame words of store original resolution are repeated. They had been stamped deep into the sad heart which so intensely desired a return to the old quiet, pure home-life; but now in his father's presence he feels all is forgiven and forgotten, therefore he no longer asks to be made as one of the servants. He feels that great love will be satisfied with nothing less than restoring him, the erring one, to all the glories and happiness of the old life.
But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. The older authorities add "quickly" after the words "bring forth." Everything is done by the father to assure the wanderer of full and entire forgiveness. Not only is a welcome given to the tired, ragged son, but he is invested at once, with all speed, with the insignia of his old rank as one of the house. But it is observable not a word is spoken of reply to the confession; in grave and solemn silence the story of the guilty past is received. Nothing can excuse it. He forgives, but forgives in silence.
Luke 15:23, Luke 15:24
And bring hither the fatted calf. There was a custom in the large Palestinian farms that always a calf should be fattening ready for festal occasions. And let us eat … And they began to be merry. Who are intended by these plurals, us and they? We must not forget that the parable-story under the mortal imagery is telling of heavenly as well as of earthly things. The sharers in their joy over the lost, the servants of the prodigal's father on earth, are doubtless the angels of whom we hear (Luke 15:7, Luke 15:10), in the two former parables of the lost sheep and of the lost drachma, as rejoicing over the recovery of a lost soul.
Now his elder son was in the field. The broad universal interest of the parable here ceases. Whereas the story of the sin and the punishment, the repentance and the restoration, of the prodigal belongs to the Church of the wide world, and has its special message of warning and comfort for thousands and thousands of world. workers in every age, this division of the story, which tells of the sour discontent of the prodigal's elder brother, was spoken especially to the Pharisees and rulers of the Jews, who were bitterly incensed with Jesus being the Friend of publicans and sinners. They could not bear the thought of sharing the joys of the world to come with men whom they had despised as hopeless sinners here. This second chapter of the great parable has its practical lessons for every day common life; but its chief interest lay in the striking picture which it drew of that powerful class to whom the teaching of Jesus, in its broad and massive character, was utterly repulsive. Now, while the events just related were taking place, and the lost younger son was being received again into his father's heart and home, the elder, a hard and selfish man, stern, and yet careful of his duties as far as his narrow mind grasped them, was in the field at his work. The rejoicing in the house over the prodigal's return evidently took him by surprise. If he ever thought of that poor wandering brother of his at all, he pictured him to himself as a hopelessly lost and ruined soul. The Pharisees and rulers could not fail at once to catch the drift of the Master's parable. They too, when the Lord came and gathered in that great harvest of sinners, those firstfruits of his mighty work—they too were "in the field" at work with their tithings and observances, making hedge after hedge round the old sacred Hebrew Law, uselessly fretting their lives away in a dull round of meaningless ritual observances. They—the Pharisee party—when they became aware of the great crowds of men, whom they looked on as lost sinners, listening to the new famous Teacher, who was showing them how men who had lived their lives too could win eternal life—they, the Pharisees, flamed out with bitter wrath against the bold and daring Preacher of glad tidings to such a worthless crew. In the vivid parable-story these indignant Pharisees and rulers saw themselves clearly imaged.
Therefore came his father out, and entreated him. The disapprobation of Jesus for Pharisee opinions was very marked, yet here and elsewhere his treatment of them, with a few exceptional cases, was generally very gentle and loving. There was something in their excessive devotion to the letter of the Divine Law, to the holy temple, to the proud traditions of their race, that was admirable. It was a love to God, but a love all marred and blurred. It was a patriotism, but a patriotism utterly mistaken. The elder brother here was a representative of the great and famous sect, both in its fair and repulsive aspect, in its moral severity and correctness, in its harshness and exclusive pride. The father condescended to entreat this angry elder son; and Jesus longed to win these proud mistaken Pharisees.
Lo, these many years do I serve thee. Bengel quaintly comments here, "Serous erat." This was the true nature of this later Jewish service of the Eternal. To them the eternal God was simply a Master. They were slaves who had a hard and difficult task to perform, and for which they looked for a definite payment. Neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment. We have here reproduced the spirit, almost the very words, of the well-known answer of the young man in the gospel story, who was no doubt a promising scion of the Pharisee party: "All these things have I kept from my youth up." The same thought was in the mind, too, of him who thus prayed in the temple: "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are," etc. (Luke 18:11, Luke 18:12). Yet thou never gavest me a kid … All that I have is thine. Thy brother has the shoes, the ring, the robe, the banquet; thou the inheritance, for all that I have is thine. Why grudge to thy brother an hour of the gladness which has been thine these many years? As soon as this thy son was come,… For this thy brother was dead. The angry elder son will not even acknowledge the prodigal as his brother; with bitter scorn and some disrespect he speaks of him to his father as "thy son." The father throughout the scene is never incensed. He pleads rather than reproaches, and to this insolence he simply retorts, "Thy brother was dead to us, but now—It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad." What was the end of this strange scene? The last words, breathing forgiveness and joy, leave a sweet sense of hope upon the reader that all would yet be well in that divided household, and that the brothers, friends again, would clasp hands before the loving father's eyes. But when Jesus told the parable to the crowds, the story was not yet played out. It depended on the Pharisees and rulers how the scene was to end. What happened at Jerusalem a few weeks later, when the Passion-drama was acted, and some forty years later, when the city was sacked, tells us something of what subsequently happened to the elder son of the Lord's parable. But the end has yet to come. We shall yet see the brothers, Jew and Gentile, clasp hands in loving friendship before the father, when the long-lost elder son comes home. There will be joy then indeed in the presence of the angels of God.
The parable of the prodigal son.
This parable is at once a history, a poem, and a prophecy, A history of man in innocence, in sin, in redemption, in glory. A poem—the song of salvation, whose refrain, "My son was dead, and is alive again, was lost, and is found," is ringing through the courts of the Zion of God. A prophecy, speaking most directly and solemnly, in warning and meditation, emphasis of reproof or of encouragement, to each of us. It is beyond the reach of the scalpel of criticism. Its thoughts, its very words, have enriched every speech and language in which its voice has been heard. It stands before us "the pearl of parables," "the gospel in the gospel" of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is the last of three stories, illustrative of Divine grace, which were spoken especially to the Pharisees, and to them with reference to their cavil as expressed in Luke 15:2. Without minutely analyzing the three, the progress of the teaching may be indicated. Bengel has, with his usual felicitousness of touch, indicated this progress. The silly sheep represents the sinner in his foolishness. The sinner lying in the dust, yet still with the stamp of Divinity on him, is figured by the piece of money. Finally, the younger of the two sons is the representation of the sinner left to the freedom of his own will, and falling into an estate of sin and misery. We can trace, too, a progress in the setting forth of the Divine love. The journey of the shepherd into the far wilderness speaks to us of the infinite compassion of highest God; for the sheep's own sake he goes after it until he finds it; and the recovery is the occasion of the joy of heaven. The aspect specially illustrated by the search for the piece of silver is the infinite value to God of every soul. Not one will he lose; for his righteousness' sake he will seek until he finds. The last of the parables combines the two former, with a glory superadded: Infinite Compassion recognizing the infinite preciousness of the human life, but this, now, in the higher region of Fatherhood and sonship. Let us discard all stiffening exposition of Christ's words; e.g. that which takes as its key-thought that the younger son is the Gentile world, the elder son the Jewish Church. Let us regard it in the width of its generosity, as the picture of him whose love is reflected in the "Man who receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." The two words of the parable are "lost" and "found," Let us try to open up the wealth of meaning in them.
1. Whence? There is a glimpse into the sweet home-life—the father with the two sons. The joy of the father's home is the communion of his children. It was what he saw in the Father which moved the prayer of Jesus, "That they whom thou gavest me may be with me where I am." The joy of the child's home is the communion of the Father, and is realized when the Father's life—not the Father's living—is the desire, and the word of the psalm is fulfilled, "In thy presence is fulness of joy, and in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore." So we think of the days speeding on-musical, blessed days, such as we recollect, perhaps, in the home of our childhood, when, as we look back, the sun seemed to shine far more brightly than now, and the day was longer, and all was peace. Parents and children together! For it is man's home to abide with God as Father. By-and-by there comes the far country, because there is no Father.
2. How? The younger son demands the portion of goods that falleth to him. Mark how the tone has lowered, how the eye has drooped. "Father, give me!" is the cry of the filial heart. "Give me my daily bread!" is a true prayer, because it waits on God; it sees the living in the life which he gives. But "my portion of goods" is the voice of a sinful independence. It separates "what is mine" from what is "my Father's;" it conceives of his as being, by some right or title, mine. Himself, as the good, is no longer the all. This is the serpent's lie. "Ye shall not surely die, for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Such was the seductive whisper in the beginning. As if
3. Whither? Not at once, possibly, does the separation in will show itself. It is not always easy to trace the first moment of the apostasy. Many a one continues, for a time, in the semblance of piety, even after he has ceased to desire spiritual things But "not many days after" the rift in the lute appears, "He gathers all together. Now the purpose of the will is active; no advice will stand in the man's path. The father's tear, the father's smile, avails not; not the sight of the old roof-tree, or the remembrance of the sweet life that lies behind. There is an eager "farewell;" he rushes forward—Whither? "To a far country." Yes; yield to appetite, to fleshly lust, it will take the soul on and on, away from the fences of religion, away to the far-off Nod, bidding it, as Cain did, build there the city of habitation, yet bidding only to mock, since he who would put miles between him and the face of his Father in heaven must be a sorry fugitive and vagabond. "A far country!" That is wherever God is forgotten, is dishonoured as the Father. No ship is needed to bear one to the uttermost parts of the earth; the distance is measured not by oceans or continents, but by tracts of affection and sympathy. "Alienated from the life of God "—this is the far country. Observe the two stages of the existence in the far country—the fulness and the famine.
"Such is the world's gay garish feast
In her first charming bowl,
Infusing all that fires the breast,
And cheats th' unstable soul."
But—what? "The substance is wasting;" literally, is "scattering abroad;" for so it is. As has well been said," All creaturely possession consumes itself in the using; all wealth must turn itself into poverty, either by its actual dissipation or in consequence of the folly of covetousness, which the more mammon increases is the less satisfied by it. Thus man, in his sin, consumes first of all his earthly goods, so that he can no more find comfort or satisfaction in them; and then, alas! the true and real possessions which his heavenly Father communicated to him are also consumed." What a description of substance scattered (Proverbs 5:7-14)!
"The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze—
A funeral pile"
Alas! the pleasure has died out; the soul, the immortal self, not yet dead, is in want in a famine-stricken land, How is this want to be met?
4. Wherein? It is an evil and bitter thing to forsake the Lord. The son's own wickedness is correcting him, and his backslidings are reproving him. In want, but not yet in poverty blessed with desire. Here is the witness. Hitherto the son has been the son, wicked, reckless, but still not naturalized in that far country. The day of this separation has passed; and, oh! the double degradation! "He joins himself"—"pins himself" is the word—becomes wholly, abjectly dependent on, "a citizen of that country." He began by being his own master; he ends by being the slave of the citizen. The world uses for its pleasure the one who uses the world for his pleasure. A man's passion is his minister for a time; by-and-by it becomes his tyrant. A very hard tyrant! The devil has no respect for the freedom of the will: "I was your companion, your Mephistopheles, your slave. Now I have you, you are mine; get out and feed these swine." It was an employment which conveyed the idea of utter wretchedness to a Jew. Strong, thickly laid, is the colouring; it is not one whit too strong or too thickly laid for fact. How do we behold this prince, this son of the Father? Toiling in the fields, with no shelter except the rude hut which he makes, and his only companions—the herd of swine! And all the while the hunger gnawing! Were not these swine, wallowing in the mire, picking the carobs, eating the scanty grass, happy as compared with him? They got what they wanted; he provided their food for them, but there is none to give him. He had rejected his father's hand, and there is no hand in all the world outstretched to him. In Oriental lands there grows a tree whose fruit is like the bean-pod, though larger than it, with a dull, sweet taste; the swine would take of it; and the longing eye of the swineherd is cast on it. It is all he can get, for there is no food in that far country suited to him. The soul starves, whether in riotous living or in want, until it looks upwards and learns the old home-cry, "Father, give me!"
II. FOUND. Consider the return, the welcome, the supper. "It is meet," says the father, "that we should make merry and be glad."
1. Mark the steps oft he return. The hopeful feature about the poor swineherd is that, although pinned to the citizen of the country, he is yet a person distinct. He has sold himself; but himself is more then, other than, the citizen. There is an inalienable nobility which even "riotous living" cannot stamp out. There are "obstinate questionings, "blank misgivings," "fugitive recollections of the imperial palace whence he came." Ponder the record of the finding of the conscience, and the Litany first, and the Jubilate afterwards, which followed the finding. "He comes to himself." He has never been the right true self from the moment when he demanded the portion. The right self is sonship. This wallowing in the sty with swine, this bound-overness to tyrant appetite and earthliness ah! as one awaking from a horrid dream he recognizes the reality. And wherein does the conscience, now awakened, become articulate?
2. And now for the welcome. The love that descends is always greater than the love that ascends. The love of the child is only a response to the love of the parent. And as to this father! Most touchingly explicit is the word of Jesus. "When yet a great way off, the father saw him." A very great way off! Even in the far country he had been near. The seeing expresses the knowing all about the misery, and the earnestness of the return—a seeing that is a drawing also, a drawing through the need, and all along the journey forming an atmosphere of love that compassed him about. To come to the love of God is to realize that he was first; it is to find that which found us when yet a great way apart. What more? A reproach? A reproof? The arms are at once thrown around the neck, and the kiss of reconciling fatherliness is printed on the cheek. The forgiveness, observe, comes before all confession. In confessing the sin we meet the blessing that has already covered us, But there is a confession. "The truest and best repentance," as it has been said, "follows, and does not precede, the sense of forgiveness; and thus too, repentance will be a thing of the whole life long, for every new insight into that forgiving love is as a new reason why the sinner should mourn that he ever sinned against it." Only, note, beneath the pressure of that fatherly heart there is no mention of the hired servant's place. The "Father, I have sinned," is sobbed forth on the father's heart, and the son leaves himself to the father's will. And how the expression of the welcome rises! The best robe is ordered out; a sonship higher than that of mere birth. "The adoption of children by Jesus Christ to the Father" is the best robe. And the ring is to be put on the hand—the ring with the seal of the spirit of adoption. And shoes are provided for the torn and weary feet, that henceforth they may walk up and down in the Name of the Lord. And hasten, complete the tokens of the rejoicing—make ready the supper in which the father can rejoice over his child with joy, and rest in his love.
3. The fulfilment of the welcome is the supper, with the slain fatted calf, and the dancing and music. It denotes the free festal joy of God, of heaven, in the found, repenting sinner. It denotes also the festal blessedness of the sinner himself when the great Object of all need and longing is found, when he is at home with his God. There is a representation of the supper in Romans 5:1-21. We hear the music and dancing in Romans 8:1-39. They express the truth of the new existence. There had been, in the past, a living, but not a fellowship, with the Father; henceforth it is fellowship: God is the soul's Good, and the life is lived in and out of him. Oh the swellings of harmony, of poetic triumphant raptures, now! "My son was dead; and is alive again; was lost, and is found." So much for the younger son and the father. But we must not overlook the elder son. And we must not misjudge him. He was not bad; he is not a mere churl. He is faithful, if he is not free; he is just, if he is not generous. He had never transgressed a command; if his life had no heights, it had no depths; it had been even and calm. And he had been blessed, for he had been ever with the father, and all that was the father's had been his. We need not fix on any particular representation of the elder son. The Pharisee-heart is, no doubt, castigated in the picture. But it touches many who would resent being associated with the Pharisee. Krum-macher was once asked his opinion of the elder son. He quietly said, "I well know now, for I learned it only yesterday." Being asked further, he laconically remarked, "Myself," and confessed that yesterday he had fretted his heart to find that a very ill-conditioned person had suddenly been enriched with a remarkable visitation of grace. The sketch supplies the foil to the love of God. It brings out, also, his patience and gentleness in the dealing with the elder son. How the father bears even with the foolish wrath! How he reasons and expostulates, and invites to a share in the joy! "Meet that we should make merry, and be glad—I over my son, thou over thy brother." Two things notice.
1. The one as bearing on the elder son. He comes out of the. fields, punctual and orderly in all his ways. He cannot understand the merry-making; he never had received a kid. That son's life had been a wholesome one, The prodigal had his ecstasies; but the elder son had had his lifetime. He is the man of habit—habit which is to us better than instinct. The danger to the man of habit is that he becomes mechanical, doing his part steadily, but without the oil of gladness.
2. The other as bearing on the younger son. Let not Christ's teaching be misapplied. Do not think that it is a higher thing to be first irreligious and then religious; to spend the best part of the life in self-gratification, and give God only the remnants. Ah! years of godlessness leave their record. They write their impression on brain and heart; and, free and full as is God's forgiveness, the impression cannot be obliterated. What a man sows, he reaps.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Luke 15:1, Luke 15:2
A bitter charge the highest tribute,
The great Teacher himself said that the things which are highly esteemed among men may be abomination in the sight of God; and we may safely assume that the converse of this proposition is true also. Certainly, in this bitter charge brought against our Lord we now perceive the very highest tribute which could be paid him.
I. A BITTER CHARGE AGAINST THE SAVIOUR. It is not easy for us to realize the intensity of the feeling here expressed. The Jews, arguing from the general truth that holiness shrinks from contact with guilt, supposed that the holier any man was, the more scrupulously would he avoid the sinner; and they concluded that the very last thing the holiest man of all would do was to have such fellowship with sinners as to "eat with them." Their patriotic hatred of the publican, and their moral repugnance toward "the sinner," filled them with astonishment as they saw him, who claimed to be the Messiah himself, taking up a positively friendly attitude toward both of these intolerable characters. Their error was, as error usually is, a perversion of the truth. They did not understand that the same Being who has the utmost aversion to sin can have and does have the tenderest yearning of heart toward the sinner; that he who utterly repels the one is mercifully pitying and patiently seeking and magnanimously winning the other. So the men of acknowledged piety and purity in the time of our Lord failed completely to understand him, and they brought against him the charge which might well prove fatal to his claims—that he was having a guilty fellowship with the outcast among men and the abandoned among women.
II. THE HIGHEST TRIBUTE TO THE SAVIOUR. In that attitude and action of his which seemed to his contemporaries to be so unworthy of him we find the very thing which constitutes his glory and his crown. Of course, association with sinners, on the basis of spiritual sympathy with them, is simply shameful; and to break up their association with the intemperate, the licentious, the dishonest, the scornful, is the first duty of those who have been their companions and have shared their wrong-doings, but whose eyes have been opened to see the wickedness of their course. It is for such to say, "Depart from me, ye evil-doers; for I will keel) the commandments of my God." But that is far from exhausting the whole truth of the subject. For Christ has taught us, by his life as well as and as much as by his Word, that to mingle with the sinful in order to succour and save them is the supreme act of goodness. When a man's character has been so well established that he can afford to do so without serious risk either to himself or to his reputation, and when, thus fortified, well armed with purity, he goes amongst the criminal and the vicious and the profane, that he may lilt them up from the miry places in which they are wandering, and place their feet on the rock of righteousness, then does he the very noblest, the divinest thing he can do. It was this very thing which Jesus Christ came to do: "He came to seek and to save that which was lost." It was this principle which he was continually illustrating; and nothing could more truly indicate the moral grandeur of his spirit or the beautiful beneficence of his life than the words by which it was sought to dishonour him: "This Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." It is this which will constitute the best tribute that can be paid to any of his disciples now. "There is nothing of which any true minister of Jesus Christ, whether professional or not, ought to be so glad and so proud, as to be such that the enemies of the Lord shall say tauntingly, while his friends will say thankfully, 'This man receiveth sinners.'"
III. THE GREATEST POSSIBLE ENCOURAGEMENT TO OURSELVES. There are men who know they are sinners, but care not; there are those who do not know that they are guilty in the sight of God; and there are others who do know and who do care. It is to these last that the Saviour of mankind is especially addressing himself. To them all he is offering Divine mercy; restoration to the favour, the service, and the likeness of God; everlasting life. On their ear there may fall these words, intended for a grave accusation, but constituting to the enlightened soul the most welcome tidings—"This Man receiveth sinners.'—C.
The parable of the lost sheep.
Of these three parables, illustrative of the grace of Christ shown to lost human souls, the first brings into view—
I. THE GREAT FOOLISHNESS OF THE WANDERING SOUL. It goes from God as a foolish sheep strays from the fold. So doing, it leaves security for peril. In the fold is safety; in the wilderness are many and serious dangers. At home with God the soul is perfectly safe from harm; its life, its liberty, its happiness, is secure; but, apart and astray from God, all these arc not only gravely imperilled, they are already forfeited. It also leaves plenty for want. In the fold is good pasture; in the wilderness is scarcity of food and water. With God is rich provision for the spirit's need, not only satisfying its wants, but ministering to its best and purest tastes; at a moral distance from him the spirit pines and withers. To go from God is an act of uttermost folly.
II. THE STRAITS TO WHICH IT IS REDUCED.
1. It is on the point of perishing. Without the interposition of the seeking Shepherd, it would inevitably perish.
2. It is reduced to such utter helplessness that it has to be carried home, "laid upon his shoulders."
(1) Under the dominion of sin the soul draws nearer and nearer to spiritual destruction; and
III. THE LOVE OF THE DIVINE SHEPHERD. The strong and keen interest taken by the human shepherd in a lost sheep is indicative of the tender interest which the Father of our spirits takes in a lost human soul. The former is more occupied in his thought and care with the one that is lost than he is, for the time, with the others that are safe; the latter is really and deeply concerned for the restoration of his lost child. And as the shepherd's sorrow leads him to go forth and search, so does the Father's tender care lead him to seek for his absent son. Christ's love for us is not general, it is particular; it reaches every one of us. He cares much that each one of the souls for whom he suffered should enjoy his true heritage, and when that is being lost he desires and he "seeks" to restore it.
IV. HIS PERSISTENCY IN SEEKING. "Until he find it." The shepherd, in pursuit of the lost sheep, is not detained by difficulty or danger; nor does he allow distance to stop his search; he goes on seeking until he finds. With such gracious persistency does the Saviour follow the wandering soul; year after year, period after period in his life, through several spiritual stages, the good Shepherd pursues the erring soul with patient love, until he finds it.
V. HIS JOY IN FINDING IT. The shepherd's joy in finding and in recovering, shown by calling his friends and neighbours together, saying, "Rejoice with me," etc., is pictorial of the Saviour's joy when a soul is redeemed from sin and enters into the life which is eternal. He rejoices not only, not chiefly, because therein does he "see of the travail of his soul," but because he knows well from what depth of evil that soul has been rescued, and to what height of blessedness it has been restored; he knows also how great is the influence, through all ages, which one loyal and loving human spirit will exert on other souls.—C.
The joy of the angels.
Our first thought may be—What do the angels know about us? But our second thought should be—How likely it is that the angels would be deeply interested in us! For, granted that there are "heavenly hosts" who are in supreme sympathy with God, and who are therefore careful to watch the workings of his holy will in the broad realm he rules, what is there more likely than that they would be profoundly interested in the recovery of a lost world, in the restoration of a rebellious and ruined race? We could well believe that it would be the study of the angelic world, the practical problem that would engage their most earnest thought, if it did not occupy their most active labours. And this being so, we can understand the greatness of their joy "over one sinner that repenteth." For—
I. THEY KNOW, BETTER THAN WE, THE STERN CONSEQUENCES OF SIN. Not, indeed, by experience. Experience is not the only teacher, and it does not at all necessarily follow that one who has had some experience of a course of conduct knows more about it than another who has had no experience at all; otherwise we should be driven to the absurd conclusion that guilty man knows more about sin than God does. Many of the inexperienced are a great deal wiser than many who have had "part and lot in the matter," because those learn from all they witness, and these do not learn from anything they do and suffer. The "angels of God" witness the commission and also the fruits of sin they see what lengths and depths of wrong and wretchedness it brings about from year to year, from age to age; they see what evil it works within and without, in the sinner himself and on all with whom he has to do. As they live on through the centuries, and as they learn Divine wisdom from all that they behold in the universe of God, they must acquire a hatred of sin and a pity for sinners which is beyond our own emotion and which passes our reckoning. How great, then, their joy when they witness the emancipation of one human soul from spiritual bondage, the birth of a spirit into the life eternal!
II. THEY KNOW, BETTER THAN WE, THE BLESSED FRUITS OF OBEDIENCE. Here they have their own angelic experience to guide and to enlighten them. With added years of loyalty to the King of heaven; with the spiritual enlargement which (we can well believe) comes with a holy and stainless life, they rejoice in God and in his service with ever-deepening delight; their heritage becomes ampler, their prospects brighter, as the celestial periods pass away; and when they think what it means for one holy intelligence to be filled with the fulness of Divine life and of heavenly blessedness, we can comprehend that they would rejoice "over one sinner that repenteth."
III. THEY ARE DEEPLY INTERESTED IN THE PROGRESS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD, and they know, better than we, how limitless is the influence one soul may exercise.
1. Because they earnestly, supremely desire the honour of God, the glory of Christ on the earth, they rejoice that one more spirit is brought into loyal subjection to his rule.
2. Because they desire that everything may be put under his feet, they rejoice that all that one man can do—which means more in their measurement than it means in ours—will he done to further his cause and exalt his Name.—C.
The Father's home.
By the Father's home we commonly mean the heavenly home, the sphere where the nearer and more immediate presence of God is realized. But heaven once included earth—earth was once a district of heaven. God meant this world to be a part of his own home; this, but for the separating force of sin, it would be now; and this, when sin has been cast forth, it will be again. And it is properly regarded as a home because the relation in which God wished its inhabitants to stand toward himself was that (and is that) of children to a Father. The truest picture, the nearest statement, the least imperfect representation of that relationship, is not found in the words, "A certain king had subjects," or "A certain proprietor had servants (or slaves)," but in those of our text, "A certain man had sons." Nothing so adequately represents God's position toward us as fatherhood, or our true position toward him as sonship, or the sphere in which we live before him as the Father's home. This family relationship means—
I. HIS DWELLING WITH US. God's dwelling with us or in us is very closely associated with his Fatherhood of us (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). The ideal human father is one who dwells under the roof where the family resides; who is at home with his children, maintaining a frequent and a close and intimate intercourse with them. Such is God our Father's desire concerning us. He wishes to be near us all and near us always; so near to us that we have constant access to him; that our free, full, happy, unconstrained "fellowship is with the Father;" that it is the natural and instinctive thing for us to go to him and make our appeal to him in all time of need.
II. HIS CONTROL OF OUR LIVES. God's purpose is to direct the lives we are living, to choose our way for us, even as a father for his children; so that we shall be going where he sends us, be doing his work, be filling up his outline, be walking in the path his own hand has traced.
III. HIS EDUCATION OF OUR SPIRITS. Our children come to our home with great capacities, but with no power. It is our parental privilege to educate them, so that their various faculties—physical, mental, spiritual—shall be developed, so that they shall gain knowledge, acquire wisdom, exert influence, be a blessing and a power in the world. God places us here, in this home of his, that he may educate us; that, by all we see and hear, by all we do and suffer, we may be taught and trained for noble character, for faithful service, for an ever-broadening sphere.
IV. HIS PARENTAL SATISFACTION WITH US. Perhaps the most exquisite satisfaction, the very keenest joy which fills and thrills the human heart, is that which is born of parental love; it is the intense and immeasurable delight with which the father and the mother behold their children as these manifest not merely the beauties of bodily form but the graces of Christian character, and as they bring forth the fruits of a holy and useful life. God meant and still means to have such parental joy in us; to look on us, the children of his home, and be gladdened in his heart more than when he looks on all the wonders of his hand in field and forest, in sea and sky. It is our docility, our affection, our obedience, our rectitude and beauty of character and of spirit, that constitute the source of his Divine satisfaction. The children of the Father's home are dearer and more precious far than any marvellous things in all the breadth of his universe. Thus God's thought concerning our race was to establish a holy family, himself the Divine Father; we his holy, loving, rejoicing, human children; this world a happy home. That was his thought in creation, that is his purpose in redemption. To its blissful realization the best contribution each one of us can make is to become his true and trustful child, reconciled to him in Jesus Christ, living before him every day in filial love and joy.—C.
Luke 15:12, Luke 15:13
Departure; the far country.
We all know only too well that God's gracious purpose concerning us (see previous homily) has been diverted by our sin; the holy and happy home-life which he designed and introduced has been broken up by our unfilial attitude and action. From the Father's home we have wandered away into "the far country." The strict parallel to this picture we find in the disobedience of our first parents and in the gradual departure of our race from God and from his righteousness to a great distance from him. As to ourselves, there never was a time when we were not outside the home; yet we may speak of—
I. THE NEARNESS OF CHILDHOOD. For not only does a great poet speak of "heaven lying about us in our infancy," but One from whom there is no appeal tells us that "of such [as the little child] is the kingdom of heaven." In childhood are those qualities which are most favourable to the reception of the truth and grace of God. And if in our childhood we did not stand actually within the door, we did stand upon the threshold of the Father's house. Then God spoke to us, whispered his promises in our ear, laid his hand upon us, touched the chords of our heart, drew forth our thought, our wonder, our hope, our yearning, our prayer. And well is it for us, blessed are we among the children of men, if, thus hearing that voice and feeling that hand Divine. we chose the good part, entered in at the open door, and have been thenceforth inmates of that home of faith and love! But perhaps it was not so; perhaps, like the prodigal son, we were dissatisfied with the heritage of the Father's favour, of a Saviour's love; perhaps we wanted a "portion of goods" quite different from this, and went away and astray from God. And there came—
II. A DEPARTURE FROM THIS NEARNESS OF CHILDHOOD. We opened the Bible with less interest and closed it with less profit; we neglected the throne of grace; we began to shun the sanctuary; we became less careful of our speech and our behaviour; God was less and still less in our thought; our hold upon Christian principle became relaxed, and the cords of the temporal and the material were wound around us. Then we dwelt in—
III. THE FAR COUNTRY OF SIN. For sin is a "far country."
1. It is to be a long way off from God himself; to be separated from him in spirit and in sympathy; to be willing to spend our time without his society; to be satisfied with his absence. The soul, instead of continually looking up for his guidance and his good pleasure, shuns his eye and tries to shake itself free from his hand; instead of placing itself under his elevating teaching and enlarging influence, the soul sinks into lower conditions, and loses its grasp of truth and power and goodness; instead of sharing his likeness, the soul goes down into folly and wrong.
2. It is to be a long way from his home. For God's home is the home of righteousness, of wisdom, and of blessedness; and to be living under the dominion of sin is to be dwelling in a sphere of unrighteousness; it is to be spending our days and our powers in an element of folly; it is to be cutting ourselves off from the sources of true joy, and to be where all the roots of sorrow are in the soil. Surely there is no epithet anywhere applied to sin which so truly and so powerfully characterizes it as this—it is the far country of the soul; under its sway the human spirit is separated by a measureless distance from all that is worthiest and best. Why should any soul continue there, when God is ever saying, "Return unto me, and I will return unto you;" when Christ is ever saying, "Come unto me, and I will give you rest."?—C.
Life in the far country.
When the prodigal son had attained his wish and was free to do as he liked without the restraints of home, how did he fare? He found, as in our distance from God we shall find, that life there meant three evil things—
I. A TWOFOLD WASTE. He "wasted his substance in riotous living." He misspent his powers, devoting to frivolous and unremunerative enjoyment those bodily and mental faculties that might have been put to profitable use, and he scattered the material resources with which he started. Sin is spiritual waste.
1. It is the waste of consumption. The "substance" of the soul includes:
2. It is the waste of perversion. Man was made for the very highest ends—made for God; to study, to know, to love, to serve, to rejoice in God himself. And when he spends his powers on himself and on his own animal enjoyment, he is "wasting his substance," turning from their true Object to one immeasurably lower the faculties and the opportunities with which he came into the world.
II. PITIABLE WANT. "He began to be in want." Indulgence is expensive, and unfits for work; sinful companions are happy to share the treat, but they are slow to refill the purse. Sin leads down to destitution; it takes away a taste for all pure enjoyment, and provides nothing lasting in its stead. The man who yields himself to the power of sin loses all joy in God, all relish for spiritual enjoyments, all gratification in sacred service, all capacity for appreciating the fellowship of the good and great, all sense of the sacredness and spiritual worth of life. What has he left? He is beggared, ruined. "No man gives unto him;" no man can give unto him. You cannot give to a man what he is not capable of receiving; and until he is radically changed he cannot receive anything truly precious at your hands.
III. GRIEVOUS DEGRADATION. He was "sent into the fields to feed swine." This was bad enough; yet was there one thing worse—" he was fain to fill his belly with the husks the swine did eat." He went down to the lowest grade imaginable. The degradation of the soul is the very saddest thing under the sun. When we see a man who was made to find his heritage in God's likeness and service satisfying himself with that which is bestial, degrading himself to the drunkard's song, to the impure jest, to the part of astute roguery, and finding a horrible enjoyment in these shameful things, then we see a human heart satiating itself with "husks that the swine do eat," and then we witness the most lamentable of all degradations. Such is life in the "far country." Distance from God means waste, want, degradation. Its full and final outworking may take time, or it may hasten with terrible rapidity. But it comes sooner or later.
1. There is a way of return even from that "strange land," that evil estate (see succeeding homilies).
2. How wise to place ourselves out of danger of these dire evils by connecting ourselves at once with Jesus Christ!—C.
The soul's return.
Out in the far country, living a life of guilty waste, of dreary want, of shameful degradation, the prodigal son was in truth a man "beside himself;" he was lost to himself; he had taken leave of his own better self, of his understanding, of his reason; from his own true self he was afar off. But now there is—
I. A RETURN TO HIMSELF.
1. He regains his wisdom as he gains a sense of his folly. He returns to his right mind; he loses his infatuation as he perceives how great is his foolishness to be in such a state of destitution when he might "have all things and abound." What insensate folly to be starving among the swine when he might be sitting down at his father's table! The soul comes to itself and regains its wisdom when it perceives how foolish it is to be perishing with hunger in its separation from God when it might be "filled with all the fulness of God." Our reason returns to us when we refuse to be any longer misled by the infatuation, by "the deceitfulness of sin," and when we see that the pining and decay of our spiritual powers is a poor exchange indeed for the wealth and health of spiritual integrity.
2. He is restored to sanity of mind as he obtains a sense of his sinfulness. To be able to say, as he is now prepared to say, "I have sinned," is to come back into a right and sound spiritual condition. We are in a wholly unsound mental state when we can regard our disloyalty and disobedience to God with complacency and even with satisfaction. But when our ingratitude, our forgetfulness, our unfilial and rebellious behaviour towards God, is recognized by us as the "evil and bitter thing" it is, as the wrong and shameful thing it is, and when we are ready, with bowed head and humbled heart, to say," Father, J have slinked," then are we in our right mind; then have we returned to ourselves.
II. A RESOLVE TO RETURN TO GOD. This return on the part of the prodigal:
1. Arose from a sense of the greatness of his need.
2. Was based on a sound confidence, viz. that the father, whose disposition he knew so well, would not reject but receive him.
3. Included a wise and right determination, viz. to make a frank confession of his sin and to accept the humblest position in the old home which the father might allot him.
(a) To make the fullest confession of our sin; meaning by that not the use of the strongest words we can employ against ourselves, but the full outpouring of all that is in our heart; for, above all things, God "desires truth in the inward parts."
(b) To accept whatever position in God's service he may appoint us. Not that we are expecting that he will make us "as a hired servant;" we may be sure (see next homily) that he will place us and count us among his own children; but so humble should our spirit be, such should be our sense of undeservedness, that we should be ready to be anything and to do anything, of however lowly a character it may be, which the Divine Father may assign us in his household.—C.
The welcome home.
Having seen the younger son of this parable dissatisfied with his estate, having followed him into the far country of sin, having seen how there he frittered or flung everything away in his guilty folly and was reduced to utmost want and degradation, and having been with him in the hour of self-return and wise resolve, we now attend him on his way home to his father. We look at—
I. THE WISDOM OF IMMEDIATE ACTION. "He said, I will arise … and he arose." "Most blessed said and done," as has been well remarked. What if he had lingered and given room for vain imaginations of things that would "turn up" on his behalf where he was, or for needless fears as to the reception he would have at home] How many more sons and daughters would there be now in the Father's home if all who said, "I will arise," had at once arisen, without parleying, without giving space for temptation and change of mind! Let there be no interval between saying and doing; let the hour of resolution to return be the hour of returning.
II. THE ABOUNDING GRACE OF HIS FATHER'S WELCOME.
1. He eagerly desired his son's return; he was looking out for it; when he was yet a great way off he saw him, and recognized him in all his rags and in all his shame.
2. He went forth to meet him; did not let his dignity stand in the way of his giving his son the very earliest assurance of his welcome home; he "put himself out," he "ran" to receive him back.
3. He welcomed him with every possible demonstration of parental love. He tenderly embraced him; he had him at once divested of his livery of shame and clad with the garments of self-respect and even honour; he ordered festivities to celebrate his return. As if he would say, "Take from him every sign and token of misery and want; remove every badge of servitude and disgrace; clothe him with all honour; enrich him with all gifts; ring the bells; spread the table; wreathe the garlands; make every possible demonstration of joy; we will have music in our hall to utter the melody in our hearts,' for this my son,' etc." It all means one thing; every stroke in the picture is intended to bring out this most precious truth—the warm and joyous welcome which every penitent spirit receives from the heavenly Father.
Ungrateful recipiency and ample heritage.
The "elder brother" is by no means so unpopular out of the parable as he is in it. As he is seen in the picture every one is ready to throw a stone at him. In actual life there are many Christian people who pay him the high compliment of a very close imitation. We are in danger of setting up a certain type of Christian character as a model, and if one of our neighbours should show any serious departure from that type, we are disposed to be shy of him and to shun him. Is the returned penitent whom Christ has received into his love always cordially welcomed into our society and made to feel at home with us? But let us look at this young man as—
I. A TYPE OF THE UNGRATEFUL RECIPIENTS OF THE CONSTANT KINDNESS OF GOD. He complained of his father's partiality in that for his brother there had been killed a fatted calf, while not even a kid had been slain for himself and his friends. But the reply was that, without any intermission, he had been enjoying the comfort of the parental hearth and the bounty of the parental table; that one extraordinary feast granted to his brother was nothing in comparison with the constant and continued manifestations of fatherly love and care he had been receiving day by day for many years. "Thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." It is for us to remember that our Divine Father's continual loving-kindnesses are much more valuable than one interposition on our behalf. A miracle is a much more brilliant and imposing thing than an ordinary gift, but one miracle is not such evidence of fatherly love as we have in an innumerable series of daily and hourly blessings. A greater gift than the manna in the wilderness were the annual harvests which fed many generations of the people of God. A more valuable gift than the water that issued from the rock in the desert were the rains, the streams, and the rivers that fertilized the soil from year to year. Kinder than the providential rescue from threatening embarrassment or impending death is the goodness which preserves in peaceful competence and unbroken health through long periods of human life. It is a sad and serious mistake; it is indeed more and worse than a mistake when we allow the very constancy of God's kindness, the very regularity of his gifts, to hide from our hearts the fact that he is blessing us in largest measure and in fullest parental love. He is saying to us the while, "Children, ye are ever with me, and all that I have is yours."
II. A TYPE OF OUR COMMON SONSHIP. In the parable the father says to his son, "My property is thine—thine to use and to enjoy; there is nothing I have made that is within your view and your reach which you are not free to partake of and employ; all that I have is thine." Is not that our goodly estate as the sons of God? This world is God's property, and he shares it with us. He interdicts, indeed, that which would do us harm or do injury to others. Otherwise he says to us, "Take and partake, enrich your hearts with all that is before you."
1. And this applies not only to all material gifts, but to all spiritual good—to knowledge, wisdom, truth, love, goodness; to those great spiritual qualities which are the best and most precious of the Divine possessions.
2. It has also a far-reaching application, it is a promise as well as a declaration. Of" all that God has" we only see and touch a very small part now and here. Soon and yonder we shall know far more of what is included in his glorious estate, and still and ever will it be true that what is his is ours; for he lives to share with his children the blessedness and the bounty of his heavenly home.—C.
Murmurs on earth, and joy in heaven.
Our blessed Lord, in his progress towards Jerusalem, had shown the same kindly interest in the outcast classes which had always characterized him, and his love was beginning to tell. Publicans and sinners gathered eagerly around him to hear his tender, saving words; while the reputable Pharisees and scribes eyed him from a distance with self-righteous suspicion. Their murmurs, however inaudible to mere man, were audible to him to whom all things are naked and open, and he exposes their criticisms by a trinity of parables which are without peers in literature. Stier thinks that the trinity of parables is intended to present the Persons of the adorable Trinity in their respective relations to our salvation. The first would thus represent the Son's shepherd-care; the second, the Spirit's maternal solicitude for the restoration of lost souls to the heavenly treasure; and the third, the Father's yearning that prodigal sons might come home. £ This view is certainly commendable, and not too artistic for such a weighty Preacher as the Lord Jesus Christ, and such a reporter as St, Luke, Leaving the third and greatest of the parables for separate treatment, let us, in this homily, discuss the other two; and as they are so similar, we need not separate them in our treatment.
I. WE ARE HERE TAUGHT BY CHRIST WHAT UNFALLEN BEINGS THINK ABOUT THEMSELVES. (Verse 7.) A door is opened by these parables into heaven, and we have glimpses of the celestial world. Jesus is here testifying about heavenly things (John 3:12). Now, we must know, in the first place, who are meant by the ninety and nine sheep which never went astray, and by the nine pieces of silver which were never lost. They cannot mean self-righteous souls such as the Pharisees and scribes. For they needed repentance, and over them no celestial ones would think of rejoicing. Hence they can only refer to unfallen beings. £ Now, the parables imply that there is joy over the unfallen. Why should there not be? To us who are fallen it appears but right that the most intense joy should be taken in the unfallen and sinless. They are a new type of beings to us. We have only had one of them in this world. The sinless Saviour broke the law of continuity, and constitutes the marvel of human history. £ Ninety and nine unfallen beings would seem to us a marvellously interesting group. A sinless city, such as the new Jerusalem is, appears to our comprehension such a novelty, such a new notion and thought amid the sad monotony of sin, that we almost wonder how those who have got within the city could ever think of aught beyond it. And yet to the unfallen ones themselves—sinlessness being the rule, and no exception being found within the celestial city—there must come over the joy with which they contemplate each other a certain monotony, which must keep the joy down to a certain uniform level. Where everything is exactly as it should be, and no tragedy is possible, the joy of contemplation must be so uniform as to partake almost of what is common. The sinless ones contemplate one another with rapture, doubtless, but the joy is not of the intensest type by reason of the monotony and sameness associated of necessity with it. We may make sure of this by simply contrasting the complacency of the self-righteous with the consciousness of the sinless that they never can be more than unprofitable servants, for they can never rise above the sphere of duty. Nothing corresponding to the self-satisfaction of the Pharisee, who thanks God that he is not as other men, can be entertained by the celestial world. They are not absorbed in self-admiration. That is only possible with lost men! So that the joy of unfallen beings over one another is modified by the thought that their sinlessness is nothing more than should be expected from those possessed of such privileges as they. Unlost sheep and money receive but moderate admiration.
II. WE ARE HERE TAUGHT WITH WHAT INTENSE INTEREST UNFALLEN BEINGS CONTEMPLATE THE CAREER OF LOST SOULS. (Verses 4, 8.) The problem of sin comes upon the sinless as an exception to the rule. They contemplate the career of the lost as a tragedy added to the monotony of life. They hover over the lost ones with intense interest. They follow their career and study its issues. We must not regard the celestial world as walled out from the tragedies of this earth. All, according to Christ's idea, is open to the celestial side. We may not see with' our dull eyes the city of the Apocalypse; but the celestials can follow our terrestrial careers and note the lessons of our different destinies. "The bourne from whence no traveller returns" is the celestial country. The lack of tidings is here, not there! The majority beyond the shadows may seem all silent, like the grave, to us; but the din of our voices reaches across the void to them, and constitutes a study of unfailing interest.
III. THE UNFALLEN ONES HAVE SENT FORTH MESSENGERS TO SAVE THE LOST. (Verses 4-6, 8, 9.) Angels hover around us, and with intensest interest contemplate our sin-burdened, sin-stained careers. But the celestial world did not contemplate the problem from a distance, and allow the wanderers to die. Two, at all events, came forth from heaven in the interests of lost men—the shepherd Son of God, and the Spirit, with all womanly tenderness. The Second and Third Persons of the adorable Trinity have come forth as messengers to save lost men. In addition, there are multitudes of ministering angels who exercise a mysterious but real ministry, and aid the heirs of salvation in their pilgrimage home. To the celestial visitants, however, who are set before us in these parables, we must meanwhile give our attention.
1. The good Shepherd. He follows the lost sheep over the mountains into the wilderness, up the rocky steeps, wherever lost souls wander and are waiting to be found. It was arduous work. It involved the exchange of Paradise for this wilderness-world, and a life of privation and trouble of many kinds, and all that the lost sheep might be found and brought home. Christ's work was self-denial and self-sacrifice in the highest degree. He had to lay down his life for the rescue of the sheep.
2. The painstaking Spirit. Like the housewife Who searched so thoroughly the dust of the house until she found the lost piece of money, so the Spirit comes down and searches in the dust of this world for lost souls, that he may restore them to the heavenly treasure. There is no work too severe or too searching for the Spirit to undertake in the rescue of our lost souls. As Gerok puts it, "No trouble is too great for God to undertake in seeking out a soul."
IV. THE JOY OF THE CELESTIAL WORLD OVER REPENTANT SOULS IS GREATER THAN THEIR JOY OVER THE UNFALLEN. (Verses 7, 10.) Our Lord represents the joy of heaven over one repentant sinner as greater than the joy over even ninety and nine unfallen beings. No angel of light amid his sinless glory ever caused such rapture to the heavenly world as does a sinner repenting and returning to God. "Gabriel," says Nettleton, "who stands in the presence of God, never occasioned so much joy in heaven. We may number ninety and nine holy angels and then say, ' There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over those ninety and nine just persons.' The creation of the world was a joyful event, when ' the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.' But this is not to be compared with the joy over one sinner that repenteth The joy of angels is most sensibly felt every time one more is added to the company of the redeemed. The ninety and nine already redeemed seem to be forgotten, when, with wonder and joy, they behold their new companion with whom they expect to dwell for ever. Could we know, as well as angels do, the reality of a sinner's repentance, we should know better how to rejoice." How important, consequently, should we regard the repentance of a sinner! Instead of our indulging in Pharisaic suspicion and murmuring, should we not join the joyful companies above in their ecstasy over the lost being found? And does it not further help us to understand why evil has been permitted, seeing that grace can translate it into so much joy? In all the assemblies of the saints we have reason to believe angels are present, watching with intense interest the exercises and noting what repentances result. The interest we take in such services is, we must believe, as nothing to the interest of the heavenly world. How they must wonder at so much indifference on our part! How they must wonder at the cool and matter-of-fact way we receive tidings of credible conversions to God! The joy of heaven over penitent sinners is a standing rebuke to our murmurings or apathy! May the thought of it lead to a better feeling and a better life!—R.M.E.
"From home, and back."
The two previous parables which our Lord related in defence of his conduct are really but introductory to what has been with justice called "the pearl of parables," that of the prodigal son. To it we will now devote ourselves, under the title recently given to it as "From home, and back." It brings out in a most interesting way the attitude of God the Father towards lost souls. It is necessary before setting out, however, to notice that, according to the ancient Law, the division of the family inheritance was not conditioned by the parent's death. If a son insisted on his share, the father publicly declared to his household his testamentary intentions, and the son entered at once into possession. £ What our Lord's parable supposes, therefore, is what constantly occurred. The father did not keep his testamentary intentions a secret to be revealed only at his death, but got up and declared publicly how the inheritance was to be allotted, and the impatient son entered at once into possession. Death, as a matter of fact, does not enter into the case at all. There is another preliminary point which we had better distinctly state, and that is that historically the younger son is intended to cover the case of the "publicans and sinners" Jesus was receiving into the kingdom of God; while the elder son covers the case of the "Pharisees and scribes" who murmured at Christ's policy. If we keep this clearly in view, it will hell) us greatly in our interpretation. We shall take up the two sons in the order presented in the parable.
I. THE PRODIGAL LEAVING HOME AND COMING BACK. (Luke 15:11-24.) Imagining he could not enjoy life with his father and amid the restraints of home, he clamours for his share of the inheritance, turns it into money, and sets out. We cannot do better than take up the stages in the history one by one, and interpret them as we proceed. We have, then:
1. The emigration. (Luke 15:13.) Now, if this younger son represents historically "the publicans and sinners," we must remember that they did not leave Palestine or even Jerusalem when separated from the Jewish Church. The emigration pictured in the parable was, therefore, not emigration to a locally distant land, but to a morally distant land; in other words, by the "far country" is not meant a foreign country, but the country of forgetfulness of God. The soul that lives at a distance from God, that never considers that he is near, has by that forgetfulness of him emigrated to the "far country" and gone from home. In strict accordance with this principle of interpretation, the "substance" which was gathered and wasted in the far country was moral wealth, not monetary. As a matter of fact, the publicans, or tax-gatherers, were in many cases careful, money-gathering men. and not spendthrifts in the vulgar sense. What was squandered, therefore, in the far off land of forgetfulness of God was moral wealth, the wealth of the heart and mind. The waste was moral waste. And it is just here that we have to notice what may be called the defamation of the prodigal, in that painters and expositors have represented his "riotous living" as including actually the deepest immorality. This was the line adopted, too, by the elder brother, who represented his brother as having devoured the father's living with harlots (Luke 15:30), although, as a matter of fact, he had no evidence of such "excess of riot" in the case at all. The most careful expositor of this parable has accordingly pointed out that the prodigal did not reach the sphere of sensuality until he envied the swine, and then only entered it by the mental act. £ It is when we note how carefully our Lord constructed the parable, that we can see how the moral character of the publicans was appreciated in the picture, and they were not confounded with sinners of the more sensual type. The far-off country, then, and the waste which took place there, represent the land of forgetfulness of God, and the waste of mind and heart that a God-forgetting life is certain to experience.
2. The famine. (Luke 15:14.) This is the second stage. It represents the hunger of the heart and mind which comes over the soul that has forgotten God and taken to worldly courses. The famine is the utter vacancy of heart that settles down upon the moral emigrant. He begins to realize what he has lost by leaving God.
3. The effort after recovery. (Luke 15:15, Luke 15:16,) The famished worldling betakes himself to work; becomes a swineherd—an unlawful occupation for a Jew—our Lord touching thus gently on the question of the farming of the taxes for Rome by the publicans; and finds that there is no real regeneration to be found in work. He, in his utter want of satisfaction, wishes he could satisfy his soul as the swine satisfy their nature, upon husks. Sensuality is seen by the famished one to be as unsatisiying as work. And then the last experience is the utter helplessness of man. "No man gape unto him;" no one could minister to his mental trouble. It is through a similar experience the soul comes. Self-recovery turns out to be a delusion, and man is found to be of no avail.
4. The return of reason. (Luke 15:17-19.) In his isolation he begins to see that all the past forgetfulness of God was a mistake; that he was insane to take the course he did; and that in his right mind he must act differently. Accordingly he begins in sane moments to reflect on the Father's house, how good a Master God is, how his hirelings have always enough and to spare, and that the best thing for him to do is to return, confess his fault, and get what place in God's house he can. This is repentance—the remembrance of God and how we have sinned against him.
5. Coming back. (Luke 15:20.) The resolution to come home must be put in practice. The hope may only be for a servant's place, yet it is well to begin the return journey and test the loving-kindness of God.
6. The welcome home. (Luke 15:20, Luke 15:21.) The father has been on the look-out for the son, and, the moment he begins the journey, the father's compassion becomes overpowering, and. he runs and falls on the prodigal's neck and kisses him. And when the broken-hearted son pours forth his penitence, and that he is no more worthy to be called a son, he is met by the father's welcome and passionate embrace. In this most beautiful way does our Lord bring out God's yearning for lost souls, and his intense delight when they return to him.
7. The feast of joy. (Luke 15:22-24.) Orders are given to the servants to take away his rags, and put upon him the best robe, and a ring on his hand, as signs of his rank as his father's son, and shoes on his feet, and to prepare the fatted calf and have a merry feast. In this way does our Lord indicate the joy which fills God's heart and that of the angels and that of the returned soul himself when he has come home to God. It is indeed "joy unspeakable and full of glory." These are the stages, then, in a soul's history as it passes into the far-off land of forgetfulness of God, and then gets back to his embrace.
II. THE ELDER SON STAYING AT HOME, BUT NEVER HAPPY. (Luke 15:25-32.) We now turn to our Lord's picture of the Pharisees and scribes, under the guise of the elder brother. Although these men had not left the Church, although they put in their appearance at the temple, they never were happy in their religion.
1. Nominally at home, the elder son is yet from home. (Luke 15:25.) The elder son was always at work i u the fields, happiest away from the father. The self-righteous spirit is after all an isolating spirit. The elder son was really as forgetful of God as the younger, only the forgetfulness took a different form.
2. The merry-making at home distresses him. (Luke 15:26-30.) He first asks an explanation of the unusual mirth, and then, when he gets it, bursts into a fit of censoriousness of the most exaggerated character, in which he accuses the father of favouritism in. receiving his penitent child, and refuses to be any party to such merry-making. How it exposes the gloomy, Pharisaic spirit which with some passes for religion!
3. The godless spirit manifests itself within him. (Luke 15:29.) He has been a faithful and faultless servant, he believes, and yet he has never got even a kid to make merry with his friends. His whole idea of joy is away fern the father. He is still in the first stage of the younger brother, from which he happily has escaped.
4. He is unable to realize how meet it is to rejoice over the return of the lost. (Luke 15:31, Luke 15:32.) The father's expostulations are vain, although they ought to have been convincing. Joy over the recovery of the lost is one of the necessities of an unwarped nature. It was this great sin of which the scribes and Pharisees were guilty, that they would not rejoice at the recovery of fallen fellows by the ministry of Christ. May the broken-heartedness of the prodigal be ours, and never the heartlessness and censoriousness of the elder brother!—R.M.E.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Luke 15". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Lent