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Bible Commentaries
Luke 15

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Verse 1

The TRIAD OF PARABLES in, behalf of the Peraean Publicans and Sinners.

1. Then drew near We suppose these transactions to have taken place in the Peraean ministry of our Lord, of which Bethabara was probably the rallying point. This, being near Jericho and the fords of the Jordan, with their custom-houses, many publicans and sinners would be in the neighborhood, to whom the preaching of our Lord presented powerful attractions. This section too was more plentifully stocked with aliens and Gentiles, who, mingling with the irreligious Jews, constituted in all probability the sinners here named in connection with the publicans. We therefore do not quite coincide with Stier and Alford, who understand Luke as merely affirming a general fact that publicans and sinners were in the habit in different places of attending the Lord’s ministry. On the contrary, we rather hold that the discourses of this entire chapter and the next took place on a very special day, namely, the closing day of his ministry in Peraea. See note on Luke 13:32. It forms, indeed, a key to the entire passage, Luke 15:1 to Luke 17:10, to note that among the Gentile and publican population in this region there was a general turning toward Christ, and that he is earnestly sustaining them against the cavils and sneers of the Pharisees. So also chapters 14 and Luke 18:9-14.

Verses 1-32


Jesus went to the Feast of Dedication, John 10:22-40. After which, according to John 10:40, he went to beyond Jordan, (Peraea,) where John at first baptized, and there abode. Many, as John assures us, who had the original testimony of the Baptist, were convinced of its fulfilment in him, and became believers on him. Of this PERAEN MINISTRY Luke here gives an account; covering apparently, however, but the two or three closing days. Jesus, then, as we learn from John, departed to raise Lazarus, and then retired to Ephraim.

A marked fact in this brief account of the Peraean ministry is the conversion of many Jewish publicans and [Gentile] sinners, and the Lord’s defences of them against the malignity of their Phariseean assailants. This contest draws out from Jesus a series of most striking discourses and parables. Jericho and the Jordan region probably abounded in Publicans and a Gentile population.

Verse 2

2. Pharisees and scribes This would seem to imply that our Lord was in some populous town, where numbers of these classes were to be found. And the reply of Jesus, of which Luke doubtless gives us but an abbreviated sketch is still so full, as well as so regular and symmetrical, as to induce us to suppose that it was a public and even a synagogue discourse. It cannot be a mere collection by Luke of parables brought together by classification, but must be accepted as a threefold unit.

This man receiveth sinners Accepts them as followers and even apostles, as Matthew.

Verse 4


The Lost Sheep The stupid sinner, Luke 15:3-7.

4. What man of you Our Lord puts the case home to them as the official shepherds of the people, grounding his appeal on their own conscience.

Having a hundred sheep The hundred and one was a favourite comparison among the Jewish teachers.

Sheep The emblem of the flock of Israel; and, hence, here more principally the Jewish sinner, who more or less knew the law or ought to know it. It hence takes in the case of the publican whom he is defending.

In the wilderness In the pastures of the rural sections. The term does not imply that the ninety and nine are abandoned, or left out of the shepherd’s care.

Until he find it There is no giving over the search until the lost is found; for even here, in the outskirts of Israel, I am seeking and finding them.

Verse 5

5. He layeth it on his shoulders The shepherd of the East at the present day is often seen bearing upon his shoulder the forlorn sheep that is too weak to be driven. It furnishes a beautiful image of the tenderness of the Redeemer to the soul of the penitent, which he is saving from its lost condition.

Verse 6

6. Cometh home The home of Christ on earth, to which he brings the repentant sinner as a sheep of the fold, is his Church. There are the ninety and nine, and there is the place where the shepherd exerts his guardian care. Thither would he gather the publican and sinner whom he now

receiveth and eateth with. Friends and neighbours His fellow but under shepherds, the pastors of his flocks in the great field of the world.

Verse 7

7. Joy shall be in heaven A sweet and literal assurance that the inhabitants of heaven take a deep interest in the souls of our race, candidates as we are for a fellowship with them on high. Heaven is not in sight of earth, but earth is in sight of heaven. The Church above forever watches the Church below. When the children of God rejoice over a new convert saved by repentance and forgiveness from death, there is no vain joy. It is the only joy on earth with which we have proof that angels sympathize. Hence angels watched with interest while these Pharisees condemned our Saviour’s sympathy with these publicans and sinners.

One sinner How much the joy of heaven then when whole scores and hundreds are converted. Truly he that winneth souls is wise.

Repenteth The repentance here spoken of, it is important to note, is the repentance of a sinner, taking the first step in that course by which from a child of hell he becomes an heir of heaven. It is the repentance of a publican and of a (Gentile) sinner classified with him. It implies previous unregeneracy, impenitence, and a course of persistent sin; from which having turned, the man is justified, regenerate, and enrolled in the Lamb’s book of life. This has nothing to do with the repentance of a justified Christian, which is a constant abhorence of sin, and sorrow for his shortcomings, which produce indeed condemnation, but not entire loss of justification.

Just persons Under the Jewish dispensation, those who were justified, like Zachariah and Elizabeth, as walking in all the ordinances of the law blameless. Many of these had never by apostacy lost the first grace sealed upon them at circumcision, and hence were never heirs of hell. And so, under the new dispensation, if the child before arriving at years of accountability is accepted of God, there is no reason why he should lose that grace and become a child of the devil. God has never made it necessary that any one should be at any time of life an heir of death.

Need no repentance Who have never been unregenerate sinners. For the word repentance signifies here the same thing as in the former part of the verse. That the just persons, here, are the unfallen inhabitants of other worlds, would be a beautiful interpretation, but a far-fetched one. That Jesus did go forth to redeem our race alone is very probable; but is hardly asserted in this text.

God may have a vast flock, and our race may be the only wandering sheep. But what our Lord is here doing is, to show that he is performing the work over which angels rejoice with a joy in which these scribes and Pharisees should join rather than murmur. They should, with angels, rejoice when he goes after the wandering Jewish publican and Gentile sinner in order to bring them home through repentance to the fold of the Church. To this the fallen and unfallen worlds may be analogous; but they do not come within the actual purpose of the parable.

It is by no means meant that the soul of the sinner converted from his abandonment is any more precious in the sight of God than is that of the faithful walker in the paths of righteousness, who has never fallen from the justification of his childhood. God more truly loves a life of faithful obedience than of late repentance. The man who spends half his life in sin, is little likely to receive that rich reward in glory which he might have attained had all his days been days of service. His powers, indeed, of efficient service, during the remainder of his years, are likely to be much diminished; and he will have through life just reason to lament the loss of his best days in sin; a loss which eternity cannot repair. What our Lord does mean here is, that such is the danger which the repentant sinner has escaped, such is the immediate interest of his rescue, and such the new rapture of having gained a companion in glory, that a sudden burst of joy arises in heaven.

It is sometimes said that if the angels believed that a repentant sinner might apostatise and be lost, we can hardly suppose their joy would be great. We might as well say, that if the angels knew who were the eternally elected, we can hardly suppose they would be much interested in their conversion; as it would make their salvation no more certain. We do not find that Christians who believe in the possibility of apostacy, as a general thing, take less interest in the conversion of souls than those who deny it.

Verse 8

8. What woman The woman here is the Lamb’s wife, the Church. But if we adopt the interesting view that, while the shepherd is the Son of God, the woman the Holy Spirit, and the father in the last parable is God the Father Almighty, then we may view this woman as the Church, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, and through which it works. Then as the Son was incarnated in the Christ, and the Father embodied in creation, so the Holy Spirit is here impersonated in the living Church of God.

Ten pieces of silver Commentators have recognized the increasing value of the sheep, the coin, and the son, by the diminished number from which they are lost. The sheep is but the hundredth part of the flock; the coin is but the tenth part; the son is one of

two. Pieces of silver In the original a drachma.

This was a true heathen coin, circulating among the chosen people of God. It was no sacred shekel. It was a Greek piece, from a Roman mint, stamped with some pagan superscription; as the owl, the tortoise, or the head of the Grecian goddess Minerva. Fit emblem of the heathen sinners who were circulating and mixing among the house of Israel.

The house If the woman is the Church, then the house is not the Church, but the world. The dead, senseless sinner is not in the Church.

Light… swept… searched In her missionary work the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, must hold forth the light of divine truth, must sweep through every part of the world, and seek until she finds the sinner. She must display her light; for valuable as is this coin it is hid in darkness. She must sweep the world; for he is buried in the dust of this earth. She must search till she find; for the precious metal knows not its own value. It is unconscious of its own nature and state. All this, as literal description, was specially suitable in the ancient house; as it was without the wonderful modern convenience of the glass window, of which the use is now so common, that we never think of it among the great inventions.

Verses 8-11


The Lost Piece of Money The self-forgotten sinner, the heathen, Luke 15:8-11.

Jesus was the seeker not only of the Israelite publican, the sheep of the flock, who was stupid and wandering though conscious, but he sought the sinner, the heathen, perhaps, who was self-forgotten and unconscious. Both these classes he, no doubt, found here by the shores of the Jordan. The former belonged to his domestic, the latter to his foreign, mission. To this last class Luke himself may have belonged; hence he alone, of the Evangelists, gives this parable.

Verse 9

9. Her friends and her neighbours Here the Church is perhaps a Church; we have a picture of the union of the various sections into which the universal Church must of necessity be divided; and it is a common rejoicing over the conversion of sinners and the triumphs of the cross.

Rejoice with me Just as these Scribes and Pharisees ought to have rejoiced with Jesus when stupid Jewish wanderers, or senseless Gentile outcasts, listened to his gospel and renounced their sins. This joy of the Church over the converted sinner is pictured forth by Jesus to show these doctors of the Jewish Church that if they are of the true Church they will rejoice too.

Which I have lost For the Church has lost every soul that is lost. Every soul is redeemed by Christ. Every soul is met as it enters probation with the saving power of the atonement, and is truly an heir of heaven. Every soul enters life a proper member of the Church; of which membership baptism is the true recognition. And if the soul be left unconscious, as a piece of metal, of its own worth, and become hard in sin, and buried in darkness and dust, with the image, not of the blessed Redeemer, but of the gods of heathenism, which are but forms of the devil, it is the Church who lost them, and the Church who may rejoice when she has found that which she had lost.

Verse 11


The Prodigal Son The knowing and wandering sinner.

11. And he said This phrase may imply, by distinctly marking off the ensuing parable, that it was spoken at a different time from the two previous. We prefer to consider all three as occurring in parts of one discourse, though perhaps separated by intervening remarks which are not recorded. It is, we think, very probable that few or none of our Lord’s discourses are reported without some abridgement.

This has been called by some the pearl among parables; by others a gospel in the Gospel. And it is one of those passages, preserved by Luke alone, which seem to remind us that Luke was not a Jew but a Gentile.

A certain man God the Father, as the woman impersonates the Holy Spirit, and the shepherd the blessed Son.

Two sons Let the reader not forget what we have said, that these are Christ’s defences of his receiving publicans and sinners; or rather his rebuke of the Jewish hierarchy for not receiving them, while they murmured at his doing so. The two sons are, first, the scribe and his class; and, second, the publican or (Gentile) sinner, and his class. These may be so extended as to make the former the Jews and the latter the Gentiles. But this would, indeed, be an extended and not the simple primary meaning.

Verse 12

12. The younger According to a narrower view of genealogy the Jew is the older, and the Gentile the younger. But extending our view further back, we shall find that Abraham was the first Jew and that Adam was Gentile. Thence tracing the genealogy of Jesus back, according to Luke, he was the son of man, (and the word Adam in the Hebrew signifies man,) and not merely the son of Abraham.

Younger of them As being least experienced and wise.

His living Rather , the substance, the property. It is said by some that both sons had by Jewish law the right to make this demand; and a law of this nature is quoted as existing among the Hindoos. It is difficult to suppose that such a law would exist anywhere. But it is plain, at any rate, that in this case, though the parent divided the estate to them, yet he gave the half but to the younger; for the elder complains that he had not been allowed to own a kid; while the father pacifies him by the assurance that the still existing mine is in promise, at least, a thine.

Verse 13

13. Not many days after This son has set up for himself, just as man desires to be independent of God. And being so, his next purpose is a due distance, where the will of God shall never seem to reach him, and if possible beyond the reach of his eye.

Gathered all together His means were now all in a movable form, not in real estate; and he was fully prepared for a profligate squander.

Riotous living The word here rendered riotous is used both in Latin and Greek, and expresses the utmost abandonment of character, and is in fact the original of the English word “sot.”

Verse 14

14. Spent all In the original squandered all, just as he had previously (Luke 15:13)

gathered all. A mighty famine The apostacy of man from God, of which this course of the son is an emblem, is the source of the evils which afflict human life, and the purpose of these evils is to bring the wanderer home first to himself and then to his father God.

Want Happy for him that he was in want of what his father’s house could alone supply.

Verse 15

15. Joined himself As yet he prefers the hireling’s lot in the abodes of sin to his filial place in the abodes of home. In his decision thousands persevere, and their souls are starved to eternal death.

A citizen As he himself is an alien and a foreigner. Is not this citizen the devil or one of his angels? Is any man a citizen of the realm of sin?

To feed swine To the Jew this is the very essence of moral abomination. “Cursed is he who feeds swine” was a Jewish malediction. And not to the Jew alone of the nations of antiquity. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman alike bestowed a special abhorrence upon the swineherd. As nearest of kin to the unclean devil, the swine was the fittest of all lower animals for the devils to enter, as the devils themselves requested.

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Verse 16

16. Filled his belly For it is only his animal nature that man in his lost depravity is able to think of feeding or sustaining.

Husks Rather pods. These were not, as the American reader is apt to imagine, the husks of maize, that is, of Indian corn. They are the fruit of the carob tree, and are from their shape called in the Greek little horns. From the popular notion that they were the food of John the Baptist, they are called St. John’s bread. Dr. Thomson describes them as “fleshy pods somewhat like those of the honey locust tree, from six to ten inches long and one broad, lined inside with a gelatinous substance, not wholly unpleasant to the taste when thoroughly ripe. I have seen large orchards of this Kharub in Cyprus, where it is still the food which the swine do eat. In Syria, where we have no swine, or next to none, the pods are ground up and a species of molasses is made, which is much used in making certain kinds of sweetmeats. In Cyprus, Asia Minor, and the Grecian islands, you will see full grown trees bending under half a ton of green pods.”

The carob fruit is more properly a human food than husks. During famines, such as the prodigal suffered, in countries where the tree grows, it is a sort of support for the people. Unripe, it is slightly astringent to the taste; ripened on the tree, it has a disagreeable odor; but dried on hurdles, it becomes an eatable but not very agreeable article. It is generally abandoned by men to swine and cattle.

No man gave The question is asked by commentators, why did he not take and eat a share of the pods; inasmuch as he was feeding the swine with them? Some have answered, that he only drove the swine into the fields to feed on grass and herbage, while they were fed on pods at home under the master’s eye. But even then it may be replied that, being on hire, he would be fed at least as well as the swine he tended. To obviate all these difficulties other commentators have supplied anything after gave, and this would make the last clause signify that no man bestowed upon him any relief. But, first, it seems most natural to supply husks as the proper grammatical object of gave; and second, this interpretation still imputes to our Lord the very forced supposition, that the man should not be fed as well as the swine he was hired to herd.

We suggest that the vain desire for the unobtainable pods (including all of Luke 15:16) was a later stage of his history, and after he had been turned out from his swineherdship. It was bad enough to be a swineherd; but while he was a swineherd he could, at any rate, feed with the swine on carobs. It was worse to lose his place, and hunger for the pods he once dispensed to, and shared with, the lowest of animals. Even to feed swine is better than to be vainly ravenous for swine’s fare.

And such are the steps by which vice descends into the depths of degradation and misery. In his father’s house, the prodigal’s heart, soul, and spirit were fed with their high nourishment; with his harlots he descended to the sensual gratification of palate and lust; with the citizen he sunk to sustaining his animal nature with bestial husks; with himself, finally, he arrived at complete starvation. Happily, when the bottom was reached the ascent commenced. Such is not always the case; for beneath this lowest deep there is a lower deep, which has no bottom and admits no ascent.

Verse 17

17. Came to himself For all this time he has been in an insanity or a dream. Would it were so; for then he would have been unfortunate or irresponsible. Had he but waked in the morning from a troubled dream, he would have smiled over his own imaginary miseries, and have gone down in a sweet morning innocence to meet his father’s kiss, from lips that spoke of love but not of forgiveness.

He said The he who says this is the God-given reason, the secret conscience; long silent or unheard, now awakened by suffering, and speaking.

Hired servants He thinks of hired servants because that has been so long his own condition. His father had, it seems, no slaves. The Greek word here is μισθιος . See note on Luke 7:2. Commentators make a very needless difficulty of the explanations of this word hired servants in the true economy of grace. If it be true that all our salvation is of grace, it is equally true that the saved are rewarded according to their works. God pays man for his services. And this none the less from the fact that he provides for man all his power, and confers upon his works all their rewardable value. See note on Luke 19:16. We may note, first, That the hired servants in the father’s house, are the Church; second, they labor for him, and by him are rewarded with the true bread; third, they have no right, as from birth, in the house, and are only adopted members of the family. All these traits are plainly to be found in converted Gentiles; and thus here we have again the defence of our Lord for receiving sinners, that is, Gentiles, whose coming to him on the banks of the Jordan at these times had excited the murmurings of the scribes and Pharisees. (Luke 15:1-2.) Not only St. James but St. Paul in the right passage will say that men are justified by works. The son was a laborer as well as the hireling.

Verse 18

18. I have sinned Very different from his bold address, (Luke 15:12,) Give me the portion. Confession is good for the soul.

Against heaven Against the divine authority of God as Creator, and against the law of right and nature.

And before thee It was from the former, heaven, that the famine came upon the land. It was from the latter, thee, that the son wandered, and to whom he was now returning, 19. As one of thy hired servants This son embodies in himself all classes of wanderers and aliens from God, both Jew and Gentile. As Jew he has a natural born sonship. But as Gentile, though he has also a natural born sonship in the back ground, he now takes position as an alien. And then when the father forthwith restores him to sonship, he who is in symbol even the alien, becomes a true son in the Gospel acceptance.

No more worthy to be called thy son He says truth. He has forfeited his birthright.

If a man by free voluntary sin lose the grace to which he is born, and which meets him from the atonement at the threshold of life, being symbolized in his circumcision or baptism, he is only a son as all others are sons, and must return to God as a returned alien. It is the mercy of God which restores his sonship.

Verse 20

20. He arose What worth is a wish, or a purpose, without the volition and the act? He arose, for in this meditation he had been sitting, or even lying, on the ground; a picture of misery, an object of wrath, a despondent, shiftless son of despair.

He came This is the approach of the son to God, even before his justification. It is right. As an approach it is acceptable to God, who has the feeling of mercy, and the purpose of pardon, in his heart; but that pardon has not yet reached the son, and is not yet consummated. Works conditional to justification, though they are performed by the man as unjustified and unregenerate, are conducive to salvation; are required and approved in their place by God; and do bring the sinner to that point at which he receives pardon and eternal life.

A great way off Before he has reached the threshold of the Church of God. The movements of the father’s love are here depicted with great life, in order that the Pharisees, who hear this, may feel how they were opposed to the heart of God when they murmured at Christ’s receiving publicans and sinners. Luke 15:1-2.

Saw him Descried and knew; knew him, as with a father’s eye, before the servants had recognized him.

Had compassion The infinite heart of God is moved by man’s sincere repentance. Hence let no fatalism say that our prayer affects us, but not God. God is a living God, and deals with us differently, according as we deal with him. Note, also, that this father had a father’s heart, even when the son was a swineherd. He would have embraced him ever, but that he had gone over to the embraces of the harlots. The atonement was not made to soften the heart of God: it was given by God’s tender heart to remove the difficulty which inflexible justice placed in his way; preventing the performance of the merciful desires of his divine heart. But note, finally, that the tenderness of the father’s heart would not have saved the son from the dying of famine, a miserable swineherd, if he had not said, “I will arise and go to my father,” and done what he said. For him otherwise God had nothing but abandonment; and famines to send after him.

Ran The old father is young in heart and so in limb. He does, in his affection, entirely outstrip his son’s young limbs in their shame and tardiness.

Fell on his neck In the oriental style. See Genesis 35:14. The same urgent manner was customary among the Greeks in the times of Homer. It was a sign of reconciliation after enmity and offence.

Verse 21

21. The son said He attempts to repeat the confession he had meditated; but before he is through, his father’s love smothers his words. So does God hasten to bless the earnest prayer of the heart, before the utterance of the lips.

No more worthy to be called thy son Very properly does he take the place of a hired servant, for he has forfeited his sonship. And every one of the hired servants in the house has a sonship in the background. If this parable were to be acted over again and again, as a drama, or a tableau, each one of the hired servants of the house would have the right in turn to act the part of the original son, wandering and becoming alien, returning and becoming son. They are the hired servants only for the present enactment of the drama. They are all impersonated by this son, and are exalted in his exaltation.

Verse 22

22. The best robe Literally, the first robe; that is, the first in quality of the whole.

Robe… ring… shoes These investments betoken the bestowing of the endowments and prerogatives of the child of God.

Verse 23

23. The fatted calf Which had been reserved, by the father’s hospitality, for some special occasion, as the delicacy of the season.

Verse 24

24. Dead… alive The metaphors of death and life, to express ruin and recovery, can be found in various languages. Thus Cicero at his return to Rome after banishment says, in a public address to the city, that he is recalled from death to life; from despair to hope; from destruction to safety.

Verse 25

25. Was in the field Rather , at labour; but he strangely does not appear; or, at any rate, no one seems to have thought it necessary to notify him of the common joy.

Music and dancing According to the custom of the ancients, this may be supposed to be a hired concert of musicians and dancers.

Verse 28

28. Angry… would not go in Our Lord now holds up to the murmuring Pharisees of Luke 15:2 a likeness of themselves for them to recognize and avoid. As the elder son is angry at the joy which welcomes the prodigal home from his wanderings, so have these men murmured at the mercy with which Jesus has received the publican and the sinner.

Came his father out and entreated As God now, by Jesus, entreats these doctors of Israel not to spurn the outcast publicans and sinners who may be induced to forsake their sins.

Verse 29

29. Do I serve thee The word serve here is the service of a slave, and hence some have held it as characterizing the Pharisee’s devotion to God.

A kid Far inferior to the fatted calf.

Verses 29-30

29, 30. In these two verses our Lord gives, in parable, the substance of the Pharisaic murmur. We are the piety of the nation; and for us should be reserved all the respect and deference which the professed prophet of God has to pay. But us have you deserted, and given all your interest and labour to these publicans, who have prostituted their birthright to the service of a heathen power.

Verse 31

31. All I have is thine Thou art still my son; thou hast not been disinherited; what I have is still within my reach as ever. The captious Scribes and Pharisees were still in Church relations ever with God. Yet they were forfeiting their organic sonship by being, like this sons angry because Jesus was calling the wanderers home. And mark that the son in the parable stays without; and without the parable leaves him. After the parable has thus fulfilled its immediate object, it may be applied to a great variety of equivalent cases. We may truly, then, say that the elder son is the Jews, and the younger the Gentiles; and that the return of the prodigal is the restoration of the Gentiles to the Church of God. The elder son, the Jews, is still angry and without; but he, too, may ultimately re-enter his father’s house in joy. The true lesson for these Pharisees is, that it is a poor and pitiful piety which wraps itself in a cold and selfish sanctity, and never smiles in gladness when sinners come home to God. And yet we must guard against the error of supposing that the repentant are dearer to God than the life-long Christian. For, as Philo the Jew says, “there ever remain in the souls of the repentant the scars and traces of ancient sins.”

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/luke-15.html. 1874-1909.
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