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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Luke 15

 

 

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Verse 1

XV.

(1) Then drew near unto him . . .—Better, and all the publicans and the sinners were drawing near to hear Him. There is not quite the same direct sequence in the Greek as in the English, but what follows comes naturally after the mention of the “multitudes” in Luke 14:25. Publicans and sinners knew that Jesus had turned, as in indignation, from the house of the Pharisee, and this, it may be, gave them courage to approach Him.


Verse 2

(2) And the Pharisees and scribes . . .—Here, too, we may well believe that the speakers were some of the guests of Luke 14:15. They had followed Him to see what He would do, and were at once startled and shocked to find the Teacher who had spoken so sternly to those who were professedly godly, not only talking to, but eating with, those who were, at any rate, regarded as ungodly and sinful.


Verse 4

(4) What man of you, having an hundred sheep . . .?—The meaning of the parable is so clear that it requires but little in the way of explanation. It gains, however, fresh force and interest if we remember that it followed on the great parable of the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-16, and on the compassion for the lost sheep of which we read in Matthew 9:36. The thought was, if we may use the language which rises to our lips, a dominant idea in the mind of Him who spoke. The primary application of that idea is clearly to be found in the immediate occasion of the parable, in the love which bids the Son of Man to concentrate His thoughts and energy and prayers on some one soul among those publicans and sinners who were thus gathered together; but it is, at least, a legitimate extension of it to think of it as embracing also His whole redemptive work as the Son of God, leaving the “ninety and nine,” the hosts of unfallen angels and archangels, or, it may be, unfallen beings more like ourselves in other worlds than ours, and coming to the rescue of the collective humanity which had fallen and wandered from the fold.


Verse 5

(5) And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders.—Here again we have a three-fold series of parallel applications: the love of Jesus for each wandering sheep, bearing and sustaining it in its weakness; the love which led Him to take upon Him our nature, and to bear its infirmities; the love which leads those in whom the mind of Christ is formed to follow in His footsteps, and to act as He acted.


Verse 6

(6) He calleth together his friends and neighbours.—The recurrence of the two words so soon after Luke 14:12 is suggestive. There are times when we do well to recognise the natural and social ties that bind man and man. Chiefly is it right to do so when we make them sharers in our own spiritual life, and raise and purify their life by calling on them to sympathise, not with our sufferings only, but with our purer and nobler joys. In its bearing upon our Lord’s own work we may think of His “friends and neighbours” as being the disciples whom He had chosen; we may think also of “the angels of God,” and the spirits of the just made perfect, who rejoice over one sinner that repenteth.


Verse 7

(7) Ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.—As regards the men and women among whom our Lord carried on His work, we cannot see in these words anything but a grave and indignant protest, veiled under the form of an apparent concession, against the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. His call to repent had been addressed to all. That all offended in many things; that for a man to say he had not sinned was a lying boast—this was the first postulate of every preacher of the gospel, whatever school of thought he might represent (Romans 3:23; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). Once, indeed, the opposite thought had appeared in the devotional utterance of a penitent Israelite—“Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of ‘the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against Thee” (Prayer of Manasses in the Apocrypha); but there it was accompanied by personal contrition and confession. The man felt in his humility, how unlike he was to those saints of God. It was reserved for the Pharisees to develop the thought into the conviction that they were the just persons who needed no repentance, and that all their worship should consist in thanksgiving that they were so. (See Note on Luke 18:11.)


Verse 8

(8) Either what woman having ten pieces of silver.—The main lesson of the parable that thus opens is, of course, identical with that of the Lost Sheep. We are justified, however, in assuming that the special features of each were meant to have a special meaning, and that we have therefore more than a mere ornamental variation of imagery. Looking to these points of difference we note (1) the use of the silver coin (the drachma) as a symbol of the human soul. Here the reason of the choice lies on the surface. The coin is what it is because it has on it the king’s image and superscription. Man is precious because he too has the image and superscription of the great King, the spiritual attributes of Thought and Will, by which he resembles God, stamped upon him. (2) There is, perhaps, a special significance in the fact that the coin is lost in the house, while the sheep strays from the fold. What seems implied here is the possibility that a soul that is precious in the sight of God may be lost even within the society, Israel or the Church of Christ, which is for the time being the visible house of God. (3) It is a woman who seeks, and not a man, and the change, at least, reminds us of the woman in the parable of the Leaven. (See Note on Matthew 13:33.) It is hardly an adequate explanation in either case, though it may be true in itself, that the variation was made to interest a different class of hearers, the women who were listening, who had no experience in going after the sheep that was lost. We must at least see in it the lesson that what we call feminine virtues and graces are needed for the deliverance of souls that have fallen—patience, and diligence, and minute observation—not less than what we think of as the more manly qualities of courage, and enterprise, and endurance. Lastly, in the “woman” of the parable we may venture to see that which answers in part to the ideal representation of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs (Luke 8, 9), in part to the Church as answering in its collective unity to the ideal of womanhood, as Christ Himself does to the ideal of manhood (Ephesians 5:23).

Doth not light a candle, and. . . . seek diligently . . .?—The symbolic meaning of each act lies almost on the surface. To “light the candle” can be nothing else than to put forth the full power of truth and holiness. To “sweep the house” can be nothing else than to use all available means for discovering the possible good that lies hidden or seemingly lost. In the later actual life of the Church, faithful preaching of the word answers to the one, faithful organisation of charity to the other. The rest of the parable is simply an identical reproduction, mutatis mutandis, of the conclusion of the former.


Verse 11

(11) And he said, A certain man had two sons.—We enter here on one of the parables which are not only peculiar to St. Luke’s Gospel, but have something of a different character, as giving more than those we find in the other Gospels, the incidents of a story of common daily life. As with the Good Samaritan, it seems open to us to believe that it rested on a substratum of facts that had actually occurred. It is obvious that in the then social state of Palestine, brought into contact as the Jews were with the great cities of the Roman empire, such a history as that here recorded must have been but too painfully familiar.

In the immediate application of the parable, the father is the great Father of the souls of men; the elder son represents the respectably religious Pharisees; the younger stands for the class of publicans and sinners. In its subsequent developments it applies to the two types of character which answers to these in any age or country. On a wider scale, but with a less close parallelism, the elder son may stand for Israel according to the flesh; the younger for the whole heathen world. Looking back to the genealogies of Genesis 5:10; Genesis 9:18, and even (according to the true construction of the words) Genesis 10:21, they correspond respectively to the descendants of Shem and those of Japheth. It is obvious from the whole structure of the parable that the elder son cannot represent the unfallen part of God’s creation; and, so far as it goes, this tells against that interpretation of the ninety and nine sheep, or the nine pieces of silver.


Verse 12

(12) The younger of them said to his father.—In its bearing on the individual life, the younger son represents the temper that is eager for independence, self-asserting, energetic; the elder that which is contemplative, devout, ceremonial, quiescent. As the latter pre-eminently characterises, as noticed above, the sons of Shem as distinguished from those of Japheth, the Semitic as distinct from the Aryan race, the younger son represents primarily the Jew who has yielded to non-Jewish tendencies; and on the wider scale of interpretation, stands for the whole Gentile world. The contrast between the Esau and Jacob types of character is reproduced (Genesis 25:27), only here the elder brother answers to Jacob and the younger to Esau, the variation indicating that the former is with all its short-comings the natural heir of the double portion of the first-born in the spiritual inheritance of God’s kingdom. Israel remains within comparatively narrow limits of thought and habitation. Japheth is “enlarged” (Genesis 9:27) and goes forth with all his marvellous gifts of speech and thought, and fancy and invention.

Divided unto them his living.—In the normal scale of distribution, the elder son would have as his portion two-thirds of the personal, and possibly also of the real, property, the younger the remainder. In the framework of the story, the father and the elder son become, as it were, tenants in common (Luke 15:31), the former still retaining the general direction of affairs. The state of things so described represents roughly the life of Israel under its theocracy, acknowledging God as its true King and Father.


Verse 13

(13) Took his journey into a far country.—Such instances of emigration were, we may believe, familiar things in most towns of Galilee and Judæa. The young man left his home, and started, bent on pleasure or on gain, for Alexandria, or Rome, or Corinth, and rumour came home of riotous living, and a fortune wasted upon harlots, sabbaths broken, synagogues unvisited, perhaps even of participation in idol feasts. In the interpretation that lies below the surface, the “far country” is the state of the human spirit, of the Gentile world, in their wanderings far off from God. The “riotous living” is the reckless waste of noble gifts and highest energies on unbridled sensuality of life, or sensuous, i.e., idolatrous, forms of worship. The fearful history traced in Romans 1:19-32, is but too faithful a picture of the wanderings of the younger son.

Riotous.—The exact meaning of the word is prodigal, thriftless.


Verse 14

(14) There arose a mighty famine in that land.—This again was no unwonted incident. The famine which “came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar” (Acts 11:28) was more extensive and memorable than others, but it was far from standing alone. And now the pinch came. His treasure was gone, and for the fulness of bread there was hunger and “cleanness of teeth” (Amos 4:6). In the individual interpretation of the parable, the mighty famine is the yearning of the soul’s unsatisfied desire, the absence of its true food, of “the bread that cometh down from heaven.” (See Notes on John 6:32.) In its wider range it is the craving of humanity for what it cannot find when appetites are not satisfied, and their wonted supply ceases—the famine, not of bread and of water, but of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11); the want of a message from the Eternal Father to sustain the life of His children.


Verse 15

(15) Joined himself.—Literally clave to, or, attached himself to. The verb is the same as that used of the husband cleaving to his wife in Matthew 19:5, and thus expresses the absolute dependence of the famished man upon one who was ready to help him.

To a citizen.—Literally, to one of the citizens. In the outer story of the parable, this would emphasise the misery into which the man had fallen. The son of Abraham had to depend upon the bounty of an alien. In the two lines of interpretation, the “citizen” is one who all along has been of the world, worldly, living for no higher end than gain or pleasure. The prodigal is as one who, called to a higher life, has forfeited its blessedness, and now depends for such joy as he is capable of on those who are more completely identified with evil. It is, perhaps, natural that as we diverge more widely from the primary scope of the parable, its application in detail should become more difficult; and looking at the parable, as giving an outline of the history of the human race, one fails to see who answers to the “citizen.” Not the Tempter, the great author of the world’s evil, for the citizen is one of many. Nor is it the part of the citizen here to tempt to evil, but rather to be half-unconsciously God’s instrument in punishing it—half-unconsciously, again, the means of preserving the evil-doer from perishing, and so of making a subsequent deliverance possible. It is truer to facts, therefore, to see in the “citizen” the representative of the wisdom and knowledge, maxims of worldly prudence or principles of ethics without religion, which for a time sustain the soul, and “still the hungry edge of appetite,” and keep it from sinking utterly, while yet they leave it in its wretchedness and do not satisfy its cravings.

To feed swine.—We feel at once the shudder that would pass through the hearers of the parable as they listened to these words. Could there be for an Israelite a greater depth of debasement? In the inner teaching of the parable, this perhaps implies a state in which the man’s will and energies have but the one work of ministering to his baser appetites. Such, in the long-run, is the outcome of the wisdom described in the previous note as answering to the “citizen.”


Verse 16

(16) He would fain have filled his belly.—It is singular that very many of the best MSS. give the simpler reading, “desired to be filled or satisfied.” It is open to suppose either that they shrank from the reading in the text as too coarse, or that the later MSS. introduced “filled his belly” as more vivid and colloquial; or, as seems probable, that there may have been a variation of phrase even in the original autograph MSS. of St. Luke.

The husks that the swine did eat.—The word is generic, but it is commonly identified with the long bean-like pods of the carob-tree, or Ceratonia siliqua, or St. John’s bread, in which some have seen the “locusts” of Matthew 3:4. They contain a good deal of saccharine matter, and are commonly used as food for swine in Syria and Egypt. Spiritually, they answer to the sensual pleasures in which men who are as the swine, identified with brute appetites, find adequate sustenance. The soul that was born to a higher inheritance cannot so satisfy itself. It seeks to be “like a beast with lower pleasures,” but it is part of the Father’s discipline that that baser satisfaction is beyond its reach.


Verse 17

(17) And when he came to himself.—The phrase is wonderfully suggestive. The man’s guilt was, that he had been self-indulgent; but he had been living to a self which was not his true self. The first step in his repentance is to wake as out of an evil dream, and to be conscious of his better nature, and then there comes the memory of happier days which is as “Sorrow’s crown of sorrow.” The “hired servants” are obviously those who serve God, not in the spirit of filial love, but from the hope of a reward. Even in that lower form of duty they find what satisfies their wants. They have not the craving of unsatisfied desire which the son feels who has cast away his sonship. He envies them, and would fain be as they are.


Verses 17-20

The Return to the Father

But when he came to himself he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father.—Luke 15:17-20.

1. This is one of a group of three parables which our Lord delivered at one time, for one purpose, while He sat surrounded by representatives of three great classes of listeners.

First, Jesus had of course close around Him the circle of His chosen Apostles. To them it was a parable of faith—of the faith they were about to be sent forth to preach to all the children of God scattered abroad. Secondly, pressing eagerly through the disciples, who had been taught by the Lord not to repel them, there “drew unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him”; that is, the great world of sinners, who knew themselves to be sinners, but in whom (because they are not self-righteous) the Incarnate Word discerned a readiness for repentance and faith. To them—despairing of themselves, and encouraged in their despair by their teachers—it was, above everything, a parable of hope. Thirdly, this parable was heard by those who counted themselves righteous and despised others. Present as critics, not as hungering and thirsting learners, the group of Pharisees stood aloof. Having no sympathy with humanity at large, they murmured at the Son of Man for giving welcome to an audience which included prostitutes and cheats. To them it was certainly a parable of charity.

2. The parable has been aptly and beautifully called “the evangel within the evangel”—the heart of the Gospel of Jesus. If our Lord had only appeared on earth and given utterance to this one gracious story, He would have conferred on humanity an unspeakable boon and completely altered our views of God and man, of sin and of destiny. The salient message of the parable is unmistakable. The hunger at the heart of God for the return of the prodigal and the hunger at the heart of the prodigal for God and home—that is the broad, patent, outstanding truth.

The thoughts suggested by the passage may be grouped under three titles—

I. Reflection.

II. Repentance.

III. Restoration.

I

Reflection

“When he came to himself.” The prodigal had not been himself when he begged his father to advance him his patrimony, nor when he wasted his substance in riotous living. During that unhappy time, when he wandered into a far country, and consorted with swine, and human beings who lived like swine, he had lost or forgotten himself. As soon as he came to himself, he rose and went to his father. So then, according to our Lord’s parable, a man turns to God at once when his mind is in a healthy state. It is natural for man to be religious; and if he is not, there is probably something wrong with him.

For religion is holiness, and holiness is health. When some one whom we love is cross or irritable, we say of him, “He’s not himself to-day.” When one whom we have known for years does something unworthy, we say, “Ah, that’s not himself at all.” And what is that but our instinctive certainty that a man is more than his vices or his failures, and that if we want to know him as he is, we must take him at the level of his best? It was always thus that Jesus judged humanity. He was a magnificent and a consistent optimist. He never made light of sin, never condoned it. To Him it was always terrible and tragic. But then the sinner was not the real man; sin was a bondage, a tyranny, a madness; and it was when the tyranny of sin was broken that a man came to his true self.

1. The prodigal’s repentance began in a self-colloquy—an interior conversation, an examination of his conscience by himself: it is a confession to himself. Repentance always begins in thoughtful interior soliloquy; and all soliloquy, as Shaftesbury has said in his Characteristics, is an inward dialogue, is really a colloquy. The profoundest and the purest thinking of individual men has not only been in this form, but it has been communicated to their fellow-men, and handed over to our use in the shape of dialogue. The work of Socrates was done by dialogue. The written works of Plato are cast in the form of conversations, in which it is plain that he has made himself the thinker in each converser. It is enough to say that Shakespeare is a dramatist, and that Faust is a play. The most universally used and the most helpful of all ascetical treatises, The Imitation of Christ, is given for our use in the form of interior colloquies. The younger brother of God’s household, the Gentile Humanity, summed up in the famous words, “Know thyself,” the conclusion of his search for the right end of human thinking. The elder brother, Circumcised Humanity, utters the same conclusion in the words of his own Psalmist, “Commune with thine own heart.” “O what heaps of filth,” cries one who has entered as deeply into the Gentile spirit as into the Jewish spirit, “and what foul disorder there must necessarily be in a breast which is never looked into!”1 [Note: T. Hancock.]

There is hope for the worst of men if they begin to reflect. Reflection is the first step on the ladder which leads a sinner up to God—the first step on the bridge which he crosses over to return to God. The Scripture bids us “consider our ways.” This is what the prodigal did, and it ended in his return to his father.

A famous Bishop once made this appeal to a wild young man: “Promise me that you will do this one thing to oblige me. Go and shut yourself up in an empty room for the whole of one day.” He did so to please the Bishop. Having nothing whatever in the room to take his attention, it forced him to reflect, and in the end to repent and to reform.2 [Note: H. G. Youard.]

2. What did the prodigal reflect on?

(1) He reflected on his present miserable condition.—He stood there solitary in the field. His clothes were torn into rags, his eyes were sunken in their sockets, his cheeks were hollow, his lips were parched and cracked; he looked the very effigy of famine itself. The swine were feeding around him: he was gnawing at the husks which the swine had tossed out of the troughs with their snouts. “And no man gave unto him.”

We can hardly enter into the shudder of horror which passed through the listening group when they heard Jesus declare that the starving young Jew joined himself to a rich Gentile swine farmer, that he forced himself a willing bondsman upon the foreigner, that he stuck to him, that he would not be denied. He who began by asking his father to give him everything, now prays to his enemy to allow him anything. The proud child of Abraham receives an insult, and grasps at it thankfully. He is sent, as if he were a slave, into the alien’s fields to feed swine.

How admirably has Watts represented the “Prodigal Son” as an example of the larger liberty which sin offers to the deluded soul, and which ends in destitution and in the company of the swine. He is resting at the foot of a huge fig-tree whose leaves overshadow his nakedness from the scorching sun, in a woebegone attitude, feeling to the full the wretchedness of his position, with a most expressive countenance full of sadness and remorse, bethinking himself of the bread enough in his father’s house and to spare, while he perishes for lack of food, and there is no one to pity or help him. His forlorn, destitute look shows the ruin of a nature so noble that it cannot be content with its circumstances, but recalls a happier and worthier condition. The contrast between the two natures, the human and the swinish, is brought out with subtle power. The swine lying in indolent sensual enjoyment on the ground show the satisfaction of creatures that are at home in their circumstances, whose wants are bounded by their nature, and supplied in the wilderness where man finds nothing suitable for him. Man has a larger nature than any husks of the world’s good things can feed—which nothing that God can give—no creature good—nothing but God Himself can satisfy. And therefore he is miserable even when worldly things are most favourable to him, until he has come to himself, and resolved that he will arise and go to his Father, and to the true home of his spirit.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan, Life-Work of G. F. Watts, 165.]

(2) He reflected on his past error and folly.—He saw what was the genesis of his whole miserable condition: he ought never to have left his father’s home. That was the beginning of his undoing; and, if he was ever to be saved, he must get back to where he started from. “Why!” he says: “in my father’s house the very servants have enough and to spare, whilst I, his son, perish with hunger.” In the past he had been stinted in nothing, and now he was dying from hunger. The truth dawned upon him. He saw not only his perilous condition but the reason for it. The insane man had become sane.

At St. Helena the Emperor turns upon Gourgaud with pathetic truth: “You speak of sorrow, you! And I! What sorrows have I not had! What things to reproach myself with! You at any rate have nothing to regret.” And again: “Do you suppose that when I wake at night I have not bad moments—when I think of what I was, and what I am?”1 [Note: Lord Rosebery, Napoleon, the Last Phase, 49.]

Why feedest thou on husks so coarse and rude?

I could not be content with angels’ food.


How camest thou companion to the swine?

I loathed the courts of heaven, the choir divine.


Who bade thee crouch in hovel dark and drear?

I left a palace wide to hide me here.


Harsh tyrant’s slave who made thee, once so free?

A father’s rule too heavy seemed to me.


What sordid rags float round thee on the breeze?

I laid immortal robes aside for these.


An exile through the world who bade thee roam?

None, but I wearied of a happy home.


Why must thou dweller in a desert be?

A garden seemed not fair enough to me.


Why sue a beggar at the mean world’s door?

To live on God’s large bounty seemed so poor.


What has thy forehead so to earthward brought?

To lift it higher than the stars I thought.2 [Note: R. C. Trench, Poems, 234.]

(3) He recalled the privileges and the happiness of the home on which he so lightly turned his back. The poor prodigal—homeless, friendless, starving—remembered his home, his father’s loving care of him, his mother’s tender schooling. He could see, as in a vision, the old house where he was born, the garden where he played as a child, the flowers that he had trained, the trees that he had climbed. He had grown tired of home; now how he longed to see it once more! In his father’s house there was plenty of bread and to spare, and the loving ministry of his parents.

The German poet tells us of a robber who, in his lawless stronghold beside the Rhine, remembered the days when he, a little child, could not sleep unless his mother had kissed him. Danton, one of the blood-stained leaders of the French Revolution, thought lovingly in his latter days of the little village where he was born, and visited the simple farm where he spent his childhood. Napoleon, a crushed and ruined man, could recall with a sigh the day when he received his first communion in his innocent boyhood long ago. Many a one in his hour of remorse and misery has echoed the words of Job—“Oh, that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; when his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness; as I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle.”1 [Note: W. Buxton, The Battle of Life, 112.]

Does that lamp still burn in my Father’s house

Which he kindled the night I went away?

I turned once beneath the cedar boughs,

And marked it gleam with a golden ray;

Did he think to light me home some day?


Hungry here with the crunching swine,

Hungry harvest have I to reap;

In a dream I count my Father’s kine,

I hear the tinkling bells of his sheep,

I watch his lambs that browse and leap.


There is plenty of bread at home,

His servants have bread enough and to spare;

The purple wine-fat froths with foam,

Oil and spices make sweet the air,

While I perish hungry and bare.


Rich and blessed those servants, rather

Than I who see not my Father’s face!

I will arise and go to my Father:—

“Fallen from sonship, beggared of grace,

Grant me, Father, a servant’s place.”1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poems, 251.]

II

Repentance

1. Repentance means a change of mind, so that we hate the evil which we once loved; we shrink from the bad company in which we delighted; we go back to the God whom we neglected; we turn from the cup of sinful pleasure as from poison. It will not do for us to remain with the swine and the filth of sin, and bewail that we are not clean. If we would be clean we must leave the dirty ways; we must arise. The prodigal made up his mind at once. He did not hesitate as to what he should do; he did not try to join himself to yet another citizen of the far country, or to seek some other sin. There was only one thing for him to do, and he did it.

In illustration of the change in life and position which this meant, the story of Marie Antoinette has been told, how she took off her old robes and put on new, as she entered France to become its queen. It just meant that she had put off the Austrian princess, and put on the French queen. So it is to be with us. Our repentance must mean a new life, in the freedom of sons. It must mean amendment of heart, and character, and will: the putting off of the old man, the putting on of the new.2 [Note: V. L. Johnstone, Sonship, 66.]

2. The prodigal said to himself: “I will arise, and go, and say.” What is the meaning of these three expressions? They are of the simplest kind and belong to the common vocabulary of everyday life. Yet there is contained in them a perfect description of what is required of every man in the act of repentance. Every man who “repents him truly of his former sins” must first “arise”—must then “go”—and must then “say.”

(1) “I will arise.” That means strictly “stand upright.” For sin drags a man downwards, and the first step towards repentance from sin is to refuse to remain at the low level to which one has sunk. Get on your legs! Look up to Heaven, to the God and Father of us all! We know that, even as regards our bodies, it means something to keep them from bending and stooping towards the ground. We know that the downcast look and the drooping head are to be avoided. Only when we are in grief, or in disgrace, are these postures allowable. We see, then, that even our bodies teach us the need of uprightness. But this lesson, which even our bodies teach us, is in like manner the first lesson which the soul has to learn in the act of repentance. Repentance is, in the first instance, a looking upward, a standing upright. It consists in saying, “I will not wallow any more on the ground. I feel that there is something within me which requires to be lifted above the level to which I have hitherto descended. Why should I not look beyond my past experiences to a better and higher life in the future?”

I spent a very interesting and on the whole a very encouraging time in Northampton. I preached twice—once on Sunday at the dedication of St. Crispin’s, and once on Sunday at St. Sepulchre’s. It certainly was a great fact to see two hundred and fifty bona-fide Northampton shoemakers filling nearly half the new church; and to have pointed out to me churchwardens and committee-men, zealous Churchmen and communicants, who two years ago were fierce Bradlaughites and infidels. I talked with one of these. I shall not easily forget the quiet earnestness and modesty of the man, nor the way he spoke of his conversion through hearing a sermon on the Prodigal Son. “It was that,” he said, “that did it.” I felt at the moment what a Divine unending power there is in that great word of Christ. How mightier than all our words and deeds! How often in the world’s history has that word, “I will arise and go to my Father,” moved hearts that nothing else could move?1 [Note: Life of Archbishop Magee, ii. 204.]

I will arise, repenting and in pain;

I will arise, and smite upon my breast

And turn to thee again;

Thou choosest best;

Lead me along the road Thou makest plain.

Lead me a little way, and carry me

A little way, and hearken to my sighs,

And store my tears with Thee,

And deign replies

To feeble prayers;—O Lord, I will arise.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poems, 251.]

(2) “I will go.” That means strictly, “I will go on a journey.” The man must not only stand upright in his present position, he must take up a new position. Now this new position is a long way off from the position which he at present occupies, and therefore a journey is required. Indeed the chief source of his unhappiness has now come to be precisely this very fact, that though he hates his former sins, he is still living in the midst of those sins. He is there where he ought not to be—far, far away from his Father’s house, a stranger in a strange land. So then all his efforts must be concentrated on a removal of himself, of his body not less than his soul, from the hateful house of bondage in which he is at present dwelling. “I will go,” he says, “leave it all behind me, place myself out of its reach.” And so he girds up his loins, takes with him his weapons, and starts on his journey.

Mr. Spurgeon, after preaching on “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean,” received the following letter:—

“I feel so happy to tell you that the Lord has pardoned a poor outcast of society. I got into your place, in a crowd, hoping nobody would see me. I had been out all night, and was miserable. While you were preaching about the leper, my whole life of sin rose up before me. I saw myself worse than the leper, cast away by everybody; there is not a sin I was not guilty of. As you went on, I looked straight away to Jesus. A gracious answer came, ‘Thy sins, which are many, are forgiven.’ I never heard any word of your sermon, I felt such joy to think that Jesus died even for a poor harlot. Long ere you get this letter, I trust to to be on the way to my dear home I ran away from. Do please pray for me that I may be kept by God’s almighty power. I can never thank you enough for bringing me to Jesus.”

“If it had not been for that sentence about going home,” said Mr. Spurgeon, “I might have had some doubts concerning her conversion; but when a fallen girl goes home to her father and mother it is a sure case.”2 [Note: Mrs. Spurgeon, Life of C. H. Spurgeon, iv. 32.]

One of the saddest letters in all literature is a letter written by our own poet, David Gray. David Gray was born eight miles from Glasgow; he went to the Free Church Normal in that city. His honest father would have made a preacher of him, but God forestalled that by making him a poet. Well, nothing would satisfy David but he must go to London. He suffered much there and fell into consumption. And this is one of his last letters home:—“Torquay, Jan. 6, 1861. Dear Parents,—I am coming home—home-sick. I cannot stay from home any longer. What’s the good of me being so far from home and sick and ill? O God! I wish I were home never to leave it more! Tell everybody that I am coming back—no better: worse, worse. What’s about climate, about frost or snow or cold weather, when one’s at home? I wish I had never left it.… I have no money, and I want to get home, home, home. What shall I do, O God! Father, I shall steal to you again, because I did not use you rightly.… Will you forgive me? Do I ask that?… I have come through things that I shall never tell to anybody but you, and you shall keep them secret as the grave. Get my own little room ready quick, quick; have it all tidy, and clean, and cosy, against my homecoming. I wish to die there, and nobody shall nurse me except my own dear mother, ever, ever again. O home, home, home!”1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, Sunrise, 10.]

(3) “I will say.” Our life’s journey is not to be all toil and travel; but our souls, in the course of the progress they are making, must break forth into an expression of themselves to God, must relieve themselves by an utterance of their entire repentance and of their earnest longing for forgiveness. “I will say, I will tell the Father all that I have been longing to make known to Him ever since I began to stand upright. Full, frank, free and open, shall be my confession of my past sins. Asking nothing from Him except to be forgiven, willing to take my place merely as a hired servant in His house, I will pour forth my whole soul before Him. I will cast my burden upon Him, and trust to Him to deal with me as He thinks fit. And I will choose the best words I can bring to my mind. I will select the most suitable forms of language known to me, by means of which to show my thankfulness to the Father who has so greatly loved me. ‘I will say.’ Let it be an apt utterance, even if but a homely one. I will not excuse myself by urging that it is enough if I feel and think, but I will take every pains, and leave untried no effort, so that I may render up to God the heart of a true penitent who is yet not satisfied, unless, together with his heart’s worship, he can offer up also prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.”

Professor George Milligan, in his volume on Greek Papyri, (p. 94), quotes a striking letter from a prodigal son to his mother written from Fayum sometime in the second century of our era. The letter which is now in the Berlin Museum runs:—

“Antonius Longus to Nilous his mother; many greetings. I continually pray for your health. Each day I direct supplication on your behalf to the Lord Serapis. I wish you to know that I had no hope that you would come up to the metropolis. On this account neither did I enter into the city. And I was ashamed to come to Karanis because I am going about in rags. I am writing to let you know that I am naked. I beseech you, mother, be reconciled to me. But I know what I have brought upon myself. Punished I have been in any case. I know that I have sinned.”

The pathetic letter, which is incomplete, breaks off with these words:—

“Come thyself.… I have heard that … I beseech thee … I almost … I beseech thee … I will … not … do otherwise.”

III

Restoration

1. In this wonderful picture, Jesus has given us the most attractive and most perfect image of God that came from His lips. That longing and looking for His lost one’s return; the going out to meet him; the kiss of welcome and the fond embrace; the prompt, frank, and complete forgiveness; the utter silence and forgetfulness concerning the evil and shameful past, as if it had never been; the festal robes and the rejoicing guests; the infinite tenderness, delicacy, and sweetness of it all, make up an appealing and affecting portrait which chains our admiration, stirs our deepest hearts, and goes beyond all thought. We feel that there is something far more than human in this. It is the beauty of God; it is the unspeakable grace of the Divine Fatherhood; and it is the great, pitiful, forgiving heart of God that the story brings to view, and that stands for ever prominent in our thoughts of it.

A lad from the north country strayed or stole into one of our great London cathedrals. He was lonely, dejected, friendless, and ashamed. He had sown his wild oats and a good many other things—gambled, drunk, and fooled away money, health, and character. Disgraced, hungry, desperate, and broken-hearted, he crept in with the vast congregation to the sacred building. The preacher read the lesson for the day. It was this incomparable parable. He read it without comment, but with clear and impassioned elocution. The outcast drank it all in with ears and heart strained to intensity; and when it was finished, forgetting the place, people, and everything else, he cried out audibly, “Eh, but yon was a grand old man!” And the whole world of Bible-readers have said substantially the same thing when they came to this imperishable picture.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, Parables of Jesus, 393.]

2. Though the prodigal sins, yet, as the parable shows, the fatherly heart never changes. The separation between man and God, the separation between us and God, has always been on one side only—on ours. “Be ye reconciled to God.” It is this unshaken certainty of the Fatherhood of God that can save man at his worst from despair. God’s forgiveness is not indeed weakness, an easy overlooking of sin. To know what sin is in itself must make that thought impossible. But forgiveness is God’s delight in seeing His children realize their sonship; it is God’s welcome home to them.

Spake our Lord: “If one draw near

Unto God—with praise and prayer—

Half a cubit, God will go

Twenty leagues to meet him so.”


He who walketh unto God,

God will run upon the road,

All the quicklier to forgive

One who learns at last to live.2 [Note: Sir Edwin Arnold.]

A great preacher used to tell the story of a farmer he knew. His daughter ran away from home, once, twice, three times, and on going into the county town one day he was told that she was up before the magistrate for disorderly conduct. His landlord sat on the bench, and said: “Mr. So-and-so, we all respect you; take your daughter home.” But the old man said: “She is no daughter of mine any longer. I forgave her once, I took her back twice, but when she went away the third time I gathered my people together in family worship and took my knife and cut her name out of the family Bible.”

3. The Father’s welcome exceeds the son’s fondest dream. “Make me,” said the prodigal, “as one of thy hired servants.” He was a slave on his outward journey, a slave in the land of revelry and indulgence, a slave in the midst of the husks, the troughs, and the pig dealers, a slave when he came to himself and thought of his father’s hired servants, a slave every step of the way home as he rehearsed his plea and story. But as he drew near to the old homestead the child-life began to flutter in his heart, and as he saw his father’s look, and heard the gladness of his father’s voice, and felt the warmth of his father’s kiss, the son began to grow, and grew so fast that as a matter of fact he never finished his story. The son could not say what the slave had prepared and rehearsed. That is the remedy—a renewed look at God’s face and a better acquaintanceship with the Father’s heart. It is the surprise and sacrifice of Divine grace that will depose the servant and crown the son.

When father and son have met, there is no longer any word of hired servants. Fear, shame, distrust of self, the burden of responsibility, are all swallowed up in love. One sight of the father’s face, the great embrace of the beloved arm thrown around his rags, the tears that fell upon his neck—these settle all the problems which in cold blood we settle otherwise.

Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;

Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.

Self-distrust even has passed, for love has found a natural and happy solution. No hard responsibilities to which our moral character is inadequate are thrust upon us; no unbearable lonely freedom is given us to manage rightly. The responsibilities of life in the father’s house are different from those of the far country. For the father is there, and we have learned at last to love him, and that love has become a far more commanding law than hired service can ever know.1 [Note: J. Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, 278.]

There are no degrees of forgiveness. There are degrees in the holiness that follows forgiveness; but pardon must be perfect at its birth. Forgiveness restores each man to the place he had before he fell. If the prodigal had been a hired servant previous to his fall, he would have been made a hired servant again. There would have been no sting in that; it would have involved no stigma. But to make him a servant after he had been a son would have perpetuated the pain of memory. Nothing impedes my progress like remembrance of a dark yesterday. When the page is already blotted, I am apt to blot it more. I lose heart; I say, “It is already tarnished; what does it matter now?” If I am to get a fair start, it must be a bright start—a start with the ring and the robe. It will not help me that you lift me from the far country if you give me a place second to my former self. That second place is my yesterday, and I should walk by its darkness. It would dog my footsteps; it would never let me go. I should not feel that sin was unworthy of me—below me. I should always be fingering my ticket-of-leave. I should never be able to soar for the remembrance of the irons; memory would clip the wings of hope.2 [Note: G. Matheson, Leaves for Quiet Hours, 126.]

Lord, I would rise, and run to Thee,—

Christ of God, who didst die for me;

But my feet are bound with the chains of sin,

And my heart is ashes and dust within.


Lord, I would rise, and run to Thee

If Thou’dst open mine eyes and let me see

How beautiful shines Thy deathless love

In Thy face that is bending my face above!


But sometimes come drifting the mist of tears,

And shadows of sorrow, and clouds of fears;

Till night sinks around me o’er sea and land,

And I know not whether to move or stand.


Yet I’d wait without dread till the dawn came sweet

As a dream of Thy beauty about my feet.

And I’d stretch out my hands and run to Thee

If Thou’dst open mine eyes and let me see.


Lo, the arms of Love are opened wide.

“Child, see the wound in My broken side.

And thy weariness lies on the heart of Me!”

Lord, I will rise and run to Thee.1 [Note: L. Maclean Watt, In Poet’s Corner, 75.]

The Return to the Father

Literature

Blunt (J. J.), Plain Sermons, i. 292.

Buxton (W.), The Battle of Life, 121.

Clarke (G.), True Manhood, 80.

Dods (M.), The Parables of our Lord, ii. 127.

Farrar (F. W.), In the Days of thy Youth, 376.

Greenhough (J. G.), The Parables of Jesus, 393.

Hamilton (J.), Works, ii. 338.

Hancock (T.), The Return to the Father, 65.

Inge (W. R.), Practical Questions, 2.

Johnstone (V. L.), Sonship, 55.

Jones (S.), Revival Sermons, 154.

Kelman (J.), Ephemera Eternitatis, 275.

Macmillan (H.), The Gate Beautiful, 22.

Marten (C. H.), Plain Bible Addresses, 125.

Morrison (G. H.), The Wings of the Morning, 246.

Punshon (W. M.), Sermons, 153.

Purves (G. C.), The Gospel according to Hosea, 121.

Rutherford (W. G.), The Key of Knowledge, 264.

Simpson (J. G.), Christus Crucifixus, 188.

Smith (W. M.), Giving a Man another Chance, 167.

Soden (J. J.), Sermons on Social Subjects, 71.

Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, vi. 153.

Whittuck (C.), Learning and Working, 41.

Christian World Pulpit, li. 182 (G. Body); lxviii. 228 (T. Phillips).

Church of England Pulpit, lvii. 74 (F. R. M. Hitchcock).

Churchman’s Pulpit: The Lenten Season, v. 163 (J. Keble).

Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., ix. 103 (H. G. Youard).

Homiletic Review, xliv. 334 (T. Kelly).


Verse 18

(18) I will arise and go to my father.—This, then, was the firstfruits of repentance. He remembers that he has a father, and trusts in that father’s love; but he dares not claim the old position which he had so recklessly cast away. He is content to be as one of the “hired servants.” Spiritually, the first impulse of the contrite heart is to take the lowest place, to wish for the drudgery of daily duties, or even menial service, if only it may be near its Father in heaven, and by slow degrees regain His favour and earn the wages of His praise.

I have sinned . . .—More strictly, I sinned, as going back in thought to the first act of sin as virtually including all that grew out of it.


Verse 20

(20) When he was yet a great way off.—In the story of the parable we must think of the wanderer as coming back weary, foot-sore, hungry, and in rags. In the interpretation, the state of the penitent is that of one who is poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:6), with knees that are feeble and hands that hang down (Hebrews 12:12), conscious of his nakedness and needing something else than the “filthy rags” of his own righteousness (Isaiah 64:6) to cover it. And he is yet “a great way off”—not as yet near the home of peace, the light of the Father’s countenance—but even there, there comes to him the joy of all joys, the love of the Father finds him, and he is conscious of the love. There is the contact of his soul with the Divine Presence which answers to the Father’s kiss.


Verse 21

(21) Father, I have sinned against heaven.—The iteration of the self-same words comes to us with a wonderful power and pathos. The contrite soul does not play with its contrition, or seek to vary its expression. But the change is as suggestive as the repetition. Now that he has seen his father, he cannot bring himself to say again, “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” That had been a natural and right wish before; it would savour of unreality and hypocrisy now. This also has its analogue in the history of true penitents. In the first stirrings of contrition they stand afar off, and as they confess their sins hardly dare to hope for restoration to the blessedness of sons; but when they have felt the Father’s kiss, though still confessing that they are unworthy to be called sons, they cannot be satisfied with anything less than sonship.


Verse 22

(22) Bring forth the best robe.—It is hardly necessary, perhaps, in such a parable, to press the symbolic interpretation of each minute detail; but in this instance the symbolism lies so near the surface that it is at least well to ask ourselves what meaning either earlier or later associations would lead the disciples to attach to them. The “best robe” cannot well be other than the “garment of praise” (Isaiah 61:3), the vesture of righteousness, the new life and immortality with which it is the desire of the penitent to be clothed upon; the ring, as the signet upon the right hand (Jeremiah 22:24), must be the token of the special favour of the Giver, the seal of his “calling and election;” the shoes must answer to that “preparation” or “readiness” which comes from the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15), and which makes him eager to do his work as a messenger who proclaims that gospel to others, and which he need not lay aside (comp. Exodus 3:5) even when he treads on the “holy ground” where man holds communion with God, the forgiven and restored son with the Eternal Father.


Verse 23

(23) Bring hither the fatted calf.—It is interesting to remember the impression which this part of the parable made on one of the great teachers of the Church as early as the second century. Irenaeus (see Introduction) saw in it an illustration of what seemed to him the special characteristic of St. Luke’s Gospel, viz., the stress which it lays on the priestly aspect of our Lord’s work and ministry. We note, after our more modern method, (1) that in the framework of the story, the definite article points to “the calf” that had been fattened as for some special feast of joy. It answers accordingly to the “feast of fat things” of Isaiah 25:6 - i.e., to the joy of the full fruition of the presence of God; and there is, perhaps, in the command to “kill it” (the word used is the technical one for slaying a sacrificial victim) a half-suggestion that this was only possible through a sacrifice and death. The fatted calf thus comes to represent to us that of which the Eucharistic feast is at once a symbol, a witness, and a pledge.


Verse 24

(24) This my son was dead.—The words, looked at merely as part of the story, have a wonderful pathos. Absence, alienation, the self-chosen shame, this had made the father think of the son as “dead.” Death would indeed have been far easier to bear. Spiritually, we are taught that repentance is nothing less than the passing from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, from the “graves of lust” (Numbers 11:34) to the power of the resurrection. The “lost” and “found” appear as furnishing the link that connects this with the preceding parables, and makes the trilogy, as it were, complete.


Verse 25

(25) He heard musick and dancing.—This brings in a new feature. The father, like the chief actors in the other parables, had called together his “friends and neighbours,” and they were rejoicing after the manner of the East. There was “musick,” literally, a symphony, or concert, implying voices as well as instruments. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but it is found in the LXX. version of Daniel 3:5; Daniel 3:10, Where indeed the Hebrew, or rather the Aramaic, word is but the Greek transliterated. The word for “dancing,” also, is found here only in the New Testament, and is the same as that used, in classical Greek, for the chorus of the Greek drama, and from which we get our English “choir.” It probably implied, i.e., song as well as dancing. Spiritually, these outward signs of gladness answer to the overflowing demonstrative joy which thrills through the hearts of those whose sympathies with God’s work in the souls of men are keen and strong, and to which those who live only in the colder religionism of outward service are so insensible that they cannot understand it. They ask now, as the elder son asked, as the Pharisees were in their hearts asking, what it means? Why this departure from the even tenor of men’s wonted life?


Verse 27

(27) Because he hath received him safe and sound.—Literally, in health. The participle is the same which we have noted as characteristic of St. Luke and St. Paul in Luke 5:31; Luke 7:10.


Verse 28

(28) And he was angry, and would not go in.—This, then, was the first feeling. He who professed obedience to his father is out of harmony with his father’s mind. He “shuts love out,” and, as by a righteous judgment, is himself “shut out from love.”


Verse 29

(29) Lo, these many years do I serve thee.—The very word “I serve,” as a slave serves, is eminently suggestive. The obedience had all along been servile, prompted by fear and hope, even as the slave’s obedience is. The language put into the mouth of the elder son is clearly meant to represent the habitual thoughts of the Pharisees. They are taken, as it were, after our Lord’s manner, as seen in the previous parables, at their own valuation of themselves. They are conscious of no transgressions; but in that very unconsciousness lies the secret of the absence of any sense of joy in being forgiven, of any power to sympathise with the joy of others, even of any satisfaction in the service in which they pride themselves. (Comp. Notes on Luke 7:47-50.) They are scandalised at the gladness which others feel when a penitent returns to God. It seems like an insult and wrong to themselves. Their life has been one of uniform obedience; they have performed their religious duties. Why is so much stir made about those who have fallen as they never fell?


Verse 30

(30) As soon as this thy son was come.—The feeling of discontent passes into scorn and bitterness. The sin of the wanderer is painted at once in the coarsest and darkest colours. The very turn of the phrase, “this thy son” speaks of a concentrated malignity.


Verse 31

(31) Son, thou art ever with me.—As applied to the Pharisees in its primary bearing, or to others like the Pharisees in its secondary, it appears at first sight as if the words were spoken from their own point of view, their own self-appreciation, and were therefore ironical. We need not, however, so take them. The words were literally true of the Pharisees, of Israel as a nation, of all who reproduce the Pharisee temper. All outward gifts that God could bestow, the covenants and the law, and the promises, outward ordinances of worship, and the instruction of wise men and scribes—these had all been given to Israel, as like blessings are offered now to all members of the visible Church of Christ, the great family of God. All that was wanted was the power to use these things rightly, as the Father wills, and therefore to enjoy them.

All that I have is thine.—More literally, all mine is thine.


Verse 32

(32) It was meet that we should make merry.—The Greek expresses moral necessity rather than mere fitness. “We must needs rejoice;” it could not be otherwise. The repetition of the same words that had been used before, “he was dead . . .” is singularly-emphatic. This, and nothing more or less than this was the true account of the change that had passed over the wanderer; and this ought to be a source of joy to all his kindred. There is, perhaps, a touch of tenderness as well as reproof in the way in which the scornful “this thy son” is met by “this thy brother.” The elder son had forgotten that fact, and had almost disclaimed his own sonship in his scorn for the offender.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 15:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/luke-15.html. 1905.

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