The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son.
LUKE xv.

The three parables of this chapter, like the seven in Matt. xiii., constitute a connected series. As soon as we begin to look into their contents and relations, it becomes obvious that they have been arranged according to a logical scheme, and that the group so framed is not fragmentary but complete. We cannot indeed fully comprehend the reciprocal relations of all until we shall have examined in detail the actual contents of each; and yet, on the other hand, a preliminary survey of the scheme as a whole may facilitate the subsequent examination of its parts. A glance towards the group from a point sufficiently distant to command the whole in one view may aid us afterwards in making a minuter inspection of details; and, reciprocally, the nearer inspection of individual features may throw back light on what shall have been left obscure in the general outline.

The three parables, then, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, refer all to the same subject and describe the same fact; they contemplate that fact, however, from opposite sides, and produce, accordingly, different pictures. It is important to notice at this stage that the three parables of this group do not constitute a consecutive series of three members. In the logical scheme the stem parts into two branches, and the first of these is afterwards subdivided also into two: the lost sheep and the lost coin contemplate the subject from the same side, and in the main present the same representation.[72]

[72] While the evidence that the main division is twofold, not threefold, lies chiefly in the nature of the several representations, the minute formulae by which the transitions of the narrative are effected, point in the same direction. The parable of the lost sheep is introduced by the phrase, "And he spake this parable," ([Greek: eipe de ten parabolen]), and that of the prodigal by the corresponding, "And he said," ([Greek: eipe de]). These two are thus balanced over against each other; but the only link between the lost sheep and the lost silver is, Either ([Greek: e]), indicating that the second does not introduce a new subject, but gives another illustration of that which was already expressed in the first.

The repetition is profitable, for besides the intensity which reiteration imparts, the two parables, although generically the same, are specifically different. Together they represent one side of the fall and the redemption of man, while the other and opposite side is represented by the parable of the prodigal. But while the first two represent the same aspect of the great event, they represent it with specific varieties of feature. This will be more distinctly understood when we shall have examined the parables in detail.

In further indicating the relations which subsist between the two portions of the group, I shall, for the sake of shortness, speak only of the lost sheep and the prodigal, including under the first term also its twin parable of the lost money.

The sin and the salvation of man, -- the fall and the rising again, considered as one whole, is here contemplated successively from two different, and in some respects opposite points of view. As the result, we obtain two very dissimilar pictures; yet the pictures are both true, and both represent the same object.

In as far as the departure is concerned, the two representations are coincident: it is only in regard to the return that they are essentially diverse. The sheep and the prodigal alike depart of their own accord, the one in ignorance and the other in wilful wickedness. Man destroys himself; but the hand of God must intervene for his salvation.[73]

[73] Bengel, in his usual pointed way, expresses the specific varieties which characterize the three successive views of men's sin, as stupidity, want of self-consciousness, and the positive choice of evil by an intelligent but depraved being. "Ovis, drachma, filius perditus: peccator stupidus, sui plane nescius, sciens et voluntarius."

The conversion of a sinner is, on the contrary, represented by two different pictures. You cannot convey a correct conception of a solid body by one picture on a flat surface. The globe itself, for example, cannot be exhibited on a map except as two distinct hemispheres. To the right you have a representation of one side, and to the left a representation of the other; the two pictures are different, and yet each, as far as it goes, is a true picture of the same globe. In like manner, the way of a sinner's return to God is too great and deep for being fully set forth in one similitude. In particular its aspect towards God and its aspect towards men are so diverse that both cannot be represented by one figure. On one side the Redeemer goes spontaneously forth to seek and bear back again the lost; on the other side the wanderer repents, arises, and returns. Here, accordingly, you see the shepherd following the strayed sheep, and bringing it back on his shoulders to the fold; and there you see the weary prodigal first coming to himself, and then coming to his Father. The first picture shows the sovereign self-moving love of God our Saviour; and the second shows the beginning, the progress, and the result of repentance in a sinner's heart.

These two similitudes represent one transaction: first, you are permitted to look upon it from above, and you behold the working of divine compassion; next, you are permitted to look upon it from below, and you behold the struggle of conviction in a sinner's conscience, -- the spontaneous return of a repenting man. Here is revealed the sovereign outgoing of divine power; and there in consequence appears a willing people (Ps. cx.3). It is not that one sinner is brought back by Christ, and another returns of his own accord: both features are present in every example. Of every one who, from this fallen world, shall have entered the eternal rest, it may be said, and will be said in the songs of heaven, both that the Lord his Redeemer, of His own mere mercy, saved him, and that he spontaneously came back to his Father's bosom and his Father's house.[74]

[74] It is interesting to notice that the same twin doctrines which the Master here exhibited in parables were afterwards taught in the same relation by his servants. Take two examples, one a brief bold allegory, and the other an autobiographic fragment, both from the fervent heart and through the fruitful pen of the apostle Paul. (1.) "Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his; and, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity" (2 Tim. ii.19). The engraving on the upper side of this seal represents God's part in a sinner's salvation, and corresponds to the shepherd's generous act; the engraving on its under side represents man's part, and corresponds to the repenting and returning of the prodigal. (2.) "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus" (Phil. iii.12). The obscurity which adheres to the sentence as it stands in the English Bible is removed when, instead of "that for which," you substitute the more direct and literal rendering, "for that," meaning "because" or "inasmuch as." The sentence should be read, "I follow after, if that I may (if so be that I may) apprehend, inasmuch as I also have been apprehended by, Christ Jesus," ([Greek: dioko de ei kai katalabo, eph ho kai katelephthen hypo tou Christoi Iesou]). The apostle intends to state two connected facts; and to intimate that the one is the cause of the other. He is striving to grasp the Saviour; and what impels or encourages him to make the effort? His own experience that his Saviour has already in sovereign love laid hold of him. Christ has already come to this sinful man, in loving saving power, as the good shepherd came to the lost sheep; therefore the sinful man will arise and go to the Father like the repenting prodigal. The consciousness that like the lost sheep he has been grasped in the Redeemer's arms does not induce him to abstain from effort as unnecessary; on the contrary, by inspiring hope, it nerves his arm and spurs him on. Because he feels that the Shepherd is bearing him, therefore he will arise and go.

It is proper to notice here also the immediate occasion in our Lord's history whence these instructions sprung, as it belongs not particularly to the first parable, but generally to the whole group. This spark of heavenly light, like many others of similar beauty, has been struck off for us by a rude blow which the Jewish leaders aimed against the character and authority of Jesus. The publicans and sinners of the place, -- the home-heathen of the day, -- the people whether rich or poor, who had neither the power of religion in their hearts nor the profession of it on their lips, -- came out in great numbers to hear this new prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. The word was new: "never man spake like this man" to these poor outcasts before. If at any time they sauntered into the synagogue, and hovered for a few moments on the outskirts of the congregation, the stray words that reached their ears from the desk of the presiding scribe, were harsh supercilious denunciations of themselves and their class. Hitherto their hearts had been like clay, and the Pharisaic teaching, as far as it had reached them, had been like fire: the clay in this furnace grew aye the harder. But now a new sound from the lips of a public teacher saluted their ears. They could not throw these words back in the speaker's face, if they would; and they would not if they could. They permitted themselves to be taken, and led. To them Jesus speaks "with authority, and not as the scribes." This word had power; and its power lay in its tenderness: it went sheer through their stony hearts, and made them flow down like water.

Nor did he gain favour among unholy men by making their sins seem lighter than the scribes represented them to be: he made them heavier. He did not convey to the profane and worldly the conception that their sins were easily forgiven; but he fixed in their hearts the impression that God is a great forgiver. Touched and won by this unwonted tenderness, they came in clouds to sit at Jesus' feet.

The Pharisees counted their presence a blemish in the reputation of the teacher. As for them, they had always so spoken as to keep people of that sort effectually at a distance: the doctrine, they think, that brings them round the preacher cannot be sound. "This man," they said, "receiveth sinners and eateth with them;" and they said no more, for they imagined that Jesus was convicted and condemned by the fact.

The occasion of the parables becomes in a great measure the key to their meaning. These men, the publicans and sinners, are Abraham's seed, and consequently, even according to the showing of the Pharisees themselves, lost sheep, -- prodigal sons; and the Redeemer's errand from heaven to earth is to seek and find and bring back such as these to the Father's fold. If they had not strayed, it would not have been necessary that the shepherd should follow them in their wandering, and bear them home: if they had not in a far country spent their substance in riotous living, it would not have been necessary that they should return repenting to their Father.

xxi the excuses
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