Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.The Approachableness of Christ
This truth of the approachableness of Christ, the freeness with which He opened Himself to every needy and suffering soul, is not of subordinate importance, but of the very essence of His Gospel. It rests on the constitution of His Person. It is necessitated by the very fact of His being what He is, the man Christ Jesus, and by His having come to do what He declared to be the object of His mission.
I. First of all, it rests upon the fact of His humanity. He assumed our human nature pure and simple, the humanity which is common to us all; but He did not assume any of its distortions, or those idiosyncrasies into which it runs and works itself up in every other person. This truth we express when we say that He became not a man, but man. In virtue, then, of His becoming man, Christ has brought Himself equally near to us all. He is related in exactly the same degree to every one, and to every one He belongs exactly to the same extent. None has a prior or special claim upon Him, and when you come to Him you come with precisely the same recommendation which every one has had, and with the same certainty of success. All you have to make out, in order to succeed in your errand to Him, is the fact of your being also a man. It is this that binds Him to you, and constitutes the tie between you.
II. The second ground on which the approachableness of Christ rests is the declared purpose of His mission. He Himself said: 'God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved'. The reason why He lived and died as He did was simply that He might take hold of us and deliver us from death. He is not, then, a God who happens to be a Saviour who, in addition to various other offices, if I may use that word, such as Creator. Preserver, Lawgiver, Judge, fills also the office of Redeemer. Christ, the God-man, is pre-eminently the Saviour, the Divine Deliverer, who makes everything subordinate to the good of men. And you must not think of Christ as having a great many things to do, as God, which to a certain extent He must leave alone if He is to pay regard to you. When you come to Him you do not interrupt Him in the doing of something else, or call Him aside from a more momentous or congenial occupation. He is on the outlook for you. He is waiting for the first symptom of a relenting heart. He is listening for the faintest sound of a returning step.
—C. Moinet, The Great Alternative and other Sermons, p. 19.
References.—XV. 1, 2.—J. Clifford, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 281. W. P. Balfern, Glimpses of Jesus, p. 139. J. Marshall Lang, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 124. XV. 1-3.—J. S. Boone, Sermons, p. 318. XV. 2.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 219; vol. xi. No. 665. F. B. Woodward, Sermons (1st Series), p. 93. J. Edwards, Preacher's Magazine, vol. x. p. 180. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year (2nd Series), vol. ii. p. 25. W. H. Harwood, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 218. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. i. p. 312. W. Baird, The Hallowing of our Common Life, p. 77. XV. 3.—H. Howard, The Raiment of the Soul, p. 97. A. P. Stanley, Sermons on Special Occasions, p. 127. J. Flanagan, Man's Quest, p. 25. XV. 3-7.—C. Perren, Outline Sermons, p. 293. XV. 3-10.—J. Bowstead, Practical Sermons, vol. i. p. 255.
Man's Need of God and God's Need of Man
The three parables of St. Luke xv. record for us man's need of God and God's need of man. They describe in all its phases and in all its intensity our sin and His love. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
I. Man's Need of God:—
(a) Sin in its beginning.—The lost sheep is for us the picture of transgression, of that which sin is, in its beginning, the careless wandering from the Father's home, from the shelter and the pasture which is our normal condition of life—the carelessness which forgets the prayers, the memories, the teachings of the past, the little road out of the common line of spiritual life, the heedlessness concerning the warnings by which God would limit and discipline our souls, the blindness, temporary blindness, which refuses to look at the notice boards which God has set upon the road of life, warning us that trespassers will be prosecuted.
(b) Sin through worldliness.—And then there is the second aspect of sin in the lost coin. What is the lost coin? It has fallen through carelessness, through the attraction of the earth, in other words, through worldliness, out of the Father's hand, and it has rolled away into the dark corners of life, where life is dark, because deeds are evil, mere worldliness, the law of earth's gravitation that attracts us downward instead of lifting us upward, so that the coin that goes out of the Father's hand of necessity goes down and not up.
(c) Sin in its open defiance.—And then the third aspect of sin is in the lost son, and it is open defiance, lawlessness. It marks the last stage of all in the history of sin. It is when the man or the woman has grown so discontented with life as God has ordered it that he or she means to live life without God in future. It is the open defiance of God, it is the cry of those who say, 'Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me, and I will go into a far country where God is not known and I can do as I will'.
II. God's Need of Man.—God is the owner Who is robbed.
(a) God robbed of His Property.—In the lost sheep it is His property which is taken from Him, it is that which is His own possession, created by Himself to serve Him and be of use to Him, that is gone, and therefore, as the Owner robbed of His property, He goes after that which is lost until He find it.
(b) God robbed of His honour.—And in the lost coin we have the loss not merely of property, but of honour. To the Jewish woman the loss of one of those coins in the circlet which she wore round her forehead meant not only loss of property, but of honour, loss of prestige.
(c) God robbed of His love.—And then, lastly, there is the lost son. And if, in the transgression which wanders from God, He loses His property, and in the lost coin which has slipped away from Him through the attraction of worldliness He is robbed of His honour, in the lost son He is robbed of His love. It is the great heart of God that is wounded when the prodigal goes into a far country.
III. For You Two Questions Remain.—(1) What are you doing to help God in His search? (2) Where do you stand in that category, that threefold category of sin?
References.—XV. 4.—Bishop Spalding, Church Times, vol. lx. p. 152. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlix. No. 2821. W. M. Clow, The Cross in Christian Experience, p. 243.
What is Christianity? It is the belief in the inexhaustible love of God for man. He came to seek that which is lost, until He find it.
—Erskine of Linlathen.
Seeking the Lost
Christ's three most precious parables, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, all illustrate the one thought—that the Divinest act of the Divine love is to seek the sinner and bring him back. They do so from different points of view, and if we wish to get the whole breadth of Christ's teaching we must take them altogether. Consider, then, three things:—
I. God seeking man.
II. God finding man when man seeks God and finds Him.
III. God rejoicing in the found man, and man rejoicing in the found God.
References.—XV. 4-6.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2065. XV. 4-7.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1801. XV. 4, 8, 11.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. Luke, p. 49. XV. 4-9.—Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 27, XV. 5.—S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year, vol. ii. p. 37.
Twenty-fifth Sunday After Trinity
We are very familiar with this parable as the parable of the Lost Sheep. Shall we look at it now in the light of a parable of the Seeking Shepherd? The chief interest of the parable centres in most people's minds round the sheep. But did it so centre in the mind of Christ? The real centre of the parable is not the sheep, but the Shepherd. The real interest of the parable lies in Him. It was not a parable which illustrated a lost soul; it was one which revealed am anxious redeemer. And, after all, is not that what we want—not parables to show us what we are, but greater parables than these to show us what Christ is? There are three points in the attitude of the Shepherd towards the lost sheep.
I. The Seeking Shepherd.—The first is this: The Shepherd goes in search of the sheep. He has no notion in His soul that the sheep will ever come in search of Him. The Incarnation of the Lord Jesus was the girding of Himself to go after lost humanity till He found it. His whole life was lived for that purpose. Just think for a moment how He lived for souls, how He worked for them, how He prayed for them, how He died for them, and now that the redemptive work is over and accomplished, Christ is still bent on the single mission of seeking for souls by His Spirit.
II. Seeking till He Finds.—And then, secondly, the Shepherd goes in search of the sheep till He finds it. That is just a life-sized picture of the untiring patience and inexhaustible love of Jesus. Till He finds it; for remember the great object of all Christ's work, and what ought to be the great object of all our work for Christ, is not to seek—that is a mere process; but to find—that is the object. The Saviour does not go after the wandering sheep for a mile or two in the wilderness, and then because the way is wet, or the sun is hot, or the body is weary, or the clouds of evening are thickening, say to Himself in a self-satisfied kind of way, 'I have done the best, I could do no more'. Not till He finds it, is the measure and the limit of His love. What a word, for you and me, for all the servants of Jesus Christ who, it may be with troublesome sheep, are trying to do work for Him.
III. Bringing Back the Lost.—Then, thirdly, notice, one more thing about the Shepherd. When He has found it He brings it on His shoulders. There is something more than seeking—yes, there is, I know; but there is something more than finding—there is bringing back.
The Gospel for the Lost
In reply to the murmuring of the Pharisees the Saviour spake unto them 'this parable'—a parable that is three and yet is one, as the artist sometimes tells his story in three panels, each complete in itself, yet each finding its completeness in the others. In the first there is the. lost sheep. The second panel is of a woman who has lost a piece of money—not much to many, perhaps, but very much to her. The third panel is of the prodigal son. We well may think of these three pictures as setting forth three types of character.
I. The first is the sheep—the silly sheep, that goes astray almost without meaning it or knowing it. Is it not the picture of thousands about us—souls not bad so much as weak and silly? May it not be that the Lord Jesus put these first because they are so common, and because it is so easy to turn away from them as if they were scarcely worth saving? There is nothing attractive about them, nothing hopeful. But does not love see in this their every need, their claim upon our help? About us are ten thousand men and women who can never get to heaven unless they are carried there on somebody's shoulder. Such people swarm about us: people without any resolution, without any strength of character.
II. The lost piece of money sets before us another type of character. Here it is not weakness that goes astray; you cannot blame the piece of money that it had gone down in the dirt, or got lost in the darkness. Somebody let it slip somehow; somebody's misfortune, or carelessness, or sin brought it where it is. This is the picture of those who are damned by their circumstances.
III. The last is the prodigal son—type of him who has deliberately gone astray, and must deliberately come back again—who will go on, and therefore must go down, down until there comes the blessed want that brings him to his senses, that kindly hunger that prompts him to come home. The great lesson here is that at his coming there be no hard words, no cold suspicion, no harsh probation; but love, glad love, that runs and cries: 'Bring out the best robe, and bring hither the fatted calf,' and that begins to be merry.
—M. G. Pearse, Naaman the Syrian and other Sermons, p. 201.
References.—XV. 6.—J. Reid, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 262. Mark Guy Pearse, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 316.
Joy in Heaven
Luke 15:7I. Notice the joy of Jesus in repentant souls. The sources of His joy were: (1) Obedience to and communion with God. (2) Self-forgetting love to men.
II. The joy of Jesus is the joy of God. The firm starting-point is that Christ is the Revealer of the Divine Mind and Nature. So when He yearns over sinners and when He rejoices over penitents He is revealing to us God.
III. The joy of God is spread through all His friends.
The Angels' Joy
Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10
We have in these two verses a positive statement that (1) there is joy in heaven, (2) there is joy in the presence of the angels of God, and (3) that the object of the joy is the sinner, the man who repents.
I. What is Exactly the Nature of the Angels?—It is impossible for us to say. It would appear that the angels are constituted like men in respect of joy. I do not see that they are affected by grief or pain. I apprehend that even under the most grievous and distressing circumstances the presence of the angels, according to God's Word, ever sheds brightness and comfort and peace. The statement that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God must apply to some capacity which these servants of God are able to express. It is only reasonable that they should be affected by the happiness of man; the joy of God's creatures. If the most beautiful things in this world were merely shadows, images emblematical of future reality, surely these portents of pleasure must indicate the magnitude of pleasure in God's presence, which we are told is the fullness of joy.
II. The Object of this Particular Joy.—It is the change from sin, the alteration of the man or woman over which there is joy. There is an expression of joy. Will this have the effect of enlarging our ideas to imagine that the greatest interest is taken over the affairs of man and woman in heaven? If we carry out this idea of repentance and forgiveness and the restoration of every sinner into the arms of Jesus Christ, into the fold of God, it enhances the amount of joy which ever abides in the hearts of God's special ministers—the angels.
III. It is a Beautiful Thought.—It should lead every one of us who have any doubt about our way of living to try and examine our hearts to see if we are doing anything to diminish the happiness of the souls in heaven—the angels of God. So simple and yet such a beautiful picture—moral and spiritual change in the man or woman or child producing happiness for those celestial beings. Is it not a glorious idea that the angels of God have no sorrow or pain? Try to enhance the pleasure of God's angels, who are His ministers and our guardians. They are His mouthpiece, and always speak, although we do not always hear them. God has given them their duty to guard and keep His children that they may be saved when He comes Himself to take them in His arms to the fold.
It was probably a hard saying to the Pharisees, that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance, and certain ingenious philosophers of our own day must surely take offence at a joy so entirely out of correspondence with arithmetical proportion. But a heart that has been taught by its own sore struggles to bleed for the woes of another—that has 'learned pity through suffering'—is likely to find very imperfect satisfaction in the 'balance of happiness,' 'doctrine of compensations,' and other short and easy methods of obtaining thorough complacency in the presence of pain; and for such a heart that saying will not be altogether dark.... For the man who knows sympathy because he has known sorrow, that old, old saying about the joy of angels over the repentant sinner outweighing their joy over the ninety-nine just, has a meaning which does not jar with the language of his own heart. It only tells him that for angels too there is a transcendent value in human pain, which refuses to be settled by equations; that the eyes of angels too are turned away from the serene happiness of the righteous to blend with yearning pity on the poor erring soul wandering in the desert where no water is; that for angels too the misery of one casts so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of ninety-nine.
—George Eliot, in Janet's Repentance.
By His saying, 'There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons, who need no repentance,' He made humility the gate of entrance into paradise.
References.—XV. 7.—A. B. Bruce, The Galilean Gospel, p. 108. W. J. E. Bennett, Sermons Preached at the London Mission, 1869, p. 37. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 362.
The Worth of Man
One of the most striking features of Christ's work on earth was His vindication before men of the worth of man. In those days the value of man as man had sunk very low. Human life was so little valued in those days that it was thought fitting for men to die by the score in the Roman Coliseum to amuse a holiday crowd. Slavery in one of its worst forms prevailed too, and the degradation which existed among the slave caste passes description. Yet no one protested; it never occurred to any one that man as man had any great or sacred value to be asserted or defended. Now Jesus Christ came and altered all that; He came to proclaim and to vindicate the worth of man as man. The title He Himself most cared to use was that of Son of man; by that name, you know, He always described Himself, by it He asserted the dignity of humanity and claimed brotherhood with all, the least and the lowest as well as the great; and by so doing He lifted the least and the lowest of the race to the nobility of fellowship with Himself. He sought the company of the despised, eating and drinking with them, He cared not if He were called the Friend of publicans and sinners; and in doing this He never sunk to their level, rather He raised them to His. He purposely depicted humanity as none before had ever done, showing men that sin and degradation are not their normal, proper state, but an abnormal one, an unnatural one into which they had fallen, and out of which He had come to lift them.
I. Man, Christ taught, was the true Son of the Heavenly Father, Who had never ceased to love him and was waiting and longing for him to give up his degradation and sin. That surely is one of the lessons which the short parable teaches us; the parable of the lost piece of silver which its owner cared for and sought for till it was found.
II. You and I are that lost Piece—precious metal and stamped with the image of the Great King, but we have fallen into the dust, we have lost ourselves, the brightness of the Divine effigy is dimmed and spoilt. But thanks be to Him, though lost, though fallen, we are not despairing; we are members valued, sought for, we may be saved and restored. It is for us to respond to the Divine Seeker's labours, Who, when He finds, rejoices with exceeding great joy, for we are precious in His sight.
III. But the Story has also Something to tell us of how we should Regard our Fellow-men.—Those whom you and I perchance despise God loves and values. Get a heart big enough to love as God loves; get a hope large enough to hope as God hopes; get eyes penetrating enough to see as God sees the good that lies in each and every human being.
References.—XV. 8.—Expository Sermons on the New Testament, p. 86. H. Howard, The Raiment of the Soul, p. 106. J. Keble, Sermons for Sundays after Trinity, pt. i. p. 84. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. iv. p. 260. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 117. XV. 8-10.—T. Davies, Sermonic Studies, p. 114. Hugh Macmillan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 376. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 970.
The Choir Invisible and Their Music
In the higher universe the true value of things is known, and this peep into glory is most instructive.
I. We are taught the significance of the individual. 'Over one sinner.' It is often seen how Christ sets at nought the tyranny of numbers, and concentrates attention on the unit. Christ discovered humanity; there was no sense of the solidarity of the race before He came: yet He also discovered the individual, for there was no recognition of the value of the single soul before He came. One of the very foremost teachings of Jesus Christ declares the supreme worth of personality. The lowliest must not forget his mysterious greatness nor the fact that in the highest world his fortune is followed with impassioned interest.
II. A further lesson of the text is that the importance of the individual lies in his moral life. 'One sinner.' The heavenly universe is interested exclusively in the history of souls. How different with us! We survey life from an altogether different standpoint; and gold, culture, greatness, or pleasure is the consuming theme of our contemplation. If the celestial world is absorbed in the history of the soul, ought we not to concern ourselves far more than we usually do with the inner life?
III. The final lesson we note is that the most important event in the individual life is the restoration of the lapsed soul to God. 'One sinner that repenteth.' He who came into the world to revolve all our values declares that the return of the prodigal son to his heavenly Father is the most momentous of all acts.
How vividly this narrative brings out the blessedness of repentance! God rejoices. 'In the presence of the angels.' The angels also rejoice. When the tide rises in the ocean, it rises in a thousand creeks and rivers; and when the sunny sea of God's blessedness swells, it streams through the celestial universe, and fresh music everywhere breaks out like the sound of many waters. But if repentance is an event to make heaven glad, is it not one to make us glad also?
—W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, p. 256.
References.—XV. 10.—J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 264. J. H. Ball, Persuasions, p. 178. E. W. Attwood, Sermons for Clergy and Laity, p. 301. R. J. Campbell, The Restored Innocence, p. 73. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 203, and vol. xlviii. No. 2791. John Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. iii. p. 211. XV. 11, 12.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 16. G. W. Brameld, Practical Sermons, p. 260. XV. 11-13.—J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passion-tide, p. 420. G. Body, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 162. XV. 11-16.—C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 199. J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 96. XV. 11-24.—C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 334. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. Luke, p. 69. XV. 11-32.—H. Howard, The Raiment of the Soul, p. 114. John Watson, Scottish Review, vol. iii. p. 360. A. M. Fairbairn, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. p. 33. R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James, p. 160. XV. 12.—J. J. Ingram, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 122.
Though science gives us a good deal to boast of, and may enter for a great deal into our hopes, the most that can be said in this respect is that it is like a splendid inheritance, which gives the wise man twenty years start in life, and precipitates the prodigal into irretrievable ruin.
—C. H. Pearson.
Profligacy consists not in spending years of time or chests of money, but in spending them off the line of your career.
References.—XV. 13.—G. Body, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 166. J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 29.
Luke 15:13; Luke 15:30
In the pain and the repentance, and in the acquaintance with the aspects of folly and sin, you have learned something; how much less than you would have learned in right paths, can never be told, but that it is less is certain. Your liberty of choice has simply destroyed for you so much life and strength, never regainable. It is true you now know the habits of swine who taste of husks: do you think your Father could not have taught you to know better habits and pleasanter tastes, if you had stayed in His house; and that the knowledge you have lost would not have been more, as well as sweeter, than that you have gained?
—Ruskin, Queen of the Air, sec. 153.
References.—XV. 14.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 40. XV. 14-16.—J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passion-tide, p. 429. XV. 15.—Expositor (6th Series), vol. xii. p. 20. XV. 15, 16.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 49.
The Prodigal and Miser.—The prodigal in this, the greatest of Jesus' parables, was a miser. He is the type and picture of the present day. You tell me that there is no vice so abhorrent to your nature as avarice. You say that the thin, bloodless, shrivelled creature, whose lean and bony claws are nervously outstretched to rake in the glittering coin, and who hugs his money-bags beside the dying embers of a penurious fire, has no place in our free and generous English life, where those who have money are expected to turn it over, and a liberal hand is all but inseparable from a full purse. And we are scarcely less ready to repudiate the life of riot and excess, which dissipates upon unworthy pleasures what has been painfully amassed by years of unremitting toil. If a generous, we are a thrifty people, and of reckless waste we are no less scornful than of miserly stint. But pardon me, what is it in the miser that seems to your enlightened judgment absurd, incomprehensible, and vain? Is it not the strange, unreasonable fascination with which he fondles the yellow pieces or smooths out the curling notes? Poor dotard! you exclaim, unhinged in mind and fancy. To wear the chain of a bondage to those inanimate tokens which should be the ministers of his own comfort and happiness! He has lost his conception of the end in the eagerness with which he gathers the means. For him the means have become the end. He is a bondservant, a slave. But is it not precisely the same with him whom you call the prodigal? He, like the miser, is squandering his opportunities. He has exchanged his coin for that which it represents. He has purchased his money's worth of that material outside himself which a modern philosopher has described as permanent possibilities of sensation. That only means what you can touch or taste, hear or see. The spendthrift is only surrounding himself with a profusion of material means, so that the prodigal and the miser are alike in what is essential to both characters—the exaltation into an end of what, according to the true proportion of things, has no value whatever except as a means to the development of a higher life.
—J. G. Simpson, Christus Crucifixus, p. 175.
The Homesickness of the Soul
I want to take the thought that the soul is homesick, and use it to shed a little light on dark places.
I. First, then, under this light we may view the unrest of sin. It is notable that it was in this light that Jesus viewed it, in the crowning parable from which we have taken our text. The prodigal was an exile; he was in a far country. It was the memory of his home that filled his heart. It was not terror that smote the prodigal deep. He came to himself, and he was homesick. (1) Now I think that Jesus would have us learn from that that wickedness is not the homeland of the soul, and that all the unrest and the dissatisfaction of the wicked is just the craving or his heart for home. We were not fashioned to be at home in sin. The native air of this mysterious heart is the love and purity and joy of heaven. We shall always be dissatisfied, always be homesick, if we are trying to live in any other land. (2) This thought, too, helps us to understand why men cover evil with a veil of goodness. It is just the longing of the exile or of the emigrant to give a homelike touch to his surroundings. (3) And we can understand the loneliness of sin when we remember this homesickness of the soul. The man who is homesick is always lonely. Slowly but surely, if a man lives in sin he drifts apart into spiritual isolation.
II. Under this light we may view the craving for God. We often speak of heaven as our home, and in many deep senses that is a true expression. But in deeper senses heaven is not our home, or if it is, it is just because God is there. In the deepest sense our home is not heaven, but God. Do you see, then, the meaning of that craving for God that is one of the strangest facts in human history? (1) We crave for God because He is our home. (2) Now this homesickness of the soul for God is one of our surest proofs of God. It is an argument more powerful than any that philosophy affords to convince me that there is a God. Without a home, homesickness is inexplicable. My craving for God assures me that God is.
—G. H. Morrison, Sunrise: Addresses from a City Pulpit, p. 1.
Coming to Oneself
'When he came to himself'—when he became himself—then in his years of riot he was not himself. It was not the prodigal who was the real man. The real man was the penitent, not the prodigal. This parable has not only influenced thought; like all the parables it has also affected language. When some one whom we love is cross or irritable, we say of him, 'He's not himself today'. And what is that but our instinctive certainty that a man is more than his vices or his failures, and that if you want to know him as he is, you must take him at the level of his best. It was always thus that Jesus judged humanity. I would remark, too, about this prodigal, that his one object in leaving home was just to find himself. We come to ourselves when we deny ourselves; when life has room for sacrifice and service; when the eyes are lifted to the love of heaven, and the heart is set upon the will of God.
I. That our text was no chance expression of the Master's we may gather from many Gospel passages. Think, for example, of that memorable hour when Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem. Our Lord had begun to speak plainly of His death, and it was all so shocking and terrible to Peter, that Peter had taken Christ to task for it. 'Far be it from Thee, Lord; this never shall befall Thee. While I have a sword to draw they shall not touch Thee.' And then the Lord flashed round on His disciple, and said to him, 'Get thee behind Me, Satan'. Only an hour before he had been Peter—'Thou art Peter, and on this rock I build'. That was the true Peter, moved of God, kindled into the rapture of confession. Of course in such a hopeful, splendid outlook there is no lessening of responsibility. A man is not less guilty for his failures, because they do not represent his real manhood.
II. I would further remark that when He was on earth that was one great aim of Jesus' toil. It was not to make men and women angels. It was to make men and women their true selves. Christ aimed at more than making people better; His aim and object was to make them themselves. And that is the reason why the follower of Christ is the possessor of the largest freedom. The nearer a man is to being himself, the nearer is he to sweet liberty.
—G. H. Morrison, The Wings of the Morning, p. 246.
References.—XV. 17.—Archbishop Magee, The Gospel and the Age, p. 277. D. W. Simon, Twice Born and Other Sermons, p. 21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 1000, and vol. xli. No. 2414. W. H. Brookfield, Sermons, p. 105. XV. 17-19.—J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passion-tide, p. 436. G. Body, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 182. J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 66. XV. 17-21.—J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 109. XV. 18.—J. G. Simpson, Christus Crucifixus, p. 188. F. J. A. Hort, Village Sermons in Outline, p. 10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 113. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 235. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 26. XV. 18, 19.—J. J. Blunt, Plain Sermons, p. 292. XV. 19.—W. G. Rutherford, The Key of Knowledge, p. 264. J. Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, p. 275.
Here we are carried right up into the heart of the Christian revelation. We shall be prepared to allow, I think, that the picture of the father, going forth with eager haste to anticipate his son's return, requires some justification before it can be accepted as adequately representing the Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. What I mean is this. There is a passage in the Epistle to the Romans, in which the Apostle Paul declares that the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, the propitiation set forth in His Blood, meets a great necessity, which could not have been satisfied by an act of amnesty extended to transgressors of the eternal law. God cannot pronounce a verdict of acquittal which is not true in fact. He cannot be the justifier of the ungodly and at the same time just, unless He can show, make good, and vindicate His righteousness.
I. The Lord Jesus has Himself made it plain to us that there is a true analogy between human and Divine forgiveness, and that the oblivion, in which the tenderness of human compassion will consent to shroud the unhappy past, is the counterpart of that remission of sins, whereon are based the relations of the Father with His reconciled children in the kingdom of heaven. A pardon freely granted has justified itself again and again in the experience of ordinary human relations.
II. Nothing can be plainer than the certainty with which Scripture ascribes the whole work of our redemption from the penalty and power of sin to the free grace and spontaneous loving kindness of the Eternal Father. It was God who 'so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son'. It was God who was 'in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself'. It is God who 'commendeth His love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us'. 'This,' says the Saviour Himself, 'is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth in Him, may have eternal life.' Or again, 'He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father'. Passage after passage, Scripture after Scripture, might be quoted to show that the atoning work of Christ takes its rise in the heart of the Divine Fatherhood. The plan of our salvation, as it is unfolded to our adoring gaze, is nought if it be not the means which the Father has Himself devised that His banished may return.
III. But, while we make this declaration without reserve, it must be claimed with equal emphasis that the Scripture sets forth the Crucifixion as a meritorious act of propitiatory sacrifice. What else but the language of ancient ritual is uttered by the Baptist when he cries, 'Behold the Lamb of God'? What is the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews but an exhibition of the reconciling work of Christ, in terms of the Mosaic ritual, as an expiation offered for the sins of the people by a merciful and faithful High Priest? 'God hath set (Him) forth to be a propitiation,' says St. Paul. 'He is the propitiation for our sins,' says St. John. Such language as this will not hold in the ordinary relations of mankind.
When I find the Epistle to the Hebrews declaring that 'without shedding of blood is no remission, I see in these words the expression of that great mystery of propitiation, which provides 'the lamb for the burnt-offering,' the perfect substitute, the complete representative, which covers the approach of the outcast to a God from whom he has been separated by his sins.
Explain it how you will, it yet remains true, and, while human nature continues what it is, it will always remain true, that no religion will satisfy the heart of man which does not turn upon the presentation of an offering for sin. And, if it is a fact that Christ reveals the Father as the fountain of inexhaustible love, the source of a compassionate forgiveness, it is also a fact that He reveals Himself as the Way, the new and living Way, which through the offering of His body He has consecrated once for all, and of which He declares that 'no man cometh unto the Father but by Me'.
On its manward side the Cross of Jesus is big with the power of an intense morality—the victory of patience, the consecration of pain, the supremacy of love, the power of a regenerated life. On its God-ward side it is a truth veiled yet manifested. 'He tasted death for every man.' 'The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.' 'He made Him to be sin for us.' It is because such words ring out from Calvary that it is eloquent also of a Divine mystery.
—J. G. Simpson, Christus Crucifixus, p. 200.
Recognised, Though Afar Off
I. This parable shows us that man is very far off from God. You and I never realised how far we were from God until we tried to come back; then we found we had gone far off from Him. But why do we go far from God? We go from God for the same reason that that poor prodigal went from his father. He could not enjoy himself in his father's presence.
II. But this text assures me that in spite of the distance there is recognition. 'Whilst he was yet a great way off, his father saw him.' Why? Because, I fancy, he had always been looking out for him. God sees us however far off we may be.
—E. A. Stuart, The City Pulpit, vol. x. p. 51.
Many anxious and honest Christians may be yet consciously far from the spiritual haven where they would be. Let such be consoled in remembering that the Father who draws us to Christ beholds us, yea, sets forth to meet us, while we are yet a great way off. A great way off, and yet upon the way—herein lies all the difference between resistance and returning.
References.—XV. 20.—H. P. Liddon, Sermons Preached on Special Occasions, p. 1. G. Body, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. pp. 196, 214. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 176; vol. x. No. 588; vol. xx. No. 1189; vol. xxxvii. No. 2236; vol. xliii. No. 2507. T. G. Selby, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 243. J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 80. XV. 20, 21.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xliii. No. 2520. XV. 20-22. G. Body, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 218. XV. 20-24.—J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passion-tide, p. 442.
The Father and the Three Sons
Luke 15:20; Luke 15:25
I. Withdrawing the light from Himself, our Lord concentrates it on three, the prodigal son, the father, and the elder brother. He teaches us what we have been so ready to forget, that the coming home of the soul is not merely a coming to oneself, a coming to the father, but also a coming to the elder brother. That was how Christ peopled the house which the son had left—with a father and an elder son. He might have filled it otherwise, for sometimes the prodigal comes back to a mother and brothers and sisters, but for His purpose He needed but the two. Christians are very slow to learn that conversion in the New Testament sense is not the return of the lonely soul to the only God. It is the renewal of human ties that have been broken as well as of Divine. The return to God is a return to the Church. There have been mystics who have found God and lived on Him without entering into relation with their brethren in Christ But just as the perfection of human life cannot be achieved apart from fellowship, so the soul separated from its kindred takes distorted forms. The New Testament contemplates every Christian as a member of the Church of which Jesus is the Head, growing up in harmony and fullness to the measure of the stature of Christ. Christian growth becomes fair and strong not in a cloistered and remote piety, but in the communion of the household of God. So whenever evangelistic work has been fruitful and permanent in its results, it has conducted the soul home to the Church as well as home to God. The work of George Whitefield was in its day as successful and outstanding as that of Wesley, but there is no comparison now, for whereas Whitefield allowed his work to become scattered by ignoring methods of organisation, Wesley was constructive, and formed his converts into classes and churches. This, then, is the first lesson, that conversion is a return to the brethren as well as a return to the Father.
II. Nothing could add to the picture of the father and his grace given by Jesus. A modern writer has said that the feature of the parable is the magnificent repentance of the prodigal. It was a magnificent repentance, a repentance that made no excuses, that humbled itself utterly. But more magnificent by far was the forgiveness of the father. Day after day he was watching when there seemed no hope of the wanderer appearing, day by day looking out with a hungry, expectant heart, running a great way to meet the sinner whenever he turned to the abandoned home, asking no question, speaking no word of rebuke, refusing to hear the confession out, calling for the robe, and the ring, and the feast. How Jesus delighted in God the Father as He told this story! What faith He had in the abysses of fatherly tenderness. This was the love which had been the life of Christ, the love of the Son for the Father, of the Father for the Son. To Him there was no love like a Father's love. There was no wonder of grace too wonderful for the Father's heart.
On the part of the father there is no obstacle. He is willing to be gracious, he is waiting to be gracious, he is on the watch-tower, he runs a great way to meet the penitent. Day by day, year by year, he keeps looking, and when every one else has given up hope, the father still refuses to despair and to say, 'He will not return to me'.
III. What is the attitude of the Church to the self-made exile? What is the attitude of the elder brethren? This parable contains a representation of that attitude by the Eldest Brother, and we shall see the more we dwell on it how true and pitiful the picture is. In the first place, there is a good side to the Church, for we read 'his elder son was in the field'. That was a good place to be in, incomparably better than the far country. We are told how the elder brother worked there. 'Lo, these many years do I serve thee,' and it is a great thing to serve for many years in the heat by day and in the frost by night. 'Neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment,' and that also is a great thing to say, no black, foul transgression staining and soaking the years, a record of obedience never broken by a refusal. Yes, it meant much, and the father knew it, for he said, 'Son, thou art ever with Me, and all that I have is thine'. Let us not be unjust to the elder brother, for the Eldest Brother is most just. The farm had to be kept up and worked, and he did his part well. He had never been away perhaps, had not even sought amusements or holidays. Prosaic and monotonous all must have been at times, as all good work is, but he had stuck to it, and therein was most worthy of praise. Now what is true of him is true of the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ is being constantly reproached in these days, reproached by those outside, reproached by her own, till loyal workers grow disheartened, and wonder sometimes whether there is any better means of doing God's work in the world than by being faithful and diligent in His Church. There is no better way. In spite of all failures, how much of loyalty, fidelity, self-denial, endurance, and heroic constancy mark the life of the wonderful Church of Christ! What the critics do for the regeneration of the world has never been clear to me. What is clear is that it is the work of the Church in the field, the unnoticed, regular, obscure work, that has kept the soul alive in England.
IV. What is the Church to do?
1. Keep the children at home. Who drove the prodigal out? Perhaps it was his elder brother. Anyhow, we must never let the children out. Christ never meant we should. Bom into the Church of Christ, they should never leave it Hear the solemn and tender command of Christ, more imperative as it comes to a parent than as it came to an apostle, 'Feed My lambs'.
2. Then, are we sure we wish them to come back after they have long gone? They have been in the far country for years now, and will never be what they were. Do we want them to come again and trouble us in their rags, their misery, their sores, their shame? Are our eyes on the long, dusty road down which they may be coming even now? When the Church longs for the prodigal as the Father longs, then will come the great day of reconciliation and weeping.
3. You will observe that the Eldest Brother leaves the end doubtful. Did the elder brother go in and sit down with the father and the prodigal and servants? Will the Church of Christ cease to play the part of the elder brother, and share the father's heart? We have been letting them slip; all the time they have been slipping from our homes, from our Sunday schools, from our churches. They are slipping away still every hour of every day. If we are to bring them back we must do much more than welcome them. Some of us at least must go out with the Eldest Brother to seek and to save that which is lost. 'The Church was born crucified,' said Lacordaire. Have her wounds been healed and their record obliterated? If so, the wounds must be inflicted anew. The world will come back to the Church when it sees the Church crucified with Christ And so
Measure thy life by loss instead of gain,
Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth.
—W. Robertson Nicoll, The Lamp of Sacrifice, p. 172.
Reference.—XV. 21, 22.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 91.
So we reach the accomplishment of the purpose of reconciliation. The awakening, the meeting, the home-coming, and now the festal array. 'Bring forth'—the father speaks to his servants; the robe is laid up for the penitent sinner in the father's house. 'Quickly'—then it is a transformation which is immediate and complete. 'The best robe'—it is the garment of praise which they wear who feast in kings' houses. 'Put it on him'—it is the grace and favour of him who makes the feast which clothes the returning wanderer in a vesture not his own. 'They found the man sitting, clothed and in his right mind, at the feet of Jesus.'
I. Here I see the great truth to which the Reformation of the sixteenth century recalled the mind of the Church, the doctrine of justification by faith which carries with it, as I believe, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. It is the teaching, I rejoice to think, of the Church of England, and nowhere has it received a nobler vindication than in the writings of the greatest English theologian. 'Faith,' says Richard Hooker, 'is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification; and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God.' While this is preached from our pulpits you need have no fear for the Protestantism of our Church. Do not, I beseech you, be suspicious of the lighting of a candle or the swinging of a censer. But be very jealous for the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith.
II. The correlative of the doctrine of justification by faith is the imputed righteousness of Christ God covers us with the robe of righteousness, which is the merits of our adorable Redeemer. For consider what the full statement of the doctrine of justification is. It is expressed thus: 'By grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God'. We have, then, to ask, What does the Bible mean when it speaks of grace? A word so constantly on the lips of the preacher as this is apt to lose the fullness of its meaning in the variety of its applications. What, then, is grace?
Grace, as the Bible employs the term, is God's free favour. St. Paul opposes it to debt. 'To him that worketh the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt.' The contrast is obvious. It is with a salvation to which we have earned the right by our own toil that we contrast a salvation bestowed upon us as God's free gift. This is the very breath and life of the Gospel. Of our own we have nothing save the surrender of faith to Christ. All the rest, including those fruits of righteousness which manifest themselves in the saintly life, is His, and remains His, even when it seems to become ours.
III. The whole power of the Gospel, its moral and spiritual power to transform the life and transfigure the character, lies in its appeal to the disturbed and anxious soul to cast all its care on Him who has wrought salvation. 'Be of good cheer, my son, thy sins are forgiven. Believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified for thy sins.' I do not want the assurance that by the careful use of a medicine provided for sick souls I may at last achieve a character upon which God can look with approval. I want the message that the debt is paid, that the pardon is sealed, that my restored sonship is an actual and present fact.
It is only under cover of this shelter that we can make anything of our lives at all.
It is related of one of the greatest men who have ever consecrated the finest gifts of intellect to the furtherance of religion and the service of the Church of England, that, as he lay a-dying, he confessed to his chaplain that he was oppressed with a sense of his own unworthiness. If there ever was a man who might have been content to stand upon his achievement, then this was the man. Not only had he lived a pure and blameless life, but he had given to the Church an immortal vindication of faith in his Analogy of Religion. But in the hour of death he was great enough to know that of himself he had nought to plead. 'But, my lord,' replied the chaplain, 'our Saviour has said, "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out".' 'Ah,' was the answer, 'I had forgot. I die happy.'
—J. G. Simpson, Christus Crucifixus, p. 231.
The Best Robe
God has no second best. For Himself and for us He will have no other than the best. He would have the best of everything and everything at the best. He is always putting upon things the best robe. God loves beauty. He is Himself the author of all beauty and can only rest in things beautiful. How the Lord Jesus loved beauty. How He turned to the fowls of the air and the flowers of the field and the little child, that He might illustrate and adorn His teaching, 'Bring forth the best robe.' It seems to be the voice of God in the summer, and the days are swift to obey the command of the Most High. 'Bring forth the best robe.' To the very birds it seems to be spoken in the spring-time. And now what think you? Is there not in all this a blessed message and promise for us men and women? For you and me it shall be spoken—Bring forth the best robe. Let us see something of what this meant in the wonderful story that the Lord has given us. The prodigal has wandered into the far country and spent his substance in riotous living—has spent all. At last in his sorry plight he said; I will arise and go to my father. And what then? 'When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And he said to the servant, Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.' Nothing was too good for him.
I. The best robe is the beautiful picture of an utter and complete forgiveness. All that had been—the rags, the wretchedness, the poor, thin, wasted frame are all covered and hidden by it. It is the very picture of what God's great love longs to do for us. 'The best robe.' Ah, what a costly robe it is! Who could count its worth? 'God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.' And lo, this best robe is for us if we will have it.
II. 'The best robe'—then see what goes with it. When God gives the best robe He gives the character of which it is but the token and expression. The best robe goes with a right spirit. See how God decks the earth with its best robe, not from without but from within. The seed in the earth is quickened by the sun in the heavens; the soft wind blows and woos the timid bud into the light A host of subtle influences that we know not of work together until at last the earth is decked in all her summer glory—from within, not from without. So is the best robe ours. The love of God moves upon us, the truth becomes as a seed in the heart and is quickened into life. Our will and God's commandment are made one.
III. Then, again, the best robe was a claim and a pledge. It meant on the son's part a claim, 'If I am to have the best robe, father, I must have all that is in keeping with it. I must have all that I want to live up to it' And it meant on the father's part a pledge. 'My son, I give thee the best robe, and all that goes with it is thine.'
—M. G. Pearse, The Preacher's Magazine, vol. xi. p. 245.
References.—XV. 22.—J. G. Simpson, Christus Crucifixus, p. 213. XV. 22, 23.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. Luke, p. 65.
In Robert Falconer, George Macdonald makes the hero read this parable to the dying soutar: 'There,' cried the soutar triumphantly, 'I telled ye sae! O Lord, I'm comin' hame as fast as I can; but my sins are jist like muckle bauchles upon my feet, and winna lat me. I expec' nae ring and nae robe, but I would fain hae a fiddle i' my grup when the neist prodigal comes hame!'
Mr. Cardrew began by saying that this parable had been taken to be an exhibition of God's love for man. It seemed rather to set forth, not the magnificence of the Divine nature, but of human nature—of that nature which God assumed. The determination on the part of the younger son to arise, to go to his father, and above everything to say to him simply, 'Father, I have sinned,' was as great as God is great: it was God—God moving in us; in a sense it was far more truly God—far greater than the force which binds the planets into a system. But the splendour of human nature is shown in the father as well as in the son. 'When he was yet a great way off.' We are as good as told, then, that day after day the father had been watching. Oh, my friends, said the preacher, just consider that it is this upon which Jesus Christ, the son of God, has put His stamp, not the lecture, not chastisement, not expiation, but an instant unquestioning embrace, no matter what the wrong may have been!
—Mark Rutherford, Catherine Furze.
References.—XV. 22, 23.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xx. No. 1204. XV. 23, 24.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 103. XV. 24.—H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 161. W. Brock, Penny Pulpit, No. 1705, p. 679. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. i. p. 1. XV. 25.—Bishop Alexander, The Great Question, p. 80. F. Ballard, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 211. XV. 25-28.—J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 119. Christianity in Daily Conduct, p. 199. XV. 27.—Mark Guy Pearse, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvi. p. 277.
Our Duty Towards Our Equals
On the matter of our duty to our equal, the New Testament is comparatively silent. It speaks to us, not infrequently, of the duty which we owe to our superiors. Men are to reverence those who sit in Moses' seat; they are to render unto Cæsar the things which are Caesar's; they are to pray for kings and all who are in authority. It speaks constantly of our duty to inferiors. That is one great theme of the New Testament. Everywhere, with all variety of appeal, that is insisted on and urged. But as we read the Gospels and Epistles we gradually become aware of a strange silence—it is the silence, the comparative silence of the Gospel, on the matter of our duty to our equals. That does not mean that such duties were of little consequence to the men who have given us our New Testament. It means that there were certain causes which inevitably put the emphasis elsewhere. Let me suggest three of these causes.
I. In the first place, there was that new humility which was present so powerfully in Christian character. Working in the heart of the new-born, it did not suggest equality at all. However glad was the good news of the Gospel, however it cheered and comforted the world, one of its first effects on human hearts was to deepen the sense of personal unworthiness. And this deep feeling of personal unworthiness so coloured every estimate of self, that men were readier to deny than to assert their equality with anyone whatever.
II. The second reason is to be found in this—in the Gospel message of compassion. That was so new, so new and so amazing, that for a little it obscured all else. There may be elements in the ethic of the Gospel which were familiar to the older world. That is exactly what we should expect, since God has never left Himself without a witness. But there was one thing in the Gospel which was new, and set it apart from all the thought of ages, and that was its magnificent insistence on the need and the blessing of compassion. It was the Christian's mark to be compassionate—to help the poor, to cheer the solitary. He went to the least and lowest of mankind, in the great love wherewith his heart was burning. And you cannot wonder that that great enthusiasm, so utterly unknown in paganism, pushed into the background, as it were, the statement of our duty towards equals.
III. But there is another reason, not opposed to these, yet standing just a little apart from them. It is the fact that Christian morality is so vitally dependent upon Christ. Paul never thought of morals by itself. He never spoke of isolated ethics. For him to live—in every realm of life—for him to live was Christ. To be like Christ was his idea of goodness; to be in Christ his idea of glory; to follow in the steps of Christ was his compendium of all morality. Now the very foundation of the Church was this, that Jesus Christ had no equal. 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God'—it was on that foundation that the Church was built. Neither in heaven above nor on earth beneath had Jesus Christ a duty to His equal.
Trials from inferiors are bad enough, trials from superiors are worse; but trials from our equals are worst of all, and I shall tell you why it is so. The reason is that trials from our inferiors are trials from which we always can escape. We can return again to our own levels, and leave thus the sphere of our vexations. But from the trials of our equals there is no such refuge—our equals are our habitual environment—and therefore always, every day we live, we are exposed to the buffet or the thorn. It is thus that the trials of our nearest may be blessed in a more certain way than any others. There is no one we can fly to except God; there is no one we can lean on except God. Tried by inferiors we have still our equals, in whose society we are secure. Tried by our equals every refuge fails, and 'hangs my helpless soul on Thee'.
And so, I would urge upon you to test and try your character that way. Be chary of accepting any verdict, except the verdict of equality, Distrust the subtle flattery of deference. There is no self-knowledge to be gained that way. Distrust the judgment of the poor and needy, whom in your warmth of compassion you have helped. If you want to know yourself go to your equals—find what you think of them, and they of you. Reckon yourself by what you are at home, or with your brother merchant or your brother minister. It is thus and thus alone we learn the truth, and when we learn the truth we are never far from Christ Seeing ourselves, we see our need of Him, and in that sight is the beginning of salvation. Driven from the rest of self-esteem, so easily fostered by our very pity, we hear Him saying to us irresistibly, 'Come unto Me and I will give you rest'.
—G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, p. 152.
The Elder Brother Spirit
I want to speak to you, not about the central figure in this, the pearl of all parables, not about the erring son who went away and lived in a far country, and then, drawn back by the memory of a father's love, returned to experience a father's forgiveness; but I want, rather, to speak about the other brother, the one who did not leave home, and yet who, I venture to think, was still further away from the mind and heart of his father than the prodigal son ever got. What is the significance which the warning of the record of his action, and his father's word to him, and all that took place has for us, individually and personally, today?
I. I say that the interest in this parable has mainly centred in the prodigal, whereas Christ meant to teach equally important lessons in introducing the elder brother. It would have been entirely unnecessary for Christ to introduce the elder brother and speak of the elder brother's spirit, if all he had meant to teach was the course of sinful self-will and the compassion of God, and the certainty of forgiveness to those who return to Him in penitence and in faith. No; Christ meant, I take it, to teach His people the difference between the Spirit of their Father and the spirit which they too often manifest before Him and to those whom He seeks to love and to bless. If the figure of the prodigal son is meant to convey lessons to the publican and the sinner of the Fatherliness of God, and His grace and tenderness and His willingness to receive them, surely what Christ said—and He had no words of condemnation, remember, concerning the elder brother—was meant to apply to those stiff, unlovely, dutiful if you will, but altogether unsympathetic and ungodlike souls the Pharisees and the scribes, who were not all insincere, but just unconsciously hypocritical, unconsciously absorbed with the externals of worship, unconsciously taken up with those things but accidental to any man's relationship to God, and the relationship of God to His people, unconsciously hard towards God and hard towards His people And Christ meant to rebuke them.
II. Now, it is characteristic of present-day thought that men take as settled God's relationship to man, and man's relationship to God, and the best thought of today is largely concerned with man's relationship to man. This is not modern. It is not really new except in so far as perfection is toward the source and not the mouth of the stream. For Christ has made this vital to His Gospel, that love to God is mainly shown in love to man. That debt which the people of God acknowledged they owe to Him is payable on the bank of the need of humanity. However eloquent the word, however musical the tongue, no man loves God who does not do so in deed and in truth. 'Whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?'
III. It is clear, then, that the elder brother and his descendants—and he has many of them, they are in our churches, and anyone of us who works for Christ may meet them again and again, and possibly suffer through them—it is clear that just here the elder brother and his descendants fail. They may have high moral standards. They may have no fault in their rectitude, their ethical standards and ideals; their efforts for the accomplishment of their duty are toilsome, and their loyalty to good causes is often commendable, but they entirely lack—and all their excellencies only serve the more vividly to make this great lack seen—sympathetic understanding either of the parent God, or of the prodigal at the gate. Those who act like the elder brother are those who show no real interest in the work of God, who spend no time in prayer for it, who give no sacrificial offerings for its support, who express no rejoicing at its success, and who manifest no sympathy for those who are pouring out their lives for the name of Jesus Christ. Such ones unconsciously become Pharisees, and such ones unconsciously become like the elder brother. It is the spirit of the elder brother which has been manifest so long, and which has gone on unchecked, unrebuked, and often unrecognized within the Church. It is this more than anything possibly which keeps far off from Christ and from God and from home and from love and from light those for whom Christ died, and methinks I hear Christ saying of such men, 'It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea'.
—J. Stuart Holden, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxix. p. 33.
When we look into sin, not in its theological aspects, but in its everyday clothes, we find that it divides itself into two kinds. We find that there are sins of the body and sins of the disposition. Or more narrowly, sins of the passions, including all forms of lust and selfishness, and sins of the temper. The prodigal is the instance in the New Testament of sins of passions; the elder brother, of sins of temper. 'He was angry, and would not go in.' It is the thundercloud, a thundercloud which has been brewing under all his virtues all his life. The subtle fluids from a dozen sins have come together for once, and now they are scorching his soul. Jealousy, anger, pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, sulkiness, touchiness, doggedness, all mixed up together into one—Ill-Temper.
I. One of the first things to startle us about sins of temper is their strange compatibility with high moral character. The elder brother, without doubt, was a man of high principle. We have no criterion for estimating at their true worth men who figure as models of all the virtues. Everything depends on motive. The virtues may be real or only apparent, even as the vices may be real though not apparent. The fact that there are these two distinct sets of sins, and that few of us indulge both, but most of us indulge the one or the other, explains the compatibility of virtuous conduct with much unloveliness of disposition. Now it is this very association which makes sins of temper appear so harmless. We excuse the partial failure of our characters on the ground of their general success. Temper is the vice of the virtuous.
II. Look at the effects of ill-temper. (1) The influence of temper on the intellect. It has sometimes been taken for granted that a bad temper is a positive acquisition to the intellect. Its fieriness is supposed to communicate combustion to surrounding faculties, and to kindle the system into intense and vigorous life. The point, however, at which temper interferes with the intellect is in all matters of judgment. A quick temper really incapacitates for sound judgment. (2) But it is in their moral and social effects that the chief evil lies. Society is an arrangement for producing and sustaining human happiness, and temper is an agent for thwarting and destroying it In its ultimate nature Distemper is a sin against love. A sin against love is a sin against God, for God is love.
III. This tracing of the sin to its root now suggests this further topic—its cure. But is not temper a constitutional thing? Is it not hereditary, a family failing, a matter of temperament, and can that be cured? Yes, if there is anything in Christianity. All sins mar God's image, but sins of temper mar God's image and God's work and man's happiness.
—Henry Drummond, The Ideal Life and other Addresses, p. 43.
Reference.—XV. 28.—W. Y. Fullerton, Christ and Men, p. 42.
Our Relation to Foreign Missions
This parable is a representation of the insider and the outsider in their relation to the kingdom of God's grace; and you can begin to think about them in no better way than that they are brothers. It would be interesting and instructive to be told what the brother in hunger and wretchedness thought of his well-fed brother at home. It would be interesting to know what the heathen thinks of the Christian after he has lived next to him—Christian trader, soldier, missionary. But it is better still to listen to the voice of the Father. That we can do by the aid of this parable—(a) We can see the position of the elder brother as regards his father, and (b) his relation to the man far away.
I. His relation to his father is described—'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine'. Let us mark the splendour of the position, the position of the child at home with God. The opportunity of constant and close intercourse, a deepening knowledge of His goodness and His love, His manifestation of it every day; the privilege of service, the possibility of complete and close confidence, fellowship, loving co-operation. That is the ideal. But really we have a picture of a man who sets no high value on these privileges. Meanwhile, you perceive a grievance lying in his mind. He had not been sufficiently rewarded for his labour, and he breaks out into complaining. Now it is by no means certain that the Christian people of today are conscious of the magnificence of their inheritance—what Paul calls the riches, the exceeding riches of His grace. Many are following Christ in the pathway of duty, few rejoicing with a joy unspeakable.
II. But there is another and a deeper shadow to be seen in the parable—a shadow which must in the nature of things alienate the father and the son. What is the father thinking about every day? The child far away. What is the elder brother thinking about? Anything but that. Evidently his own farming and the excellence of his deserts—his own needs and merits. Does this not bring out sharply before your eyes the solitude of God in redemption? We have yet to learn how high a value God sets upon our relation to our fellow-men, and how completely that relation affects our relation with Him. Two things stand out in perfect clearness, to my mind at least. One is that the heathen is at the swine-trough. The other thing that is clear is the restless longing of the Divine heart to bring them all—not a few of them, but all—home to God, to be satisfied with the bountiful provisions of His grace.
—Charles Brown, Light and Life, p. 235.
References.—XV. 31.—R. Rainy, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 263. F. B. Woodward, Sermons (1st Series), pp. 114, 135. John Watson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 129. J. H. Jellett, The Elder Son, p. 1. R. J. Campbell, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxi. p. 328. XV. 31, 32.—J. Keble, Sermons for Lent to Passion-tide, p. 451. J. Denton Thompson, God and the Sinner, p. 144.
The Joy of Finding
These three parables illustrate what may be called the joy of finding. It has sometimes been urged against the whole trio that whilst they speak of the lost soul's return to God there is no mention of the distinguishing characteristic of the plan of salvation in any one of them. But the parable only brings into prominence that which it was spoken to illustrate. What gave rise to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal son was this. Certain Pharisees and scribes grumbled and murmured, with a great deal of noise, at the kind of people, publicans and sinners, that the Blessed Saviour was pleased to receive. When He heard this grumbling and murmuring He spoke these parables. The purport of the saying was not a bit to explain the way of salvation, but to show, that receiving this kind of people is just the object for which He came into the world, just to show, that receiving sinners is exactly the course that God is always longing to pursue, appealing to the lost, seeking for them and, if it may be, recovering them back again.
What the Saviour intended to teach was this:—
(1) The condition of heart, or the condition of soul that God is pleased to meet with a blessing; and
(2) The everlasting joy of God in giving the blessing.
The parables bring into view not only the fact that we are lost but three of the various respects in which it is true that we are lost. The parables set them forth in what you may call an ascending scale, of which the parable of the prodigal son, the last and the chiefest, is the ultimate climax.
I. Lost in Respect of our Happiness.—The lost sheep.
II. Lost in Respect of our Usefulness.—The lost coin.
III. The Guilt of Estrangement.—And then you have the great climax of all reached in the parable of the prodigal son, where you step for the first time into the higher region of consciousness—the higher region of moral action, moral responsibility; and in the parable of the prodigal son for the first time you see the guilt of estrangement.
IV. The Preciousness to the Owner.—In all these parables you will notice that that which is lost is represented as being exceedingly precious to the person who lost it, and, more than that, in every case, it was the loser that felt the loss most. The coin did not feel it a bit, the sheep hardly felt it at all, I do not know whether the prodigal son seems to have felt it until he was pressed to the very extremest, but God feels our loss and estrangement from Him far more than we feel it ourselves. And then notice, the parable is full of expressions which illustrate the welcome which God gives to recovered souls. Take the parable of the lost sheep, 'He layeth it on His shoulders, rejoicing'; take the parable of the woman who had lost that bit of money, 'She calleth her friends and her neighbours together'; and in the third parable you have the same thing, 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth'. It is often preached that God is willing to save souls. That is only part of the truth, it is only the narrowest, tiniest half of the truth. He loves to do it, because God's heaven is made distinctly happier by sinners entering into it.
References.—XV. 32.—C. S. Horne, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 380. XVI.—Expositor (4th Series), vol. p. 114; ibid. (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 273. XVI. 1.—R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. ii. p. 64. S. Baring-Gould, Village Preaching for a Year (2nd Series), vol. ii. p. 74. XVI. 1, 2.—H. P. Liddon, Sermons on Some Words of Christ, p. 177. XVI. 1-9.—Expositor (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 34. XVI. 1-12.—Ibid. (4th Series), vol. vii. p. 21. XVI. 1-13.—J. Laidlaw, Studies in the Parables, p. 121.
And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
And he said, A certain man had two sons:
And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
And 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. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Nicoll - Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.