From this parable, in connection with that of the labourers in the vineyard, we incidentally learn that among the cultivators of Palestine in those days there was the same admixture of large and small farms which prevails in our own land. In order to provide for the structure of the preceding parable, an agriculturist is introduced who cultivates on a large scale. Group after group of labourers are hired wholesale, and sent successively into the vineyard; in the evening a steward pays each labourer under the general instructions of his chief. There in a few strokes you have the picture of an ancient Israelitish magnate, owning a broad estate and affording employment to a multitude of dependants. In the parable which is now under review, we have a picture equally distinct, but representing another class of countrymen. This is neither on the one hand a great proprietor, nor on the other a landless labourer. Here is a man who has a stake in the country, a portion of ground of size sufficient to provide for the wants of his family; but his farm cannot afford employment and remuneration to a gang of labourers; the work must be all done by the owner himself and his children. This is a desirable condition of life, and the class who occupy it are valuable to society. There, in the middle, they are sheltered from many dangers to which their countrymen on either extreme of social condition are exposed. Woe to the country in which there are only two classes, -- the greatest and the smallest, -- the large proprietors and the floating sea of labourers. The strong fixed few and the feeble surging many are to each other reciprocally dangerous. Give me a country dotted all over with homesteads, where father and mother, sons and daughters, till their own ground and eat the fruit of their own labour.
"To the first he said, Son, go work to-day in my vineyard." The first was none other than the one whom the father first met that morning. To have intimated whether he was the elder or the younger, would have introduced a disturbing element, and obscured the meaning of the lesson. There is no question here between elder and younger, or between Jews and Gentiles. At all events, if those who maintained a place within the theocracy are distinguished from those who stood without its pale, we must conceive of the Father approaching on this occasion from without towards the centre, coming in contact first with those who were excluded as aliens, and afterwards reaching the inner circle, who counted themselves the seed of Abraham.
This son, rebellious in heart, and not trained to cover his disobedience under a smooth profession, meets his father's command with a rude, blunt refusal. I think the humble husbandman had received a similar answer from the same quarter more than once before. This is not the first unseemly word which the young man had spoken to his father: neither himself nor his wickedness has grown to maturity in a day. The habit of dishonouring his parents had sprung from a seed of evil in his infancy, and grown with his growth until he and it had reached full stature together. The father seems not to have spoken a word in reply. Probably he knew by experience that an altercation on the spot would only have made matters worse: perhaps he sighed, perhaps he wept as he turned gently round and went away. I do not know how often and how long he had meditated on the grand practical question for a father, when he should be severe, and when he should show indulgence. May God guide and help parents who have disobedient sons; they need much patience for bearing, and much wisdom for acting aright.
"But afterward he repented and went." There is much in these few simple words. He repented; perhaps his father's silent grief went to his heart at length and melted it. He saw himself in his true colours, and loathed himself for his sin. The son, who probably obtained a glimpse of his father's tears, wept himself in turn, and, as the best amends he could make, went silently into the vineyard, and did a good day's work there. Thus, when Jesus, suffering, bearing reproach before Pilate's judgment-seat, looked on Peter sinning, Peter went out and wept. When he was called to suffer for Christ, he had rudely answered, "I will not;" but afterwards he repented and went -- to work, to witness, to suffer, to die for the Lord whom he loved.
Perhaps the father, from beneath the cottage eaves, saw the son on the brow of the hill toiling in the noon-day heat, -- saw and was glad. The value of a day's labour was something; but it was as the small dust of the balance in comparison with the price he set on the repentance and obedience of his child. I suppose there was a happy meeting at night when the son came home. I suppose the father was a happy man as he saw the robust youth wiping the sweat from his brow, and sitting down to his evening meal.
"He came to the second, and said likewise." The second son had an answer ready, sound in substance and smooth in form. It was a model answer from a son to his parent: "I go, sir," said the youth, without hesitation or complaint. I am not sure that the father was overjoyed at the promptness and politeness of this reply: probably he had received as fair promises from the same quarter before, and seen them broken. At all events, this young man's fair word was a whited sepulchre; he did not obey his father. Whether he fell in with trivial companions on his way to the vineyard, and was induced to go with them in another direction, or thought the day too hot and postponed the labour till the morrow, I know not; but he said, and did not. It was profession without practice. The tender vine-shoots might trail on the ground for him till their fruit-buds were blackened; he would not put himself to the trouble of tying them up to the stakes, although the food of the family should be imperilled by his neglect.
Now comes the sharp question, "Whether of them twain did the will of his father?" The answer is all too easy. The light is stronger than is comfortable for those owl-eyed Pharisees, who were prowling about like night-birds on the scent of their prey. The sudden glance of this sunbeam dazzles and confounds them. In utter helplessness, they confess the truth that condemns themselves; they say unto him "The first."
 At an earlier stage of the same interview, when a question regarding the ministry of the Baptist was addressed to them, fearing the consequences which an answer might involve, they had sought shelter under the plea of ignorance. As they gained nothing by their duplicity on that occasion, they may have been unwilling to try the same policy again; and, accordingly, they give frankly the obvious answers to the questions that resulted both from this and the succeeding parable.
In the first example the Lord represents chief sinners repenting; and in the second, the form of godliness without its power. The publicans and harlots, who had forsaken their sins and followed the Saviour, sat for the first picture; the chief priests and elders, who concealed their thirst for innocent blood under a mantle of long prayers and broad phylacteries, sat for the second.
Let us look first to the two distinct and opposite answers, and next to the two distinct and opposite acts.
The answers. -- That of the first son, "I will not," was evil, and only evil. It is of first-rate practical importance to make this plain and prominent. Looking to the son in the story, we see clearly that the answer was outrageously wicked: it was an evil word flowing from its native spring in an evil heart. Looking next to the class of persons whom that son represents, we find they are the openly and daringly ungodly of every rank in every age. This son, when he rudely refused to obey his father, meant what he said; he was not willing to obey, and he plainly said so. This represents those who have neither the profession nor the practice of true religion; they neither fear God nor pretend to fear him.
At this point, among certain classes, a subtle temptation insinuates itself. In certain circumstances, ungodly men take credit for the distinct avowal of their ungodliness, and count on it as a merit. They are not, indeed, submissive in heart and life to the will of God; but they do not tell a lie about the matter; they make no pretension. The frank confession, that they are not good, seems to serve some men as a substitute for goodness. By comparing themselves complacently with fellow-sinners of a different class, they contrive to rivet the fatal error more firmly on their own hearts. Observing among their neighbours here and there a rank hypocrite, they compare his sanctimonious profession with his indifferent sense of honesty, and congratulate themselves that they are not hypocrites.
Well, brother, suppose it were conceded that you are not a hypocrite; what then? If you have lived unrepenting, unforgiven, unchanged; if with your whole heart and habits you have departed from the living God, and not returned to him through the Mediator, -- will all be atoned for and made up by the single fact that to all your other sins you did not add the cant of a hypocrite? It is true, a hypocrite is a loathsome creature; but his badness will not make a profane man good. When he is cast away for his hypocrisy, it will be no comfort to you as you keep him company that it is for open ungodliness, and not for lying pretensions to piety, that you are condemned. Hypocrites are, indeed, excluded from the kingdom of God; but it is a fatal mistake to assume that, provided you are not a hypocrite, you will be welcomed into heaven with all your vices on your back.
I scarcely know a more subtle or more successful wile of the devil than this. Many strong men are cast down by it. You don't pretend to be good; well, and will that save you? What comfort will it afford to the lost to reflect that they went openly to perdition, in broad daylight, before all men, and did not skulk through by-ways under pretence that they were going to heaven?
The answer of the other son was evil too, if you look not to its body, but to its spirit. There is no reason to suppose that it was, even at the moment, an act of true obedience to his father. "He said, I go, sir; and went not:" he said one thing, and did another, an opposite; but there is no ground for believing that he meant to go when he promised, and afterwards changed his mind. His smooth language was a lie; and his subsequent conduct showed, not that he had changed his mind when his father was out of sight, but that he concealed it while his father was present. It is worthy of notice, that although the first son changed his mind after he had given his answer, there is no intimation of any change having passed on the second son, between his answer and his act. By its silence on this point, the narrative leads us to infer that the purpose of the disobedient son was the same while he was promising well as when he acted ill. The course of the life flowing full in the direction of disobedience, proves that the expression of the lips which ran in the opposite direction, was a lie; it was like a glittering ripple caused by a fitful breeze, running upward on the surface of the river, while the whole volume of its water rolls, notwithstanding, the other way.
Thus is even the worship of hypocrites worthless: Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. The want of the subsequent obedience shows that the promise was not true.
Thus at first both these sons were in a false and unsafe position. Their characters were not the same, -- were not similar: they differed in thought and word; but the difference, in as far as their answers were concerned, indicated only varieties of sin. Legion is the name of the spirits that possess and pollute the fallen; but all the legion do not dwell in every man. Different temptations tinge different persons with different hues of guilt. At the time when the father uttered his command, the character of the first son was bold, unblushing rebellion; the character of the second was cowardly, false pretence. The one son neither promised nor meant to obey; the other son promised obedience, but intended not to keep his word.
In the first instance, therefore, there is no ground for preferring the one to the other. While they stood severally in their father's presence, and before either had repented of his sin, they were both, and both alike evil. The blasphemer has no right to boast over the hypocrite, and the hypocrite has no right to boast over the blasphemer. In either case it is a body of sin, but there is a shade of difference in the colour of the garments. The one pretends to a goodness which he does not possess; and the other confesses, or rather boasts, that he is destitute of goodness. They measure themselves by themselves; and therein they are not wise. The one thinks his smooth tongue will save him; and the other counts himself safe because he has not a smooth tongue.
We come now to the ultimate act of either son. The first, after flinging a blunt refusal in his father's face, repented of his sin. The turning-point is here. A change came over the spirit of the man, and a consequent change emerged in his conduct: his heart was first turned, and then his history. The honesty of his declaration -- the absence of duplicity in giving his answer, would not have justified him before either God or man. He repented; he turned round. He grieved over his sin; he was sorry that he had disobeyed his father. Repentance immediately brought forth fruit after its kind. He went into the vineyard, and laboured there with a will all day at the kind of work which he knew would please his father. These two things go always in company, and together make up the new man -- they are the new heart and the new life.
The grieved father would weep for joy, as he looked up the precipitous hill-side on which the terraced vineyard hung, and saw there the head and hands of his son glancing quickly from place to place among the vine plants. Thus there is joy in heaven -- deep in the heart of heaven's Lord -- over one sinner that repenteth. Among the vines that day work was worship: the resulting act of obedience -- fruit of repentance in the soul, was an offering of a sweet-smelling savour unto God.
The other son promptly promised, but failed to perform. The first was changed from bad to good, but the second was not changed from good to bad. No change took place in this case, and none is recorded. It is not written, that having promised, he afterwards repented and did not go. His promise was not true; at the moment when it was made, the youth did not intend to work, and therefore it required no change of mind to induce him afterwards to spend the day in idleness.
This son represents, in the first instance, those Pharisees who were then and there compassing the death of Jesus. They ostentatiously professed that they were doing God service; yet they were spreading a net for the feet of the innocent, and preparing to shed his blood. Wearing broad phylacteries, making long prayers, and offering many sacrifices, they were, notwithstanding, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. With their lips they honoured God; but in works they denied him. These, in as far as they are here represented, were evil first and last. In the second son we have an example, not of a man who meant to do good changing his mind and ultimately doing evil, but of a man who, notwithstanding his fair profession, meant evil at the beginning and perpetrated it in the end.
Nor are these lessons of the Lord limited to one private interpretation: the lesson of this parable was not exhausted when the Pharisees died out. As surely as the thorns, and the tares, and the lilies to which Jesus on various occasions alluded in his lectures, grow on the ground at this day, and have grown there through all the intervening generations -- so surely the various classes of human character which he rebuked, warned, or encouraged in his ministry, have their representatives going out and in amongst us in the present day. It is meant that in this glass all the self-righteous to the end of the world should see themselves; their profession is fair, but their life is for self, and not for God.
In the stratified rocks many species and genera of plants and animals are found in a fossil state which are not found in the flora or fauna of our present earth; but the human characters that were fixed and stamped as by photograph in the Scriptures are not so far removed from the men and women who now live on the earth. No species has become extinct; and even the minuter characteristics of distinct varieties remain legible still.
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Here spring two distinct warnings to two distinct classes, with corresponding encouragements attached, as shadows follow solid bodies in the sunlight; -- to the Publicans and Harlots first, and next to the Pharisees of the day.
1. There is a class amongst us answering to those publicans and sinners to whom Jesus was wont to address the message of his mercy. Alas, they may be counted by thousands and tens of thousands in the land! They are the drunkards, the licentious, the profane, the false, the cruel, -- those who abandon themselves to a vicious life, and do not take the trouble of attempting to hide their sin under a cloak of sanctity. They gratify every lust, and crucify none. They live without God in the world. The key-note of their being is, Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.
To all this class the parable proclaims a warning. A rank, soporific superstition has crept over these free and easy spirits, -- a superstition as dark and deceitful as any of the inventions of Rome. Men seem actually to persuade themselves that their very wickedness will supply them with a passport into heaven. They seem to expect that they will be made pets in the great day, because they made no pretension to saintship; and that they will be fondled by the Judge as they have been by their boon companions, because hypocrisy cannot be reckoned among their sins. It is a false hope. Free thinking, free living brother, if I saw you about to put to sea in a ship which I knew to be affected with dry-rot in the timbers of the bottom, I would warn you with all my energy, that I might save your life: when I see you preparing to launch into eternity leaning on a lie, I cry vehemently, Beware, lest you be lost for ever! Without holiness no man shall see God. The absence of a hypocritical pretension to holiness will not be accepted instead of holiness. All who go away to the judgment-seat without holiness will be shut out of heaven -- alike those who thought they had it, and those who confessed that they had it not. It was all right at last with the profane son in the parable; but mark, he repented and obeyed. God's invitation to the wicked is, Turn and live; but the promise contains in its bosom the counterpart threatening, If you turn not you shall die. It was not the bold, frank declaration of disobedience that made the first son all right: it made him all wrong. It was his change, -- his passing out of that state, as if he had passed from death unto life, that saved him.
But to this class the parable speaks encouragement as well as warning. So great is God's mercy in Christ that even you are welcome when you come; the gate stands open; the Redeemer from within is calling chief sinners in, He has pledged himself to cast no comer out because of his worthlessness. Nor does the freeness of his grace prove that the prodigal's sins are small; it proves only that the forgiving love of Christ is great.
2. There is still a class corresponding to the Pharisees, and to these the Lord in this parable conveys both warning and encouragement.
The essence of the Pharisaic character, under every variety of form, consists of these two things, -- an exact and laborious observance of external religious duties, and a heart satisfied with itself while it is devoted to the world. The species is described for all times and places in the Apocalyptic Epistle to the Church in Sardis: "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (Rev. iii.1). There is a profession of godliness wanting its power; Christ's name comes readily to the lip, but the god of this world possesses the heart and controls the life.
There is encouragement to the Pharisee as well as to the publican to turn and live. There is no respect of persons with God; the Pharisee was as welcome to Christ as the publican, if he would come. A Pharisee and a publican went up to the temple at the same hour to pray; the publican returned to his own house pardoned and at peace with God, while the Pharisee went home still unreconciled and under condemnation: but wherefore? Not that God was more willing to forgive the publican than to forgive the Pharisee; but because the Pharisee did not ask forgiveness. He would have obtained it if he had asked it: his self-righteousness was his ruin.
Thus in the end of this parable, the Lord intimates to the Pharisees that the outcasts whom they despised are entering the kingdom of heaven before them. This does not mean that the way is made more easy, the gate more wide, to the licentious and profane than to the hypocrite, -- it intimates merely that in point of fact the profane were then and there hastening in through the gate which stood open alike for all, while the self-righteous were standing aloof. The intimation, moreover, is made, not in order to keep these Pharisees back, but to urge them forward. The Lord desires to provoke them to jealousy by them that were no people. These despised outcasts are going in before you; arise and press in now, lest the door be shut. It was not because they were publicans and harlots that they were saved, but because they believed and repented under the preaching of John; and it was not because the others were Pharisees that they were still unsaved, but because even with the example of fellow-sinners repenting and believing before their eyes, they, thinking themselves righteous, would not repent and believe.
God delights as much to receive a Pharisee as to receive a publican. When a self-righteous man discovers himself at last to be a whited sepulchre, and counting his own righteousness filthy rags, flees to Christ as his righteousness, he is instantly accepted in the beloved.
If I could be admitted, in the body or out of the body, to a vision of the saints in rest, I would like to creep near the spot where two saved sinners chance to meet, -- the man who wrote this narrative of Christ's ministry, and the man who preached Christ to the Gentiles. I would fain listen for an hour to the conversation of Matthew the publican and Saul the Pharisee when they meet in the mansions of the Father's house. Their loving argument, I could imagine, would sometimes run high. Matthew will contend that the grace of their common Lord has been most conspicuously glorified in his own redemption, "for," he pleads, "I was all evil and had nothing good, I had neither inside purity nor outside whitening. I had neither the seemly profession without nor the holy heart within. I was altogether vile; and in me therefore is the grace of God glorified most." Paul, on the other side, will contend, with his keen intellect perfect at last, that he was the chief sinner, and that consequently in his redemption a more decisive testimony is given to the abundance of the Saviour's grace. After describing his own hardness and blindness and unbelief, he will add, as the crowning sin of man, the crowning glory of God, -- While I was thus the chief of sinners, I gave myself out as one of the greatest of saints.
It may be hard to tell whether of the two mountains is the more elevated; but one thing is clear, -- both are covered by the flood. The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us, -- the profane and the self-righteous alike, -- cleanseth us from all sin.