Recall the relation that subsists between this parable on the one hand, and the two that immediately precede it on the other. These two divisions of the group contain two different and in some respects opposite representations. Both exhibit the salvation of lost men; but in the first, that deliverance appears as the effect of the Redeemer's sovereign love and care; in the second, it appears to spring in the depths of the sinner's own soul. There the wanderer is sought and found and borne back; here he spontaneously repents and returns. There the Saviour's part is revealed; and here the sinner's.
These examples represent not two distinct experiences, but two sides of the same fact. It is not that some of fallen human kind are saved after the manner of the strayed sheep, and others after the manner of the prodigal son; not that the Saviour bears one wanderer home by his power, and another of his own accord arises and returns to the Father. Both these processes are accomplished in every conversion. The man comes, yet Christ brings him; Christ brings him, yet he comes. In the two pictures which we have last examined, the sovereign love and power of the Redeemer occupied the front, while the subjective experience of a repenting man was thrown scarcely visible into the back-ground; in the picture which is now under inspection the view is reversed -- the subjective experience of the sinning man is brought full size into the centre of the field, while the compassion of a forgiving God, although distinctly visible, lies in smaller bulk behind.
Among the parables that of the prodigal is remarkable for the grandeur of the whole, and the exquisite beauty of the parts. The sower is the only one that can be compared with it in comprehensive completeness of outline and articulate distinctness of detail. These two greatest parables, however, are thoroughly diverse in kind. The two chief elements which generally go into the composition of a parable are the processes of nature and the actions of living men -- parables, in short, as to their constituents, are composed of history and natural history. In the tares, for example, both these elements are combined in nearly equal proportions. In the malicious sowing of the darnel, the zealous proposal of the servants, and the cautious decision of the master, you have threads of human motive and action running through the whole; but in the growth of the darnel, its likeness to the wheat in spring, and the decisive difference between them in the harvest, you have the processes of nature profusely intertwined. A parable is ordinarily woven of human action and the unconscious development of nature, as warp and woof. In the two greatest parables those twin ingredients are in a great measure separated: the sower is almost wholly composed of processes in nature, the prodigal almost wholly of human motive and act.
This parable reveals one of the brightest glimpses of God's character and way that men in the body can obtain. There are greater and less among the parts of God's word as well as among the parts of his creation. Taking the discourses of the Lord Jesus, as the little child took the stars, for "gimlet-holes in heaven to let the glory shine through," we find in the prodigal the largest of them all. It differs from other stars in the same firmament by its bulk and its brightness. Never man spake like this man; and nowhere else has even this man spoken more fully or more winsomely of man's need and God's mercy. Both the departure and the return -- both the fall and the rising again, are depicted here. The lesson sweeps the whole horizon of time from the unfallen state at first to the glory that shall at last be revealed. The way is laid open with marvellous precision from the lowest state of sin and misery to a heavenly Father's heart and home. Here a gate is opened by the Mediator's hand, and no man can shut it, until the angel shall proclaim that time shall be no more. Here resounds a voice clear, human, memorable -- a voice that all the hum of the world cannot drown, proclaiming to the lowest, furthest outcasts, and to the latest generations, "Whosoever will, let him come."
 A curious illustration of the bondage to which an indurated Erastianism has reduced many of the Protestant Churches of the Continent, is incidentally afforded in a remark made by Stier regarding the peculiar fulness and preciousness of this parable: -- "That this parable, which Lange beautifully terms a gospel within a gospel, this universal text for preaching about the lost and recovered sons of our heavenly Father (and the hopelessly lost first-born to the rich possessions of the house), should be wanting in the pericopae of the Sunday Kalendar, is an omission which is utterly unjustifiable on any ground whatever, which is not compensated by the insertion of the previous similitudes, and which of itself is ample reason for that reformation of the Kalendar which Palmer desires." -- Words of the Lord Jesus, in loc. The successors of Luther must, it seems, tread the mill from year to year on the same limited curriculum of texts which their Kalendar contains; and those of them who are weary of the restraint long in vain for an opportunity to preach on such a subject as the prodigal, for it is not set down in the bond. That Church surely is greatly defective both in godliness and manliness, that cannot or will not throw open all the Word of God alike, at all times, to its ministers and congregations in their Sabbath solemnities.
It is not necessary in this case to submit a sketch of the material frame-work: there it lies, and the simplest may see it for himself. The least learned may go round without a guide, and not miss any essential feature of the scene. In this case the bare reading of the story from the Bible leaves the image sharply outlined, and permanently impressed upon the reader's mind. Assuming that the body of the lesson may be easily seen, let us proceed at once to seek for its soul in the spiritual meaning, which the picture covers and yet reveals.
"A certain man had two sons:" one of the greatest difficulties meets us in the first line. It is evident that God, as specially manifested in the Gospel, is represented by the father; but who are represented by the two sons, -- the elder, who remained at home, and the younger, who went away? On this point three distinct interpretations have been suggested: the two brothers of the parable may represent angels and men, Jews and Gentiles, or Pharisees and publicans. I do not think it is a profitable method to send these three into the field to fight until two are destroyed, and one is left in undisputed possession. I am convinced that we shall more fully and more correctly ascertain the mind of the Lord by employing them all than by selecting one.
In representing the human figure, an artist may proceed upon either of two distinct principles, according to the object which, for the time, he may have in view. He may, on the one hand, delineate the likeness of an individual, producing a copy of his particular features, with all their beauties and all their blemishes alike: or he may, on the other hand, conceive and execute an ideal picture of man, the portrait of no person in particular, with features selected from many specimens of the race, and combined in one complete figure. The parable of the prodigal is a picture of the latter kind. It is not out and out the picture of any man; but it is, to a certain extent, the picture of every man. This prophecy of Scripture is not of private construction; and therefore it is not of private interpretation. As the ideal portrait is in one feature the likeness of this man, and in another the likeness of that man, while it is not throughout the likeness of any; so the elder and younger sons of this parable find at one point their closest counterpart in angels and men, at another in Jews and Gentiles, at a third in Pharisees and publicans, and indefinitely in as many pairs of corresponding characters as have been, or may yet be, found in the world.
In the first act of the drama, -- the departure of the younger son, the case of angels and men, presents by far the most exact counterpart to the case of the two brothers. Man is the youngest child of God's intelligent family. Elder and younger remained together in the house awhile. You may observe sometimes in human families that the children who have reached the years of understanding at the birth of the youngest rejoice over the infant with a fondness second only to that of the mother. Thus the elder brother angels of our Father's house, -- the morning stars of creation, sang together over the advent of man. But the younger son did not remain in the house: having become alienated in heart from the Father, he was uneasy in his presence, and sought relief by going out of sight.
In the description of the younger son's conduct, we find a picture both of the first fall and of the actual apostasy of each separate sinner. "The younger said to his father, Father give me the portion," &c. Only his words are preserved in the record; but we know that thoughts unseen in his soul were the seeds whence these words sprang. He desired to please himself, and therefore grew unhappy under the restraints of home. Bent on enjoying the pleasures of sin, he determined to avoid the presence of his father: alienated in heart, he becomes vicious in life.
The same two elements go to constitute the character and condition of the sinful before he is reconciled to God. There is a lower and a higher link in the chain that binds the slave. There is a body of this death, and a soul: there is a spiritual wickedness in high places, and a bodily wickedness in low places. The one is guilt, the other sin: the heart is at enmity, and the life is disobedient.
The younger son did not humbly sue for a gift from his father's bounty: he claimed a share of the property as of right. The terms are significant; "Give me the portion of goods that falleth ([Greek: to epiballon meros]) to me." The phrase faithfully depicts the atheism of an unbelieving human heart; the fool hath said in his heart, "No God." He has become brutish: as swine gather the acorns from the ground, heedless of the oak from which they fell; alienated men snatch God's gifts for the gratification of their appetites, and forget the giving God. This seeing eye, and this hearing ear, and these cunning hands, the irreverent son counts his own, and determines to employ them in ministering to his own pleasure.
The father might justly have refused to comply with his son's demand: although a certain part of the property might by law "fall" to the younger son at the death of the father, there was no law or custom that gave the youth a right to any of it during his father's life. In this case, however, the father saw meet to let the young man have his own way; he threw the reins loose upon the neck of the prodigal. Although the father of his flesh could not see the end from the beginning, the Father of his spirit, in permitting his departure, already planned the glad return.
"Not many days after:" weary of paternal restraint, he made off as soon as possible. He gathered all; for he needed all as a price in his hand to pay for his pleasure. He went into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. Even a large substance may in this manner soon be consumed; money and health waste away quickly when they are employed as fuel to feed the flame of lust. An interesting parallel to this portion of the parable occurs in Luke xii.45. A servant to whom much had been intrusted thought his master was at a great distance, and would remain a long time away; then and therefore he began "to beat the men-servants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken." It is when a man is, or imagines himself to be, far from God that he dares to indulge freely his vicious propensities: and conversely, those who are secretly bent upon a life of sin, put God far from their thoughts, in order that they may not be interrupted in their pleasures.
The crisis came. The "season" of pleasure did not last long; and the man who had "sowed to the flesh" was compelled to fill his bosom with an early harvest of misery. The hunger, nakedness, and shame that accumulated on the head of this wayward youth aptly represent the bitter fruits which sin, even in this life, bears as an earnest of the full wages in the second death, which it promises to pay its servants.
His sufferings did not in the first instance turn him from his sin: human sorrow is not all or always godly sorrow. Although the prodigal was in want, he did not return to his father. Convictions and terrors in the conscience seldom bring the wanderer at once to the door of mercy: he generally tries in succession several other methods in order to obtain relief. As the prodigal attempted to keep body and soul together by the most desperate and loathsome expedients, rather than throw himself on his father's compassion; so an alienated human soul, conscious of having wantonly offended a good God, and therefore hating deeply the Holy One, will bear and do the will of the wicked one to the utmost extremity of misery rather than come home a beggar, and be indebted for all to a father's love. The picture, although drawn by the Master's own hand, is necessarily drawn in the colours of external nature, and therefore it comes far short of the original, which is a spiritual wickedness. The cherished son of an affluent and honourable house in Israel has become the swineherd of a stranger in a famine-stricken land: the transition is as great as could be displayed on the limited stage of the present world; but when he who was made in God's image and treated as God's child is bound by the chain of his own passions, and indentured as a slave in the devil's service, the fall is greater, as heaven is higher than the earth, and the world of spirit deeper than the world of flesh. "No man gave unto him:" when a son deserts the Father of lights, from whom every good gift comes down, his soul cannot be satisfied from other sources: the world's breasts are dry, or yield only poison to the eager drawing of the famished child.
There is a blank in the history here. The later stages of the prodigal's misery are not exhibited in the light: fully exposed, they might have been shocking rather than impressive. Every height has its opposite and corresponding depth: as eye has not seen nor ear heard in all its fulness the blessedness that God hath prepared for them that love him; so neither can our faculties measure the miseries of sin, in their foretastes here and their fulness hereafter. How the prodigal fared under that veil, as his misery day by day increased to its climax, we know not; but at length he suddenly emerges another man. "He came to himself:" the wild foul stream that had sunk into the earth and flowed for a space under ground, bursts to the surface again, agitated still indeed, but now comparatively pure. We learn for the first time that the man has been mad, by learning that his reason is restored. It is a characteristic of the insane that they never know or confess their insanity until it has passed away: it is when he has come to himself that he first discovers he has been beside himself. The two beings to whom a man living in sin is most a stranger are himself and God; when the right mind returns, he becomes acquainted with both again. The first act of the prodigal, when light dawned on his darkness, was to converse with himself, and the second to return to his father.
A man can scarcely find a more profitable companion than himself. These two should be well acquainted, and deal frankly with each other; in the case of the prodigal how disastrous was the estrangement, how blessed the reconciliation between them! The young man, during the period of his exile, was as much a stranger to himself as to his father. His return to himself became the crisis of his fate; from the interview sprang the burning thought, "I will arise and go to my father," and the resolute deed, "he arose and went."
When he had determined to return, he returned at once, and returned as he was. Emaciated by prolonged want, -- naked, filthy, hungry, he came as he was. He did not remain at a distance until by efforts of his own he should make himself in some measure worthy to resume his original place in the family; he came in want of all things, that out of his father's fulness all his wants might be supplied. The signification of this feature on the spiritual side is obvious; it exhibits a cardinal point in the way of a sinner's return to God.
But while the repenting youth did not pretend to bring anything good to his father's house, neither did he presume to bring thither anything evil: his poverty and hunger were brought with him, but the companions and instruments of his lusts were left behind. This is a distinctive discriminating feature of true repentance. In the act of fleeing to his father the prodigal leaves his associates, and his habits, and his tastes behind: and conversely, as long as he clings to these he will not -- he cannot return to his father.
In the narrative it is made evident that a return to his father was the son's last resort; he did not adopt it -- he did not even entertain it, until all others had failed. The grief which he must have known his unnatural exile caused in the bosom of the family at home did not move him: even want, when it came upon him like an armed man, failed to overcome his stubborn spirit. He will be the servant of a stranger rather than his father's son; he would live on swine's food, if it had power to sustain a human life, rather than sit at his father's table. It was not till death stared him in the face that he consented to return. He encountered all extremities of privation rather than come home; no thanks to him, then, for coming at last. Yet he was received with an ardent welcome, and without upbraiding. The son's sullen, obdurate, desperate resistance becomes a measure and a monument of the father's forbearing, forgiving love. It is thus that sinful men return to God in Christ to-day; and thus that God in Christ to-day receives sinful men. Prodigals returning deserve nothing, and yet obtain all. Of even the last rag of merit that the imagination can conjure up -- the merit of being willing to receive favour -- they are utterly destitute. Though we do not come back to our father until all other resources have failed -- although we come, as it were, only when we cannot help coming, he receives us with open arms; he takes the sin away, and does not cast it up.
"When he was yet a great way off his father saw him." He must have been looking out. Often, doubtless every day, his eye turned and strained wistfully in the direction of his son's retiring footsteps. While that son was starving in a foreign land, his father was weeping at the window, longing for his return; when at last the prodigal appeared, the watchful father caught sight of his form in the distance, and ran to meet him. Behold again in this glass another feature of redeeming love! Jesus, looking down on Jerusalem, wept for sorrow, because its giddy multitude would not turn and live; if they had with one accord come forth to accept the pardon which he offered, he would have wept again for joy. In his tears, as well as in his teaching he showed us the Father.
The reconciliation is immediate and complete. The parable reveals an extraordinary outburst of paternal tenderness. The son, melted, and in some measure confused by the undeserved, unexpected warmth of his reception, bethought of the speech which, at the turning point of his repentance, he had resolved to address to his father, and began to recite it as he had conned the words in exile: -- "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son;" but there stopped short, omitting the portion about being content with the position of a hired servant. Bengel suggests that the father may have cut the prodigal's speech short by giving aloud an order to the servants for the kind and honourable reception of his child; but another thought, also suggested by the same acute and experimental expositor, brings out, I think, more truly the deep significance of the omission: -- The son lying on the father's bosom, with the father's tears falling warm on his upturned face, is some degrees further advanced in the spirit of adoption than when he first planned repentance beside the swine in his master's field. There and then the legal spirit of fear because of guilt still lingered in his heart; he ventured to hope for exemption from deserved punishment, but not for restoration to the place of a beloved sen. Now the spirit of bondage has been conclusively cast out by the experience of his father's love; the fragments of stone that had hitherto remained even in a broken heart are utterly melted at last, as if by fire from heaven. He could not now complete the speech which he had prepared; its later words faltered and fell inarticulate. He could not now ask for the place of a servant, for he was already in the place of a son.
 The paraphrase of this Scripture, in a selection employed in most of the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland, stumbles at this point, and misses the meaning of the text. Overlooking the mighty step of progress which the prodigal had made between the time when his accumulating convictions turned the balance first in favour of repentance, and the time when the last fragment of distrust melted away in the flood of a full reconciliation, the hymn represents the son as still pleading specifically to be sent away into the place of a servant, after the embrace, and the kiss, and the tears of his father had bestowed and triply sealed his sonship.
"He ran and fell upon his neck,
"No more, my father, can I hope
No; after the meeting the youth did indeed say that he was not worthy to be called a son, but he did not say he had abandoned the hope or the desire of being reinstated. Yet, notwithstanding this and other errors that have crept into the collection, and the superior character of many that are excluded from it, no vigorous effort has been made to obtain a revision in order to exclude the faulty and introduce better in their stead. Conservative inertia -- an instinct to keep unchanged what has descended to us from our fathers -- is a great and curious power in human nature, operating both on Church and State. Although not creditable to the wisdom and courage of men, it is doubtless overruled for good by the providence of God.
The father's command regarding the son's reception represents the complete reconciliation of the Gospel -- the total oblivion of the prodigal's past sins, and his admission into the favour and the family of God, as a dear child. Even the details at this point have been framed after the pattern of spiritual privileges as they are elsewhere represented in the Scriptures; and they admit, consequently, of being minutely examined and applied. The best Robe points to the Redeemer's righteousness which the believer puts on, and wherein he is justified; the Ring is the signet of a king, the seal of the Spirit in the regeneration; the Shoes suggest that the sinner, forgiven and renewed, shall walk with God in newness of life; the Feast indicates the joy of a forgiving God over a forgiven man, and the joy of a forgiven man in a forgiving God.
These two lessons Christ has tenderly and plainly taught in this parable, -- first, that God receives and forgives a sinner who comes back repenting; and second, that he delights in the act of so forgiving repentant sinners: on these points no ambiguity is left, and no room for controversy. These features of our Father's character, if they were fully perceived and frankly accepted, would soon change the face of the world. Guilt makes the guilty suspicious and distrustful. For the chief ailment of humanity the parable supplies a specific antidote: let the aspect of God's character, which is here displayed, take possession of a sinful heart, and it is forthwith won.
A young person is in want of employment; and a great man lives in the neighbourhood who could give him both work and wages. To this man the youth is advised in his distress to apply; but this is the man whom the youth has injured and offended, -- the man whose just resentment he dreads. But it is known and reported that this possessor of great wealth is kind, generous, forgiving; that he does not retain resentment for injuries received; that he delights to bestow favour on those who have offended him. Convinced by these representations, the youth determines to venture, and accordingly sets out on his journey toward the great man's house. As he approaches it, however, his limbs grow feeble, his heart beats high, and he lacks courage to go near and knock. He halts, and is about to turn back in despair. What would suffice to encourage the trembler at that moment, and bear him through? If then and there he could in any way be thoroughly convinced that the man whom he formerly injured, and therefore now dreads, is not only in general tender-hearted and open-handed, but is at that moment specifically thinking of this individual transgressor, grieving over his impenitence, watching from his window for his coming, yearning to receive his confession, and enjoy the blessedness in his own heart of forgiving and satisfying the penitent; this will be effectual; the youth will go forward to the door now with a firm step.
It is such a conviction regarding the mind of God towards erring men that is needed, in order to bring them in clouds to his mercy-seat, like doves to their windows; and it is in order to work this conviction in our hearts that Jesus, who has authority to declare the Father, has given us the parable of the Prodigal Son. May the Spirit take this word, and make it in us quick and powerful.
Here we are not left to deal with curious or doubtful speculation. Nothing in heaven or earth can be truer, surer, plainer than this. The view that Jesus gives is the true view of the Father, as he turns his face to-day toward the children of men.
Here is a youth who has discovered suddenly that a disease has fatally stricken him, deep in the springs of life. After struggling some days against conviction, and clinging to false hopes, he has at length acknowledged that sentence of death has been passed. When the first tumult subsides, a species of calm succeeds, -- the calm of earnest occupation with one over-riding and absorbing theme. The world, with its hopes and fears, is conclusively cut off: his business with time is closed. He has bidden farewell to the crowd that he has left behind, and has entered the solemn vestibule which at the other end opens on eternity. With all the energy of his being, he applies himself now to the question, Am I lost or saved?
He looks alternately backward on his own life, and upward to God's throne; both prospects trouble him. Backward he sees only sin; forward, only judgment. Himself seems the stubble, and the Judge a consuming fire. As these two approach, and their meeting seems near, he fears with an exceeding great fear, and cries with an exceeding bitter cry. He greatly wonders, meanwhile, that he never saw things in this light before. Now, in man's extremity, is God's opportunity to show him the Father. While the eyes of the body are closed in weariness, the mental vision remains active; and a picture appears, as if it were hung in light upon the wall. To the soul's eye Christ appears, and appears in the act of revealing the Father. The Father whom Christ reveals runs forth to meet his prodigal son, falls on his neck, weeps, and kisses him. There is no upbraiding, no bargaining for terms. The returning son is forgiven, accepted, clothed, honoured, loved. He has all, and abounds. This is doubtless a true picture, the dying youth reflects, for it is Christ that displays it; but, alas, it brings no hope to me. I have stifled convictions, and lived for my own pleasure; and though I often heard of mercy, I never sought it, until I found that death was on my track. How can I expect that God should receive me, when I make him a do-no-better, for I never thought of seeking him until all my chosen idols had forsaken me, and I was left destitute?
Brother, look; what good thing was in the lost son, that served to recommend him to his father? He would not remain at home; he could not enjoy his abundance as long as the father, whose face he loathed, abode under the same roof. He went away, that he might enjoy the pleasures of sin. He did not return while he had enough; he did not return when he began to be in want; he endured the extreme of misery and shame rather than return; he came back to his father only when all other resources failed; -- and yet his father received him with great gladness. Sinner, look on this love, -- look on it till you live in its light. It is not him that never departed, or came back while he yet had plenty, or came back soon, or came back with an improved heart, -- it is, "Him that cometh I will in no wise cast out."
Those who from this parable conclude that God receives sinners into favour without a propitiation, and those who endeavour to escape from that conclusion by affirming that the father in the parable represents Christ, err equally, although on opposite sides.
 Stier's observations on this point are excellent: -- "The well-meaning efforts which are made to explain the absence of reference to the mediating propitiation of the Son of God in this instant exhibition of the Father's mercy, are altogether needless; they rest fundamentally on false dogmatic views of this propitiation, as if there were not existing in the Father's being the same love which is expressed in the Son, -- as if the Father needed abstractly to be propitiated in order to entertain this love! We are not to seek Christ himself as mediator in the person of this father; nor (though Melancthon has strangely ventured to affirm it), afterwards in the fatted calf, as sacrificially slain. His place here is rather to be sought in his thus authoritatively testifying of the Father's mercy. As Nitzsch excellently says: -- 'If he seems to conceal himself here, he is all the more manifest there, where the Shepherd seeks the lost sheep. For the Son -- who is neither an elder nor a younger, the eternal Son of the Father, one with him, his eye and his heart towards the lost -- is come into this world, although invisible and unnamed in the parable, to reveal the Father where he had been ever invisible, and where no man knew him: and he is to the children of the law and the curse, not only a living herald of the propitiable -- we shall rather say of the already propitiated -- Father, but the (that is our) propitiation itself, and the way whereby every one of us may come back to God.' The mediation of Christ is no more denied by this silence than the seduction of Satan was denied in the sinner's apostasy at the beginning of the parable. We may also say with Von Gerlach that the 'coming out of the father to meet his son, here figuratively exhibits the sending of the Son.'" -- Stier in loc.
The notion that a mediator is not needed, because a mediator is not here specifically represented, proceeds upon the assumption, obviously and inexcusably erroneous, that all truth must be taught in every parable. While occasionally visiting the printing works of the publishers as these sheets are passing through the press, I have observed the process of printing coloured landscapes by lithograph. One stone by one impression deposits the outline of the land; another stone, by another impression, fills in the sea; and a third stone, on a different machine, subsequently adds the sky to the picture. No observer is so foolish as to complain, while he sees the process in its earlier stages, that there is no sea or no sky in the landscape. It is thus with the parables in general, and with this group in particular. By the two first, certain portions and aspects of the scene are represented; and by the last one, when it is impressed on the same field, the remaining features are completed.
* * * * *
Hitherto we have been occupied exclusively with the younger of the two sons; but the notice given in the first sentence of the parable prepares us for meeting with the elder in some significant capacity ere it close; and here, accordingly, he comes up to sustain his part.
At the moment of the prodigal's return, his elder brother was in the field, whether for his father's profit or his own pleasure we are not informed. When he came home in the evening, and before he had entered the house, he heard the sound of the festival within. Surprised and displeased that a feast on so large a scale should have been instituted without his privity and participation, he assumed and maintained an attitude of haughty reserve. Instead of going in at once and seeing all with his own eyes as a son, he went to a servant, and in the spirit of an alien, inquired the reason of the mirth. Having learned the leading facts, instead of imitating his father's generosity, he abandoned himself to selfish jealousy, and went away in a pet. The father, on every side true to his character, came out and pleaded with him to enter and share the common joy. Hereupon the true character of the soi-disant model son is revealed; he peevishly casts it in his father's face, as a reproach, that he had never provided such a feast for his immaculate and superlatively dutiful child.
The elder son, in his statement of the case, introduces an elaborately constructed double contrast between his brother's experience and his own, which is peculiarly interesting in relation to the mercy of God and the methods of the Gospel. To the jaundiced eye of this sour-tempered pharisaic youth, it seemed that his father gave much to him that deserved least, and little to him that deserved most: to the profligate son, the fatted calf; to the eminently dutiful child, not even a kid. Here the hard, self-satisfied formalist, like Pilate and Caiaphas, preaches the Christ whom he did not know. The envious contrast portrayed by the elder son is a dark shadow which takes its shape from the Light of life. It is a law of the Gospel that nothing is given to the man in reward for the righteousness which he brings forward as his boast; but all is given to the man who has flung away his own righteousness with loathing as filthy rags, and come, "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked," to cast himself on the mercy of God. The greatest gift is bestowed on the most worthless; for "God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. v.8).
At this point the line of our parable touches that of the lost sheep, and thenceforth runs coincident with it to the close: it points to the same features of human character, and teaches the same principles of divine truth. In the first place, it repeats the answer already given in the two preceding parables to the question embodied in the complaint of the Pharisees, -- "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." The father announces with great clearness and fulness, the grounds on which he rejoiced more that day over the prodigal restored than over the elder son, who had never left home. It is a rule in human experience, universally understood and appreciated, that though a son never lost is as precious as one who has been lost and found, parents experience a more vivid joy in the act of receiving the exile back than in the continuous possession of a son who has been always in their sight.
 This law may be illustrated by an analogous fact in the material department of creation. Lay a ball, such as a boy's marble, on an extended sheet of thin paper, and the paper, though fixed at the edges and unsupported in the midst, will bear easily the weight: take now another ball of the same shape and weight, and let it drop upon the sheet of paper from a height, it will go sheer through. The two balls are of the same weight and figure; but the motion gave to one a momentum tenfold greater than that of the other at rest. It is in a similar way that the return of a lost son goes through a loving father's heart, and makes all its affections thrill; while the continued possession of another son, equally valuable and equally valued, produces no such commotion either in the heart of the father or his home.
In the meantime, it is very sweet to learn from the lips of Jesus that this law, which may be clearly traced on earth, penetrates to heaven, and there prepares for repenting sinners, not a bare escape from wrath, but an abundant entrance into the joy of their Lord.
But while the parable thus demonstrates that even though the claim of the Pharisees were granted their objection falls to the ground, it most certainly does not grant that claim. So far from conceding that they needed no repentance, the Lord makes it evident that they kept company with the publicans in sin, and only differed in this, that they did not repent and forsake it. The elder brother, towards the close of the parable, presents a life-likeness of the Pharisees; in him they might have seen their own shadow on the wall.
The self-righteousness, the pride, the peevishness, the jealousy of the elder brother in the close of the parable represent, in its most distinctive features, the character of the Jewish people and their leaders, in the beginning of the Gospel. One of their leading reasons for refusing to own Jesus as the Messiah was his manifested willingness to extend the blessings of redemption to the needy of every condition and every name. When the Lord reminded them that Elijah was sent past many suffering widows in Israel to relieve a stranger at Sarepta, and that Elisha left many lepers uncured among his own countrymen when he healed the Syrian soldier, they were so exasperated by the suggestion that God's favour had already flowed out to the Gentiles, and might flow in the same direction again, that they "rose up and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong" (Luke iv.29). The same spirit burst forth when they were touched on the same tender point in the ministry of the apostles. Paul was permitted from the stairs of the fortress attached to the temple at Jerusalem to address an excited multitude on the faith as it is in Jesus. Loving the Hebrew tongue in which he spoke better than the Greek, which they had expected him to employ, they listened with interest and in silence to the story of his conversion through the appearing of the risen Jesus; but when in the progress of the narrative he found it necessary to inform them that the Lord his Saviour gave him a commission to preach the Gospel beyond the boundaries of Israel, saying, "Depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles, they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth, for it is not fit that he should live" (Acts xxii.21, 22). In this inveterate prejudice of the Pharisaic Jews against the admission of persons or communities other than themselves into the privileges of Messiah's kingdom, we see the reason why the Lord gave his parable the turn which it takes in the extraordinary conduct of the elder brother. Counting that the kingdom belonged exclusively to themselves, the Jewish hierarchs violently resented every suggestion that pointed to the reception of strangers. It was to them that this series of parables was addressed; and to them, in immediate relation to their stupid and impudent cry, "He receiveth sinners!"
But we have not exhausted this portion of the lesson when we have pointed out that those whom the elder brother represents fret proudly and peevishly against the admission of their neighbours into the kingdom: by that very fact they unconsciously but surely demonstrate that themselves have not entered yet. The spirit that in regard to self is satisfied, before God unhumbled, and towards men unloving, has no part with Christ: this is the proud whom God knoweth afar off, not the meek whom he delights to honour.
Ah, woe to the man who serves God as that son served his father, with a mercenary mind and an unbroken heart, -- who thinks his obedience praiseworthy, and would be surprised if it should go without reward. The elder son was lost as well as the younger; but as far as the parable reveals his history, he was not like him found again: he, like his brother, went astray; but unlike him, refused to come back. The father was grieved as much by the sullen, dry, hard, cold, dead formality of his elder son, as by the prodigal wastefulness of the younger, without getting the sorrow balanced by a subsequent joy. Whited sepulchre! what will thy residence in the house, and thy constant and punctilious profession avail thee while thou art planting daggers in thy father's heart, and nursing vile hypocrisy in thy own? It is the empty open vessel that gets itself filled when it is plunged into a well of living water; the vessel that is full and shut, although it is overflowed by rivers of privileges, does not receive and retain a drop. Before God and under the Gospel, the turning-point of each man's destiny is not the number or the aggravation of his sins, but the discovery of his own guilt, and the consequent cry out of the depths for mercy. That which really in the last resort hinders a man's salvation and secures his doom is not his sin, but his refusal to know and own that he is a sinner. All the excesses of the prodigal will not shut him out of heaven, for he came repenting to the father; but all the virtues of the elder brother will not let him into heaven, for he cherished pride in his heart, and taunted his father for overlooking his worth. The ground on which the Laodiceans were condemned was not the sinfulness of their state, but their stolid satisfaction with the state they were in. "Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. iii.17). What although they were not rich; -- if they had known their poverty, all the treasures of the Godhead were at their disposal: what although they were wretched; -- all the blessings that are at God's right hand were theirs for the asking. What although this son was prodigal; -- there is a place for him in God's favour, -- a place for him in the mansions of the Father's house for ever when he comes back repenting, confiding; but what although he never strayed -- never missed a diet of worship or a deed of alms, the elder brother by holding to his own righteousness, rejects the righteousness which is of God by faith, and shuts himself out of the kingdom. Him who thought he was poor and miserable, and wretched, and blind, and naked, the father runs to meet with kisses of love and tears of joy: but him who thought himself rich and increased with goods, and in need of nothing, the father puts away, with the most piercing expressions of loathing which the whole Scriptures contain, "I will spue thee out of my mouth."