And he said, A certain man had two sons:…
The two previous parables which our Lord related in defence of his conduct are really but introductory to what has been with justice called "the pearl of parables," that of the prodigal son. To it we will now devote ourselves, under the title recently given to it as "From home, and back." It brings out in a most interesting way the attitude of God the Father towards lost souls. It is necessary before setting out, however, to notice that, according to the ancient Law, the division of the family inheritance was not conditioned by the parent's death. If a son insisted on his share, the father publicly declared to his household his testamentary intentions, and the son entered at once into possession. What our Lord's parable supposes, therefore, is what constantly occurred. The father did not keep his testamentary intentions a secret to be revealed only at his death, but got up and declared publicly how the inheritance was to be allotted, and the impatient son entered at once into possession. Death, as a matter of fact, does not enter into the case at all. There is another preliminary point which we had better distinctly state, and that is that historically the younger son is intended to cover the case of the "publicans and sinners" Jesus was receiving into the kingdom of God; while the elder son covers the case of the "Pharisees and scribes" who murmured at Christ's policy. If we keep this clearly in view, it will hell) us greatly in our interpretation. We shall take up the two sons in the order presented in the parable.
I. THE PRODIGAL LEAVING HOME AND COMING BACK. (Vers. 11-24.) Imagining he could not enjoy life with his father and amid the restraints of home, he clamours for his share of the inheritance, turns it into money, and sets out. We cannot do better than take up the stages in the history one by one, and interpret them as we proceed. We have, then:
1. The emigration. (Ver. 13.) Now, if this younger son represents historically "the publicans and sinners," we must remember that they did not leave Palestine or even Jerusalem when separated from the Jewish Church. The emigration pictured in the parable was, therefore, not emigration to a locally distant land, but to a morally distant land; in other words, by the "far country" is not meant a foreign country, but the country of forgetfulness of God. The soul that lives at a distance from God, that never considers that he is near, has by that forgetfulness of him emigrated to the "far country" and gone from home. In strict accordance with this principle of interpretation, the "substance" which was gathered and wasted in the far country was moral wealth, not monetary. As a matter of fact, the publicans, or tax-gatherers, were in many cases careful, money-gathering men. and not spendthrifts in the vulgar sense. What was squandered, therefore, in the far off land of forgetfulness of God was moral wealth, the wealth of the heart and mind. The waste was moral waste. And it is just here that we have to notice what may be called the defamation of the prodigal, in that painters and expositors have represented his "riotous living" as including actually the deepest immorality. This was the line adopted, too, by the elder brother, who represented his brother as having devoured the father's living with harlots (ver. 30), although, as a matter of fact, he had no evidence of such "excess of riot" in the case at all. The most careful expositor of this parable has accordingly pointed out that the prodigal did not reach the sphere of sensuality until he envied the swine, and then only entered it by the mental act. It is when we note how carefully our Lord constructed the parable, that we can see how the moral character of the publicans was appreciated in the picture, and they were not confounded with sinners of the more sensual type. The far-off country, then, and the waste which took place there, represent the land of forgetfulness of God, and the waste of mind and heart that a God-forgetting life is certain to experience.
2. The famine. (Ver. 14.) This is the second stage. It represents the hunger of the heart and mind which comes over the soul that has forgotten God and taken to worldly courses. The famine is the utter vacancy of heart that settles down upon the moral emigrant. He begins to realize what he has lost by leaving God.
3. The effort after recovery. (Vers. 15, 16,) The famished worldling betakes himself to work; becomes a swineherd - an unlawful occupation for a Jew - our Lord touching thus gently on the question of the farming of the taxes for Rome by the publicans; and finds that there is no real regeneration to be found in work. He, in his utter want of satisfaction, wishes he could satisfy his soul as the swine satisfy their nature, upon husks. Sensuality is seen by the famished one to be as unsatisiying as work. And then the last experience is the utter helplessness of man. "No man gape unto him;" no one could minister to his mental trouble. It is through a similar experience the soul comes. Self-recovery turns out to be a delusion, and man is found to be of no avail.
4. The return of reason. (Vers. 17-19.) In his isolation he begins to see that all the past forgetfulness of God was a mistake; that he was insane to take the course he did; and that in his right mind he must act differently. Accordingly he begins in sane moments to reflect on the Father's house, how good a Master God is, how his hirelings have always enough and to spare, and that the best thing for him to do is to return, confess his fault, and get what place in God's house he can. This is repentance - the remembrance of God and how we have sinned against him.
5. Coming back. (Ver. 20.) The resolution to come home must be put in practice. The hope may only be for a servant's place, yet it is well to begin the return journey and test the loving-kindness of God.
6. The welcome home. (Vers. 20, 21.) The father has been on the look-out for the son, and, the moment he begins the journey, the father's compassion becomes overpowering, and. he runs and falls on the prodigal's neck and kisses him. And when the broken-hearted son pours forth his penitence, and that he is no more worthy to be called a son, he is met by the father's welcome and passionate embrace. In this most beautiful way does our Lord bring out God's yearning for lost souls, and his intense delight when they return to him.
7. The feast of joy. (Vers. 22-24.) Orders are given to the servants to take away his rags, and put upon him the best robe, and a ring on his hand, as signs of his rank as his father's son, and shoes on his feet, and to prepare the fatted calf and have a merry feast. In this way does our Lord indicate the joy which fills God's heart and that of the angels and that of the returned soul himself when he has come home to God. It is indeed "joy unspeakable and full of glory." These are the stages, then, in a soul's history as it passes into the far-off land of forgetfulness of God, and then gets back to his embrace.
II. THE ELDER SON STAYING AT HOME, BUT NEVER HAPPY. (Vers. 25-32.) We now turn to our Lord's picture of the Pharisees and scribes, under the guise of the elder brother. Although these men had not left the Church, although they put in their appearance at the temple, they never were happy in their religion.
1. Nominally at home, the elder son is yet from home. (Ver. 25.) The elder son was always at work i u the fields, happiest away from the father. The self-righteous spirit is after all an isolating spirit. The elder son was really as forgetful of God as the younger, only the forgetfulness took a different form.
2. The merry-making at home distresses him. (Vers. 26-30.) He first asks an explanation of the unusual mirth, and then, when he gets it, bursts into a fit of censoriousness of the most exaggerated character, in which he accuses the father of favouritism in. receiving his penitent child, and refuses to be any party to such merry-making. How it exposes the gloomy, Pharisaic spirit which with some passes for religion!
3. The godless spirit manifests itself within him. (Ver. 29.) He has been a faithful and faultless servant, he believes, and yet he has never got even a kid to make merry with his friends. His whole idea of joy is away fern the father. He is still in the first stage of the younger brother, from which he happily has escaped.
4. He is unable to realize how meet it is to rejoice over the return of the lost. (Vers. 31, 32.) The father's expostulations are vain, although they ought to have been convincing. Joy over the recovery of the lost is one of the necessities of an unwarped nature. It was this great sin of which the scribes and Pharisees were guilty, that they would not rejoice at the recovery of fallen fellows by the ministry of Christ. May the broken-heartedness of the prodigal be ours, and never the heartlessness and censoriousness of the elder brother! - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: And he said, A certain man had two sons: