Chapter 12 - The Lost Son

(Luke xv. 11 - 24.)

The third parable of this chapter, while it reveals no less than the former ones the heart of God, reveals on the other hand, more than these, the heart of man, and that whether as receiving or rejecting the grace that seeks him. It is in this respect the fitting close of the appeal to conscience. Publican and Pharisee are both shown fully to themselves in the holy light which yet invites and welcomes all who will receive it.

Whatever applications may be made to Jew and Gentile, it should be plain that these are but applications, however legitimate, and that the Lord is not addressing Himself to a class outside His present audience, but to the practical need of those before Him. The same consideration decisively forbids the thought of any direct reference to the restoration of a child of God gone astray from Him, an interpretation which makes of the elder son who had not wandered the pattern saint! Strange it is indeed that any who know what the grace of God does in the soul of its recipient should ever entertain so strange a notion. It is one of the fruits of reading Scripture apart from its context, as if it were a mosaic of disconnected fragments: a thing, alas, still done by so many, to the injury of their souls. We hope to look at the elder son at another time, but the foundation of this strange view meets us at the outset.

The two who are in evident contrast throughout here are both called "Sons." And so in the first parable are the ninety and nine, as well as the object of the Shepherd’s quest called "sheep." But we know the Jewish fold held other flocks than those of Christ in it. When He enters it, He calleth His own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. (Jno. x. 3.) The fact, then, of all being called sheep need perplex no one.

The title of "son" may indeed seem to involve more than this, because Judaism taught no "Abba, Father," and it is one of the characteristics of Christianity that we receive in it "the adoption of sons." While this is true, it is by no means the whole truth. Israel too had an "adoption" (Rom. 1X. 3); and it is with reference to their position in contrast with the Gentiles that the Lord said to the Syro-phenician woman, "It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs." In the parable, the Lord spoke to the Jews after His solemn entry into Jerusalem; He again speaks of both Pharisees and publicans, joining "harlots" with the latter as sons, precisely as here, - "A certain man had two sons." (Matt. xxi. 28.) Thus, while the proper truth of relationship to God could only be known and enjoyed in Christianity, it is certain that Israel had also, as the only one of the families of the earth "known" to Him, a place upon which they valued themselves, and it was just that generation among whom the Lord stood, who did above all claim this. "We be not born of fornication" was their indignant reply to Him upon another occasion, "we have one Father, even God." (Jno. viii. 41.) And though He urges upon them the want of real correspondence in their character, yet there was basis sufficient for His utterance here, while the want of correspondence comes out in the end too as fully. "I am a Father to Israel" had long since been declared.

The character of the younger son soon becomes manifest. "Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me" is itself significant. He is not content that his father should keep his portion, but will have it to enjoy, himself, in independence of the hand from which it comes. You do not wonder to learn that in a little while, he would be freer still, and that the far country is for him an escape from his father’s eye, as the independent portion had been from his hand.

It need hardly be said that this is the way in which men treat God. That which comes from Him, the Author of all the good in it for which they seem to have so keen a relish, such entire appreciation, they yet cannot enjoy in submission to Him or in His presence. God is their mar-all - the destruction of all their comfort. How many "inventions" have they to forget Him! for the "far-off country" is itself but one of these. God is "not far off from any one of us." Oh, what a desolation would these very children of disobedience find it, if indeed they could banish God from His own world!

It is no wonder that in this far-off country the prodigal should waste his substance with riotous living. It is only the sign that where he is is beginning to tell on him; the touch of coming famine is already on him. The little good in any thing apart from God felt by one still not in the secret of it makes him hunt after it the more; and if there be only a pound of sugar in a ton of sap, the sap will go very quickly in finding the sugar. This is what the man is doing, going in the company of the "many who say, 'Who will show us any good?’" and who have not learned to say, "Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us"

So the wheels run fast down-hill. Soon he is at the bottom. He has spent all, and then there arises a mighty famine in the land. It is not only that his own resources are at an end, but the whole land of his choice is stripped and empty. This is fulfilled with us when we have not merely lost what was our own, but have come to find that in all the world there is nothing from which to supply ourselves. It is not an experience - perhaps an exceptional experience - of our own, but the cry of want every where. How can we even beg from beggars? Such is the world when the eye is opened really as to it, - when the ear has come to interpret its multitudinous sounds. Every where are leanness and poverty. Every where is the note of the passing bell. "The world passeth away, and the lust thereof."

Then he goes and joins himself to a citizen of that far-off land, - one who belongs to it as, according to this story, even the prodigal did not. For men have come into this condition, but are not looked upon as hopelessly involved in it. There is elsewhere a Father’s heart that travels after them: there is the step of One who goeth after that which is lost. But the citizen of that far-off land has no ties, - not even (one may say) broken ties elsewhere. Such a citizen the devil assuredly is, and the troop he is feeding and fattening for destruction speak plainly for him: "he sent him into his fields to feed swine."

These swine, alas, are men - not all men, not even all natural men. They are those before whom the Lord forbids to cast the pearls of holy things, for they will trample them under their feet, and turn upon and rend you. They are the scoffers and scorners, the impious opposers of all that is of God. These are the company the devil entertains and feeds - though with "husks"- and indeed it must be owned he has no better provisions. These "husks" whatever they may be naturally, are surely spiritually just what would be food to profanity and impiety. The world’s famine does not diminish Satan’s resources in this respect - nay, they are in some sense increased by it. All the misery of man, the fruit of his sin, the mark of divine judgment upon it, but also the warning voice of God by which He would emphasize His first question to the fallen, "Adam, where art thou" - all this is what profanity would cast up against God. God, not man, it says, is the sinner; and man, not God, will be justified in judgment!

But the swine are swine evidently, rooting in the mire, men in their swinish grovelings and lusts that drive them; and those that feed them cannot after all fill their belly with that which the swine eat. For those who cannot always look down and willingly ignore what is above them, even though storms sweep through it as well as sunshine floats through it, cannot be satisfied with what, in levelling them with the beasts, degrades them below them. The beasts, may be, are satisfied. They look not at death, and have no instincts which lead them beyond it: they may be satisfied "to lie in cold obstruction and to rot;" man never really. And it is more than questionable if, with all his powers of self-deception, he can ever quite believe it is his portion.

"And no man gave him." What is there like a land of famine for drying up all the sweet charities and affections that are yet left in men? Take the awful picture that Jeremiah gives, where "the hands of pitiful women have sodden their own offspring," as a sample of what this can do. And the estimate of men as beasts, the giving up of God and of the future life, does it tend to produce the pity of men for men? Have hospitals and asylums and refuges, and all the kindly ministrations of life, grown out of infidelity, or faith? Everyone knows. The charity of the infidel seldom consists in more than freeing men from the restraints of conscience and the fear of God.

But here the prodigal "comes to himself." His abject misery stares him in the face. "Adam, where art thou" is heard in his inmost soul; and if there be uncertainty as to all other things, here at least there is none. He is perishing with hunger. Not that he knows himself rightly yet, still less that he knows his father; but he is destitute, and there is bread in his father’s house: he will arise and go to his father; he will say to 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."

This is another point of which even the infidel may assure himself, that while he is starving, the people of God have real satisfaction and enjoyment. There need be no doubt about that. If it be a delusion that they enjoy. yet they enjoy it: if it be a falsehood that satisfies them, yet they are satisfied. And then it is surely strange that truth must needs make miserable, when a lie can satisfy! Nay, that Christ spake truth in this at least, that He said He would to those who came to Him give rest: and He gives it. Bolder in such a promise than any other ever dared to be, He yet fulfills His promise. While philosophy destroys philosophy, and schools of thought chase one another like shadows over the dial-plate of history, Christ’s sweet assuring word never fails in fulfillment. Explain it as you may, you cannot deny it. Between His people and the world there is in this as clear a distinction as existed in Egypt when the three days’ darkness rested on the land, "but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings."

So the prodigal turns at last toward the light. There is bread in his father’s house. He will return. Yet he makes a great mistake. He says, "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare!" And there is not even one hired servant in his father' house! God may "hire" a man of the world to do His will, just as He gave Egypt into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar as the "hire" for His judgment which he had executed upon Tyre. But in His house He has but children at His table: as it was said of the Passover Feast, the type of it, "A foreigner and a hired servant shall not eat thereof." (Ex. xii. 45.)

He too - far off as he surely is yet - would come for his hire. He knows nothing as yet of the father's heart going out after him. He wrongs him with the very plea with which he intends to come, though it is indeed true that he is unworthy to be called his son. But this confession, in what different circumstances in fact does he make it!

"And he arose, and came to his father." Here is the great decisive point. Whatever may be the motives that influence him, - however little any thing yet may be right with him, - still he comes! And so the Lord presses upon every troubled weary soul to "come." However many the exercises of soul through which we pass, nothing profits till we come to Him. However little right any thing may be with us beside, nothing can hinder our reception if we come. Him that cometh unto Him He will in no wise cast out.

So helpless we may be that we can come but in a look - "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." Not "Look at Me" merely: men may look at Christ, and look long, and look with a certain kind of belief also, and look admiringly, and find no salvation in all this; but when Christ is the need - the absolute need and the death-stricken soul pours itself out at the eyes to find the Saviour, though clouds and darkness may seem round about Him, yet shall it pierce through all. This is "coming." It is the might of weakness laying hold upon almighty strength. It is the constraint of need upon All sufficiency. It is the power of misery over divine compassion. It is more than this: it is the Father's heart revealed.

For, "when he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." How it speaks of the way in which the father's heart had retained his image that he could recognize him in the distance, returning in such a different manner from that in which he had set out. Watching for him too, as it would seem; and when he saw him, forgetting all but that this was his son retuned, in the irnpetuosity of irresistible affection, as if he might escape him yet, and he must secure him and hold him fast, running, and, in a love too great for words, falling upon his neck and making himself over to him in that passionate kiss! It is GOD of whom this is the picture! What a surprise for this poor prodigal! What an overwhelming joy for those who are met thus, caught in the arms of unchanging, everlasting love, - held fast to the bosom of God, to be His forever!

Not a question! not a condition! a word of it would have spoiled all. Holiness must be produced in us, not enforced, not bargained for. Tell this father upon his son's neck, if you can, that he is indifferent whether his son is to be his son or .not. He who has come out in Christ to meet us, Friend of publicans and sinners, calls us to repentance by calling us to Himself: is there another way? "We joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation." is not this "joy in God" the sign of a heart brought back? of the far country, with all its ways, left forever behind?

Christ is the kiss of God.- who that has received it has not been transformed by it? Who that, with the apostle John, has laid his head and his heart to rest upon His bosom, but with him will say, "He that sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him" (Jno. iii. 6)? That glorious vision - "the glory of that light" - blinded another apostle, not for three days only, but forever, to all other glory. "The life which I live in the flesh," he says, "I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me." (Gal. ii. 20.)

Not until upon his father's bosom is the newly recovered one able to get out his meditated confession. Then in what a different spirit would it be made! The shameful "make me as one of thy hired servants" drops entirely out, while the sense of unworthiness deepens into true penitence. "The goodness of God" it is that "leadeth to repentance." The prompt reception, the sweet decisive assurance of the gospel, the "perfect love" that "casteth out fear," - these are the sanctifying power of Christianity, its irresistible appeal to heart and conscience. Let no one dread the grace which alone liberates from the dominion of sin! If we have not known its power, it must be that we have not known itself. If we have found it feeble, it is only because we have feebly realized it. There is nothing beside it worthy to be trusted, - nothing that can be substituted for it, nothing that can supplement it or make it efficacious. The soul that cannot be purged by grace can only be subdued by the flames of hell!

The son may rightly confess his unworthiness, but the father cannot repent of his love: "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.' " He must be put into condition for the house he is coming into; but more, he must have the best robe in the house. And this, we know, is Christ. Christ must cover us from head to foot. Christ must cover us back and front. There must be no possible way of viewing us apart from Him. He it is who appears in the presence of God for us. Our Substitute upon the cross is our Representative in heaven. We are in Him, - "accepted in the Beloved." There can be no question at all that this is the best robe in heaven. No angel can say, Christ is my righteousness: the feeblest of the saved can say nothing else! It is Christ or self, and therefore Christ or damnation.

Oh, to realize the joy of this utter displacement of self by Christ! To accept it unreservedly is what will put us practically where the apostle was, and the things that were gain to us we count loss for Christ. Our possession in Him will become His possession of us, and there will be no separate interests whatever. How God has insured that our acceptance of our position shall set us right as to condition - make us His as He is ours! Here again too, how holy is God's grace! We are sanctified by that which justifies us; and the faith which puts us among the justified ones is the principle of all fruitfulness as well. The faith that has not works is thus dead: that is, it is no real faith at all.

Work is thus ennobled, and this I think you see in the "ring." The hand is thus provided for, and brought into corresponding honour with all the rest. What an honour to have a hand to serve Christ with! So the ring weds it to Him forever. We are no longer to serve ourselves. We are no longer to feed swine with husks. We are "made free from sin, and become servants to God; we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life."

The person clothed, the hand consecrated, the feet are next provided for. The shoes are to enable us for the roughness of the way: and the apostle bids us have our feet shod with the "preparation of the gospel of peace." (Eph. vi. 15.) For the peace of the gospel is to apply itself to all the circumstances of the way. Our Father is the Lord of heaven and earth. Our Saviour sits upon the Father's throne. What enduring peace is thus provided for us! And as the shoe would arm against the defilement of the way, so it would be a guard against the dust and defilement of it. Can anything better prevent us getting under the power of circumstances (and so necessarily being defiled by them) than the quiet assurance that our God and Father holds them in His hand? To be ruffled and disturbed by them is to be thrown off our balance. We try our own methods of righting things, and our methods become less scrupulous as unbelief prevails with us: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." It is clear independency, - our will, not God's.

Thus is the prodigal furnished! Again I say, how holy in its tender thoughtfulness is all this care! Blessed, blessed be God, grace is our sufficiency, - that is, Himself is. He is fully ours: we too - at least in the desire of our Hearts - are fully His. And now the joy of eternity begins for us - communion in the Father's love. He is in heaven, we are on earth: in heaven the joy is; but we too are made sharers of it. Do we not share in what here before us, "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"?

It is the Father's joy, and over us; but Christ is the expression of it, and the One who furnishes the materials of it. The well-known figure of God's patient and fruitful Worker is before us, and the necessity, even for Him, of death, that we might live. God has wrought these things into our daily lives that we may continually have before us what is ever before Himself. And we are called to make Christ our own - to appropriate Him in faith in this intimate way, that as we abide in Him, He may abide in us. How He would assure us of our welcome to Him! How He would tell us that we are never to be parted! The life so ministered to, so sustained, is already within us the eternal life.

And the Father's joy fills the house, making all there to share it and to echo it. No impassive God is ours. The Author of this gushing spring of human feeling no less feels. We are in this also His offspring. "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." So the music and the dance begin, and shall never end.