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.

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

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.