Bible Commentary in 8 Volumes
The Gospel According to St.
Notes on Chapter 15
Verse 1. Publicans and sinners— telwnai kai amartwloi,
tax-gatherers and heathens; persons who neither believed in Christ nor in Moses. See the note on Luke 7:36. Concerning the tax-gatherers, see the note on Matthew 5:46.
Verse 2. Receiveth sinners— prosdecetai. He receives them cordially, affectionately-takes them to his bosom; for so the word implies. What mercy! Jesus receives sinners in the most loving, affectionate manner, and saves them unto eternal life! Reader, give glory to God for ever!
Verse 4. What man of you— Our Lord spoke this and the following parable to justify his conduct in receiving and conversing with sinners or heathens.
A hundred sheep— Parables similar to this are frequent among the Jewish writers. The whole flock of mankind, both Jews and Gentiles, belongs unto this Divine Shepherd; and it is but reasonable to expect, that the gracious proprietor will look after those who have gone astray, and bring them back to the flock. The lost sheep is an emblem of a heedless, thoughtless sinner: one who follows the corrupt dictates of his own heart, without ever reflecting upon his conduct, or considering what will be the issue of his unholy course of life. No creature strays more easily than a sheep; none is more heedless; and none so incapable of finding its way back to the flock, when once gone astray: it will bleat for the flock, and still run on in an opposite direction to the place where the flock is: this I have often noticed. No creature is more defenceless than a sheep, and more exposed to be devoured by dogs and wild beasts. Even the fowls of the air seek their destruction. I have known ravens often attempt to destroy lambs by picking out their eyes, in which, when they have succeeded, as the creature does not see whither it is going, it soon falls an easy prey to its destroyer. Satan is ever going about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour; in order to succeed, he blinds the understanding of sinners, and then finds it an easy matter to tumble them into the pit of perdition. Who but a Pharisee or a devil would find fault with the shepherd who endeavors to rescue his sheep from so much danger and ruin!
Verse 7. Just persons, which need no repentance.— Who do not require such a change of mind and purpose as these do-who are not so profligate, and cannot repent of sins they have never committed. Distinctions of this kind frequently occur in the Jewish writings. There are many persons who have been brought up in a sober and regular course of life, attending the ordinances of God, and being true and just in all their dealings; these most materially differ from the heathens mentioned, Luke 15:1, because they believe in God, and attend the means of grace: they differ also essentially from the tax-gatherers mentioned in the same place, because they wrong no man, and are upright in their dealings. Therefore they cannot repent of the sins of a heathen, which they have not practised; nor of the rapine of a tax-gatherer, of which they have never been guilty. As, therefore, these just persons are put in opposition to the tax-gatherers and heathens, we may at once see the scope and design of our Lord’s words: these needed no repentance in comparison of the others, as not being guilty of their crimes. And as these belonged, by outward profession at least, to the flock of God, and were sincere and upright according to their light, they are considered as being in no danger of being lost; and at they fear God, and work righteousness according to their light, he will take care to make those farther discoveries to them, of the purity of his nature, the holiness of his law, and the necessity of the atonement, which he sees to be necessary. See the case of Cornelius, Acts 10:1, etc. On this ground, the owner is represented as feeling more joy in consequence of finding one sheep that was lost, there having been almost no hope of its recovery, than he feels at seeing ninety and nine still safe under his care. “Men generally rejoice more over a small unexpected advantage, than over a much greater good to which they have been accustomed.” There are some, and their opinion need not be hastily rejected, who imagine that by the ninety and nine just persons, our Lord means the angels-that they are in proportion to men, as ninety-nine are to one, and that the Lord takes more pleasure in the return and salvation of one sinner, than in the uninterrupted obedience of ninety-nine holy angels; and that it was through his superior love to fallen man that he took upon him his nature, and not the nature of angels. I have met with the following weak objection to this: viz. “The text says just persons; now, angels are not persons, therefore angels cannot be meant.” This is extremely foolish; there may be the person of an angel, as well as of a man; we allow persons even in the Godhead; besides, the original word, dikaioiv, means simply just ones, and may be, with as much propriety, applied to angels as to men. After all, our Lord may refer to the Essenes, a sect among the Jews, in the time of our Lord, who were strictly and conscientiously moral; living at the utmost distance from both the hypocrisy and pollutions of their countrymen. These, when compared with the great mass of the Jews, needed no repentance. The reader may take his choice of these interpretations, or make a better for himself. I have seen other methods of explaining these words; but they have appeared to me either too absurd or too improbable to merit particular notice.
Verse 8. Ten pieces of silver— dracmav deka, ten drachmas. I think it always best to retain the names of these ancient coins, and to state their value in English money. Every reader will naturally wish to know by what names such and such coins were called in the countries in which they were current. The Grecian drachma was worth about sevenpence three farthings of our money; being about the same value as the Roman denarius.
The drachma that was lost is also a very expressive emblem of a sinner who is estranged from God, and enslaved to habits of iniquity. The longer a piece of money is lost, the less probability is there of its being again found; as it may not only lose its color, and not be easily observed, but will continue to be more and more covered with dust and dirt: or its value may be vastly lessened by being so trampled on that a part of the substance, together with the image and superscription, may be worn off. So the sinner sinks deeper and deeper into the impurities of sin, loses even his character among men, and gets the image and superscription of his Maker defaced from his heart. He who wishes to find the image of God, which he has lost by sin, must attend to that word which will be a lantern to his steps, and receive that Spirit which is a light to the soul, to convince of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He must sweep the house-put away the evil of his doings; and seek diligently-use every means of grace, and cry incessantly to God, till he restore to him the light of his countenance. Though parables of this kind must not be obliged to go on all fours, as it is termed; yet they afford many useful hints to preachers of the Gospel, by which they may edify their hearers. Only let all such take care not to force meanings on the words of Christ which are contrary to their gravity and majesty.
Verse 12. Give me the portion of goods— It may seem strange that such a demand should be made, and that the parent should have acceded to it, when he knew that it was to minister to his debauches that his profligate son made the demand here specified. But the matter will appear plain, when it is considered, that it has been an immemorial custom in the east for sons to demand and receive their portion of the inheritance during their father’s lifetime; and the parent, however aware of the dissipated inclinations of the child, could not legally refuse to comply with the application. It appears indeed that the spirit of this law was to provide for the child in case of ill treatment by the father: yet the demand must first be acceded to, before the matter could be legally inquired into; and then, “if it was found that the father was irreproachable in his character, and had given no just cause for the son to separate from him, in that case, the civil magistrate fined the son in two hundred puns of cowries.” See Code of Gentoo laws, pr. disc. p. 56; see also do. chap. 2: sec. 9, p. 81, 82; xxi. sec. 10, p. 301.
Verse 13. Not many days after— He probably hastened his departure for fear of the fine which he must have paid, and the reproach to which he must have been subjected, had the matter come before the civil magistrate. See above.
Riotous living.— zwn aswtwv, in a course of life that led him to spend all: from a not, and sww I save. And this we are informed, Luke 15:30, was among harlots; the readiest way in the world to exhaust the body, debase the mind, ruin the soul, and destroy the substance.
Verse 14. A mighty famine in that land— As he was of a profligate turn of mind himself, it is likely he sought out a place where riot and excess were the ruling characteristics of the inhabitants; and, as poverty is the sure consequence of prodigality, it is no wonder that famine preyed on the whole country.
Verse 15. To feed swine.— The basest and vilest of all employments; and, to a Jew, peculiarly degrading. Shame, contempt, and distress are wedded to sin, and can never be divorced. No character could be meaner in the sight of a Jew than that of a swineherd: and Herodotus informs us, that in Egypt they were not permitted to mingle with civil society, nor to appear in the worship of the gods, nor would the very dregs of the people have any matrimonial connections with them. HEROD. lib. ii. cap. 47.
Verse 16. With the husks— keratiwn. Bochart, I think, has proved that keratia does not mean husks: to signify which the Greek botanical writers use the word loboi; several examples of which he gives from Theophrastus. He shows, also, that the original word means the fruit of the ceratonia or charub tree, which grows plentifully in Syria. This kind of pulse, Columella observes, was made use of to feed swine. See BOCHART, Hieroz. lib. ii. cap. lvi. col. 707-10.
Verse 17. When he came to himself— A state of sin is represented in the sacred writings as a course of folly and madness; and repentance is represented as a restoration to sound sense. See this fully explained on Matthew 3:2.
I perish with hunger!— Or, I perish HERE. /wde, here, is added by BDL, Syriac, all the Arabic and Persic, Coptic, AEthiopic, Gothic, Saxon, Vulgate, all the Itala, and several of the fathers.
Verse 18. Against heaven— eiv ton ouranon; that is, against God. The Jews often make use of this periphrasis in order to avoid mentioning the name of God, which they have ever treated with the utmost reverence. But some contend that it should be translated, even unto heaven; a Hebraism for, I have sinned exceedingly-beyond all description.
Verse 20. And kissed him.— Or, kissed him again and again; the proper import of kataefilhsen auton. The father thus showed his great tenderness towards him, and his great affection for him.
Verse 21. Make me as one of thy hired servants, is added here by several MSS. and versions; but it is evident this has been added, merely to make his conduct agree with his resolution, Luke 15:19. But by this a very great beauty is lost: for the design of the inspired penman is to show, not merely the depth of the profligate son’s repentance, and the sincerity of his conversion, but to show the great affection of the father, and his readiness to forgive his disobedient son. His tenderness of heart cannot wait till the son has made his confession; his bowels yearn over him, and he cuts short his tale of contrition and self-reproach, by giving him the most plenary assurances of his pardoning love.
Verse 22. Bring forth the best robe— Bring out that chief garment, thn stolhn thn prwthn, the garment which was laid by, to be used only on birth-days or festival times. Such as that which Rebecca had laid by for Esau, and which she put on Jacob when she made him personate his brother. See the notes on Genesis 27:15.
Put a ring on his hand— Giving a ring was in ancient times a mark of honor and dignity. See Genesis 41:42; 1 Kings 21:8; Esther 8:2; Daniel 6:17; James 2:2.
Shoes on his feet— Formerly those who were captivated had their shoes taken off, Isaiah 20:1; and when they were restored to liberty their shoes were restored. See 2 Chronicles 28:15. In Bengal, shoes of a superior quality make one of the distinguishing parts of a person’s dress. Some of them cost as much as a hundred rupees a pair; ú10 or ú12. Reference is perhaps made here to some such costly shoes. It is the same among the Chinese: some very costly shoes and boots of that people are now before me.
Verse 23. The fatted calf, and kill it— qusate, Sacrifice it. In ancient times the animals provided for public feasts were first sacrificed to God. The blood of the beast being poured out before God, by way of atonement for sin, the flesh was considered as consecrated, and the guests were considered as feeding on Divine food. This custom is observed among the Asiatics to this day.
Verse 24. Was dead— Lost to all good-given up to all evil. In this figurative sense the word is used by the best Greek writers. See many examples in Kypke.
Verse 25. His elder son— Meaning probably persons of a regular moral life, who needed no repentance in comparison of the prodigal already described.
In the field— Attending the concerns of the farm.
He heard music— sumfwniav, a number of sounds mingled together, as in a concert.
Dancing.— corwn. But Leviticus Clerc denies that the word means dancing at all, as it properly means a choir of singers. The symphony mentioned before may mean the musical instruments which accompanied. the choirs of singers.
Verse 28. He was angry— This refers to the indignation of the scribes and Pharisees, mentioned Luke 15:1, 2. In every point of view, the anger of the older son was improper and unreasonable. He had already received his part of the inheritance, see Luke 15:12, and his profligate brother had received no more than what was his just dividend. Besides, what the father had acquired since that division he had a right to dispose of as he pleased, even to give it all to one son; nor did the ancient customs of the Asiatic countries permit the other children to claim any share in such property thus disposed of. The following is an institute of the GENTOO law on this subject: (CODE, chap. ii. sect. 9, p. 79:) “If a father gives, by his own choice, land, houses, orchards, and the earning of his own industry, to one of his sons, the other sons shall not receive any share of it.” Besides, whatever property the father had acquired after the above division, the son or sons, as the prodigal in the text, could have no claim at all on, according to another institute in the above Asiatic laws, see chap. ii. sect. ii. p. 85, but the father might divide it among those who remained with him: therefore is it said in the text, “Son, thou art ALWAYS with me, and ALL that I have is THINE,” Luke 15:31.
Verse 29. Never-a kid— It is evident from Luke 15:12, that the father gave him his portion when his profligate brother claimed his; for he divided his whole substance between them. And though he had not claimed it, so as to separate from, and live independently of, his father, yet he might have done so whenever he chose; and therefore his complaining was both undutiful and unjust.
Verse 30. This thy son— THIS son of THINE-words expressive of supreme contempt: THIS son-he would not condescend to call him by his name, or to acknowledge him for his brother; and at the same time, bitterly reproaches his amiable father for his affectionate tenderness, and readiness to receive his once undutiful, but now penitent, child!
For HIM— I have marked those words in small capitals which should be strongly accented in the pronunciation: this last word shows how supremely he despised his poor unfortunate brother.
Verse 31. All that I have is thine.— See on Luke 15:28.
Verse 32. This thy brother— Or, THIS brother of THINE. To awaken this ill-natured, angry, inhumane man to a proper sense of his duty, both to his parent and brother, this amiable father returns him his own unkind words, but in a widely different spirit. This son of mine to whom I show mercy is THY brother, to whom thou shouldst show bowels of tenderness and affection; especially as he is no longer the person he was: he was dead in sin-he is quickened by the power of God: he was lost to thee, to me, to himself, and to our God; but now he is found: and he will be a comfort to me, a help to thee, and a standing proof, to the honor of the Most High, that God receiveth sinners. This, as well as the two preceding parables, was designed to vindicate the conduct of our blessed Lord in receiving tax-gatherers and heathens; and as the Jews, to whom it was addressed, could not but approve of the conduct of this benevolent father, and reprobate that of his elder son, so they could not but justify the conduct of Christ towards those outcasts of men, and, at least in the silence of their hearts, pass sentence of condemnation upon-themselves. For the sublime, the beautiful, the pathetic, and the instructive, the history of Joseph in the Old Testament, and the parable of the prodigal son in the New, have no parallels either in sacred or profane history.
THE following reflections, taken chiefly from pious Quesnel, cannot fail making this incomparable parable still more instructive.
Three points may be considered here: I. The degrees of his fall. II. The degrees of his restoration; and, III. The consequences of his conversion.
I. The prodigal son is the emblem of a sinner who refuses to depend on and be governed by the Lord. How dangerous is it for us to desire to be at our own disposal, to live in a state of independency, and to be our own governors! God cannot give to wretched man a greater proof of his wrath than to abandon him to the corruption of his own heart.
Not many days, etc., Luke 15:13. The misery of a sinner has its degrees; and he soon arrives, step by step, at the highest pitch of his wretchedness.
The first degree of his misery is, that he loses sight of God, and removes at a distance from him. There is a boundless distance between the love of God, and impure self-love; and yet, strange to tell, we pass in a moment from the one to the other!
The second degree of a sinner’s misery is, that the love of God being no longer retained in the heart, carnal love and impure desires necessarily enter in, reign there, and corrupt all his actions.
The third degree is, that he squanders away all spiritual riches, and wastes the substance of his gracious Father in riot and debauch.
When he had spent all, etc., Luke 15:14. The fourth degree of an apostate sinner’s misery is, that having forsaken God, and lost his grace and love, he can now find nothing but poverty, misery, and want. How empty is that soul which God does not fill! What a famine is there in that heart which is no longer nourished by the bread of life!
In this state, he joined himself-ekollhqh, he cemented, closely united himself, and fervently cleaved to a citizen of that country, Luke 15:15.
The fifth degree of a sinner’s misery is, that he renders himself a slave to the devil, is made partaker of his nature, and incorporated into the infernal family. The farther a sinner goes from God, the nearer he comes to eternal ruin.
The sixth degree of his misery is, that he soon finds by experience the hardship and rigour of his slavery. There is no master so cruel as the devil; no yoke so heavy as that of sin; and no slavery so mean and vile as for a man to be the drudge of his own carnal, shameful, and brutish passions.
The seventh degree of a sinner’s misery is, that he has an insatiable hunger and thirst after happiness; and as this can be had only in God, and he seeks it in the creature, his misery must be extreme. He desired to fill his belly with the husks, Luke 15:16. The pleasures of sense and appetite are the pleasures of swine, and to such creatures is he resembled who has frequent recourse to them, 2 Peter 2:22.
II. Let us observe, in the next place, the several degrees of a sinner’s conversion and salvation.
The first is, he begins to know and feel his misery, the guilt of his conscience, and the corruption of his heart. He comes to himself, because the Spirit of God first comes to him, Luke 15:17.
The second is, that he resolves to forsake sin and all the occasions of it; and firmly purposes in his soul to return immediately to his God. I will arise, etc., Luke 15:18.
The third is, when, under the influence of the spirit of faith, he is enabled to look towards God as a compassionate and tender-hearted father. I will arise and go to my father.
The fourth is, when he makes confession of his sin, and feels himself utterly unworthy of all God’s favors, Luke 15:19.
The fifth is, when he comes in the spirit of obedience, determined through grace to submit to the authority of God; and to take his word for the rule of all his actions, and his Spirit for the guide of all his affections and desires.
The sixth is, his putting his holy resolutions into practice without delay; using the light and power already mercifully restored to him, and seeking God in his appointed ways. And he arose and came, etc., Luke 15:20.
The seventh is, God tenderly receives him with the kiss of peace and love, blots out all his sins, and restores him to, and reinstates him in, the heavenly family. His father-fell on his neck, and kissed him, Luke 15:20.
The eighth is, his being clothed with holiness, united to God, married as it were to Christ Jesus, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and having his feet shod with the shoes of the preparation of the Gospel of peace, Ephesians 6:15, so that he may run the ways of God’s commandments with alacrity and joy. Bring the best robe-put a ring-and shoes, etc., Luke 15:22.
III. The consequences of the sinner’s restoration to the favor and image of God are, first, the sacrifice of thanksgiving is offered to God in his behalf; he enters into a covenant with his Maker, and feasts on the fatness of the house of the Most High.
Secondly, The whole heavenly family are called upon to share in the general joy; the Church above and the Church below both triumph; for there is joy (peculiar joy) in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. See Luke 15:10.
Thirdly, God publicly acknowledges him for his son, not only by enabling him to abstain from every appearance of evil, but to walk before him in newness of life, Luke 15:24. The tender-hearted father repeats these words at Luke 15:32, to show more particularly that the soul is dead when separated from God; and that it can only be said to be alive when united to him through the Son of his love. A Christian’s sin is a brother’s death; and in proportion to our concern for this will our joy be at his restoration to spiritual life. Let us have a brotherly heart towards our brethren, as God has that of a father towards his children, and seems to be afflicted at their loss, and to rejoice at their being found again, as if they were necessary to his happiness.
In this parable, the younger profligate son may represent the Gentile world; and the elder son, who so long served his father, Luke 15:20, the Jewish people. The anger of the elder son explains itself at once-it means the indignation evidenced by the Jews at the Gentiles being received into the favor of God, and made, with them, fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven.
It may also be remarked, that those who were since called Jews and Gentiles, were at first one family, and children of the same father: that the descendants of Ham and Japhet, from whom the principal part of the Gentile world was formed, were, in their progenitors, of the primitive great family, but had afterwards fallen off from the true religion: and that the parable of the prodigal son may well represent the conversion of the Gentile world, in order that, in the fullness of time, both Jews and Gentiles may become one fold, under one Shepherd and Bishop of all souls.