by J. C. Ryle
And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before you, And am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son. 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: 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. And they began to be merry.
The parable before us is commonly known as the parable of "the prodigal son." It may be truly called a mighty spiritual picture. Unlike some of our Lord's parables, it does not convey to us one great lesson only, but many. Every part of it is particularly rich in instruction.
We see, firstly, in this parable — a man following the natural bent of his own heart. Our Lord shows us a "younger son" making haste to go far away from a kind father's house, and "wasting his substance in riotous living."
We have in these words, a faithful portrait of the mind with which we are all born. This is our likeness. We are all naturally proud and self-willed. We have no pleasure in fellowship with God. We long to depart, and go afar away from Him. We spend our time, and strength, and faculties, and affections — on things that cannot profit. The covetous man does it in one way; the slave of lusts and passions in another way; and the lover of pleasure in another way. In one point alone are all agreed. Like sheep, we all naturally "go astray, and turn every one to his own way." (Isaiah 53:6.) In the younger son's initial conduct, we see the natural heart of every man.
He who knows nothing of these things, has yet much to learn. He is spiritually blind. The eyes of his understanding need to be opened. The worst ignorance in the world, is not to know ourselves. Happy is he who has been delivered from the kingdom of darkness — and been made acquainted with himself! Of too many it may be said, "They know not, neither will they understand. They walk on in darkness." (Psalm 82:5.)
We see, secondly, in this parable — man finding out by bitter experience, that the ways of sin are hard. Our Lord shows us the younger son spending all his property and reduced to poverty — obliged to hard labor to "feed swine" — so hungry that he is ready to eat swine's food — and cared for by none.
These words describe a common case. Sin is a hard master — and the servants of sin always find it out, sooner or later, to their cost. Unconverted people are never really happy. Under a profession of accomplishment and cheerfulness — they are often ill at ease within. Thousands of them are sick at heart — dissatisfied with themselves, weary of their own ways, and thoroughly uncomfortable. "There are many who say: Who will show us any good." "There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked." (Psalm 4:6, Isaiah 57:21.)
Let this truth sink down into our hearts. It is a truth — however loudly unconverted people may deny it. "The way of transgressors is hard." (Proverbs 13:15.) The secret wretchedness of natural man, is exceedingly great. There is a deep sorrow within, however much they may try to conceal it. They are "in need." He who "sows to the flesh — shall from the flesh reap corruption." It is no wonder that Paul said, "What profit did you have, in those things which you are now ashamed of?" (Galatians 6:8. Romans 6:21.)
We see, thirdly, in this parable — man awaking to a sense of his natural state, and resolving to repent. Our Lord tells us that the younger son "Came to himself and said: How many of my father's servants have bread enough and to spare — and I am perishing with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and say unto him, Father, I have sinned."
The thoughts of thousands are vividly painted in these words. Thousands have reasoned in this way, and are saying such things to themselves every day.
We must be thankful whenever we see such thoughts arise. Mere thinking is not change of heart — but it may be the beginning of it. Mere conviction is not conversion — but it is one step, at any rate, in a right direction. The ruin of many people's souls is simply this — that they never think at all.
One caution, however, must always be given. Men must beware that they do not stop short by simply "thinking." Good thoughts are all very well — but they are not saving Christianity. If the younger son had never got beyond thinking — then he might have kept away from home to the day of his death.
We see, fourthly, in this parable — man turning to God with true repentance and faith. Our Lord shows us the younger son leaving the far country where he was, and going back to his father's house — carrying into practice the good intentions he had formed, and unreservedly confessing his sin. "So he got up and went to his father."
These words are a life-like outline of true repentance and conversion. The man in whose heart a true work of the Holy Spirit has begun — will never be content with mere thinking and resolving. He will break off from sin. He will cease to do evil — and he will learn to do good. He will turn to God in humble prayer. He will confess his iniquities. He will not attempt to excuse his sins. He will say with David, "I acknowledge my transgressions." He will say with the tax-collector, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Psalm 51:3, Luke 18:13.)
Let us beware of any repentance, falsely so called, which is not of this character. Action is the very life of "repentance unto salvation." Feelings, and tears, and remorse, and wishes, and resolutions, are all useless — until they are accompanied by action and a change of life. In fact, they are worse than useless. Insensibly they sear the conscience and harden the heart.
We see, fifthly, in this parable — the penitent man received readily, pardoned freely, and completely accepted with God! Our Lord shows us this, in this part of the younger son's history — in the most touching manner. We read that, "He got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate.'"
More deeply affecting words than these, perhaps, were never written. To comment on them seems almost needless. It is like gilding refined gold — or painting the lily. These words show us in great broad letters — the infinite love of the Lord Jesus Christ towards sinners. They teach how infinitely willing He is to receive all who come to Him — and how complete, and full, and immediate is the pardon which He is ready to bestow. "By Him, all who believe are justified from all things." "He is plenteous in mercy." (Acts 13:39. Psalm 86:5.)
Let this boundless mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ be engraved deeply in our memories, and sink into our minds! Let us never forget that He is One "who receives sinners." With Him and His mercy — sinners ought to begin, when they first begin to desire salvation. On Him and His mercy — saints must live, when they have been taught to repent and believe. "The life which I live in the flesh," says Paul, "I live by faith in the Son of God — who loved me and gave Himself for me!" (Galatians 2:20.)
The Elder Son, Luke 15:25-32
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Your brother is come; and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve you, neither transgressed I at any time your commandment: and yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this your son was come, which has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, you are ever with me, and all that I have is your. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this your brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
These verses form the conclusion of the parable of the prodigal son. They are far less well known than the verses which go before them. But they were spoken by the same lips which described the younger son's return to his father's house. Like everything which those lips spoke — they will be found deeply profitable.
We are taught, firstly, in this passage — how unkind and mean-spirited are the feelings of self-righteous men towards sinners.
This is a lesson which our Lord conveys to us by describing the conduct of the "elder brother" of the prodigal son. He shows him to us "angry" and finding fault because of the rejoicings over his brother's return. He shows him complaining that his father treated the returning prodigal too well — and that he himself had not been treated as well as his merits deserved. He shows him utterly unable to share in the joy which prevailed when his younger brother came home, and giving away to mean-spirited and envious thoughts.
It is a painful picture, but a very instructive one.
For one thing, this elder brother is an exact picture of the Jews of our Lord's times. They could not bear the idea of their 'Gentile' younger brother being made partaker of their privileges. They would gladly have excluded him from God's favor. They steadily refused to see that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs and partakers of Christ with themselves. In all this, they were precisely acting the part of the "elder brother."
For another thing, the elder brother is an exact type of the Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord's times. They objected that our Lord received sinners and ate with them. They murmured because He opened the door of salvation to publicans and harlots. They would have been better pleased if our Lord had confined His ministry to them and their party, and had left the ignorant and wicked entirely alone. Our Lord saw this state of things clearly — and never did He paint it with such graphic power, as in the picture of the "elder brother."
Last, but not least, the elder brother is an exact type of a large class in the Church of Christ in the present day. There are thousands on every side who dislike a free, full, unfettered Gospel to be preached. They are always complaining that ministers throw the door too wide open, and that the doctrine of grace tends to promote profligacy. Whenever we come across such people, let us remember the passage we are now considering. Their voice is the voice of the "elder brother."
Let us beware of this spirit infecting our own heart.
It arises partly from ignorance. Men begin by not seeing their own sinfulness and unworthiness — and then they imagine that they are much better than others, and that nobody is as deserving as themselves.
It arises partly from lack of love. Men are lacking in kind feeling towards others, and then they are unable to take pleasure when others are saved.
Above all, it arises from a thorough misunderstanding of the true nature of gospel forgiveness. The man who really feels that we all stand by grace and are all debtors, and that the best of us has nothing to boast of, and has nothing which he has not received — such a man will not be found talking like the "elder brother."
We are taught, secondly, in this passage — that the conversion of any soul ought to be an occasion of joy to all who see it. Our Lord shows us this by putting the following words into the mouth of the prodigal's father, "We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost — but now he is found!"
The lesson of these words was primarily meant for the Scribes and Pharisees. If their hearts had been in a right state — then they would never have murmured at our Lord for receiving sinners. They would have remembered that the worst of publicans and sinners, were their own brethren; and that if they themselves were different — then it was grace alone which had made the difference. They would have been glad to see such helpless wanderers returning to the fold. They would have been thankful to see them plucked as brands from the burning, and not cast away forever.
Of all these glad feelings, unhappily, they knew nothing. Wrapped in their own self-righteousness, they murmured and found fault — when in reality they ought to have thanked God and rejoiced.
The lesson is one which we shall all do well to lay to heart. Nothing ought to give us such true pleasure, as the conversion of souls. It makes angels rejoice in Heaven. It ought to make Christians rejoice on earth. What if those who are converted, were the vilest of the vile? What if they have served sin and Satan for many long years, and wasted their substance in riotous living? It matters nothing at all.
"Has grace come into their hearts? Are they truly penitent? Have they come back to their father's house? Are they new creatures in Christ Jesus? Are the dead made alive and the lost found?" These are the only questions we have any right to ask. If they can be answered satisfactorily — then we ought to rejoice and be glad.
Let the worldly, if they please — mock and sneer at such conversions. Let the self-righteous, if they will — murmur and find fault, and deny the reality of all great and sudden conversions. But let the Christian who reads the words of Christ in this chapter — remember them and act upon them. Let him thank God and be merry. Let him praise God that one more soul is saved. Let him say, "This my brother was dead — and is now alive! He was lost — and now is found!"
What are our own feelings on the subject? This after all is the question which concerns us most. The man who can take deep interest in politics, or sports, or money-making, or farming — but none in the conversion of souls, is no true Christian. He is himself "dead" — and must be made "alive again." He is himself "lost" — and must be "found."
Notes on 15:11-24
11. "There was a man who had two sons." I believe that the younger son is a type of all unconverted sinners and that his return to his father's house was a sign of true repentance. I believe that the father's kind reception of his son represents the Lord Jesus Christ's kindness and love to sinners who come to him and the free and full pardon which he bestows on them. I believe that the elder son was meant to be a type of all narrow-minded, self-righteous people in every age of the church, and especially of the scribes and Pharisees, who muttered at our Lord's receiving sinners (verse 2). These, I believe, are the general lessons of the parable. I can go no further than this in interpreting it.
15. To feed pigs. Our Lord was speaking to Jews, who regarded pigs, because of the law of Moses, as unclean animals. This detail would probably indicate to Jews how degraded the younger son had become.
16. The pods that the pigs were eating. These pods were most probably fruit from the carob tree, which were often used to feed pigs but were very unsuitable for human consumption.
17. He came to his senses. It has often been said about this phrase that a person must come to himself before he comes to God.
18. "Against heaven and against you." This is a confession of sin against God and man. It is one of the places in Scripture where "heaven," the place where God dwells, is used for God himself. (See Daniel 4:26; Matthew 21:25.)
20. A long way off . . . ran . . . kissed. These three expressions are deeply touching. They bring out, in strong relief, the difficulty with which a sinner turns to Christ and the readiness and willingness of Christ to receive him.
22. "'A ring.'" This was a mark of honor, confidence, and distinction. (See Genesis 41:42; Esther 3:10; James 2:2.)
23. "'The fattened calf.'" This was kept for a special occasion, such as a sacrifice or a feast.
24. "'Was dead and is alive again.'" Although this is part of the parable, our Lord's words here also describe the life of the prodigal son before his repentance and the change when he repented. The one state was death; the other was life.
25. "The older son." The older son represents the Pharisees. The unkindness, moroseness, and self-sufficiency of the older son are the exact type of spirit shown by those who find fault with our Lord for showing kindness to tax collectors and sinners.
28. "Became angry." Anyone who thinks that the older son was a good man should note these words. It is the counterpart of the mutterings of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees at the beginning of the chapter.
"Pleaded with him." The father's kindness is revealed again here. He might have rebuked his ill-natured son. He only pleads with him.
30. "Prostitutes." This is the first time we learn of this aspect of the younger son's profligacy. It may possibly have been true, but it is evidently brought out here in an uncharitable way and contemptuous manner.
32. "We had to celebrate." Whatever the older son might say, he could not deny two great facts: his brother, who a short time ago had been as good as dead, was alive again; he was lost, but now he is found. In the light of these facts, all envious thoughts should have disappeared. It was right to celebrate and be glad.