Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.Luke 15:1. Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners — That is, some of all the different classes of publicans, or all those of that place, and some other notorious sinners; for to hear him — Being influenced to do so through the condescension and kindness which he manifested toward all descriptions of persons, the most abandoned not excepted. Some suppose they came by a particular appointment from all the neighbouring parts. But as Luke goes on in the story, without any intimation of a change, either in the time or the scene of it, it is most probable that these discourses were delivered the same day that Christ dined with the Pharisee, which, being the sabbath day, would give the publicans, who on other days were employed in their office, a more convenient opportunity of attending. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, &c. — Thinking this behaviour of our Lord inconsistent with the sanctity of a prophet, they were much displeased with him for it, and murmured at that charitable condescension, which ought rather to have given them joy.
And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.Luke 15:2-7. And he spake this parable — That he might justify his conversing freely with sinners, in order to their reformation and salvation, he spake the parable of the lost sheep, which he had delivered once before, and also two other parables, which all declare, in direct contrariety to the Pharisees and scribes, in what manner God receiveth sinners. What man having a hundred sheep, &c. — See note on Matthew 18:12-15. Doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness — Where they used to feed. All uncultivated ground, like our commons, was by the Jews termed wilderness, or desert, in distinction from arable and enclosed land: and go after that which is lost — In recovering a lost soul, Christ, as it were, labours. May we not learn from hence, that to let them alone, who are in sin, is both unchristian and inhuman? And when he hath found it — After a long and tedious search, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing, as a man in such circumstances naturally would. And calleth together his friends and neighbours — Who had been informed of his loss, and grieved on account of it: saying, Rejoice — With me, for my labour and search have not been in vain; I have found my sheep which was lost — To my great joy, especially as I was ready to despair of finding it. Likewise joy shall be in heaven — First, in our blessed Lord himself, and then among the angels of God, and the spirits of just men, perhaps informed thereof by God himself, or by the angels who ministered to them; over one sinner — Over one gross, open, notorious sinner; that repenteth — That is thoroughly changed in heart and life; more than over ninety and nine just — Δικαιοις, righteous persons, who need no repentance — No such universal change of mind and character, having been the subjects of it in their childhood or youth. It cannot, as Dr. Doddridge justly observes, be our Lord’s meaning here, that God esteems one penitent sinner more than ninety and nine confirmed and established saints; (who are, undoubtedly, the persons spoken of as needing no repentance, or no universal change of heart and life, in which sense the word μετανοια is commonly used;) for it would be inconsistent with the divine wisdom, goodness, and holiness to suppose this. But it is plainly as if he had said, “As a father peculiarly rejoices when an extravagant child, supposed to be utterly lost, is brought to a thorough sense of his duty, and is effectually reformed; or, as any other person who has recovered what he had given up for gone, has a more sensible satisfaction in it than in several other things equally valuable, but not in such danger: so do the holy inhabitants of heaven rejoice in the conversion of the most abandoned sinners. Yea, and God himself so readily forgives and receives them, that he may be represented as having part in the joy.” It must be observed, however, that, as the design of the parable is to represent divine things by images taken from the manners of men, what is here said must be understood as spoken with allusion to human passions, which are much more sensibly affected with the obtaining of what was long and vehemently desired, or with the gaining of that which was looked upon as lost, than with the continuance of the good long enjoyed. And when such passions are ascribed to God, they are to be taken in a figurative sense, entirely exclusive of those sensations which result from the commotions of animal nature in ourselves.
And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?Luke 15:8-10. Either what woman — As if he had said, To illustrate the matter by another obvious similitude, that it may yet more powerfully strike your minds, what woman, having ten pieces of silver — Though each of them but of the value of a drachma; or about seven pence halfpenny, and the whole only about six shillings three pence sterling money: if she lose one piece — Out of her little stock; doth not light a candle, &c. — Will not immediately make search for it, and take all possible pains to find it. And when she hath found it, calleth her female friends — To acquaint them with her good success, concluding it will be agreeable news to them. It might seem hardly worth while to ask the congratulation of her friends on so small an occasion as finding a drachma; but it is represented as the tenth part of her little stock, and the impressible and social temper of the sex may, perhaps, be considered as adding some propriety to the representation. Likewise, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God, &c. — We may conclude from hence, that, at least in some extraordinary cases, the angels are, either by immediate revelation, or otherwise, informed of the conversion of sinners, which must, to those benevolent spirits, be an occasion of joy; nor could any thing have been suggested more proper to encourage the humble penitent, to expose the repining Pharisee, or to animate all to zeal in so good a work, as endeavouring to promote the repentance and conversion of others. Indeed this part of both these parables is finely imagined. The angels, though high in nature, and perfect in blessedness, are represented as bearing a friendly regard to, and as having exact knowledge of, many things done here below. Thus, from men’s conduct in the common affairs of life, described in these parables, Christ proves it to be the general sense of mankind, that every sinner should be sought after by the teachers of religion. For, as men are so moved with the loss of any part of their property, that they seem to neglect what remains while they are employed in endeavouring to recover what happens to be missing; and, when they have found it, are so overjoyed, that, calling their friends, to whom they had given an account of their misfortune, they tell them the good news, that they may rejoice with them; so the servants of God should labour with the greatest solicitude to recover whatever part of his property is lost, namely, his reasonable creatures, who, having strayed from him, are in danger of perishing eternally. And they have powerful encouragement to do so, as the reformation of a single sinner occasions more joy in heaven than the steadfastness of ninety and nine righteous persons. By this circumstance, likewise, he insinuated that the Pharisees, who pretended to more holiness than others, instead of repining at his conversing with, and instructing sinners, ought to have imitated the example of the heavenly beings, and to have rejoiced to find these men delighted with his company and discourses, who enjoined them a much stricter life than they hitherto had been used to, inasmuch as this was a certain token of their repentance, and seemed to promise a speedy and thorough reformation. The drift of both parables is to show, that the conversion of sinners is a thing highly acceptable to God, and, consequently, that whatever is necessary thereto is so far from being inconsistent with goodness, that it is the very perfection and excellence of it. Daniel 12:3.
And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
And he said, A certain man had two sons:Luke 15:11-12. And he said, &c. — Christ delivered next the parable of the lost or prodigal son: “which of all his parables,” says Dr. Macknight, “is the most delightful, not only as it enforces a doctrine incomparably joyous, but because it abounds with the tender passions, is finely painted with the most beautiful images, and is to the mind what a charming and diversified landscape is to the eye.” In this parable our Lord pursues the same design as in the two preceding ones: namely, that of vindicating himself in conversing with publicans and sinners, of reproving the envy of the Pharisees, and of encouraging every sincere penitent, by moving representations of the divine mercy. A certain man had two sons — Now grown up to manhood; and the younger of them — Fondly conceited of his own capacity to manage his affairs, and impatient of the restraint he lay under in his father’s house; said to his father, Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me — As I am now come to years of discretion, I desire thou wouldst give into mine own hands that portion of thine estate, which, according to an equitable distribution, falls to my share. See here, reader, the root of all sin, a desire of disposing of ourselves independently of God! And he divided unto them his living — Gave them his chief stock of money, reserving the house and estate in his own hands. “It is plain no significant sense can be put on this circumstance of the parable, as referring to the dispensations of God to his creatures. It is one of those many ornamental circumstances which it would be weakness over-rigorously to accommodate to the general design.” — Doddridge.
And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth 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.Luke 15:13-16. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together — Having gotten possession of his fortune, he lost no time, but, gathering together all he had, took his journey into a far country — That he might be wholly from under the eye of his parent, who was a person of great piety, and be freed from the restraints of religion, he went into a distant land, among the heathen, (Luke 15:15,) where was neither the knowledge nor worship of God, choosing such companions as were most agreeable to his vicious inclinations, and, connected with these, he wallowed in unbounded riot and debauchery. Thus sinners, through a spirit of infidelity, independence of God, pride, self-conceit, and the love of pleasure, soon go far from God, far from his favour and image; far from the fear and love of him, and all design and desire of pleasing him: and in this state of alienation and distance from him, employ to his dishonour the time and talents he had intrusted them with, to be used for his glory, ζωντες ασωτως, living intemperately, imprudently, foolishly, as the word implies, not considering that God will call them to an account for their abuse of his gifts. And when he had spent all — When this wretched course of intemperance, riot, and folly had clouded his understanding, weakened his memory, vitiated his affections, brought infirmity and disease upon his body, and he had squandered away the whole property he had received of his father, it so happened, through the righteous judgment of God upon him, that there arose a mighty famine in that land — Where he sojourned; and he began to be in want — Of the very necessaries of life. Observe, reader, in that country which is far from God; in that state of heart and life, in which men are alienated from the knowledge and love of him, and shut out from all intercourse with him, they will ere long find a mighty famine arising, and will be in extreme want of every thing calculated to make them happy. And went and joined himself to a citizen of that country — Finding no shelter or relief among those who had been his associates in vice, and had shared in the spoils of his substance; and yet being unable to brook the mortification of returning home in such circumstances; to keep himself from starving in the famine, he went still farther into the country, that was far from his father’s house, and submitted to accept the most disgraceful employment that a Jew could be engaged in; he hired himself to a person, who, thinking such a worthless creature unfit for any better post, sent him into his fields to feed swine, an employment to which, however mean and disagreeable, this unhappy youth, who had once lived in so much plenty and splendour, was forced to submit. Thus sinners, by wandering far from God, into the ways of vice and misery, join themselves to Satan and his servants, the genuine citizens of that country which is far from God, where they are employed in ministering to the lusts and pleasures of others, that is, in feeding the devil’s swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks, &c. — The wages he earned by this ignominious service were not sufficient, in a time of such great scarcity, to purchase him as much food of any kind as would satisfy the cravings of his appetite. Being half starved, therefore, he often looked on the swine with envy as they were feeding, and wished that he could have filled his belly with the husks which they devoured; a circumstance this, which beautifully and forcibly shows the extremity of his misery. And no man gave unto him — There was none that took so much pity upon him as to give him one morsel of food; so sparing did the famine make them, and so much did every one despise this foolish and scandalous prodigal. Thus sinners would fain satisfy themselves with carnal pleasures and worldly comforts, the husks which the swine eat, but the endeavour is vain and fruitless, for the enjoyment of no creature can give true happiness to the intelligent and immortal mind of man, formed and designed to find it in God only.
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 fain 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!Luke 15:17-18. And when he came to himself — When the infamy and distress of his present condition began to lead him into serious consideration; and he so far recovered the use of his reason, which had before been dethroned and extinguished by the mad intoxication of sensual pleasure; when the great distress he was in brought him at length to think and reflect on his unhappy condition, and to retrace the steps that had brought him into it; he said — Namely, in his heart; How many hired servants of my father’s — The meanest in his family, the very day- labourers; have bread enough and to spare — Have more meat than they can use. Even the hired servants in God’s house are well provided for; the meanest that will but hire themselves into his family to do his work, and depend upon his reward, shall have all things and abound: the consideration of which should encourage sinners, that have gone astray from God, to think of returning to him: and I perish with hunger — I, his child, who have known so many better days, am even ready to die with want, not being thought worth my food by this unkind master, to whom I have hired myself. Observe, reader, 1st, All who have wandered from God, and endeavour to satisfy themselves with earthly things, whether riches, honours, or pleasures, with worldly pursuits and carnal gratifications, living without God in the world, may really be said to be beside themselves, for they act like persons deprived of their reason. Observe, 2d, Sinners will not come to Christ, and enter into his service, till they are brought to see themselves just ready to perish in the service of sin. And though we be thus driven to Christ, he will not therefore reject us, nor think himself dishonoured by our being forced to him, but rather honoured by his being applied to in a desperate case. I will arise and go to my father — Whatever be the consequence, I am resolved that I will no longer remain in this miserable condition, but will immediately set out on my way home, if all my little remaining strength can but bring me to the end of such a journey. And I will say unto him, Father, I have sinned, &c. — That I may be received again, I am resolved to go in all humility, and confess my crimes to my father, acknowledging that I am utterly unworthy to be owned as a son, and will pray to be taken into his house, only as a hired servant, and will be contented for the future to labour and fare as the servants do, so I may but live in his sight. In saying, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, he meant, that God was injured in the person of his earthly father. And certainly nature itself teaches this, that whoever is insolent or disrespectful to his parents, rebels against God; who, by making them the instruments of communicating life to their children, has imparted to them some of his own paternal honour. In saying, I am no more worthy to be called thy son, he shows, that the idea of his undutiful behaviour was strongly impressed on his mind, whereby he was sensible that he had no title to be treated at home as a son. At the same time he knew that it never would be well with him till he was in his father’s family again; so with joy he entertained the thought of occupying the meanest station in it. Thus, while the liberality of the great Parent of men makes them wantonly run away from his family, the miseries which they involve themselves in, often constrain them to return. By the natural consequences of sin, God sometimes makes sinners to feel, that there is no felicity to be found anywhere but in himself.
I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto 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.
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.Luke 15:20. And he arose and came to his father — Having taken the resolution of returning to his father, he put it immediately in execution; setting out just as he was, barefooted, and all in rags, and being obliged, doubtless, to beg his way. But did his father receive him? Was he welcome? Yes, heartily welcome. And, by the way, we have here an example, instructing parents, whose children have been foolish and disobedient, if they repent and submit themselves, not to be harsh and severe with them; but to be governed, in such a case, by the wisdom that is from above, which is gentle and easy to be entreated. Herein let them be followers of God, and merciful as he is. The passage, however, is chiefly designed to set forth the grace and mercy of God to poor sinners, that repent and return to him, and his readiness to forgive them. But when he was yet a great way off — Having only come within sight of home, and his nakedness, and the consciousness of his folly, probably, making him ashamed to proceed further, his father — Happening to be looking that way; saw him — Before any of the rest of his family were aware of the circumstance; and had compassion — Εσπλαγχνισθη, his bowels yearned, to observe the wretched condition he was in; and immediately, as if he had forgotten the dignity of his own character, and all the injuries he had received, he ran to his child, and fell on his neck and kissed him. The son advanced diffidently and slowly, under a burden of shame and fear; but the father ran to meet him with his encouragements. This shows our heavenly Father’s desire of the conversion of sinners, and his readiness to meet them that are coming toward him. His eyes are on those that go astray from him, he is continually looking to see whether they will return to him, and marks and cherishes the first inclinations which they manifest so to do.
And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.Luke 15:21. And the son said — The perturbation which the aged parent was in, with ecstasy of joy, hindered him from speaking; so the poor, ragged, meager creature, locked in his arms, began and made his acknowledgments with a tone of voice expressive of the deepest contrition. Father, I have sinned against heaven, &c. — As it commends the good father’s kindness, that he showed it before the prodigal expressed his repentance; so it commends the prodigal’s repentance, that he expressed it after his father had showed him so much love. When he had received the kiss, which sealed his pardon, yet he said, in a spirit of deep contrition, Father, I have sinned. Observe, reader, even those who have received the pardon of their sins, and the comfortable sense of their pardon, yet must have in their hearts a sincere sorrow for them, and with their mouths must make a penitent confession of them, even for those sins which they have reason to hope are pardoned. David wrote the fifty-first Psalm after Nathan had said, The Lord hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nay, a comfortable sense of the pardon of sin should increase our sorrow for it; and that is ingenuous, evangelical sorrow, which is increased by such a consideration. Thus Ezekiel 16:61; Ezekiel 16:63, Thou shalt be ashamed and confounded when I am pacified toward thee. The more we see of God’s readiness to forgive us, the more difficult it should be to us to forgive ourselves. The son was going on with his confession and submission, but the father, grieved to see him in that miserable plight, interrupted him, and prevented his proceeding, by ordering his servants, some to bring out the best robe immediately, and a ring and shoes, that he might be clothed in a manner becoming his son; and others, to go and kill a fatted calf, that they might eat and rejoice, and all this without one word of rebuke. This kind treatment was far beyond what the prodigal did or could expect: he came home between hope and fear, fear of being rejected, and hope of being received; but his father was not only better to him than his fears, but better to him than his hopes; not only received him, but received him with respect. He came home in rags, and his father not only clothed but adorned him, putting on him, την στολην την πρωτην, the first, best, or principal robe, the garment laid by, and used only on festival occasions; and a ring on his hand — As a further token of his welcome reception into the family, and of his father’s love and regard. He returned barefoot, and with feet doubtless sore with travelling; but his father provided him with proper shoes, to render him easy and comfortable. He came faint and hungry; and his father not only fed but feasted him, and that with the best provision he had. Thus, for true penitents, who return to their duty, and cast themselves upon the divine mercy in Christ, God doth exceedingly above what they could have dared to ask or think. He clothes them when naked with the robe of righteousness, the garment of salvation, justifies their persons through faith in him who is the Lord their righteousness, and regenerates and sanctifies their nature by his saving grace, restoring them to his blessed image and likeness. And, as a token of their adoption into his family, sends into their hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying, Abba, Father, and sealing them to the day of redemption, signified by the ring put on the prodigal’s hand. Their feet also are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, that they may proceed forward with ease and comfort through the journey of life, however rough the road may be in which they have to travel: in other words, through faith in the gospel, and its encouraging declarations and promises, they obtain that peace and tranquillity of mind, that resignation, patience, and contentment, which enables them to persevere in the way of duty, whatever trials they may meet with therein: and they are fed with the bread of life, nay, feasted with the rich and abundant consolations of the gospel: while the whole family of God rejoices at their return to their heavenly Father’s house. Thus the father of the prodigal exhorts, Let us eat and be merry — Greek, και φαγοντες ευφρανθωμεν, eating, let us rejoice, or be cheerful. The English word, merry, both here and wherever else it occurs, whether in the Old or New Testament, implies nothing of levity, but a solid, serious, religious, heart-felt joy: indeed, this was the ordinary meaning of the word two hundred years ago, when our translation was made.
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.Luke 15:24. For this my son was dead — Was considered by me as dead; and is alive again — “It is by a very common and beautiful emblem, that vicious persons are represented as dead, both by sacred and profane authors; and the natural death of their children would be less grievous to pious parents than to see them abandoned to such a course as this young sinner took.” — Doddridge. He was lost and is found — We looked upon him as utterly lost, but lo! he is come back again, beyond all expectation, in safety. Two things here are worthy of observation: 1st, That the conversion of a soul from sin to God is the raising of that soul from death to life, and the finding of that which seemed to be lost. It is a great, wonderful, and happy change: it is like that which passes upon the face of the earth when the spring returns. 2d, The conversion of sinners is very pleasing to the God of heaven, and all that belong to his family ought to rejoice in it. Those in heaven do, and those on earth should, rejoice. And they began to be merry — They sat down to the feast, rejoicing exceedingly at the happy occasion of it.
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.Luke 15:25-28. Now his older son was in the field — The older son seems to represent the Pharisees and scribes mentioned Luke 15:2. And now while every one in the family heartily joined in expressing their joy on account of the safe return of the second son, the older brother, happening to come from the field, heard the noise of singing and dancing within; wherefore, calling out one of the servants, he asked what these things meant. The servant replied, that his brother was unexpectedly come, and that his father, being very glad to see him, had killed the fatted calf, and was making a feast, because he had received him safe and sound. The servant probably mentions the killing of the fatted calf rather than the robe or ring, as having a nearer connection with the music and dancing. When the older brother heard this, he fell into a violent passion, and would not go in; the servant therefore came and told his father of it. The father rising up, went out and with incomparable goodness, entreated his son to come and partake in the general joy in the family on account of his brother’s return. This act of condescension gives a great heightening to the character of the father, and adds an inexpressible beauty and elegance to the parable; and when we consider it as referring to the love and condescension of our Almighty Father, it must certainly be very consolatory to our souls.
And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:Luke 15:29-30. But he answering, said to his father — The kindness and respect which his father showed him on this occasion, did not soften him in the least. He stubbornly persisted in his anger, and answered the affectionate speeches of his parent with nothing but loud and haughty accusations of his conduct. These many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time — This branch of the parable is finely contrived to express the high opinion which the Pharisees, here represented by the elder brother, entertained of their own righteousness and merit. Yet thou never gavest me a kid, &c. — Perhaps God does not usually give much consolation to those who never felt the deep sorrows of repentance. But as soon as this thy son was come — The ungracious youth disdained to call him his brother, and at the same time insolently insinuated, that his father seemed to despise all his other children, and to reckon this prodigal only his son; which hath devoured thy living with harlots — Hath wasted thy property in a long course of scandalous debaucheries, to his own ruin, and the infamy of the family. Thou hast killed for him the fatted calf — And made him as welcome as if he had been the most dutiful child upon earth. And he said — With great gentleness, when he might have taken offence at his son’s unbecoming reply, Son, thou art ever with me — And art every day receiving some token of my kindness. By calling him his son, after the insolent speech he had made, the father insinuated, that he acknowledged him likewise for his son, and that neither the undutifulness of the one, nor the frowardness of the other of his children, had extinguished his affection, or cancelled the relation subsisting between them. All that I have is thine — As thou hast formerly lived in my family, and hast had the command of my property, as far as thy exigencies required; so thou art at present heir to the bulk of my estate. This is a material intimation, and suggests a strong reason against murmuring at the indulgence shown to the greatest sinners. As the father’s receiving the youngest son did not cause him to disinherit the elder, so God’s receiving notorious sinners will be no loss to those who have always served him: neither will he raise these to a state of glory equal to that of those who have always served him, if they have, upon the whole, made a greater progress in inward as well as outward holiness.
But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.Luke 15:32. It was meet that we should make merry and be glad — Both reason and natural affection justify me in calling the whole family to rejoice on the present occasion. For this thy brother was dead, &c. — As thy brother is returned to us sensible of his folly, and determined to lead a new life in future, his arrival is like his reviving after death, at least, it is his being found after he was really lost. For which reason our joy ought to bear a proportion to the greatness of this occasion. There is a beautiful opposition between the father’s words here, and those of the elder son, Luke 15:30. The latter had there indecently said to his father, This thy son. The father, in his reply, mildly reproves him, and tenderly says, This thy brother — As if he had said, “Though he hath devoured my living with harlots, he is thy brother, as well as my son: wherefore thou shouldest not be angry because he hath repented and is returned, after we thought him irrecoverably lost. Thus the goodness with which the father bore the surly peevishness of his elder son was little inferior to the mercy shown in the pardon that he granted to the younger: and we have herein a moving intimation that the best of men ought to look on the most abandoned sinners as, in some respect, their brethren still, and should especially remember the relation, when there appears any inclination in such sinners to return.” Jesus having thus set before them the affectionate behaviour of an earthly parent toward his undutiful children, left every one to judge whether such weak and wicked creatures can love their offspring with more true tenderness than the great Father Almighty loves his, or can show them more indulgence for their benefit. Indeed, “in this inimitable composition, the amazing mercy of God is painted with captivating beauty; and in all the three parables, the joys occasioned among heavenly beings by the conversion of a single sinner are represented; joys even to God himself, than which a nobler and sweeter thought never entered into the mind of rational creatures. Thus high do men stand in the estimation of God; for which cause they should not cast themselves away in that trifling manner wherein multitudes destroy themselves; neither should any think the salvation of others a small matter, as some who are intrusted with their recovery seem to do. Had the Pharisees understood the parable, how criminal must they have appeared in their own eyes, when they saw themselves truly described in the character of the eldest son, who was angry that his brother had repented! Withal, how bitter must their remorse have been, when they found themselves, not only repining at that which gave joy to God, the conversion of sinners, but excessively displeased with the methods of his procedure in this matter, and maliciously opposing them! If these parables had been omitted by Luke, as they have been by the other three historians, the world would certainly have sustained an unspeakable loss.” — Macknight.
Many have considered this parable in a view of peculiar application to the Jews and Gentiles; and have observed, that the murmurs of the Jews against the apostles for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, are represented by the conduct of the elder brother. This was certainly a case comprehended in our Lord’s design, but he undoubtedly had something more in his intention: he meant to show, that had the Pharisees been as eminently good as they themselves pretended to be, yet it would have been very unworthy their character to take offence at the kind treatment which any sincere penitent might receive. Thus does he here, and in many parallel texts, condemn their conduct on their own principles, though elsewhere, on proper occasions, he shows the falsehood of those principles, and plainly exposes their hypocrisy and guilt. But our Lord had still a further design in delivering this parable; he intended to give us, as he has done, a lively emblem of the character and condition of sinners in their fallen state. Like this prodigal, they are impatient of the most necessary restraints, fondly conceited of their own wisdom; and when enriched by the bounties of the great common Father, they ungratefully run from him, saying to him, in effect, Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. Sensual pleasures are eagerly sought; and perhaps all their earthly possessions and hopes are quickly paid as the price of them: while the means of obtaining these pleasures continue, not a serious thought of God can find place in their minds. And even when afflictions come upon them, still they make hard shifts, before they will let the grace of God, concurring with his providence, persuade them to think of a return. When they see themselves naked and indigent, enslaved and undone, then they come to themselves, and recover the exercise of their reason. Then they remember the blessings they have thrown away, and attend to the misery they have incurred. And hereupon they resolve to return to their heavenly Father, and put the resolution immediately in practice: they arise and go unto him. Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from divine injured goodness! When such a prodigal comes to his Father, the Father sees him afar off: he pities, meets, embraces him, and interrupts his acknowledgments with the tokens of his returning favour. He arrays him with the robe of the Redeemer’s righteousness, imputed and implanted, with pardon and holiness, adorns him with all his sanctifying graces, and honours him with the tokens of adopting love, and all the glorious privileges and immunities of his children. And all this he does with unutterable delight, in that he who was lost is now found. Let no elder brother murmur at this indulgence, but rather welcome the prodigal back into the family. And let those who have been thus received wander no more, but emulate the strictest piety of those who for many years have served their heavenly Father, and made it their daily care, not to transgress his commandments, but to walk before him in all well-pleasing.