Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. A BITTER CHARGE AGAINST THE SAVIOUR. It is not easy for us to realize the intensity of the feeling here expressed. The Jews, arguing from the general truth that holiness shrinks from contact with guilt, supposed that the holier any man was, the more scrupulously would he avoid the sinner; and they concluded that the very last thing the holiest man of all would do was to have such fellowship with sinners as to "eat with them." Their patriotic hatred of the publican, and their moral repugnance toward "the sinner," filled them with astonishment as they saw him, who claimed to be the Messiah himself, taking up a positively friendly attitude toward both of these intolerable characters. Their error was, as error usually is, a perversion of the truth. They did not understand that the same Being who has the utmost aversion to sin can have and does have the tenderest yearning of heart toward the sinner; that he who utterly repels the one is mercifully pitying and patiently seeking and magnanimously winning the other. So the men of acknowledged piety and purity in the time of our Lord failed completely to understand him, and they brought against him the charge which might well prove fatal to his claims - that he was having a guilty fellowship with the outcast among men and the abandoned among women.
II. THE HIGHEST TRIBUTE TO THE SAVIOUR. In that attitude and action of his which seemed to his contemporaries to be so unworthy of him we find the very thing which constitutes his glory and his crown. Of course, association with sinners, on the basis of spiritual sympathy with them, is simply shameful; and to break up their association with the intemperate, the licentious, the dishonest, the scornful, is the first duty of those who have been their companions and have shared their wrong-doings, but whose eyes have been opened to see the wickedness of their course. It is for such to say, "Depart from me, ye evil-doers; for I will keel) the commandments of my God." But that is far from exhausting the whole truth of the subject. For Christ has taught us, by his life as well as and as much as by his Word, that to mingle with the sinful in order to succour and save them is the supreme act of goodness. When a man's character has been so well established that he can afford to do so without serious risk either to himself or to his reputation, and when, thus fortified, well armed with purity, he goes amongst the criminal and the vicious and the profane, that he may lilt them up from the miry places in which they are wandering, and place their feet on the rock of righteousness, then does he the very noblest, the divinest thing he can do. It was this very thing which Jesus Christ came to do: "He came to seek and to save that which was lost." It was this principle which he was continually illustrating; and nothing could more truly indicate the moral grandeur of his spirit or the beautiful beneficence of his life than the words by which it was sought to dishonour him: "This Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." It is this which will constitute the best tribute that can be paid to any of his disciples now. "There is nothing of which any true minister of Jesus Christ, whether professional or not, ought to be so glad and so proud, as to be such that the enemies of the Lord shall say tauntingly, while his friends will say thankfully, 'This man receiveth sinners.'"
III. THE GREATEST POSSIBLE ENCOURAGEMENT TO OURSELVES. There are men who know they are sinners, but care not; there are those who do not know that they are guilty in the sight of God; and there are others who do know and who do care. It is to these last that the Saviour of mankind is especially addressing himself. To them all he is offering Divine mercy; restoration to the favour, the service, and the likeness of God; everlasting life. On their ear there may fall these words, intended for a grave accusation, but constituting to the enlightened soul the most welcome tidings - "This Man receiveth sinners.' - C.
trinity of parables which are without peers in literature. Stier thinks that the trinity of parables is intended to present the Persons of the adorable Trinity in their respective relations to our salvation. The first would thus represent the Son's shepherd-care; the second, the Spirit's maternal solicitude for the restoration of lost souls to the heavenly treasure; and the third, the Father's yearning that prodigal sons might come home. This view is certainly commendable, and not too artistic for such a weighty Preacher as the Lord Jesus Christ, and such a reporter as St, Luke, Leaving the third and greatest of the parables for separate treatment, let us, in this homily, discuss the other two; and as they are so similar, we need not separate them in our treatment.
I. WE ARE HERE TAUGHT BY CHRIST WHAT UNFALLEN BEINGS THINK ABOUT THEMSELVES. (Ver. 7.) A door is opened by these parables into heaven, and we have glimpses of the celestial world. Jesus is here testifying about heavenly things (John 3:12). Now, we must know, in the first place, who are meant by the ninety and nine sheep which never went astray, and by the nine pieces of silver which were never lost. They cannot mean self-righteous souls such as the Pharisees and scribes. For they needed repentance, and over them no celestial ones would think of rejoicing. Hence they can only refer to unfallen beings. Now, the parables imply that there is joy over the unfallen. Why should there not be? To us who are fallen it appears but right that the most intense joy should be taken in the unfallen and sinless. They are a new type of beings to us. We have only had one of them in this world. The sinless Saviour broke the law of continuity, and constitutes the marvel of human history. Ninety and nine unfallen beings would seem to us a marvellously interesting group. A sinless city, such as the new Jerusalem is, appears to our comprehension such a novelty, such a new notion and thought amid the sad monotony of sin, that we almost wonder how those who have got within the city could ever think of aught beyond it. And yet to the unfallen ones themselves - sinlessness being the rule, and no exception being found within the celestial city - there must come over the joy with which they contemplate each other a certain monotony, which must keep the joy down to a certain uniform level. Where everything is exactly as it should be, and no tragedy is possible, the joy of contemplation must be so uniform as to partake almost of what is common. The sinless ones contemplate one another with rapture, doubtless, but the joy is not of the intensest type by reason of the monotony and sameness associated of necessity with it. We may make sure of this by simply contrasting the complacency of the self-righteous with the consciousness of the sinless that they never can be more than unprofitable servants, for they can never rise above the sphere of duty. Nothing corresponding to the self-satisfaction of the Pharisee, who thanks God that he is not as other men, can be entertained by the celestial world. They are not absorbed in self-admiration. That is only possible with lost men! So that the joy of unfallen beings over one another is modified by the thought that their sinlessness is nothing more than should be expected from those possessed of such privileges as they. Unlost sheep and money receive but moderate admiration.
II. WE ARE HERE TAUGHT WITH WHAT INTENSE INTEREST UNFALLEN BEINGS CONTEMPLATE THE CAREER OF LOST SOULS. (Vers. 4, 8.) The problem of sin comes upon the sinless as an exception to the rule. They contemplate the career of the lost as a tragedy added to the monotony of life. They hover over the lost ones with intense interest. They follow their career and study its issues. We must not regard the celestial world as walled out from the tragedies of this earth. All, according to Christ's idea, is open to the celestial side. We may not see with' our dull eyes the city of the Apocalypse; but the celestials can follow our terrestrial careers and note the lessons of our different destinies. "The bourne from whence no traveller returns" is the celestial country. The lack of tidings is here, not there! The majority beyond the shadows may seem all silent, like the grave, to us; but the din of our voices reaches across the void to them, and constitutes a study of unfailing interest.
III. THE UNFALLEN ONES HAVE SENT FORTH MESSENGERS TO SAVE THE LOST. (Vers. 4-6, 8, 9.) Angels hover around us, and with intensest interest contemplate our sin-burdened, sin-stained careers. But the celestial world did not contemplate the problem from a distance, and allow the wanderers to die. Two, at all events, came forth from heaven in the interests of lost men - the shepherd Son of God, and the Spirit, with all womanly tenderness. The Second and Third Persons of the adorable Trinity have come forth as messengers to save lost men. In addition, there are multitudes of ministering angels who exercise a mysterious but real ministry, and aid the heirs of salvation in their pilgrimage home. To the celestial visitants, however, who are set before us in these parables, we must meanwhile give our attention.
1. The good Shepherd. He follows the lost sheep over the mountains into the wilderness, up the rocky steeps, wherever lost souls wander and are waiting to be found. It was arduous work. It involved the exchange of Paradise for this wilderness-world, and a life of privation and trouble of many kinds, and all that the lost sheep might be found and brought home. Christ's work was self-denial and self-sacrifice in the highest degree. He had to lay down his life for the rescue of the sheep.
2. The painstaking Spirit. Like the housewife Who searched so thoroughly the dust of the house until she found the lost piece of money, so the Spirit comes down and searches in the dust of this world for lost souls, that he may restore them to the heavenly treasure. There is no work too severe or too searching for the Spirit to undertake in the rescue of our lost souls. As Gerok puts it, "No trouble is too great for God to undertake in seeking out a soul."
IV. THE JOY OF THE CELESTIAL WORLD OVER REPENTANT SOULS IS GREATER THAN THEIR JOY OVER THE UNFALLEN. (Vers. 7, 10.) Our Lord represents the joy of heaven over one repentant sinner as greater than the joy over even ninety and nine unfallen beings. No angel of light amid his sinless glory ever caused such rapture to the heavenly world as does a sinner repenting and returning to God. "Gabriel," says Nettleton, "who stands in the presence of God, never occasioned so much joy in heaven. We may number ninety and nine holy angels and then say, ' There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over those ninety and nine just persons.' The creation of the world was a joyful event, when ' the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.' But this is not to be compared with the joy over one sinner that repenteth The joy of angels is most sensibly felt every time one more is added to the company of the redeemed. The ninety and nine already redeemed seem to be forgotten, when, with wonder and joy, they behold their new companion with whom they expect to dwell for ever. Could we know, as well as angels do, the reality of a sinner's repentance, we should know better how to rejoice." How important, consequently, should we regard the repentance of a sinner! Instead of our indulging in Pharisaic suspicion and murmuring, should we not join the joyful companies above in their ecstasy over the lost being found? And does it not further help us to understand why evil has been permitted, seeing that grace can translate it into so much joy? In all the assemblies of the saints we have reason to believe angels are present, watching with intense interest the exercises and noting what repentances result. The interest we take in such services is, we must believe, as nothing to the interest of the heavenly world. How they must wonder at so much indifference on our part! How they must wonder at the cool and matter-of-fact way we receive tidings of credible conversions to God! The joy of heaven over penitent sinners is a standing rebuke to our murmurings or apathy! May the thought of it lead to a better feeling and a better life! - R.M.E.
I. THE GREAT FOOLISHNESS OF THE WANDERING SOUL. It goes from God as a foolish sheep strays from the fold. So doing, it leaves security for peril. In the fold is safety; in the wilderness are many and serious dangers. At home with God the soul is perfectly safe from harm; its life, its liberty, its happiness, is secure; but, apart and astray from God, all these arc not only gravely imperilled, they are already forfeited. It also leaves plenty for want. In the fold is good pasture; in the wilderness is scarcity of food and water. With God is rich provision for the spirit's need, not only satisfying its wants, but ministering to its best and purest tastes; at a moral distance from him the spirit pines and withers. To go from God is an act of uttermost folly.
II. THE STRAITS TO WHICH IT IS REDUCED.
1. It is on the point of perishing. Without the interposition of the seeking Shepherd, it would inevitably perish.
2. It is reduced to such utter helplessness that it has to be carried home, "laid upon his shoulders."
(1) Under the dominion of sin the soul draws nearer and nearer to spiritual destruction; and
(2) it is often found to be reduced to so low a state that it can put forth no effort of its own, and can only be carried in the strong arms of love.
III. THE LOVE OF THE DIVINE SHEPHERD. The strong and keen interest taken by the human shepherd in a lost sheep is indicative of the tender interest which the Father of our spirits takes in a lost human soul. The former is more occupied in his thought and care with the one that is lost than he is, for the time, with the others that are safe; the latter is really and deeply concerned for the restoration of his lost child. And as the shepherd's sorrow leads him to go forth and search, so does the Father's tender care lead him to seek for his absent son. Christ's love for us is not general, it is particular; it reaches every one of us. He cares much that each one of the souls for whom he suffered should enjoy his true heritage, and when that is being lost he desires and he "seeks" to restore it.
IV. HIS PERSISTENCY IN SEEKING. "Until he find it." The shepherd, in pursuit of the lost sheep, is not detained by difficulty or danger; nor does he allow distance to stop his search; he goes on seeking until he finds. With such gracious persistency does the Saviour follow the wandering soul; year after year, period after period in his life, through several spiritual stages, the good Shepherd pursues the erring soul with patient love, until he finds it.
V. HIS JOY IN FINDING IT. The shepherd's joy in finding and in recovering, shown by calling his friends and neighbours together, saying, "Rejoice with me," etc., is pictorial of the Saviour's joy when a soul is redeemed from sin and enters into the life which is eternal. He rejoices not only, not chiefly, because therein does he "see of the travail of his soul," but because he knows well from what depth of evil that soul has been rescued, and to what height of blessedness it has been restored; he knows also how great is the influence, through all ages, which one loyal and loving human spirit will exert on other souls. - C.
the study of the angelic world, the practical problem that would engage their most earnest thought, if it did not occupy their most active labours. And this being so, we can understand the greatness of their joy "over one sinner that repenteth." For -
I. THEY KNOW, BETTER THAN WE, THE STERN CONSEQUENCES OF SIN. Not, indeed, by experience. Experience is not the only teacher, and it does not at all necessarily follow that one who has had some experience of a course of conduct knows more about it than another who has had no experience at all; otherwise we should be driven to the absurd conclusion that guilty man knows more about sin than God does. Many of the inexperienced are a great deal wiser than many who have had "part and lot in the matter," because those learn from all they witness, and these do not learn from anything they do and suffer. The "angels of God" witness the commission and also the fruits of sin they see what lengths and depths of wrong and wretchedness it brings about from year to year, from age to age; they see what evil it works within and without, in the sinner himself and on all with whom he has to do. As they live on through the centuries, and as they learn Divine wisdom from all that they behold in the universe of God, they must acquire a hatred of sin and a pity for sinners which is beyond our own emotion and which passes our reckoning. How great, then, their joy when they witness the emancipation of one human soul from spiritual bondage, the birth of a spirit into the life eternal!
II. THEY KNOW, BETTER THAN WE, THE BLESSED FRUITS OF OBEDIENCE. Here they have their own angelic experience to guide and to enlighten them. With added years of loyalty to the King of heaven; with the spiritual enlargement which (we can well believe) comes with a holy and stainless life, they rejoice in God and in his service with ever-deepening delight; their heritage becomes ampler, their prospects brighter, as the celestial periods pass away; and when they think what it means for one holy intelligence to be filled with the fulness of Divine life and of heavenly blessedness, we can comprehend that they would rejoice "over one sinner that repenteth."
III. THEY ARE DEEPLY INTERESTED IN THE PROGRESS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD, and they know, better than we, how limitless is the influence one soul may exercise.
1. Because they earnestly, supremely desire the honour of God, the glory of Christ on the earth, they rejoice that one more spirit is brought into loyal subjection to his rule.
2. Because they desire that everything may be put under his feet, they rejoice that all that one man can do - which means more in their measurement than it means in ours - will he done to further his cause and exalt his Name. - C.
the relation in which God wished its inhabitants to stand toward himself was that (and is that) of children to a Father. The truest picture, the nearest statement, the least imperfect representation of that relationship, is not found in the words, "A certain king had subjects," or "A certain proprietor had servants (or slaves)," but in those of our text, "A certain man had sons. Nothing so adequately represents God's position toward us as fatherhood, or our true position toward him as sonship, or the sphere in which we live before him as the Father's home. This family relationship means -
I. HIS DWELLING WITH US. God's dwelling with us or in us is very closely associated with his Fatherhood of us (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). The ideal human father is one who dwells under the roof where the family resides; who is at home with his children, maintaining a frequent and a close and intimate intercourse with them. Such is God our Father's desire concerning us. He wishes to be near us all and near us always; so near to us that we have constant access to him; that our free, full, happy, unconstrained fellowship is with the Father;" that it is the natural and instinctive thing for us to go to him and make our appeal to him in all time of need.
II. HIS CONTROL OF OUR LIVES. God's purpose is to direct the lives we are living, to choose our way for us, even as a father for his children; so that we shall be going where he sends us, be doing his work, be filling up his outline, be walking in the path his own hand has traced.
III. HIS EDUCATION OF OUR SPIRITS. Our children come to our home with great capacities, but with no power. It is our parental privilege to educate them, so that their various faculties - physical, mental, spiritual - shall be developed, so that they shall gain knowledge, acquire wisdom, exert influence, be a blessing and a power in the world. God places us here, in this home of his, that he may educate us; that, by all we see and hear, by all we do and suffer, we may be taught and trained for noble character, for faithful service, for an ever-broadening sphere.
IV. HIS PARENTAL SATISFACTION WITH US. Perhaps the most exquisite satisfaction, the very keenest joy which fills and thrills the human heart, is that which is born of parental love; it is the intense and immeasurable delight with which the father and the mother behold their children as these manifest not merely the beauties of bodily form but the graces of Christian character, and as they bring forth the fruits of a holy and useful life. God meant and still means to have such parental joy in us; to look on us, the children of his home, and be gladdened in his heart more than when he looks on all the wonders of his hand in field and forest, in sea and sky. It is our docility, our affection, our obedience, our rectitude and beauty of character and of spirit, that constitute the source of his Divine satisfaction. The children of the Father's home are dearer and more precious far than any marvellous things in all the breadth of his universe. Thus God's thought concerning our race was to establish a holy family, himself the Divine Father; we his holy, loving, rejoicing, human children; this world a happy home. That was his thought in creation, that is his purpose in redemption. To its blissful realization the best contribution each one of us can make is to become his true and trustful child, reconciled to him in Jesus Christ, living before him every day in filial love and joy. - C.
not conditioned by the parent's death. If a son insisted on his share, the father publicly declared to his household his testamentary intentions, and the son entered at once into possession. What our Lord's parable supposes, therefore, is what constantly occurred. The father did not keep his testamentary intentions a secret to be revealed only at his death, but got up and declared publicly how the inheritance was to be allotted, and the impatient son entered at once into possession. Death, as a matter of fact, does not enter into the case at all. There is another preliminary point which we had better distinctly state, and that is that historically the younger son is intended to cover the case of the "publicans and sinners" Jesus was receiving into the kingdom of God; while the elder son covers the case of the "Pharisees and scribes" who murmured at Christ's policy. If we keep this clearly in view, it will hell) us greatly in our interpretation. We shall take up the two sons in the order presented in the parable.
I. THE PRODIGAL LEAVING HOME AND COMING BACK. (Vers. 11-24.) Imagining he could not enjoy life with his father and amid the restraints of home, he clamours for his share of the inheritance, turns it into money, and sets out. We cannot do better than take up the stages in the history one by one, and interpret them as we proceed. We have, then:
1. The emigration. (Ver. 13.) Now, if this younger son represents historically "the publicans and sinners," we must remember that they did not leave Palestine or even Jerusalem when separated from the Jewish Church. The emigration pictured in the parable was, therefore, not emigration to a locally distant land, but to a morally distant land; in other words, by the "far country" is not meant a foreign country, but the country of forgetfulness of God. The soul that lives at a distance from God, that never considers that he is near, has by that forgetfulness of him emigrated to the "far country" and gone from home. In strict accordance with this principle of interpretation, the "substance" which was gathered and wasted in the far country was moral wealth, not monetary. As a matter of fact, the publicans, or tax-gatherers, were in many cases careful, money-gathering men. and not spendthrifts in the vulgar sense. What was squandered, therefore, in the far off land of forgetfulness of God was moral wealth, the wealth of the heart and mind. The waste was moral waste. And it is just here that we have to notice what may be called the defamation of the prodigal, in that painters and expositors have represented his "riotous living" as including actually the deepest immorality. This was the line adopted, too, by the elder brother, who represented his brother as having devoured the father's living with harlots (ver. 30), although, as a matter of fact, he had no evidence of such "excess of riot" in the case at all. The most careful expositor of this parable has accordingly pointed out that the prodigal did not reach the sphere of sensuality until he envied the swine, and then only entered it by the mental act. It is when we note how carefully our Lord constructed the parable, that we can see how the moral character of the publicans was appreciated in the picture, and they were not confounded with sinners of the more sensual type. The far-off country, then, and the waste which took place there, represent the land of forgetfulness of God, and the waste of mind and heart that a God-forgetting life is certain to experience.
2. The famine. (Ver. 14.) This is the second stage. It represents the hunger of the heart and mind which comes over the soul that has forgotten God and taken to worldly courses. The famine is the utter vacancy of heart that settles down upon the moral emigrant. He begins to realize what he has lost by leaving God.
3. The effort after recovery. (Vers. 15, 16,) The famished worldling betakes himself to work; becomes a swineherd - an unlawful occupation for a Jew - our Lord touching thus gently on the question of the farming of the taxes for Rome by the publicans; and finds that there is no real regeneration to be found in work. He, in his utter want of satisfaction, wishes he could satisfy his soul as the swine satisfy their nature, upon husks. Sensuality is seen by the famished one to be as unsatisiying as work. And then the last experience is the utter helplessness of man. "No man gape unto him;" no one could minister to his mental trouble. It is through a similar experience the soul comes. Self-recovery turns out to be a delusion, and man is found to be of no avail.
4. The return of reason. (Vers. 17-19.) In his isolation he begins to see that all the past forgetfulness of God was a mistake; that he was insane to take the course he did; and that in his right mind he must act differently. Accordingly he begins in sane moments to reflect on the Father's house, how good a Master God is, how his hirelings have always enough and to spare, and that the best thing for him to do is to return, confess his fault, and get what place in God's house he can. This is repentance - the remembrance of God and how we have sinned against him.
5. Coming back. (Ver. 20.) The resolution to come home must be put in practice. The hope may only be for a servant's place, yet it is well to begin the return journey and test the loving-kindness of God.
6. The welcome home. (Vers. 20, 21.) The father has been on the look-out for the son, and, the moment he begins the journey, the father's compassion becomes overpowering, and. he runs and falls on the prodigal's neck and kisses him. And when the broken-hearted son pours forth his penitence, and that he is no more worthy to be called a son, he is met by the father's welcome and passionate embrace. In this most beautiful way does our Lord bring out God's yearning for lost souls, and his intense delight when they return to him.
7. The feast of joy. (Vers. 22-24.) Orders are given to the servants to take away his rags, and put upon him the best robe, and a ring on his hand, as signs of his rank as his father's son, and shoes on his feet, and to prepare the fatted calf and have a merry feast. In this way does our Lord indicate the joy which fills God's heart and that of the angels and that of the returned soul himself when he has come home to God. It is indeed "joy unspeakable and full of glory." These are the stages, then, in a soul's history as it passes into the far-off land of forgetfulness of God, and then gets back to his embrace.
II. THE ELDER SON STAYING AT HOME, BUT NEVER HAPPY. (Vers. 25-32.) We now turn to our Lord's picture of the Pharisees and scribes, under the guise of the elder brother. Although these men had not left the Church, although they put in their appearance at the temple, they never were happy in their religion.
1. Nominally at home, the elder son is yet from home. (Ver. 25.) The elder son was always at work i u the fields, happiest away from the father. The self-righteous spirit is after all an isolating spirit. The elder son was really as forgetful of God as the younger, only the forgetfulness took a different form.
2. The merry-making at home distresses him. (Vers. 26-30.) He first asks an explanation of the unusual mirth, and then, when he gets it, bursts into a fit of censoriousness of the most exaggerated character, in which he accuses the father of favouritism in. receiving his penitent child, and refuses to be any party to such merry-making. How it exposes the gloomy, Pharisaic spirit which with some passes for religion!
3. The godless spirit manifests itself within him. (Ver. 29.) He has been a faithful and faultless servant, he believes, and yet he has never got even a kid to make merry with his friends. His whole idea of joy is away fern the father. He is still in the first stage of the younger brother, from which he happily has escaped.
4. He is unable to realize how meet it is to rejoice over the return of the lost. (Vers. 31, 32.) The father's expostulations are vain, although they ought to have been convincing. Joy over the recovery of the lost is one of the necessities of an unwarped nature. It was this great sin of which the scribes and Pharisees were guilty, that they would not rejoice at the recovery of fallen fellows by the ministry of Christ. May the broken-heartedness of the prodigal be ours, and never the heartlessness and censoriousness of the elder brother! - R.M.E.
I. THE NEARNESS OF CHILDHOOD. For not only does a great poet speak of "heaven lying about us in our infancy," but One from whom there is no appeal tells us that "of such [as the little child] is the kingdom of heaven." In childhood are those qualities which are most favourable to the reception of the truth and grace of God. And if in our childhood we did not stand actually within the door, we did stand upon the threshold of the Father's house. Then God spoke to us, whispered his promises in our ear, laid his hand upon us, touched the chords of our heart, drew forth our thought, our wonder, our hope, our yearning, our prayer. And well is it for us, blessed are we among the children of men, if, thus hearing that voice and feeling that hand Divine. we chose the good part, entered in at the open door, and have been thenceforth inmates of that home of faith and love! But perhaps it was not so; perhaps, like the prodigal son, we were dissatisfied with the heritage of the Father's favour, of a Saviour's love; perhaps we wanted a "portion of goods" quite different from this, and went away and astray from God. And there came -
II. A DEPARTURE FROM THIS NEARNESS OF CHILDHOOD. We opened the Bible with less interest and closed it with less profit; we neglected the throne of grace; we began to shun the sanctuary; we became less careful of our speech and our behaviour; God was less and still less in our thought; our hold upon Christian principle became relaxed, and the cords of the temporal and the material were wound around us. Then we dwelt in -
III. THE FAR COUNTRY OF SIN. For sin is a "far country."
1. It is to be a long way off from God himself; to be separated from him in spirit and in sympathy; to be willing to spend our time without his society; to be satisfied with his absence. The soul, instead of continually looking up for his guidance and his good pleasure, shuns his eye and tries to shake itself free from his hand; instead of placing itself under his elevating teaching and enlarging influence, the soul sinks into lower conditions, and loses its grasp of truth and power and goodness; instead of sharing his likeness, the soul goes down into folly and wrong.
2. It is to be a long way from his home. For God's home is the home of righteousness, of wisdom, and of blessedness; and to be living under the dominion of sin is to be dwelling in a sphere of unrighteousness; it is to be spending our days and our powers in an element of folly; it is to be cutting ourselves off from the sources of true joy, and to be where all the roots of sorrow are in the soil. Surely there is no epithet anywhere applied to sin which so truly and so powerfully characterizes it as this - it is the far country of the soul; under its sway the human spirit is separated by a measureless distance from all that is worthiest and best. Why should any soul continue there, when God is ever saying, "Return unto me, and I will return unto you;" when Christ is ever saying, "Come unto me, and I will give you rest."? - C.
I. A TWOFOLD WASTE. He "wasted his substance in riotous living." He misspent his powers, devoting to frivolous and unremunerative enjoyment those bodily and mental faculties that might have been put to profitable use, and he scattered the material resources with which he started. Sin is spiritual waste.
1. It is the waste of consumption. The "substance of the soul includes:
(1) Spiritual understanding; a noble capacity to perceive Divine truths and heavenly realities - the thoughts, the wishes, the purposes of God. Under the dominion of sin this capacity becomes enfeebled; in disuse it rusts and is eaten away: From him that hath not [uses not what he has] is taken away that [unused capacity] which he has."
(2) Spiritual sensibility; the capacity of feeling the force of things Divine, of being sensibly and practically affected by them, of being moved and stirred by them to appropriate decision and action. No man can live on in conscious sin without continually losing this sacred and precious sensibility. Neglected and unapplied, it withers away, it wastes.
2. It is the waste of perversion. Man was made for the very highest ends - made for God; to study, to know, to love, to serve, to rejoice in God himself. And when he spends his powers on himself and on his own animal enjoyment, he is "wasting his substance," turning from their true Object to one immeasurably lower the faculties and the opportunities with which he came into the world.
II. PITIABLE WANT. "He began to be in want." Indulgence is expensive, and unfits for work; sinful companions are happy to share the treat, but they are slow to refill the purse. Sin leads down to destitution; it takes away a taste for all pure enjoyment, and provides nothing lasting in its stead. The man who yields himself to the power of sin loses all joy in God, all relish for spiritual enjoyments, all gratification in sacred service, all capacity for appreciating the fellowship of the good and great, all sense of the sacredness and spiritual worth of life. What has he left? He is beggared, ruined. "No man gives unto him;" no man can give unto him. You cannot give to a man what he is not capable of receiving; and until he is radically changed he cannot receive anything truly precious at your hands.
III. GRIEVOUS DEGRADATION. He was "sent into the fields to feed swine." This was bad enough; yet was there one thing worse - " he was fain to fill his belly with the husks the swine did eat." He went down to the lowest grade imaginable. The degradation of the soul is the very saddest thing under the sun. When we see a man who was made to find his heritage in God's likeness and service satisfying himself with that which is bestial, degrading himself to the drunkard's song, to the impure jest, to the part of astute roguery, and finding a horrible enjoyment in these shameful things, then we see a human heart satiating itself with "husks that the swine do eat," and then we witness the most lamentable of all degradations. Such is life in the "far country." Distance from God means waste, want, degradation. Its full and final outworking may take time, or it may hasten with terrible rapidity. But it comes sooner or later.
1. There is a way of return even from that "strange land," that evil estate (see succeeding homilies).
2. How wise to place ourselves out of danger of these dire evils by connecting ourselves at once with Jesus Christ! - C.
I. A RETURN TO HIMSELF.
1. He regains his wisdom as he gains a sense of his folly. He returns to his right mind; he loses his infatuation as he perceives how great is his foolishness to be in such a state of destitution when he might "have all things and abound." What insensate folly to be starving among the swine when he might be sitting down at his father's table! The soul comes to itself and regains its wisdom when it perceives how foolish it is to be perishing with hunger in its separation from God when it might be "filled with all the fulness of God." Our reason returns to us when we refuse to be any longer misled by the infatuation, by "the deceitfulness of sin," and when we see that the pining and decay of our spiritual powers is a poor exchange indeed for the wealth and health of spiritual integrity.
2. He is restored to sanity of mind as he obtains a sense of his sinfulness. To be able to say, as he is now prepared to say, "I have sinned," is to come back into a right and sound spiritual condition. We are in a wholly unsound mental state when we can regard our disloyalty and disobedience to God with complacency and even with satisfaction. But when our ingratitude, our forgetfulness, our unfilial and rebellious behaviour towards God, is recognized by us as the "evil and bitter thing" it is, as the wrong and shameful thing it is, and when we are ready, with bowed head and humbled heart, to say," Father, J have slinked," then are we in our right mind; then have we returned to ourselves.
II. A RESOLVE TO RETURN TO GOD. This return on the part of the prodigal:
1. Arose from a sense of the greatness of his need.
2. Was based on a sound confidence, viz. that the father, whose disposition he knew so well, would not reject but receive him.
3. Included a wise and right determination, viz. to make a frank confession of his sin and to accept the humblest position in the old home which the father might allot him.
(1) Out of the greatness and soreness of our need we come to the conclusion that we will return unto God. Our state of guilt and shame is no longer tolerable; we must turn our back on the guilty past and the evil present; there is no refuge for our soul but in God - "in God, who is our home."
(2) We may hold fast the firm conviction that we shall be graciously received. Of this we have the strongest assurance we could have in the character and the promises of God, and in the experience of our brethren.
(3) Our resolution to return should include the wise and right determination:
(a) To make the fullest confession of our sin; meaning by that not the use of the strongest words we can employ against ourselves, but the full outpouring of all that is in our heart; for, above all things, God "desires truth in the inward parts."
(b) To accept whatever position in God's service he may appoint us. Not that we are expecting that he will make us "as a hired servant;" we may be sure (see next homily) that he will place us and count us among his own children; but so humble should our spirit be, such should be our sense of undeservedness, that we should be ready to be anything and to do anything, of however lowly a character it may be, which the Divine Father may assign us in his household. - C.
I. THE WISDOM OF IMMEDIATE ACTION. "He said, I will arise... and he arose. Most blessed said and done," as has been well remarked. What if he had lingered and given room for vain imaginations of things that would "turn up" on his behalf where he was, or for needless fears as to the reception he would have at home] How many more sons and daughters would there be now in the Father's home if all who said, "I will arise," had at once arisen, without parleying, without giving space for temptation and change of mind! Let there be no interval between saying and doing; let the hour of resolution to return be the hour of returning.
II. THE ABOUNDING GRACE OF HIS FATHER'S WELCOME.
1. He eagerly desired his son's return; he was looking out for it; when he was yet a great way off he saw him, and recognized him in all his rags and in all his shame.
2. He went forth to meet him; did not let his dignity stand in the way of his giving his son the very earliest assurance of his welcome home; he "put himself out," he "ran" to receive him back.
3. He welcomed him with every possible demonstration of parental love. He tenderly embraced him; he had him at once divested of his livery of shame and clad with the garments of self-respect and even honour; he ordered festivities to celebrate his return. As if he would say, "Take from him every sign and token of misery and want; remove every badge of servitude and disgrace; clothe him with all honour; enrich him with all gifts; ring the bells; spread the table; wreathe the garlands; make every possible demonstration of joy; we will have music in our hall to utter the melody in our hearts,' for this my son,' etc." It all means one thing; every stroke in the picture is intended to bring out this most precious truth - the warm and joyous welcome which every penitent spirit receives from the heavenly Father.
(1) We do not wonder at the misgivings of the guilty heart. It is natural enough that those who have long dwelt at a great distance from God should fear lest they should fail to find in God all the mercy and grace they need for full restoration.
(2) Therefore we bless God for the fulness of the promises made to us in his Word - promises made by the lips of the psalmist, of the prophet, and of his Son our Saviour.
(3) And therefore we thankfully accept this picture of the prodigal's return; for as we look at it and dwell upon it we gain a sense and a conviction, deeper than any verbal assurances can convey, of the readiness, the eagerness, the cordiality, the fulness, of the welcome with which the Father of our spirits takes back his erring but returning child. If any wandering one comes to us and says, "Will God receive me if I ask his mercy?" we reply, "Look at that picture, and decide; it is a picture drawn by the eternal Son to indicate what the eternal Father will do when any one of his sons comes back to him from the tar country of sin. Look there, and you will see that it is not enough to say, in reply to your question, 'He will not refuse you;' that is immeasurably short of the truth. It is not enough to say, 'He will forgive you;' that also is far short of the whole truth. That picture says, 'O children of men, who are seeking a place in the heart and the home of the heavenly Father, know this, that your Father's heart is yearning over you with a boundless and unquenchable affection, that he is far more anxious to enfold you in the arms of his mercy than you are to be thus embraced; he is not only willing, but waiting, ay, longing, to receive you to his side, to give you back all that you have lost, to reinstate you at once into his fatherly favour, to confer upon you all the dignity of sonship, to admit you to the full fellowship of his own family, to bestow upon you the pure and abiding joy of his own happy home.'" - C.
I. A TYPE OF THE UNGRATEFUL RECIPIENTS OF THE CONSTANT KINDNESS OF GOD. He complained of his father's partiality in that for his brother there had been killed a fatted calf, while not even a kid had been slain for himself and his friends. But the reply was that, without any intermission, he had been enjoying the comfort of the parental hearth and the bounty of the parental table; that one extraordinary feast granted to his brother was nothing in comparison with the constant and continued manifestations of fatherly love and care he had been receiving day by day for many years. "Thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." It is for us to remember that our Divine Father's continual loving-kindnesses are much more valuable than one interposition on our behalf. A miracle is a much more brilliant and imposing thing than an ordinary gift, but one miracle is not such evidence of fatherly love as we have in an innumerable series of daily and hourly blessings. A greater gift than the manna in the wilderness were the annual harvests which fed many generations of the people of God. A more valuable gift than the water that issued from the rock in the desert were the rains, the streams, and the rivers that fertilized the soil from year to year. Kinder than the providential rescue from threatening embarrassment or impending death is the goodness which preserves in peaceful competence and unbroken health through long periods of human life. It is a sad and serious mistake; it is indeed more and worse than a mistake when we allow the very constancy of God's kindness, the very regularity of his gifts, to hide from our hearts the fact that he is blessing us in largest measure and in fullest parental love. He is saying to us the while, "Children, ye are ever with me, and all that I have is yours."
II. A TYPE OF OUR COMMON SONSHIP. In the parable the father says to his son, "My property is thine - thine to use and to enjoy; there is nothing I have made that is within your view and your reach which you are not free to partake of and employ; all that I have is thine." Is not that our goodly estate as the sons of God? This world is God's property, and he shares it with us. He interdicts, indeed, that which would do us harm or do injury to others. Otherwise he says to us, "Take and partake, enrich your hearts with all that is before you."
1. And this applies not only to all material gifts, but to all spiritual good - to knowledge, wisdom, truth, love, goodness; to those great spiritual qualities which are the best and most precious of the Divine possessions.
2. It has also a far-reaching application, it is a promise as well as a declaration. Of" all that God has" we only see and touch a very small part now and here. Soon and yonder we shall know far more of what is included in his glorious estate, and still and ever will it be true that what is his is ours; for he lives to share with his children the blessedness and the bounty of his heavenly home. - C.