THE PRODIGAL SON; OR, THE PENITENT JOYFULLY RECEIVED.
LUKE xv. 24
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.
JESUS Christ came into the world to save sinners; he therefore behaved in a kind and affable manner to all, even to some who had been very great sinners. This offended the Jews, and especially the self-righteous Pharisees. They thought that a holy prophet should have nothing to do with such bad people; not considering that he went among them on purpose to save them from their sins. But Jesus Christ vindicates his conduct, by appealing to the custom of men in general, who always rejoice when they recover any valuable thing that was lost. In this beautiful and affecting parable we have,
I. The prodigal's sin and folly, in departing from his father, and living in a riotous manner.
II. His repentance and return.
III. His kind reception.
IV. The envy of his elder brother upon that occasion.
I. We have the prodigal's sin and folly, v. 11-13. "A certain man had two sons: 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."
The prodigal son is an emblem of a sinner. He disliked the restraint of his pious father. He wanted to be his own master; to live in a state of independence, and to be governed by his own corrupt judgment. The language of sinners is, "Let us break his bonds asunder, and cast away his cords from us;" they say unto God, "Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have if we pray unto him?" Job xxi. 15. All natural men are, like the prodigal, men of the world, and want their portion in this life, regardless of a portion in heaven: and, like him, they wish to live at a distance from God, and, as much as possible, "without God in the world."
But let us stop a moment, and ask whether this is not a picture of ourselves. Has not each of us, more or less, acted the same part. Is there not in us, even in us, an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God? Is not this the reason that so many forsake the house of God, even on the Lord's day—that they dislike to hear God speak to them in his preached word—that they refuse to speak to God in their prayers—and that they despise truly religious persons, who are of the family of God? Surely all this arises from hearts "alienated from the life of God;" this is "the carnal mind," which is enmity against him.
Observe now, how he behaves in the distant country to which he went. Probably he told his father that he would traffic with his money, and so mend his fortune; or at least, that he would travel for the improvement of his mind; but he no sooner gets this portion into his hands, and becomes his own master, than he enters upon a riotous way of life, in the company of bad wicked companions. Thus he wasted his substance, and abused the gifts of God; gave himself up to luxury and sin, "to work all uncleanness with greediness."
See the consequence of being left to ourselves; the misery of departing from God! and O let us beware of wasting his gifts! Our reason, our health, our strength, our time, our money, our influence, are all talents committed to our trust: let them be used to promote the glory of God and the salvation of our souls, and not abused to the purpose of sin and destruction.
Mark now, my friends, how certainly misery follows sin. Ver. 14, "When he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want." Here is a proof of the truth of that old proverb—"Wilful waste makes woeful want." See how the pleasures of sense perish in the using: "for as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: a noisy blaze, succeeded by dismal darkness. Let this, as Solomon advises, "keep thee from the evil woman; from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman; for by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread. She hath cast down many wounded. Her house is the way to hell; going down to the chambers of death." Prov. vi. 24, and vii. 26.
What was become of the prodigal's gay friends? Would none who had feasted at his table come forward to supply his wants? No: they all deserted him. Place no dependence on sinful companions. Many adore the rising sun, who turn their backs upon it when it sets. And how just it is, that he who acts as an enemy to God, should not be able to find a friend among men.
One should have thought that now, in his adversity, he would have turned his thoughts homeward. Surely this was a proper time for serious reflection. But he was not sufficiently humbled: rather than go back to his father, he will submit to the most servile state, Ver. 15, "He went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine." It is no disgrace in this country to be a servant, or to feed any sort of cattle; but you are to observe that he was a Jew, and as swine's flesh was forbidden to the Jews, there could be nothing more odious and abominable to him than the care of swine. It seems too, that this gay youth was a poor worthless creature, and, notwithstanding his education, fit for no better employment. O how are the mighty fallen, and how is human nature degraded by sin!
But far greater is the disgrace of sinful men. Created at first in the image of God; honorable and happy, in communion with him; see him now fallen from his high estate, become a servant of sin, yea a slave of the devil; a companion of beasts; yea, himself, as bishop Hall speaks, "Half a beast and half a devil!" Whatever sinners may think of themselves, their wretched business is no other than the prodigal's; they are "making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." and that is no better than feeding swine.
Disgraceful as his employment was, could he have got wholesome, though plain, food, he might have made himself content. But, to fill up the measure of his misery, we find he was almost starved to death. Having, perhaps, a hard-hearted master, and that in a time of famine, he had not a morsel of bread; he must not only feed the swine, but feed with them, and eat the same food. Ver. 16, "He would fain have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat"—wild chesnuts probably or some such thing not fit for a man to eat; but though he would have been glad of them, he could not get them, or not enough of them, to satisfy his hunger.
Here also is a picture of the sinner. Husks are food for swine, not for men; so the things of this world are no more fit to satisfy the immortal soul, than husks to feed the body. They suit not our nature nor satisfy our desires.
" Why seek ye that which is not bread,
Nor can your hungry souls sustain?
On ashes, husks, and air you feed;
Ye spend your little all in vain."
II. Let us now proceed to a more pleasing part of the subject. "It is a long lane, they say, which has no turning," and yet alas! thousands go on all their days in the way to eternal ruin! But here we have an instance of a sinner, reduced to the last extremity, to whom his afflictions were sanctified, beginning to repent and return to God. Ver. 17, "And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger."
" He came to himself"—remarkable expression! He had been beside himself; he had acted the part of a madman; and indeed "the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart." Eccles. ix. 3. Do not madmen mistake their own condition, and fancy themselves kings and emperors, so do poor sinners; they think themselves spiritually "rich, and increased with goods, &c., and know not that they are wretched; and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." Madmen are often desperately mischievous, and even self-murderers. So are all sinners. What madness can be equal to the eternal destruction of the soul for the sake of a few momentary pleasures? Yes, we are all far from ourselves when we are far from God; and we never return to ourselves, till God, in mercy returns to us. Regard not then the foolish, reproach of the world, who will say, when you are truly concerned for your souls, that you are mad. No: they are the madmen who live in sin; you, who are coming to God, have come to yourselves.
The prodigal compares his own wretched state with the condition of his father's meanest servants. "I am starving; they are feasting. I am miserable; they are happy." Just so, a repenting sinner plainly perceives his own miserable case, and longs to partake of their happiness, who live in the house of God, and are his devoted servants, "I perish," said he; so may every man say who lives in sin, "I perish, but there are others who dwell in the house of the Lord; feast upon his rich grace; know that their sins are pardoned and are full of peace and joy in believing."
What is the natural consequence of such a comparison? Why, an effort, an immediate effort, to mend his condition. Hope springs up in his heart; and though there was but a may-be, a mere peradventure of success, he made the following wise resolution; ver. 18,19, "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."
He resolves to return to his father. Now, what is conversion, but the sinner's return to God? this is what God calls us to in his word—"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." Isa. lv. 7. But with what spirit will be return? Will he feign an excuse, and go with a lie in his mouth? Will he say "I have been very unfortunate; I have been robbed of my property; been deceived by swindlers; or had a shipwreck at sea?" Or, will he plead his youth and indiscretion, and say, "Though I have done wrong, I had a good heart?” Such, my friends, are the wretched excuses of unhumbled sinners. But the prodigal now perceives the plague of his own heart; he was "poor in spirit:" he would make no excuses; but own his guilt, and confess he was unworthy to be treated as a son; he would be contented and thankful to be admitted into the kitchen. "Make me as one of thy hired servants." Thus it will be with every true penitent; he will give glory to God by making full confession of his sin, and will sincerely admit that he is totally unworthy of the grace and mercy of God.
Observe; he says, "I have sinned against heaven."—against the God of heaven; against the high authority of God, and against the wonderful goodness of God. It is a foolish and hurtful mistake of some people, when they speak of a drunkard, or any other wicked man, to say—"he hurts none but himself." It is true, sinners hurt themselves; but they also offend and provoke the God of Heaven; and in true repentance, the sinner, like the prodigal, and like the Psalmist, will say, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." Before thee, said he; the prodigal had sinned against his father, by throwing off his easy yoke; and let young people remember, that disobedient and undutiful behaviour to their parents is a sin against God that needs his pardoning mercy, and must be repented of.
Shall we pause a moment—and ask ourselves, whether we find in our hearts a disposition like that of the prodigal. We have all sinned with him, but which of us repents with him? Depend upon it, we shall not think of returning to God, till we feel the misery of departing from him. We have forsaken God, we have set up for our own guides, we have abused the gift of God, we have been the slaves of sin; and have we not found emptiness, insufficiency, dissatisfaction, misery, and danger in this condition? If not, may God open our eyes, and help us to discover it. If we are convinced of these things, let us make the prodigal's resolution, "I will arise;" and not only make it, but execute it; for we read, ver. 19, He arose, and came to his father. There are many good resolutions formed, which come to nothing. It has been said, that "hell is paved with good resolutions:" perhaps there is not one unhappy creature alive, who did not at one time or other say, "I will arise and go to my father;" but their resolutions died away. The prodigal, however, rose and began his journey—a long journey—for you will remember that he went into "a far country." Ah! who can tell what painful fears and doubts assailed his mind on the way? Hunger had brought him very low; and he might have said, "How can these trembling limbs carry me so many miles? I must beg my way; perhaps I may die on the road: and, oh! if I live to reach the place, how can I bear the sight of the house? My father, my offended father, will refuse to see me; forbid me the house; and after all my labour, I may be rejected, and justly too. But, however, though I may perish if I go, I must perish if I stay. I will arise and go to my father."—He goes. He continues his journey; and at length, after many a weary step, and many a toilsome day, he catches a glimpse of the mansion: he halts: his heart beats; a thousand fears rush into his mind. Ah! what shall I do? What shall I say?
Just then, for so Providence ordered it, "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." This is the
IIIrd. thing we are to consider; his kind reception. God's eyes are upon all his creatures. "He looketh upon men," to see if there be any that regard, any that return; and the very first motions of the heart towards him are noticed. "He looketh upon men; and if any say, I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profiteth me not: he will deliver his soul from going down into the pit, and his life shall see the light." Job xxxiii. 23.
He had compassion. A parent can readily conceive what tender feelings would be excited by the sight of a long-lost child, returning in this miserable plight; and by these feelings the God of mercy is pleased to express his perfect readiness to receive and forgive a repenting sinner.
He ran. The prodigal, perhaps, stopped short, afraid to venture on; but the father runs; forgetting his age, and the gravity of his character he runs to meet him, impatient to embrace him.
He fell on his neck and kissed him; though ragged, though filthy, though lately come from feeding swine. Any other than a father would have loathed; but the parent loves, and manifests his love by his affectionate embraces.
What a wonderful display is this of the love of God! It is thus that God prevents us with the blessings of his goodness. It is thus that repenting sinners are welcomed by the God of mercy. Hear it, O my friends, hear it for your encouragement, that our God is "ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness." Nehem. ix. 17. Hear his own words: Jer. xxxi. 18, "I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus: Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth." This is the language of Ephraim's repentance. Now hear the language of God's compassion, ver. 20. "Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still; therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord." Yes, my friends, God, for Christ's sake, keeps mercy in store for the chief of sinners who return to him.
Now what effect had this kind behaviour on the prodigal? Did it make him suppress his intended confession? Did it prevent the humiliation he resolved upon? No; it rather increased his contrition and godly sorrow. An awakened sinner is affected and melted down with the discoveries of God's free, full, pardoning love in Christ Jesus, it appears so great, so undeserved, and so excellent.
"Law and terrors do but harden,
All the while they work alone;
But a sense of blood-bought pardon,
Soon dissolves a heart of stone."
The prodigal no sooner meets his father than he cries, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son"—he was going on; he would have said more; but the father stopped him, and said to his servants, who with surprize had followed him, and gathered round to behold the affecting scene,—"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." Ver. 22—24.
The prodigal was half naked; he is clothed, and that with a robe; the dress of a prince rather than of a servant. He had the appearance of a wretched slave; the ornaments of a free man were put upon him. He was ready to starve; the most delicate food is prepared for him. He was almost overwhelmed with grief; cheerfulness and joy now fill his heart. Thus, the lower a penitent sinks in humility, the higher will God raise him, and heap upon him the greater benefits. The reconciled sinner shall be treated as a child; he shall be clothed with the garment of salvation, with the righteousness of Christ; he shall have the seal of adoption, and the graces of the Spirit enabling him to walk in the ways of God.
We have scarcely time to notice, in the fourth place, the behaviour of his ill-natured elder brother; suffice it to say, it was a picture of the Pharisees; and represents the character of many, "who value themselves on the regularity of their own conduct, and betray a strong aversion to the rich grace of the Gospel, which is extended to the greatest sinners; they are offended that no peculiar compliment is paid to their excellence, and that others whom they despised are put on a level with them." Thus Christ reproves them.
My friends, There are two things in this parable which I trust you will not forget—the folly of sinners, and the compassion of God. Let each one of us consider, whether he has not ungratefully run away from God—disliked his restraints —been wise in his own conceit—indulged forbidden sins— and abused the bounties of heaven? And yet perhaps totally insensible of the evil of so base conduct. In the midst of prosperity there was not a thought of returning to God; and even in affliction, trying any other method rather than that. But surely it is high time to bethink ourselves. May divine grace bring us all to ourselves, as the necessary means of bringing us to God. Let us resolve, without a moment's delay, to humble ourselves at his feet; and let us be encouraged to do so, by the affecting account we have heard of God's kindness. "He sees afar off the returning sinners; he pities, he meets, he pardons, he embraces them. He arrays them with the robe of the Redeemer's righteousness; adorns them with the ornaments of sanctifying grace; honours them with the tokens of adopting love; and invests them with all the privileges of his dear children." O that we may feel the charming force of these heavenly attractions! May there be joy in heaven and earth this day on our account; and may we, thus received into the house of God, abide there all the days of our life, admiring and adoring the sovereign, free, and everlasting grace of God; and saying, "Behold! what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God."
THE PRODIGAL SON.
The mighty God will not despise
The contrite heart for sacrifice;
The deep-fetched sigh, the secret groan,
Rises accepted to the throne.
"He meets with tokens of his grace,
The trembling lip, the blushing face,
His bowels yearn when sinners pray,
And Mercy bears their sins away.
"When fill'd with grief, o'erwhelmed with shame,
He, pitying, heals their broken frame;
He hears their sad complaints, and spies
His image in their weeping eyes.
"Thus, what rapt'rous joy possess'd
The tender parent's throbbing breast,
To see his spendthrift son return,
And hear him his past follies mourn!"
And now let us, who long have been
The wretched slaves of hell and sin,
Repent—-made wiser by the rod—
Come to ourselves and then to God.