This has been called the pearl and crown of all the parables. So rich and copious and instructive is it that some have even called it “a gospel within the gospel”. The ways of man and the way of God are both laid down here as on a map.
Yet different opinions are entertained as to the real meaning of this parable. According to some, the two sons represent the Jews and the Gentiles. According to others, the younger son represents all who return from their wanderings to God, while the elder is the representative of the self-righteous in every land and age. But, without entering upon such discussions here, let us consider some of the topics which lie on the surface of the exquisite narrative. The youngest reader may thus prove wise, and the oldest be encouraged by the way.
And first, the younger son asks his share of his father’s goods. He was weary, perhaps, of the restraints of his father’s house; he thought he would be happier anywhere than there and he hurried away on the wings of hope to find some scene of unfettered enjoyment. “Not many days” thereafter, he set out. He was in haste to be free, though he was laying snares for his own soul. And away he would hurry to a distance from his home, embarking with all he had on a most tempestuous sea. Now this is just the sinner weary of God and his holy restraints, the sinner eager to find full scope for indulgence, panting to be his own god – unlimited and unrestrained – or, rather, calling the bondage of his passions freedom.
How then did he proceed? He wasted his substance in riotous living. He rushed from sin to sin, each bringing him nearer and nearer to ruin – each sinking him deeper and deeper in misery. That is what men call liberty, but it is the liberty of self-destruction – leading to a heritage of woe.
The youth, however, was not to be utterly forsaken. Nay, when he was reduced to poverty, a famine arose; he began to be in want and had nothing to fill him but the fruits of his own devices. At least, if he had anything else, it was such food as the swine did eat. He had become a swineherd, one of the most degraded of all menials in the eyes of a Jew; and yet, degraded as he was, no man sympathized with his sorrows or gave him anything to eat. He learned that the way of transgressors is hard; his sin had found him out. He was the slave of passion and the servant of brutes.
But when was it otherwise? Who ever violated the laws of God without suffering? Alexander the Great could conquer a world and make millions his slaves, but he could not conquer his own passions. Nay, he died a drunkard’s death, and so with uncounted thousands. Sin leads to misery, just as death leads to corruption and dust.
But the prodigal “came to himself”. He was in a swoon or deranged before, but his sorrows and his hardships roused him. The famine threatened death; he now thought of his father’s house and the plenty that was there. Thither he would return, but it was with the language of contrition on his lips. His way was hedged up with thorns, and he must return. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee.” O blessed hunger, O happy degradation, which has become the means of arresting the wanderer and turning his thoughts homeward and heavenward! How many of the sons of men, once the thoughtless dupes of sin and of their own hearts, will bless God for ever and ever for the sorrows which brought them to the Saviour’s feet! When the soul began to feel the pressure of famine, the true bread was sought.
Moreover, this humbled wanderer cannot lie low enough now. A father’s love has touched his soul and he is in the dust. “I am not worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” Such was his feeling, and in cherishing it he became a type. His hand was on his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, as becomes the humbled sinner. It was the cry of Job: “Behold I am vile”. Nor did the erring man linger in carrying out his purpose. He arose, for in shame and misery he sat in the dust, and went to his father; and at this point the beauty of the parable is perfect, both in itself and its signification. See the father recognising the son “a great way off”, as God does the sinner! See his compassion to the abject wanderer! Mark how that father falls on his neck and lavishes on him all the endearment of affection, the warm embrace, the best robe, a ring for his hand, shoes for his feet, and a fatted calf for a high festival – all these awaited the long-lost son. It is all the father’s heart and soul given to the great work of loving.
And is this not a perfect picture of the welcome which awaits the sinner returning to his Father who is in heaven? No stern upbraiding but joyous welcome, no employment as a servant but full restoration to rank and privilege – freedom the largest and happiness the purest. Sin is blotted out; and though that sinner can never, never forgive himself, he can rejoice in the blessedness of the man whose iniquity is covered. It is mercy triumphant.
But there never was an Eden without its serpent, a sunrise without shadows. The elder brother grudged that the wanderer should be so welcomed, and for a time that marred the general joy. Just as some are envious at the good, this brother resented his father’s kindness. Untouched by brotherly affection and parental joy at the recovery of a long-lost child, he sullenly refused to mingle in the mirth.
Now is this the Jew grudging that the Gentiles should be admitted to the Holy One’s favour, or is it some self-righteous Pharisee 1800 years ago or more, offended because God is pleased to show mercy to the chief of sinners? The narrative partakes of the character of each of these, but let us leave them and join the circle of joy. Let us see here an emblem of the sinner restored to the favour of his God, reclaimed from his wandering, wise after his folly, and found – nay, saved – after he had been lost. Let the children of God look just at the general aspects of the parable and see beyond all question their heavenly Father rejoicing over their return to Himself. Here is spiritual life for the spiritually dead, and here is one of the finest exhibitions which even the New Testament contains of the love and the grace of their God and Saviour. Let them return, and return again, to their Father’s home and heart. Rather, let them beware of ever wandering from their Father’s guardianship. Being brought nigh, not repelled by, their Elder Brother, Jesus the Son of God, let them seek to keep nigh and dwell in that peaceable habitation, the little sanctuary which God forms for His people.
1. Another chapter, slightly edited, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord. It is based on the parable in Luke 15:11-33.