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was speaking on the evil of procrastination, who in his senses would take my illustration and make such a comment on it as to apply it to the calling of the Gentiles, and the rejection of the Jews, or any thing else equally absurd ? By these remarks you will see at once one plain law of Scripture criticism in relation to parables. They are always to be interpreted in a direct accordance with the conversation into which they were introduced. Remember this, and I will proceed to give you what the parable does mean.
If you look at the 15th chapter of Luke, you will find in it three parables, following each other with scarcely so much as an incidental observation between them. There is, apparently, no change in the subject. One of two things is certain; our Saviour did or did not intend them all to illustrate the same subject. If he did, then the obvious tenor of them all must be the same. If he did not, then he acted as no one else in similar circumstances would have done. Is it not reasonable that where three illustrations are used in the same connexion, with no break, no interval, no kind of notice to the contrary,– is it not reasonable that they mean the same thing ? Going on the principle that our Lord used his illustration on the subject on which he was, and not on one on which he was not speaking, it follows that the points of the three parables have one and the same bearing. Analyze them a moment. There is a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. These three things look very
much alike. But go on. There is a sheep found, there is a coin found, there is a son found. These also look very much alike. In the three cases also, there is joy on the recovery of what was lost; thus showing that the application of all was meant to be the same. Now the only difference there is, consists in this. The latter parable, viz: prodigal son, is long; and this length is one attribute of its beauty, for its length is owing to its being an illustration drawn from a moral agent. The sheep and the coin were not moral agents, the son is. This heightens its interest. In fact, a slight examination ought to convince that they are similar allegories, varied to heighten interest and arrest attention. Go back and see, then, what was the subject of the conversation“Then drew vear unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” How did our Lord answer these murmurs? By speaking these three parables. These three parables, then, were intended as an answer to the murmurs. But as the murmurs respected nothing but the fact of Christ eating with publicans and sinners, and inviting them to partake of the benefits of his Gospel, the three parables relate to nothing else, and here is the true key.
Having thus laid down this rule of interpretation, it appears to me that we can ascertain, with the utmost precision, the literal, absolute meaning of the parable.
The elder son unquestionably represents the same class of persons as is represented in the preceding parables, by the pieces of silver which were not lost, and by the ninety-nine sheep which did not go astray, viz: the decorous, the outwardly exact, the ceremonious, the proud and self-justifying, yet at the same time, hypocritical and unsanctified Pharisees and Scribes. These were those members of the Jewish Church, against whose punctilious attention
to the forms and ceremonies of their religion, not so much as a whisper could be uttered, and who, therefore, are, in the language of the parable, adopting their, own views, considered as men having left their father's house. Now lest the idea, that because they are here represented as never having left their father's house, they should be considered as establishing for them an unquestionable religious character, it must be recollected that our Lord is arguing with them on the principles of their own assumption, not on the real state of the case; for that they, as represented by the elder son, have no real claims to a true religious character, is perfectly apparent from the character of the elder son. If you take this chapter from the 25th to the 29th verses, inclusive, you will find the elder son to be jealous, passionate, ungrateful, and absolutely insulting to his father—"Now this elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, 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 entreated 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.” The difference between the prodigal and his brother are obvious, and really in favour of the prodigal. Observe how different the style of their address to the Father. "Father," says the penitent, “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.” Observe the other. He does not say, Father, I have done so and so, but he reproaches and insults him at once. This thy son, (not my brother, I will have nothing to do with him)—as soon as he comes home from his frolics, you turn the whole house into a scene of riot by your obstreperous joy. I'll have nothing to do with it. And yet in many explanations of this parable, the elder son is made the very model of perfection, and from his character the doctrine of human depravity has even been denied or mitigated. So far from there being any kind of justice in this, the fact is, that the elder son in the parable represents the decorous and sanctimonious, though proud and hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees. Now let us turn to the younger son.
In the language of the parable, he represents those publicans and sinners, not Gentile unbelievers, but Jews, those careless and neglectful persons, who, when they were presented with a true view of their situation, turned and repented, and fled to Christ for pardon. By the compassionate father, Christ represents himself as ready to receive those who were truly penitent, no matter what had been their previous character; just according to the solemn and pervading doctrine—“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;" and his own declaration—“I am come to seek and save that which was lost. Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And the sum of his whole argument, drawn from the three parables, is this—You accuse me of being willing to receive these repent
ing publicans and sinners. You do not conceive yourselves as needing any of my offices. If
you would rejoice in finding a lost sheep, a lost piece of silver, or at the restoration of a profligate son, I am surely justified in calling these to repentance; and as you will not allow that you need repentance; as you arrogate to yourselves the meed of never having left your father's house; precisely on principles assumed by yourselves, I am in the way of duty by seeking those who know and feel and confess that they need my services, and surely it ought to be a matter of rejoicing when the lost are reclaimed.
These three parables were plainly understood by the hearers of our Lord, for they silenced all objections.
Now, my friends, I have run the risk of being prolix on this subject, in order that the parable might be understood. It is a simple illustration used by our Saviour to justify the course he pursued, and to silence objectors, by an answer on their own assumptions.
There are two methods in which this parable may be used to beneficial practical results by us. One of these is, by drawing from it legitimate inferences. Second, by making it the basis of a series of practical reflections, which, though not legitimately connected with it, may, without injury, be grafted
In the present discourse I shall adopt the first of these, and on some subsequent occasion, the second.
Let us then see the legitimate inferences.
1. It is possible for persons to maintain an out. wardly decorous religious character, and even de. ceive themselves in the supposition that they are re