The Prodigal Son
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
The parables of The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son — were spoken by our Lord on one occasion and for one general purpose.
The occasion, as we have already seen, was the carping of the Scribes and Pharisees at the gracious reception which sinners received from Jesus; and the general purpose was, to illustrate the seeking love and pardoning mercy of God toward the wandering, the lost, and the prodigal.
Our Lord had already, to a great extent, vindicated his procedure in receiving sinners, by showing, through the two preceding parables, that it was natural that he should feel a deep interest in those who, having wandered — had now been reclaimed, having been lost — were now found. But many, probably, of his hearers were fathers, who, uninfluenced, it may be, by similitudes drawn from pastoral or domestic life, might yet be deeply touched by an appeal to parental emotions, the natural outgushings of a heart for their sons. Nothing, then, could be more relevant, both to the audience which he addressed, and the truth which he wished to enforce, than the touching incidents related in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
We picture to ourselves the venerable father, blessed with an abundance of this world's goods, and happy in possessing two sons, to whom he looked for comfort in his advancing years.
But discontent has already begun its work upon the younger son; and, after long nursing his unhappy feelings, and long manifesting an increasing bitterness of spirit — he seizes upon some trifling excuse, and, in an exacting and unfeeling way, demands, "Father, give me my share of the estate!" He wishes to get it into his own hands, to spend it as he pleases, without either parental advice or control.
Hitherto, the two sons had shared their father's house, table, bounty, and love; but, on occasion of the peremptory demand of the younger — the father, in the words of the parable, "divided his property between them."
Waiting "not many days," only long enough to convert his "share of the estate" into ready money, he turned his back upon his father and his boyhood's home, and "took his journey into a far country;" where no parental control would restrain him in his course of sin; where, master of himself and of his means — he could do whatever he desired.
In this "far country," mingling with the dissolute and abandoned — he soon "squandered his wealth in wild living!" Deserted by his parasitic friends, who attached themselves to him only so long as they could draw out the sap and strength of his financial substance — he found himself "in need," with "a famine" pressing upon him, and not a friend to lean upon for even a temporary support.
In this starving, desolate, ruined condition — he seeks, as a last resort, for some menial employment, by which he can at least satisfy his hunger, and secure a temporary shelter. He let himself out for hire to "a citizen of that country," and is sent by him "into his fields to feed swine" — the basest of all employment, one abhorred by the Jews as unclean, and so despised by the Egyptians, that swine-herders were the only people excluded from their temples.
But the depth of his misery was not yet reached, for such were the cravings of hunger, and such the miserable portion of food allotted him, in this time of famine, that "He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything!"
O wretched object! stripped of his money, shrunken with hunger, turned out as a swine-herder into the fields, a beggar and a stranger in a far-off land — with the glad remembrances of a former and happy life, making more vivid and sorrowful his present wretchedness. There he lay, the younger son of a liberal and bountiful father — loathsome, degraded, wretched — a melancholy picture of self-begotten misery and woe!
How long he remained thus is not stated. The next intimation we have of him is, that "he came to himself," as if all this time he had not been himself — had been acting as a crazy man; and had now only just awoke from his demented condition, and looked at himself in a true light. He compares himself not with his former condition and circumstances, when, as a son, he sat at his father's table, and lodged in his father's mansion, and was waited on by his father's servants. So low is he debased in his own eyes, that he does not raise himself to the height of this comparison, which, on first thought, we might suppose would be the very one that would be uppermost in his mind; but he himself humbly compares himself to his father's menials.
And as his thoughts wander afar off from the swine and the husks around him, to his distant boyhood's home, they bring up before him the plenty which fills his father's house — the very "hired servants" of which have "bread enough and to spare" — while he, the son, whom those full-fed servants once obeyed, now "perishes with hunger!"
The thought stings him to the quick, and he resolves, under the influence of the deep emotion, "I will arise, and go to my father!" No longer will I sit down here in these distant fields, watching these loathsome swine — but remembering the love and care of my father, and the plenty that fills his barns and table! To him I will go; yet not as a son; this relationship I have forfeited by my base desertion — but as a servant, and not as a servant only — but as a confessing, humbled penitent, for I will "say unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants."
His resolve was followed by action. He "came to his father;" and we can almost picture his appearance and feelings as he reaches his native fields, and comes within sight of his father's house. Wan and weary with his journey, faint with hunger, emaciated with long fasting and walking, his face furrowed by the ploughshare of care, and his brow corrugated by the turbulence of mental anguish, clad in the tattered and besmeared garments of a swine-herder, and leaning heavily upon his staff — he stands on the brow of the first hill from which he can catch a glimpse of his once happy home, and as it meets his eyes — they fill with tears; and his heart is too full for utterance.
The terrible contrast between his present and his past condition; the fearful wastings of life, health, strength, money, which a few months have made; the pictures of childish happiness enjoyed there; intermingling with the deep shadows which darkened his life in the land he had just left — must have crowded thickly upon his mind, and made his weak frame tremble as these emotions wrestled within him.
The father spies the returning prodigal even "when a great way off;" feels in his heart the wellings up of compassion towards his son, and not waiting to see what was the temper and condition of that son, he "runs to meet him," "falls upon his neck" with joy, and "kisses him" with parental affection. The son, overpowered by this affectionate display, begins his premeditated speech; "Father, I have sinned against Heaven in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son." The father stopped to hear no more; the sentence, "Make me as one of your hired servants," was arrested on his lips by the father's orders to the servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"
Thus by these four signs, the free-man's robe, the patrician's ring, the sandals of honor, and the feast of gladness — did the father manifest the highest regard for his son, and confer on him the highest honors of his house.
What a contrast between the morning and evening of that day! The morning swine-herder, the way-worn beggar, the hunger-pinched prodigal — is now, at eventide, the robed and ringed and sandaled son, the restored wanderer, the feasted guest, the joy of his father's heart and home!
While thus merry, father and younger son together, "the elder son," who, when the meeting took place," was in the field superintending his laborers, drew near to the house, and was astonished to hear sounds "of music and dancing." Inquiring of "one of the servants" "what these things meant?" he was told the story of the prodigal's return. Instead, however, of rejoicing at the coming back of his erring brother, and going in and congratulating his father, and joining in the festive scene — he becomes "angry, and would not go in."
The kind father, hearing of his feelings, goes out to him, and aims to soften down his anger; but the surly brother rebuffs him by relating his long-continued goodness, and hints even at unrewarded services — while his dissolute brother no sooner returns from disgrace and beggary and crime, than there is "the fattened calf is killed for him." The ill-natured attack of the elder brother, both upon his father and the prodigal, is met by the gentle yet forcible reply of the father, "My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"
Such is the exquisitely beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, which Trench calls "the pearl and crown of all the parables of the Scripture;" and of which Lavater says, "Had Christ only come to earth for the purpose of delivering this parable, on that account alone should all mortal and immortal beings have concurred in bending the knee before Him."
In considering the moral of this parable, we find that it resolves itself into four stages, namely:
the prodigal's departure,
the prodigal's degradation,
the prodigal's return, and
the prodigal's reception.
In each of these courses of action, there is furnished a complete type of the human heart; and in the reception which the returning wanderer meets with, there is set out the free and pardoning love of a great and holy God.
The prodigal began his departure by the exacting request, "Give me my share of the estate!" The desire to throw off the reins of God's government and to be independent of Him — is the root sin of all sins. It was this which cast down the rebel angels; which entrapped Adam into disobedience, and by which death was brought into the world and all our woe.
As soon as the heart begins to be conscious of its relations and duties to God — it grows restive, and commences its efforts at departure. The sinner selfishly craves "his portion of goods" from God, as if God was bound to divide unto him his living; and where there is this perversity of mind, God often permits men to make the experiment which they desire. He gives them "their portion in this life;" appears to bless them, and crown their lives with mercies.
So far, however, from being satisfied — they collect the energies of mind and body, their influence and their resources, and having "gathered all together", they commence their career of apostasy and sin. This career is a rapidly downward and an increasingly wicked one; for when the soul has once so compacted its energies as to cast off its filial duty to God, and the checks of his Fatherly control — there is nothing to impede its downward course, for all human resolves are powerless upon the rushing wheels of passion-driven man. The soul that has departed from God, has commenced a series of sins which will ever augment in size, and increase in power, and deepen in guilt throughout eternity!
This departure from God, is a willful one. It is not God the Father thrusting the son out of his house, and exiling him to a "far country" — but the son voluntarily breaking away from the Father, and recklessly plunging into ruin, preferring the "far country" to his father's house. That "far country" is this fallen world.
We are here at a great moral distance from our Father's Home. We here waste the powers of mind and body in riotous living, in doing those things which God forbids and our consciences disapprove — and the pangs of spiritual need soon seize upon us. For in this far off land there is a famine in all those things that the soul most needs; and the world, so far from satisfying our spiritual cravings — like a hard master, sends us, immortal beings as we are, to the vilest of employments and the basest of food.
It is markedly emphatic of the debasing influence of the world, that our Lord should select such a loathsome and, by the Levitical law, almost accursed employment as a swine-herder, as an illustration of the depths of misery to which it would reduce us, having first caused us to "waste our substance in riotous living."
All those drudging activities to which men sell their souls for hire, are, in comparison to those employments of holiness in which they should be engaged — as brutish as the swine-herder's! So also is the food which the world offers to the starving spirit but husks — worthless, unsatisfying. The soul can never thrive upon such bestial diet, and it famishes for something real, true, holy — something suitable to its needs here and its destinies hereafter.
As soon as the grace of God visits such a soul, it becomes at once conscious of its needs. There is an opening of the eye to its miseries, a disenchanting of the spell which has so long perverted the judgment — and the poor debased sinner begins to feel . . .
his perishing condition!
The sin of his departure from God comes into clear view; his guilt in his subsequent course stands out in its true light; the woe of his present position darkens over him — like a lowering cloud charged with the arrowy lightnings of an angry God. And the future lies before him — a yawning, bottomless gulf of woe, to the brink of which he feels that he is speedily hastening!
This is the hour when the Holy Spirit begins his work of conviction, holding up the sins of his life in the light of God's countenance, and causing him to mourn with a godly sorrow that needs not to be repented of. He shows him that he is "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." And having convinced him of his undone condition — He points him to his Father's house, stirs up within him a desire to return, and strengthens him to resolve, "I will arise and go to my Father!"
Not, however, until driven from every "refuge of lies" — does the sinner desire to return. His proud heart rebels against going back to God, from whom he so vauntingly departed. The doctrine of free grace ill comports with his boasted self-righteousness and independence. If he could, by any works of penance, hew out for himself a salvation, so that the merit of it would be all his own, and of which he could say, "my power and the might of my hand has gotten me this victory" — he would gladly do it. And he makes a great variety of attempts to obtain peace of mind before he turns with a simple faith to "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."
Then it is that the sinner "comes to himself." Up to this period, he is beside himself.
He calls good evil, and bitter sweet;
his moral sense is perverted;
his mind acts without due control;
he yields himself as a servant to sin;
he "loves darkness rather than light;"
he runs greedily in the way of sin;
he seeks his own selfish ends supremely;
he is under the governance of merely worldly influences;
he shuts his eyes to the future, and
he madly rushes on to eternal ruin!
Now, however, this delusion is being broken up. He begins to look at things in their just relation — reason recovers its ascendancy, and reflection busies itself with his past life. Now he thinks on God, his Father, and what he has left in his Father's house, and the rich provision there made for the souls of His servants, and the fullness of bread therein for all who will resort there. He begins his repentance by a resolve to break off his present course of life, (for there is no repentance where there is a continuance in sin) saying, "I will arise;" I will sit no longer in these distant fields, in this brutish servility. "I will arise," and renouncing my employment, will "go to my Father."
And this indicates the second essential element of true repentance, which is a turning to God; for when the Holy Spirit produces in the soul that godly sorrow for sin which is the result of his convicting power — then there results a repentance which manifests itself in a turning away from sin — and a turning unto God, with full purpose of heart to serve Him in sincerity and truth. The resolve to return is accompanied by a penitent confession, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before You!"
Under the enlightening influences of the Spirit, the sinner is taught to behold his iniquities in a new point of view. Hitherto, he has regarded sin only as it has affected his worldly interests and standing. Its heinousness has been measured by the discomforts of mind or body to which it has subjected him. Now, however, the mere earthly aspect of sin, is overtopped by its appearance in the light of God's countenance. He sees it to be that abominable thing which God hates! And as the holy character of God rises into view, he beholds more clearly, the baseness of his iniquity; and so filled is he with a sense of his vileness in God's sight, that he exclaims with David, "Against You, and You only have I sinned!"
The idea that he "has sinned against Heaven," against the laws, the love, the mercy, the long-suffering, the holiness of the God of Heaven — is the absorbing idea of the repenting sinner. He never thought before of sin as it appears in the view of God, and of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit; and he is amazed at its grossness and baseness, and exclaims, "Behold, I am vile!" "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes!"
For humility necessarily follows true repentance and confession. It is impossible for the soul to say, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven" — without that conscious worthlessness on account of guilt so humbling to the soul, as also to call out the further exclamation, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants."
To occupy the lowest place in the Church militant or Church triumphant, is far too good for the now abased penitent. To be a "doorkeeper," "a hired servant," is all to which the prostrate, sin-stricken soul dares aspire. And he feels that, to be "least in the kingdom of God" — is higher honor than to be the greatest in the kingdoms of men.
And well may the soul be humble, when it contemplates the number, malignity, and constancy of its sins of thought and word and deed, secret and open, of omission and commission, on the one hand; and the character of God — holy, supreme, eternal, infinite — against whom it has sinned, on the other hand. In the presence of such mountain-like sins, and before such an ineffably glorious God — what position can the penitent take — but that of deepest humility and self-abasement; putting his hand upon his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, crying, "Unclean, unclean!" "God be merciful to me, the sinner!"
From the depths of penitent humility, rises the most vigorous Christian action. He will love Christ the most — who has seen most of the plague of his own heart, and been made to feel most keenly, the bitings of the "famine," and the worthlessness of the "husks" in that "far country" of sin, wherein he was in bondage. And he will work for Christ the most energetically — who loves most ardently, for there is no motive power to action so strong, so enduring, so elevating as the constraining love of Christ.
Hence the prompt carrying into effect of the resolve, "I will arise and go to my Father!" He arises, departs, leaves all behind him, and bends his eager steps towards his Father's house. He does not allow any doubts as to his Father's readiness to receive him, to disturb his mind. He does not stop to make himself more respectable, more externally worthy. He does not hesitate and say, "If my Father wants me or loves me, it is easy enough for him to send out his hired servants and find me, and bring me home."
In the confidence of a faith in his Father's readiness to receive and willingness to forgive, which is based on the immutable promise of God — he goes to that Father; for, over the gateway that leads to His mercy-seat is inscribed in bold letters, "Him who comes unto me — I will never cast out!"
As soon as there is this putting forth of the hand of faith, and laying hold on Christ as the hope set before us in the Gospel — there is a sensible appreciation of the fact that our Father, while we "were yet a great way off," has seen us, has had compassion on us, has come out to meet us; and has, with more than oriental manifestations of His love, taken us to His bosom and led us to His earthly courts.
As beautifully as the touches of this exquisite parable illustrate the tenderness of an earthly parent — they come far short of expressing the infinite, the divine, the eternal love of God for us miserable sinners, or the wonderful displays of His compassion when He gave His well-beloved and only-begotten Son "to die — the just for the unjust — that we might be reconciled to God."
Oh, impenitent man! Obey the motions of the Holy Spirit, and leave your swine-like lusts, your worldly husks, your servitude to sin — and arise and go to your Father! You will soon see that Father hastening towards you; His Divine love moving Him to truest compassion, and causing Him to meet you while "yet a great way off;" for the language of this loving Father is, as Hosea tells us, "Oh, how can I give you up? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows!"
The rich provision which God makes for the repenting sinner illustrates his abounding love still further. The prodigal comes in the rags of his degradation, and is, by the ministering hand of faith, clothed in the robe, "the best robe," of Christ's perfect righteousness, so that he exclaims with Isaiah, "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness!"
The hand which squandered his Father's gifts, and doled out husks to the swine — is now adorned with a ring, the covenant ring of a new and everlasting alliance, the "token and pledge" of a blessed union with the Lord.
He comes, with feet lacerated and wearied with the roughness and harshness of the sinner's way, and receives the shoes of the "preparation of the Gospel of peace," by which he is enabled to tread with confidence in the path of duty, and run with fleetness in the way of God's commandments.
He comes, hungry and famished — and God spreads the Gospel feast for him in His house, "a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined!" And this eucharistic feast, at which the truly penitent and believing soul feeds by faith on the body and blood of Calvary's Sacrifice, and is nourished and strengthened thereby — is but the foretaste of that more glorious reunion when, with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, "he shall sit down to the marriage-supper of the Lamb in Heaven!"
He comes in sorrow and humility, feeling that he is unworthy to be called a son, and desiring to take a low place, even as "a hired servant" — and he is received with every demonstration of joy. The church on earth rejoices, and welcomes him with music and thanksgiving. Christ rejoices, for He then sees of the travail of his soul, and is satisfied. And "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God," for this their earthly "brother was dead — and is alive again; he was lost — and is found!"