George Everard, 1871
"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!" Luke 15:20
We follow the wanderer on his homeward path. It is a sorrowful journey. We can picture to ourselves the bare feet, the famine-stricken form, the destitute condition. But, above all, what anxious thoughts fill his breast! He is tossed hither and thither by conflicting hopes and fears. He is like a sailor on the stormy main — now lifted up to Heaven by a wave, then going down again into the trough of the sea. Even so with the prodigal. At one moment he is borne up with cheerful hope, at another cast down in gloom and despondency. "How will my father receive me?" Here is the one concern.
Fear says: "Ah, he will surely spurn you from his door! He will never speak to you! He will never permit you to tarry beneath his roof. He will bid his servants to turn you hastily away, lest you should bring shame and disgrace upon his household."
Then hope chimes in: "Nay, not so sadly! Why thus wrong your father's love? Has he ever thus dealt with you in days past? Will he not show you some pity? Did he not lovingly forgive you the lesser faults of earlier days? and will he not receive you now? Will he refuse you forgiveness for the past?"
Thus would he speak to himself along that painful way; sometimes sore dismayed — and sometimes anticipating a happy outcome.
But did he once along that journey rise in imagination and thought, to the full truth? Did he ever catch a glimpse of that superabundance, that overflowing tide of kindness, tenderness, and love which soon after he experienced? Nay, methinks not. At least, this I know — none, until they taste it, ever rise to a full view of the wondrous pity, goodness, and grace of the great redeeming God! "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart" of the lost sinner — how rich and plenteous is the mercy in store for him as soon as ever he throws himself upon that Father's love.
Anxious sinner! will you not try it? Venture upon this bridge — it will surely bear you. None in vain have ever sought Him whose "tender mercies are over all His works." You shall never be disappointed! Is it not written, "You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy unto all those who call upon You"?
But let us leave the son for a while, and go in thought to the Father's house.
How does it happen that he sees him while as yet at so great a distance? Has he, like a pious Jew, gone upon the housetop for prayer and meditation? Is it too much to suppose that in his solitary prayer-hour he thinks, as he is accustomed, of his long-lost son — that he offers again the usual petition "Lord have mercy upon my son!"
And now from his watch-tower he espies a form yet far distant. As Elijah on Mount Carmel prays, and then sends his servant to look and see if there were the sign of coming rain, and at last the little cloud appears; in the same manner may we imagine it to have been with the father in the story. He now sees a form, and eagerly looks. "Can this be my son, my rebellious one, my Absalom? Has God heard my oft repeated cry? Surely it is none other than he! But lo, how changed!"
Then with quick and eager steps he descends — he leaves the house — he runs hastily, and before long has met his returning child!
No mention of the past, no word of chiding, no harsh reproof — shall wound the heart already smitten by the sorrow of self-reproach. Nay, a father's embrace, a father's love, a father's kiss shall be his!
Marvelous picture of the Divine compassion! No hand could have traced it, but that of the Only Begotten — the One who was Himself the very image of the Father! Divine love outstrips all our thoughts! Each syllable, each word here demands our deepest attention.
"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."
"Yet a great way." No distance is so great, but Divine love can bridge it over. Though you may, in your own thought, be as far from God as the north from the south — yet God may be close at hand. The publican stood afar off — yet God was near to hear and forgive. Manasseh was far away from Jerusalem and the temple, in a dungeon and in a heathen city — but God was near to hearken to his supplication. The message is sent, "Peace to him who is far off and to him who is near, says the Lord, and I will heal him." "The Lord is near to those who are of a broken heart, and saves such as are of a contrite spirit."
But in how many ways have we God's tender love set before us in this verse? Matthew Henry beautifully puts it:
"God has eyes of mercy — for the father saw the son;
He has a heart of mercy — for he had compassion;
He has feet of mercy — for he ran;
He has arms of mercy — for he embraced him;
He has lips of mercy — for he kissed him."
What a consolation it is, that God sees the desolate, broken-hearted sinner. He beholds with a most pitiful eye the outcast, the wretched, the fallen, the lost.
Pharaoh's Hebrew slaves were in a miserable case — yet "the Lord looked upon them and had respect unto them."
The Monarch of Israel was in sorrow and fear upon his bed of sickness, but the Lord said, "I have seen your tears."
The Nathanael was beneath the tree, no doubt in prayer or meditation, and Jesus said, "I saw you."
When the widow was carrying to the grave her only son, we are told that "the Lord saw her and had compassion on her."
Neither are you, sorrowing one, forgotten in your grief!
You may carry a burden of secret sorrow;
you may be feeling a desire after a new life;
you may be troubled and sad in the remembrance of a misspent life;
and you have no friend to whom you can go and ask counsel!
But believe it, your Father sees you. He saw you in the far country, in the hour of your darkest sin, and does He not see you now that you desire to arise and live to Him? Surely, He does! "Behold! the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear Him, upon those who hope in His mercy."
But God has also a heart of mercy. He has compassion. In spite of all your provocations, in spite of all your rebellion, your ingratitude, your hardness and impenitency — He is gracious still.
Has your sin caused Him forever to shut up His loving kindness in displeasure? Not so! Is the glorious sun yet exhausted of its cheering light? Is the wide ocean yet exhausted of its health-giving waters? Still less is the compassion of God sealed up. As ever, He is still full of compassion — abundant in goodness and truth.
And then, too, God has feet of mercy. It is not written that the father sat still in the house, and gave directions to the servants whether to receive the son or shut the door against him. Neither is it written that with quiet, measured step he went to meet him. Nay, he ran. He put forth speed. He trod quickly the long distance that intervened. What love is here!
God never runs to punish, for He is long suffering and slow to anger. He gave . . .
forty days to Nineveh;
one hundred and twenty years to the old world;
four hundred years to Canaan; and
three years plus one year over to the barren fig-tree.
And so with eager haste He runs to welcome the lost one. The Word is true: "Draw near to God — and He will draw near to you." For one step that you take Godward, and this too by His grace — He takes twenty steps towards you. The faintest desire, the feeblest effort, the trembling cry, "Lord, save me!" — how soon does He reward!
Oh, that men were as eager to seek after God — as He is to receive them when they come to Him! Oh, that there were more running in the ways of godliness, and in seeking after those that are perishing! Oh, what leaden feet have we in the ways of God's commandments — and what winged feet in the ways of sin!
What winged feet has God in the ways of mercy — and what leaden feet in His just retributions on the ungodly!
But, again, God has arms of mercy. The father embraced the son! Jesus gathers the lambs with His arms. He took the young children up in His arms and blessed them. O perishing one, your Father, your Savior, stretches out their arms of mercy to catch you from falling into the yawning precipice of eternal doom! Yes, and when you are safely welcomed there, those everlasting arms are your support forever! Let this be your trustful plea:
"A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,
On Your kind arms I fall!"
And once more, God has lips of mercy. When Joseph's brethren came into Egypt, they were troubled at his presence, and thought he would surely repay them the wrong they had done him. But we are told that he kissed them; and thus, one by one, their hearts were re-assured, and they could talk with him in peace. The kiss told them of the complete forgiveness of all that was past, and was better than a thousand words or promises. Thus does our Father welcome us.
When we accuse ourselves of sins past — He casts them all behind His back. He puts them as far away as the east is from the west. He remembers them no more. All our trespasses and iniquities are not so much as mentioned against us. Yes, thank God, He forgives all our countless iniquities freely, on account of Jesus' death. He blots them out of His book forever. He reckons them as fully put away, as if never committed.
Reader, sound if you can all the depths of love in this verse. Read it again and again. Bear in mind that it is to teach us of God's free love as a great reality.
I sent it once as a message to an elderly man who was fearful that his salvation was impossible. But this word gave him hope. He felt he was "a great way off," but he saw our merciful Father was near to save. He placed his trembling foot upon the Rock of Ages, and in utter rejection of all other hope than in God's mercy through a Savior's death — he passed from earth, I fully believe, into the Savior's presence.
How plainly does this word of Holy Scripture chide us for our unbelief, and reprove our hard thoughts of Him whose name is Love. He calls to the weary, wandering children of sin and sorrow. He invites them back to His shelter and His Fatherly protection. He bids them Welcome Home! Welcome Home!
You are yet tarrying in that far-off land. What can you find there but disappointment? What is there to be found in all your wanderings that can speak to your heart words of peace and hope? What can your sin give you, but its wages — shame and death and damnation? What can your companions give you that shall repay you for the loss of all that is high and holy and good? What can your days of self-indulgence yield you — but useless regrets and empty sighs when all are passed?
But God says to you, Welcome home! He sends you a message in that distant land. He sends me by this little book, to tell you to return and tarry not. Wait not until your substance is all wasted, until your companions have all forsaken you, until you have tasted more of the bitterness that evil will bring you — but come back now! You have already grieved Him too long. You have already wrought yourself much harm. But come home! An open door invites you. A joyful welcome shall be yours!
Welcome Home backslider, who has known in days past, the rest and comfort of your Father's house. Now you are forlorn and hopeless. Prayer has been neglected, temptation to some besetting sin has proved too strong for you, an old friend has beguiled you to turn away from your Heavenly Friend — and now a moment's reflection awakens thoughts that you would flee from if you could. Nay, but listen to them; and as you listen and think — see that Father so lovingly waiting to restore you, beckoning to you to return, promising you all possible grace and love and help.
See your Savior too, standing by and repeating the call. "Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "O Israel, return unto the Lord your God, for you have fallen by your iniquity. I will heal your backslidings, I will love you freely." Surely such mercy as this should win your heart for God.
Welcome Home! You trembling, fearful one, who are afraid to venture or to test your Father's compassion. Stay not by the cliffs of Sinai, stay not along the road from the city of destruction — but make haste and delay not. Nothing stands in your way but unbelief.
Your heart may be hard — but there is One who can soften it.
Your burden may be heavy — but there is One who can remove it.
Your wounds may be deadly — but there is One who can pour in the oil and wine of His grace.
Your spirit may be fainting — but there is One who can revive it.
Your soul may be guilty and polluted — but there is One who can cleanse it from all its defilement!
Welcome to your Father's house!
Welcome to the open fountain which can wash away your guilt!
Welcome to the mercy-seat where every prayer shall be heard!
Welcome to the feast of heavenly love!
Welcome now to joy and rest and hope!
Welcome hereafter to the mansions prepared for God's people!
Sinner will you not accept the call? Surely you will!
Unbelief says: "O Lord, I dare not approach You, for You are just and holy, and I am too sinful, too guilty to hope for Your forgiveness."
A blind superstition says: "O Lord, I dare not approach You in Your solemn greatness. I will come to You under the shield of a priest, or of Mary; I will first in the Confessional hear the absolving word — and then perchance I may find mercy and acceptance at Your hands."
But faith accepts God's words and says: "O Lord, I thank You that I may come straight to You in my Savior's name. Through Him, you have opened wide Your mercy-gate to each sinful and erring one. Sinner though I am — yet am I welcome to Your love. You will receive me. You will bless me. You will heal all my backslidings. You will embrace me with the arms of Your mercy — and Your favor shall be my everlasting inheritance."
Poor long-lost wanderer, home!
With all your bitter tears,
Your heavy burdens, come!
As you are, all sin and pain,
Fear not to implore in vain:
See, the Father comes to meet you,
Points to mercy's open door,
Words of life and promise greet you,
Oh, return! delay no more!
From strife and tumult vain
To quiet solitude —
To silent thought again.
There the storms shall sink to rest,
Which now desolate your breast;
There the Spirit, long neglected,
Waits with bliss before unknown,
And the Savior, long rejected,
Claims and seals you for His own.
From all your crooked ways:
Jesus will save the lost —
The fallen He can raise.
Look to Him, who beckons thee
From the cross so lovingly.
See His gracious arms extended;
Fear not to seek shelter there
Where no grief is unbefriended,
Where no sinner need despair.
To your long-suffering Lord;
Fear not to seek His grace,
To trust His faithful Word;
Yield to Him your weary heart,
He can heal its keenest smart,
He can soothe the deepest sorrow,
Wash the blackest guilt away;
Then delay not until tomorrow:
Seek His offered gifts today.
From all your wanderings, home!
From vanity and toil,
To rest and substance, come!
Come to truth, from error's night,
Come from darkness, unto light,
Come from death, to life undying,
From a fallen earth, to Heaven:
Now the accepted time is flying,
Haste to take what God has given!