By J.R. Miller
The world would be very much poorer--if the fifteenth chapter of Luke's gospel had not been written. The whole chapter should be studied carefully. It is rich in spiritual instruction. It is all about seeking and finding lost things. Publicans and sinners flocked to Jesus, and He received them graciously and kindly. His enemies, however, found fault with Him for being so friendly to these outcast classes. They sought to put social defamation upon Him, by saying that He was the friend of publicans and sinners. The parables of this chapter are Christ's answer to this criticism. He did not deny the charge. He did not apologize for what He had done. He said that this was the purpose of His life. His mission was to the lost--it was to save such that He came into the world.
The picture of the shepherd--seeking, finding, then bearing back on his shoulder his lost SHEEP--gives us a glimpse of the wonderful depths of love in the heart of Christ.
The second parable tells of a lost COIN for which the owner searches with lighted candle and broom until she finds it. A coin bears the image of the king and represents the human soul on which God's likeness is imprinted.
The third parable tells of a lost BOY. The trouble began in the boy's discontent. His home was happy--but into this paradise, sin crept. He became restless, discontented. His father's authority irked him. He began to have dreams of freedom. He would like to be out in the world--away from all restraint. So he demanded his portion.
That is where sin begins. A man wants to have his own way, without regard to the divine will. The father "divided his property between them." He yielded to the son's demand for his portion. This may seem strange. Why did not the father refuse the son's unreasonable request? God does not refuse the demands we make upon Him.
The story moves swiftly. "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, and set off for his journey to a far country." From many a home door, young men have gone forth to begin a noble career--brave knights to redress wrong; heroic soldiers to fight for country; missionaries to carry the gospel to darkened lands. Then the departure was honorable. But this prodigal's going forth was to sin, shame, dishonor and wretchedness.
Mark the haste. It was not many days after he had demanded his portion--when we see him on his way to the far country. Sin's course is swift! When a man has broken away from God's control, he is eager to leave God's presence. Our first parents, after they had sinned, hid themselves from God among the trees. When you have done wrong to a friend--you dread to meet him. Sin makes us ashamed to look into God's face. The prodigal could not now endure his father's loving presence, and quickly went away.
The story of sin is always the same--a story of degradation and ruin. In the far country, the prodigal wasted his substance with riotous living. His money was soon gone. But money is not all of a man's "substance." Indeed, money is really not substance at all. It is the most uncertain and unsubstantial thing a man has. Life is substance. Character is substance. Noble manhood is substance. An artist bought a piece of canvas for a few cents. He then put a picture upon it--an immortal creation--and it was sold for more than a hundred thousand dollars. God put His own image on the soul of man, and now a human life is priceless.
Thus we have hints of the meaning of the "substance" which the prodigal wasted. If money were all a man wasted when he plunges into a sinful life--it would be a small matter. Men often lose money, and are still as rich as ever, because virtue is left, character is left. But when one goes into sin, though his money remains, thought he is still a millionaire, he has wasted that which is worth infinitely more than money--God's blessed, infinite gift of life.
After waste--came want. "When he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that country." In the famine, the boy found himself without friends. It is a pathetic record which says that in his dire need, he went and "he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs." He hired himself out. He had made no friends in the far country. He had spent his money there, in banquets and revels and social dissipations, in which evil companions had shared. But now, when he had no money, and was in need--he had no friends. Sin does not bind bonds of affection between human lives. Sinning together, does not make people friends. A man spends all he has at a saloon--but when he has no more to spend the saloon-keeper does not become his friend and take him into his house as a brother, to shelter him and make a home for him.
So we see this young man, before a carefree and popular spendthrift; now feeding swine and longing "to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating!" This pictures the degradation to which sin drags down a man--who leaves God and chooses the evil way.
At last hope dawned. "He came to himself." He had been beside himself in the sad days of his sinning. When a man stops in his evil course, repents, and becomes a Christian, his old companions say, "The man is crazy." But the truth is he was crazy before, and now he is in his right mind--he has come to himself. Sin is insanity; piety is saneness.
Wonderful is the influence of home. It was a vision of home that first flashed its divine light upon the prodigal's soul. He said, "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare!" As he sat there watching the swine and famishing, there came back to him a memory of the days of innocence and plenty in his father's house. Many a man has been saved far on in his years, by such a memory. The old home tugs at our hearts, no matter where we wander. The child of sin who has wasted all her beauty in evil, when the hectic flush comes on her cheeks and the ominous cough racks her body--creeps back home to die in her mother's bosom.
The soul's true home is in God. That is where we all belong. In our childhood life, heaven lies about us. This is a world of sin, and we are fallen creatures--but there are in us fragments of the defaced image of God--gleams of tenderness, flashes of nobleness, pulsings of good feeling, longings for better things, and visions of purity--which tell of an origin above this world. It is a blessed moment when one living in sin, there comes a vision of the love of God and of holiness. Home is the one place in this world, whose door is never shut in a man's face, howsoever evil he has made himself.
Quickly the young man made up his mind. "I will arise and go to my father!" The glimpse which memory had given him of the home, bright with love and joy, while he was wasting his life in wretchedness, was enough. He saw in a vision, his father's house, and beaming there in the doorway he saw the face which had looked into his the morning he came away, with love and yearning. Even the servants in that home had enough and to spare. Relentlessly, the old home drew on his heart.
Many people resolve to do right, and then take no steps toward the doing of it. This young man, however, carried out his good resolve at once. It was not easy to return home. He had gone away rich, well-dressed, happy, and proud; he must go back stripped of all, a poor filthy beggar, with penitence and confession. But he did not hesitate. He was too much in earnest to think of the cost of his repentance.
One of the most beautiful pictures of this story, is the picture it gives of the father. "When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him." Evidently he had been watching for his boy. That is a way fathers have--mothers too. No matter where the child may wander, the loved ones at home never forget him. I knew a home from which a boy had been gone for twenty-seven years. Not a word had come from him during that time. Yet not a night passed but the widowed mother sat at the window, hour after hour, watching the street that went by the door, hoping that she might see her lost son returning.
And at last one night he came.
Just so, God watches for the beginnings of repentance. We have not to trudge all the way back and knock at the door to get God's attention, when we desire to return to Him. He sees the penitent afar off. And that was not all. This father "ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." Every word here has a volume of meaning in it. Let your heart interpret it. The father saw his son in rags, in ruin, and his heart broke. Then he "ran." How glad he was to see his boy returning home! How glad God is to see His child returning!
The son began his confession--a confession he had studied out carefully before he left the far country. He did not ask to be received back as a son--but only as one of the hired servants. Did his father take him at his word and give him a place among the servants? No! He took him back into a son's position. The ring, the robe, the shoes, were all tokens of honor. Then a feast was made. All this is an expression of the love of God for His children, who come back to Him in penitence, even from their farthest wanderings!
There is one thing we must not overlook in studying this story. It must not be forgotten that, though God forgives and restores; the prodigal never can be as he would have been--if he had not gone to the far country. Sin is a terrible thing!
"Are you afraid to die?" asked a visitor of a man who lay on his deathbed, one who had lived a prodigal's life, returning to Christ only in time to die. The man was now grieving, and his friend said to him, "Why, you are not afraid to die, are you?" "No," said the dying man, "I am not afraid to die; but I am ashamed to die. God has done so much for me--and I have done nothing at all for Him."