THE THREE PARABLES OF THE GOSPEL: OF THE RECOVERY OF THE LOST
OF THE LOST SHEEP, THE LOST DRACHM, THE LOST SON
A SIMPLE perusal of the three Parables, grouped together in the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, will convince us of their connection. Although they treat of ‘repentance,’ we can scarcely call them ‘The Parables of Repentance;’ for, except in the last of them, the aspect of repentance is subordinate to that of restoration, which is the moral effect of repentance. They are rather peculiarly Gospel-Parables ‘of the recovery of the lost:’ in the first instance, through the unwearied labour; in the second, through the anxious care, of the owner; and in the third Parable, through the never-ceasing love of the Father.
Properly to understand these Parables, the circumstance which elicited them must be kept in view. As Jesus preached the Gospel of God’s call, not to those who had, as they imagined, prepared themselves for the Kingdom by study and good works, but as that to a door open, and a welcome free to all, ‘all the publicans and sinners were [constantly] drawing near to Him.’ It has formerly been shown, 1 that the Jewish teaching concerning repentance was quite other than, nay, contrary to, that of Christ. Theirs was not a Gospel to the lost: they had nothing to say to sinners. They called upon them to ‘do penitence,’ and then Divine Mercy, or rather Justice, would have its reward for the penitent. Christ’s Gospel was to the lost as such. It told them of forgiveness, of what the Saviour was doing, and the Father purposed and felt for them; and that, not in the future and as reward of their penitence, but now in the immediate present. From what we know of the Pharisees, we can scarcely wonder that ‘they were murmuring at Him, saying, This man receiveth “sinners,” and eateth with them.’ Whether or not Christ had on this, as on other occasions, 2 joined at a meal with such persons – which, of course, in the eyes of the Pharisees would have been a great aggravation to His offence – their charge was so far true, that ‘this One,’ in contrariety to the principles and practice of Rabbinism, ‘received sinners’ as such, and consorted with them. Nay, there was even more than they charged Him with: He not only received them when they sought Him, but He sought them, so as to bring them to Him; not, indeed, that they might remain ‘sinners,’ but that, by seeking and finding them, they might be restored to the Kingdom, and there might be joy in heaven over them. And so these are truly Gospel-Parables, although presenting only some aspects of it.
Besides their subject-matter, these three Parables have some other points in common. Two things are here of chief interest. They all proceed on the view that the work of the Father and of Christ, as regards ‘the Kingdom,’ is the same; that Christ was doing the work of the Father, and that they who know Christ know the Father also. That work was the restoration of the lost; Christ had come to do it, and it was the longing of the Father to welcome the lost home again. Further, and this is only second in importance, the lost was still God’s property; and he who had wandered farthest was a child of the Father, and considered as such. And, although this may, in a wider sense, imply the general propriety of Christ in all men, and the universal Fatherhood of God, yet, remembering that this Parable was spoken to Jews, we, to whom these Parables now come, can scarcely be wrong in thinking, as we read them, with special thankfulness of our Christian privileges, as by Baptism numbered among the sheep of His Flock, the treasure of His Possession, and the children of His Home.
In other particulars there are, however, differences, all the more marked that they are so finely shaded. These concern the lost, their restoration, and its results.
Other differences have to be marked in the Parables themselves. In the first Parable (that of the Lost Sheep) the main interest centres in the lost; in the second (that of the Lost Drachm), in the search; in the third, in the restoration. And although in the third Parable the Pharisees are not addressed, there is the highest personal application to them in the words which the Father speaks to the elder son – an application, not so much of warning, as of loving correction and entreaty, and which seems to imply, what otherwise these Parables convey, that at least these Pharisees had ‘murmured,’ not so much from bitter hostility to Christ, as from spiritual ignorance and misunderstanding.
Again, these Parables, and especially that of the Lost Sheep, are evidently connected with the preceding series, that ‘of warnings.’ The last of these showed how the poor, the blind, lame, and maimed, nay, even the wanderers on the world’s highway, were to be the guests at the heavenly Feast. And this, not only in the future, and after long and laborious preparation, but now, through the agency of the Saviour. As previously stated, Rabbinism placed acceptance at the end of repentance, and made it its wages. And this, because it knew not, nor felt the power of sin, nor yet the free grace of God. The Gospel places acceptance at the beginning of repentance, and as the free gift of God’s love. And this, because it not only knows the power of sin, but points to a Saviour, provided of God.
The Lost Sheep is only one among a hundred: not a very great loss. Yet which among us would not, even from the common motives of ownership, leave the ninety-and-nine, and go after it, all the more that it has strayed into the wilderness? And, to take these Pharisees on their own ground, 7 should not the
Christ have done likewise to the straying and almost lost sheep of His own flock? Nay, quite generally and to all time, is this not the very work of the ‘Good Shepherd,’ and may we not, each of us, thus draw from it precious comfort? As we think of it, we remember that it is natural for the foolish sheep so to wander and stray. And we think not only of those sheep which Jewish pride and superciliousness had left to go astray, but of our own natural tendency to wander. And we recall the saying of St. Peter, which, no doubt, looked back upon this Parable: ‘Ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.’ It is not difficult in imagination to follow the Parabolic picture: how in its folly and ignorance the sheep strayed further and further, and at last was lost in solitude and among stony places; how the shepherd followed and found it, weary and footsore; and then with tender care lifted it on his shoulder, and carried it home, gladsome that he had found the lost. And not only this, but when, after long absence, he returned home with his found sheep, that now nestled close to its Saviour, he called together his friends, and bade them rejoice with him over the erst lost and now found treasure.
It needs not, and would only diminish the pathos of this exquisite Parable, were we to attempt interpreting its details. They apply wherever and to whatever they can be applied. Of these three things we think: of the lost sheep; of the Good Shepherd, seeking, finding, bearing, rejoicing; and of the sympathy of all who are truly friends – like-minded with Him. These, then, are the emblems of heavenly things. In heaven – oh, how different the feeling from that of Pharisaism! View ‘the flock’ as do the Pharisees, and divide them into those who need and who need not repentance, the ‘sinners’ and the ‘righteous,’ as regards man’s application of the Law – does not this Parable teach us that in heaven there shall be joy over the ‘sinner that repenteth’ more than over the ‘ninety-and-nine’ ‘righteous,’ which ‘have not need of repentance’? And to mark the terrible contrast between the teaching of Christ and that of the Pharisees; to mark also, how directly from heaven must have been the message of Jesus, and how poor sinners must have felt it such, we put down in all its nakedness the message which Pharisaism brought to the lost. Christ said to them: ‘There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.’ Pharisaism said – and we quote here literally – ‘There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.’
We repeat, the interest of this Parable centres in the search, and the loss is caused, not by natural tendency, but by surrounding circumstances, which cover up the bright silver, hide it, and render it useless as regards its purpose, and lost to its owner.
To complete these notes, it may be added that, besides illustrations, to which reference will be made in the sequel, Rabbinic tradition supplies a parallel to at least part of the third Parable, that of the Lost Son. It tells us that, while prayer may sometimes find the gate of access closed, it is never shut against repentance, and it introduces a Parable in which a king sends a tutor after his son, who, in his wickedness, had left the palace, with this message: ‘Return, my son!’ to which the latter replied: ‘With what face can I return? I am ashamed!’ On which the father sends this message: ‘My son, is there a son who is ashamed to return to his father – and shalt thou not return to thy father? Thou shalt return.’ So, continues the Midrash, had God sent Jeremiah after Israel in the hour of their sin with the call to return, 18 and the comforting reminder that it was to their Father.
In the Parable of ‘the Lost Son,’ the main interest centres in his restoration. It is not now to the innate tendency of his nature, nor yet to the work and dust in the house that the loss is attributable, but to the personal, free choice of the individual. He does not stray; he does not fall aside – he wilfully departs, and under aggravated circumstances. It is the younger of two sons of a father, who is equally loving to both, and kind even to his hired servants, whose home, moreover, is one not only of sufficiency, but of superabundance and wealth. The demand which he makes for the ‘portion of property falling’ to him is founded on the Jewish Law of Inheritance. 20 Presumably, the father had only these two sons. The eldest would receive two portions, the younger the third of all movable property. The father could not have disinherited the younger son, although, if there had been several younger sons, he might have divided the property falling to them as he wished, provided he expressed only his disposition, and did not add that such or such of the children were to have a less share or none at all. On the other hand, a man might, during his lifetime, dispose of all his property by gift, as he chose, to the disadvantage, or even the total loss, of the first-born, or of any other children; nay, he might give all to strangers. In such cases, as, indeed, in regard to all such dispositions, greater latitude was allowed if the donor was regarded as dangerously ill, than if he was in good health. In the latter case a legal formality of actual seizure required to be gone through. With reference to the two eventualities just mentioned – that of diminishing or taking away the portion of younger children, and the right of gift – the Talmud speaks of Testaments, which bear the name, as in the New Testament. These dispositions might be made either in writing or orally. But if the share of younger children was to be diminished or taken away, the disposition must be made by a person presumably near death. But no one in good health (Bari) could diminish (except by gift) the legal portion of a younger son.
It thus appears that the younger son was, by law, fully entitled to his share of the possessions, although, of course, he had no right to claim it during the lifetime of his father. That he did so, might have been due to the feeling that, after all, he must make his own way in the world; to dislike of the order and discipline of his home; to estrangement from his elder brother; or, most likely, to a desire for liberty and enjoyment, with the latent belief that he would succeed well enough if left to himself. At any rate, his conduct, whatever his motives, was most heartless as regarded his father, and sinful as before God. Such a disposition could not prosper. The father had yielded to his demand, and, to be as free as possible from control and restraint, the younger son had gone into a far country. There the natural sequences soon appeared, and his property was wasted in riotous living. Regarding the demand for his inheritance as only a secondary trait in the Parable, designed, on the one hand, more forcibly to bring out the guilt of the son, and, on the other, the goodness, and afterwards the forgiveness, of the Father, we can scarcely doubt that by the younger son we are to understand those ‘publicans and sinners’ against whose reception by, and fellowship with, Christ the Pharisees had murmured.
The next scene in the history is misunderstood when the objection is raised, that the young man’s misery is there represented as the result of Providential circumstances rather than of his own misdoing. To begin with, he would not have been driven to such straits in the famine, if he had not wasted his substance with riotous living. Again, the main object is to show, that absolute liberty and indulgence of sinful desires and passions ended in anything but happiness. The Providence of God had an important part in this. Far more frequently are folly and sin punished in the ordinary course of Providence than by special judgments. Indeed, it is contrary to the teaching of Christ, 25 and it would lead to an unmoral view of life, to regard such direct interpositions as necessary, or to substitute them for the ordinary government of God. Similarly, for our awakening also we are frequently indebted to what is called the Providence, but what is really the manifold working together of the grace, of God. And so we find special meaning in the occurrence of this famine. That, in his want, ‘he clave to one of the citizens of that country,’ seems to indicate that the man had been unwilling to engage the dissipated young stranger, and only yielded to his desperate importunity. This also explains how he employed him in the lowest menial service, that of feeding swine. To a Jew, there was more than degradation in this, since the keeping of swine (although perhaps the ownership rather than the feeding) was prohibited to Israelites under a curse. And even in this demeaning service he was so evil entreated, that for very hunger he would fain have ‘filled his belly with the carob-pods that the swine did eat.’ But here the same harshness, which had sent him to such employment, met him on the part of all the people of that country: ‘and no man gave unto him,’ even sufficient of such food. What perhaps gives additional meaning to this description is the Jewish saying: ‘When Israel is reduced to the carob-tree, they become repentant.’
It was this pressure of extreme want which first showed to the younger son the contrast between the country and the circumstances to which his sin had brought him, and the plentiful provision of the home he had left, and the kindness which provided bread enough and to spare for even the hired servants. There was only a step between what he said, ‘having come into himself,’ and his resolve to return, though its felt difficulty seems implied in the expression: ‘I will arise.’ Nor would he go back with the hope of being reinstated in his position as son, seeing he had already received, and wasted in sin, his portion of the patrimony. All he sought was to be made as one of the hired servants. And, alike from true feeling, and to show that this was all his pretence, he would preface his request by the confession, that he had sinned ‘against heaven’ – a frequent Hebraism for ‘against God’ 31 – and in the sight of his father, and hence could no longer lay claim to the name of son. The provision of the son he had, as stated, already spent, the name he no longer deserved. This favour only would he seek, to be as a hired servant in his father’s house, instead of in that terrible, strange land of famine and harshness.
But the result was far other than he could have expected. When we read that, ‘while he was yet afar off, his father saw him,’ we must evidently understand it in the sense, that his father had been always on the outlook for him, an impression which is strengthened by the later command to the servants to ‘bring the calf, the fatted one,’ 32 as if it had been specially fattened against his return. As he now saw him, ‘he was moved with compassion, and he ran, and he fell on his neck, and covered him with kisses.’ 33 Such a reception rendered the purposed request, to be made as one of the hired servants, impossible – and its spurious insertion in the text of some important manuscripts 34 affords sad evidence of the want of spiritual tact and insight of early copyists. The father’s love had anticipated his confession, and rendered its self-spoken sentence of condemnation impossible. ‘Perfect love casteth out fear,’ and the hard thoughts concerning himself and his deserts on the part of the returning sinner were banished by the love of the father. And so he only made confession of his sin and wrong – not now as preface to the request to be taken in as a servant, but as the outgoing of a humbled, grateful, truly penitent heart. Him whom want had humbled, thought had brought to himself, and mingled need and hope led a suppliant servant – the love of a father, which anticipated his confession, and did not even speak the words of pardon, conquered, and so morally begat him a second time as his son. Here it deserves special notice, as marking the absolute contrast between the teaching of Christ and Rabbinism, that we have in one of the oldest Rabbinic works 35 a Parable exactly the reverse of this, when the son of a friend is redeemed from bondage, not as a son, but to be a slave, that so obedience might be demanded of him. The inference drawn is, that the obedience of the redeemed is not that of filial love of pardoned, but the enforcement of the claim of a master. How otherwise in the Parable and teaching of Christ!
But even so the story of love has not come to an end. They have reached the house. And now the father would not only restore the son, but convey to him the evidence of it, and he would do so before, and by the servants. The three tokens of wealth and position are to be furnished him. ‘Quickly’ the servants are to bring forth the ‘stola,’ the upper garment of the higher classes, and that ‘the first’ – the best, and this instead of the tattered, coarse raiment of the foreign swineherd. Similarly, the finger-ring for his hand, and the sandals for his unshod feet, would indicate the son of the house. And to mark this still further, the servants were not only to bring these articles, but themselves to ‘put them on’ the son, so as thereby to own his mastership. And yet further, the calf, ‘the fatted one’ for this very occasion, was to be killed, and there was to be a joyous feast, for ‘this’ his son ‘was dead, and is come to life again; was lost, and is found.’
Thus far for the reception of ‘publicans and sinners,’ and all in every time whom it may concern. Now for the other aspect of the history. While this was going on, so continues the Parable, the elder brother was still in the field. On his return home, he inquired of a servant the reason of the festivities which he heard within the house. Informed that his younger brother had come, and the calf long prepared against a feast had been killed, because his father had recovered him ‘safe and sound,’ he was angry, would not go in, and even refused the request to that effect of the father, who had come out for the purpose. The harsh words of reproach with which he set forth his own apparent wrongs could have only one meaning: his father had never rewarded him for his services. On the other hand, as soon as ‘this’ his ‘son’ – whom he will not even call his brother – had come back, notwithstanding all his disservice, he had made a feast of joy!
But in this very thing lay the error of the elder son, and – to apply it – the fatal mistake of Pharisaism. The elder son regarded all as of merit and reward, as work and return. But it is not so. We mark, first, that the same tenderness which had welcomed the returning son, now met the elder brother. He spoke to the angry man, not in the language of merited reproof, but addressed him lovingly as ‘son,’ and reasoned with him. And then, when he had shown him his wrong, he would fain recall him to better feeling by telling him of the other as his ‘brother.’ But the main point is this. There can be here no question of desert. So long as the son is in His Father’s house He gives in His great goodness to His child all that is the Father’s. But this poor lost one – still a son and a brother – he has not got any reward, only been taken back again by a Father’s love, when he had come back to Him in the deep misery of his felt need. This son, or rather, as the other should view him, this ‘brother,’ had been dead, and was come to life again; lost, and was found. And over this ‘it was meet to make merry and be glad,’ not to murmur. Such murmuring came from thoughts of work and pay – wrong in themselves, and foreign to the proper idea of Father and son; such joy, from a Father’s heart. The elder brother’s were the thoughts of a servant: of service and return; the younger brother’s was the welcome of a son in the mercy and everlasting love of a Father. And this to us, and to all time!