"Then drew near 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." Luke 15:1, 2.
It is a wonderfully blessed thing to have One (the thoughts, and words, and ways of One down here, in His actings amongst men) who could so well manifest God as the Lord Jesus.
We may look at the sin of man as a question to be judged of in the light of righteousness before God, and most important it is as such; still, in one sense, God moves above all the evil, and asserts His right to show out what He is. Blessed is it for us that God will be God, in spite of sin! "God is love," and if He will be God, He must be love; and that notwithstanding all the reasonings and murmurings of the heart of man against Him. God acts, so to speak, upon the feelings of His heart, and makes them find their way into the hearts of men. And that is just the reason there is such a freshness in the word - God never fails; the moment He speaks and reveals Himself we have always the full blessedness of what He is. It is Himself who has come forth, and that with power to our hearts, as the blessed God. He will take no character from man. If He has to deal with sin, to show what it is, how He has put it away, and the like, still, above and through all, He manifests Himself. And here it is our hearts get rest. We have the privilege to have done with ourselves in the blessedness of the house and bosom of God.
In a certain sense (for man could not have borne the manifestation of God in the brightness of glory) God hid Himself. He clothed Himself in flesh. But what was the effect of the wicked and heartless reasonings of man's corrupt judgment? - for man was ever rejecting, finding fault, and carping at certain things with which he could not agree in the ways of Christ - to force Christ back, pressing out from Him what He really was as God. The soul becomes arrested in reading chapters which exhibit this, it finds itself with unhesitating certainty in the presence of God, in the presence of Love. And there we get rest and peace.
Here (Luke 15) Jesus is forced to tell out all the truth. God will be God. If there is that which makes God "glad," He will have His own joy, spite of the objections of man. It is God's own joy to act in love. And this is just what man objects to. Man does not object to God's being righteous; he does not deny that God is going to judge (I speak not of the professed infidel): no, as a general principle, man does not object to the one or deny the other; but the moment God comes to have His own full joy, and to bring out that which is the joy of heaven, man objects, and says, "It must not be all grace!" "God must not deal with publicans and sinners thus!" And why not? Because, what then becomes of man's righteousness God dealing in grace makes nothing of man's righteousness - "there is no difference;" "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3) Christ manifesting light proved this; Pharisee and publican were alike detected; and man hated it. Grace deals with all men upon one common ground, that of being sinners; it levels their moral condition, and comes only to those who have need of it. (Luke 5:31, 32.) This man cannot bear; what he is always seeking to do is, to make a difference between righteousness and unrighteousness in man, so that himself may have a certain character before others. Slighting God's righteousness, and magnifying our own, always go together.
In John 8 we find one brought by the scribes and Pharisees before Jesus, who, judged according to the law, was worthy of death, one undeniably guilty; that Jesus might be obliged to deny either mercy or righteousness. This was their motive. They thought to place Him in an inextricable difficulty. If He let her sin pass unnoticed, He would break the law of Moses; and, again, should He say, "Let her be stoned," it would be no more than Moses had done. How does He act? He lets law and righteousness have all their course, but tells her accusers at the same time, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." Conscience begins to act (not rightly, it is true, for their character was what they cared about), and they get out of the presence of light, because light makes manifest, and proves them sinners. "Beginning at the eldest even to the youngest," all went out (he that had the longest reputation glad to be the first from before that eye which could penetrate and detect what there was within), "and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst." He will not execute the law. No. "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more." That which is produced is only Love. Whenever one stood before Him, or had anything to do with Him as a detected and confessed sinner, it was always grace, and all grace. The more the discovered sin, the more grace was revealed, free and unqualified.
In all the parables of this chapter, put forth by Jesus because grace had been objected to, in His dealings with "publicans and sinners," we get this one great and blessed thought - God manifested.
"I will suppose," He says, "a man reduced to the worst, the vilest possible condition, as bad as you please; but then there is something still behind all this that I am going to bring out something, too, which even your own natural hearts ought to recognize - the father's delight in receiving back his child. Would not a father's heart justify itself in its own feelings of kindness, let the condition of the child be what it may?"
After the Lord Jesus Himself had gone through this world, and found no place where a really broken heart could rest, He could find proud morality enough, but no place where a poor, weary, broken heart could find sympathy and rest; He comes to tell us that what was not to be found for man elsewhere, could be found in God. And this is so blessed! So blessed, that, after all, a poor wearied heart, wearied with itself, with its own ways, with the world, with every thing, can find rest in the bosom of the Father. What it could do in no other place, it can do there - tell itself out, and that in truthfulness. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile." (Ps. 32) So long as I am afraid of being blamed for what may be discovered, there will be guile in the heart; but the moment I know it forgiven, that nothing but love is drawn out by it, I can go and tell all to God. The only thing that produces "truth in the inward parts," is the grace that imputes nothing. That is the secret of God's power in setting hearts right with Himself - "there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared." There is all the difference possible between a man's flying from God by reason of his conscience, and his finding in God the One who says, "neither do I condemn thee."
The first parable is that of the shepherd who sought the lost sheep.
The second, that of the woman who sought the lost piece of money.
The third, the father's reception of the returning prodigal.
The last is not a question of seeking at all, but of the manner of the father's receiving the son when he had come back. And this is of much importance. Our souls need to understand it aright, as well as to know the great cardinal truth, that God seeks the lost. One principle runs through all the parables - God is acting upon His own character. No doubt it is joy to the sinner to be received, but it is the joy of God to receive him. "It is meet that we should make merry, and be glad;" not merely meet that the child should be glad to be back again in the house; the father is the happy one. The return of the prodigal is joy to heaven, whatever men, whatever Pharisees may think about it.
It is something wonderfully lovely to be let into heaven in this way, and that, too, by One who knew heaven so well. The chord which God strikes, heaven responds to and reechoes, and so must every heart down here that is tuned by grace. What discord is there in self-righteousness! Jesus tells forth the joy and grace of God, the joy of heaven, but puts all this in contrast with the feelings of the elder brother - those of any self-righteous person.
It is this note, sounded from heaven in love, that we read in the heart and ways of Jesus down here. "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." And oh, how sweet a note! On earth, astonishing; in heaven, natural. Here, on earth, amongst us, God has manifested what He is, "which things the angels desire to look into." (1 Peter 1)
1. The first thing the Lord Jesus does, is to justify God in being good to sinners. He appeals at once to the natural heart of man. "What man of you, having an hundred sheep," etc. (v. 4.) "The shepherd puts his sheep upon his shoulders, and brings it home rejoicing; have I not a right to seek the 'lost'?" is it not right for God to come amongst "publicans and sinners"? This may not suit a moral man, but it suits God; it is His privilege to come amongst sin, near to the sinner, because He can deliver. The shepherd puts his sheep upon his shoulder, he goes out to seek it - charges himself with it - takes the whole toil of it (it is his interest to do so because he values the sheep), and he brings it home again rejoicing. Thus He presents the shepherd here. And thus is it with the "great Shepherd of the sheep." It is His interest to "seek and to save that which was lost" (He ever makes it His interest, in the sense of love), the sheep is His own, and He brings it home rejoicing, bidding others to rejoice with Him - "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost." "I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance."
But how does He set about it? We tell people sometimes to seek Christ, and rightly so in one sense; it is quite true, "he that seeketh findeth;" but Jesus did not say, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," until He had first come Himself to "seek and to save." Because the sinner could not go to heaven to seek Christ, Christ came to earth to seek the sinner. He did not say to the poor leper, "Come up to heaven, and be thou clean;" but came down to the leper in all his need to make him clean. Had any other laid his hand upon the leper, he would have become unclean. Christ alone could touch the power of evil, and have no contamination. "Come unto me; rest is not to be found here, any more than it was by Noah's dove amidst the deluge; I have tried the world all through, and it is a sea of evil without a shore."
2. We see another thing in this second parable (vv. 8-10) - the painstaking of the love, eager diligence with the determination to succeed in seeking the sinner. Every thing is done to get the money; the woman lights the candle, sweeps the house, nor stops in her task of love - diligent, active love, until the piece is found. It was her interest to do this, because the money was hers. Then again there is the joy in the recovered possession, her own joy and the tone given to others, who are called in to have communion with her. And this, too, is the way of the Lord in His dealings with "that which is lost." There is the patient activity of love, in the use of means, by the Holy Spirit, until the effect is produced. And "likewise," Jesus adds, "I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."
In both parables we get the absolute actings of grace, without any reference to the effect in the heart of the sinner; and in both this great principle (common, as noticed before, to the three), God's own joy in love. Thus the result of man's pharisaic objection to grace was but the bringing out of the declaration by Jesus of the energetic power and activities of divine love, as well as the good-will. The piece of money, as the sheep, could do nothing: it was their joy, who had lost, to get them back again, because they value them. Worth nothing in a certain sense, but to God's love the sinner is immensely valuable.
At the same time there is a most important work, an effect, produced in the heart of the one who, having gone astray, is brought back. On this account we have a third parable, which shows us the feelings of the wanderer, and, further, the manner of his reception. The father's heart and the prodigal's are both laid open. Not only are the inward workings of the former told out, but we have in addition the manifestation of the latter. In a word, it is not the estimate formed by the prodigal about the love of the father's heart that gives the answer to all his thoughts; but the manifestation of his own heart by the father. This one simple fact, the father is on his neck kissing him, tells the prodigal what that heart is.
3. In this the last of the three parables the Lord pursues the sinner to his utmost degradation - eating husks with the swine, (and we should remember here what swine were in the estimate of those to whom He spoke) - there, too, of his own choice. Why was the picture drawn thus? To show that nothing could put the sinner beyond the reach of grace. Trace it as far as you please, God will act as God at the end of the story. "Where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded."
Let us look a little at the case in detail. "A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country." (vv. 11-13.) This is just our history, as men. Whether living in vice or not, we have all turned our back on God. The son here was happier far, as a man, when going from home, than when returning; he was doing his own will. This is the secret of all sin. The prodigal was as completely a sinner when he stepped, rich, across his father's threshold, as when feeding with swine in the "far country."
He had chosen to act independently. The fruits of this, it is true, were reaped afterwards; but that is not the question. Nay, in one sense, the very consequences of his sin were mercies, because through them he was brought to find out his sin. (v. 18). When he first left the house, he showed where his heart was - alienated, revolted, gone; his back was turned upon his father and his father's house, and his face was towards the "far country." He went forth to do his own will. A parent's heart will understand that. Our children sin against us, and we feel it; but we sin against God, and feel it not. We are all of us in that sense, children that "have turned every one to his own way."
"And there" (having reached the far country), he went on gaily in his own will as long as he could, he "spent his substance in riotous living." (v. 13.) The sinner, if he thinks himself quite happy, does so, because he has got at a distance from God, where he has no restraint upon his will. But then, after all, he is in the devil's country, and enslaved to him. Liberty of will is just slavery to the devil.
"And when he had spent all" (any one who lives beyond his means looks rich for a time), "there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want." (v. 14.) He "began to be in want;" but his will was not touched yet, as we shall see directly. There is many a heart not easy in the world; but it is never the effect of that merely, to bring back to God. Very few have arrived at a certain time of life who have not "begun to be in want;" but then they go and seek in pleasure or in vice, in one thing or another, it matters not what - last of all, in God, something to satisfy them. A man of the world says, you must have every thing that is in the world, in order to know that the world can never satisfy you; but the knowledge that all the world cannot satisfy would never turn a man to God. He must know more, even that he is perishing; not merely not satisfied, but ruined.
Being "in want," the prodigal next "joined himself to a citizen of that country," and was sent by him into the fields to "feed swine:" he was reduced to all this degradation - manifestly a servant of the devil; "and he would fain have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat: but no man gave unto him." (vv. 15, 16.) There is no giving in the "far country," not even of "husks;" you must buy everything. The world's principle is, "nothing for nothing;" "everything must bring its price." Your gratifications there must be purchased at the sacrifice of reputation and soul.
After a time we find this young man "came to himself." (v. 17.) He awoke to the consciousness, "I perish with hunger;" and then it was he thought of the "father's house," the very place that he had been so anxious to get away from at first. He did not yet understand how he would be received there; but he did understand there was love in that house, that the very "hired servants" had "enough and to spare;" and he did understand also that he was not only hungry, but "perishing with hunger." He wanted the goodness of that house; his was no mere abstract delighting in it. Wisdom and philosophy never found out God; He makes Himself known to us through our need - necessity finds Him out. Who is it that really discovers the value of bread? - the chemist? No, a hungry man. The sinner's heart - yes, and the saint's heart too, is put in its right place in this way. I doubt much if we have ever learnt anything solidly, except we have learnt it thus.
"I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." (vv. 18, 19.) He knew that there was goodness there, and that it was all over with him where he was; the need of his condition, everything, told him he must get back; but he did not yet know the extent of that goodness. We see the same thing in Peter (Luke 5); he goes and falls at the feet of Jesus, and says, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" What an inconsistency! at the knees of Jesus, and yet telling Him to go away! And there is often this apparent inconsistency when there is a work on the conscience and the affections. God becomes necessary to us, and yet conscience says, "you are too sinful." Peter felt his own worthlessness; he thought Jesus was too holy, too righteous, to be with such an one as he, and yet he could not help going to Him.
The prodigal did go back, glad to be in the house, but not having a true estimate of the father's heart. No more worthy to be called a "son," his thought was to get into the place of a "hired servant." (v. 19.) And this is just the state of a multitude of hearts around, they are lowering down the standard of what the Father must do, in the sense of what they have been and are. I am not speaking of positive self-righteousness, but of hearts which have still the remains of legalism, and would take the place of servants in the house. Now God can only receive us in grace, because we have spent all - ruined ourselves, and forfeited every claim upon Him. Look at the history before us. This "make me as one of thy hired servants" would not do for the father, though it might have done for the son. What constant misery and wretchedness to that father's heart would it have been, as well as degradation to the son, to receive and treat him thus! - his very condition in the house a constant memorial of his sin. And thus is it with us. Our Father cannot have sons in His house as servants: if boundless grace brings them in, He must show the manner of their reception to be worthy of a Father's love.
The prodigal was not yet brought to feel it must be grace or nothing; but the father did not give him time to say, "Make me as one of thy hired servants;" he let him tell out the confession of his sin, but no more;" - "he was on his neck, kissing him!" How could he say, Make me an "hired servant," when his father was on his neck, producing the consciousness that he was still a son? The prodigal's judgment about the father's heart was drawn from what the father was actually to him, and not from any abstract seasonings about it. And that is the true way of receiving the "gospel of the grace of God." It is not the working up of my mind to think what I am before God, but the revelation by the Holy Ghost of what the Father is to me. He is a Father, I am a son.
Look again at the manner of the reception the prodigal had. He determined in his own mind what he would do, and what he would say, and the conditions of his reception, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him," etc. (vv. 18, 19); and before he had time to reach the father's house, and say all this, "while yet a great way off," the father "saw him," "had compassion on him" (the son was lost in the father), "ran to meet him, fell on his neck, and kissed him." (v. 20.) There was nothing in the son but confession of unworthiness. We are left, as it were, to discover the nature of his thoughts and feelings by the knowledge of the father's. And so entirely is it in the estimate of our salvation. We are left to discover what we are, in the revelation of the love of the Father.
Why did the father fall on his neck, and kiss him? Was it for anything in the son? No; it was because of the love that was in his own heart. The rags of the "far country" were still upon him: the father did not stop to ask him anything, he knew that he had acted wrongly. It would have been of no good or use to say, "He has disgraced you, dishonoured your name:" he could see that very well. It was no question of fitness or worthiness in the son (the father's heart did not reason in that way), he was acting from himself, and for himself - worthily of a father. He was on his neck, because the father loved to be there. It is the love that is in God, not any loveliness in the sinner, that accounts for the extravagant liberality of his reception, through Christ. If I know that my sins are forgiven, that the father is on my neck kissing me, the more I know of my sins - thus knowing the Father's love, the happier I am. (Luke 7:47.) Suppose a merchant having liabilities which he is unable to meet, but ignorant of the exact amount; he might be afraid to look fairly through his books. But suppose, on the other hand, that the debt had been discharged, and that he had the certainty of an immense fund of riches, when all was paid (some friend having done it), he would no longer hesitate to look at them; the discovery of his obligation would serve to enhance his friend's love. Grace has put all away; therefore the whole effect of the discovery of sin, when we know its forgiveness, is to enhance the love. If the father is kissing me, the very consciousness that he is doing it, when I am in my rags, proves what a forgiveness it is. There is not another in the whole world that would not have thought about my rags, before he was on my neck.
But look again at the prodigal. The servants are now called out to introduce him into the house fittingly. "The father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." (vv. 22-24.) God clothes us with Christ, and brings us into the house where the servants are, with nothing less than all the honour He can put upon us - as He would have us be there, and with His mind expressed about the value of a "son." The best robe, the ring, the shoes, the fatted calf, the feast of joy that welcomed the returning prodigal - the father's mind was, that a son of his was worth it all, and that it was worthy of him to give it.
How little worthy would it have been of a father, acting in grace, to keep him as a servant in the house. It may be that some who read these pages are thinking it humility to desire the servant's place. But it is not humility, it is only ignorance of the Father's mind. "God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved); and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness towards us through Christ Jesus." (Eph. 2:4-7.) If we begin at this end, would it have been worthy of Him to put us in the house with a constant memorial of the sin and shame of our former degradation upon us? No! If there were any sense of shame, the veriest trace of the "far country," would it have been worthy of the Father? The "worshipper once purged" has "no more conscience of sin." All that is in God's house must be worthy of God.
But perhaps our wretched, unbelieving hearts may whisper, "Ah, that will be quite true when there, when really in the Father's house." Let me ask what faith is. Faith judges as God judges. I see sin in the light of God's holiness, and learn grace in the heart of my Father. He that believes "sets to his seal that God is true." Faith is the only thing that gives certainty. Reasoning may be all quite well for the things, of this world; but if God speaks, faith believes. Faith "sets to its seal," not that it may be, perhaps; but, that "God is true." "Abraham believed God;" (not in God, though that is also true); he believed that what God said was true. What, then, does God tell me, if I am a believer in his Son? That my sins and iniquities He "remembers no more." I believe it. That I have "eternal life." I believe that, too. It were sin to doubt it; not to believe that of which he assures me, is to wrong God. If a son, I am in His presence without a spot of sin through the blood of the Lamb. Faith believes this: God has said it. Were it my own righteousness in which I stood there, it must be torn to shreds; but it is a question about God's estimate of the value of the blood. What has it done? cleansed half my sins? No, it "cleanses from all sin." Again, I read, "Who His ownself bare our sins in His own body on the tree "is this some of our sins? It is "our sins." And then if my soul knows, on the one hand, the value to God of the blood of the Lamb, I know, on the other, that it all results from the love of the Father.
When I see the character Christ gives here of what God is towards me as a sinner (and he was forced to do this by the self-righteousness of the Pharisees - of man), the doubts of my heart are silenced before such grace.
Is there one who, after having read this paper, can say that divine grace sanctions sin? one in the spirit of the elder brother? (v. 28) I would reply, "therefore came his father out, and entreated him." We see the patience of love towards this wretched man - not merely towards the poor prodigal, but towards this one who shared not in the general joy. The servants were glad; they could say, "thy brother is come," etc. All caught the tone of joy save one. And who was he? The man who thought of self and self-righteousness, who said, "Lo these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment." Take care lest your heart be turning to sourness the love and grace that God shows to a fellow-sinner. "He would not go in." The father reasoned with him; said, "It is (not my son, but) thy brother come back," etc. (love is high enough up for anything) - but in vain. He could not enter into the spirit which actuated all in the house, from the father down to the lowest menial: "he remained without," and had none of the happiness and none of the joy. There was in him manifested opposition of heart to the riches of the father's grace; and this is man.
How can I know God's heart? Is it by looking to my own heart? No; but by learning it in the gift of His Son. The God we have to say to, is the God who has given His Son for sinners; and if we do not know this, we do not know Him at all. "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"
Do not be saying to God, "make me as one of thy hired servants;" all true service must result from the knowledge of Himself. Do not be putting the estimate of your own hearts on God's goodness. Our wretched hearts have such a tendency to turn back to legalism, and call it humbleness. The only real humbleness, and strength, and blessing, is to forget self in the presence and blessedness of God.