Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson
“And he said to him, Son, you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours. It was fitting that we should make merry, and be glad: for this your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31, 32).
Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 21 February 1853
There are two classes of sins. One, sins by which man crushes, wounds, and injures his fellowman—sins that betray a bad, tyrannical, and selfish heart. Christ met those with denunciation. Two, sins by which a man injures himself. A life of reckless indulgence. A career of yielding to ungovernable propensities. Which leads to wretchedness and ruin, but makes a man an object of compassion rather than of condemnation.
In Christ, sinners of this latter class found strange and tender mercy. No maudlin sentiment on His lips. He called sin sin, and guilt guilt. Yet while there were sins His lips scourged, for others, His heart bled. That which was melancholy, marred, and miserable in this world was more congenial to the heart of Christ than that which was proudly happy. It was in the middle of triumph and procession that He paused to weep over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). And if we ask why this melancholy condescension, it is that He saw a world of ruin—nothing to gladden, but much over much to grieve.
Jesus came to restore that which was broken (Luke 4:18). Imagine an enthusiastic antiquarian, standing among the fragments of an ancient temple surrounded by dust and moss, broken pillar and defaced architrave, with magnificent projects in mind of restoring all this to former grandeur—to draw from mere rubbish the ruined glories—and, therefore, stooping down among the dank ivy and the rank nettles. Such was Christ in the presence of the wreck of human nature. He was striving to lift it out of its degradation. He was seeking (Luke 19:10) what had fallen that He might rebuild and restore.
Therefore, Christ labored among the guilty. Therefore, He was the companion of outcasts. Therefore, He spoke tenderly and lovingly to social rejects. Therefore, He comforted the bruised and the brokenhearted. Therefore, His breath fanned the spark in the smoking wick of the expiring taper, when men thought it was too late and the hour of hopeless profligacy [wastedness] had come. It was this feature in His character, this tender, hoping, encouraging spirit of which the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “A bruised reed will He not break” (Isaiah 42:3).
It was this spirit that informed the parable for our consideration today: the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). On this occasion publicans and sinners drew near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Yes, He does. Indeed, He does. Thank God, He does!
It was then that Christ condescended to explain His conduct. And His excuse was this: It is natural, humanly natural, to rejoice more over that which has been recovered than over that which has never been lost. He proved this by three illustrations taken from human life. The first illustration—intended to show the feelings of Christ in winning back a sinner—was the joy the shepherd feels in recovering a sheep from the mountain wilderness. The second was the satisfaction a person feels for a recovered coin or heirloom. The last was the gladness that attends the restoration of an erring son.
Now the three parables are alike in this: they all describe the feelings of the Redeemer on recovering the lost. But the third parable differs from the other two in this: that besides the feelings of the Savior, it gives us a multitude of particulars respecting the feelings, steps, and motives of the reclaimed penitent. In the first two the thing lost is a coin or a sheep. It would not be possible to find any picture of remorse or gladness there on the part of the lost. But in the third parable the thing lost is not a lifeless thing, nor a mute thing, but a human being. So that the subject opened out to us is a more extensive one—not merely the feelings of the finder, God in Christ, but, moreover, the emotions of the wanderer himself
In dealing with this parable, let us look at the picture it draws of (1) God’s treatment of the penitent and (2) God’s expostulation [strong disapproval] of the saint.
GOD’S TREATMENT OF THE PENITENT
The first truth exhibited in this parable is man’s alienation from God. Homelessness, distance from our Father, is man’s state by nature. We are a fallen people.
The youngest son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country. Brethren, this is the history of worldliness. It is a state far from God; in other words, it is a state of homelessness.
And now let us ask what that means.
To English hearts it is not necessary to expound elaborately the infinite meanings that cluster round that blessed expression “home.” Home is the one place in all this world where hearts are sure of one another. It is the place of confidence. It is the place where we tear off that mask of guarded and suspicious coldness that the world forces us to wear in self-defense and where we pour out the unreserved communication of full and confiding hearts. It is the spot where expressions of tenderness gush out without any sensation of awkwardness and without any dread of ridicule. Let a man travel where he will, home is the place to which “his heart untraveled fondly turns” (Oliver Goldsmith). He is to double all pleasure there. He is there to divide all pain. A happy home is the single spot of rest a man has on this earth for the cultivation of his noblest sensibilities.
And now, my brethren, if that be the description of home, is God’s place of rest your home? Walk abroad and alone by night. That awful other world in the stillness and the solemn deep of the eternities above, is it your home? Those graves that lie beneath you, holding in them the infinite secret, and stamping on all earthly loveliness the mark of frailty, change, and fleetingness—are those graves the prospect to which in bright days and dark days you can turn without dismay? God in His splendors—dare we feel with Him so affectionate and familiar that trial comes softened by the feeling, “He is my Father”? and enjoyment can be taken with a frank feeling, “My Father has given it me, without grudging, to make me happy”? All that is having a home in God. Are we at home there?
Why, there is demonstration in our very childhood that we are not at home with that other world of God’s [the supernatural]. An infant fears to be alone. He trembles in the dark, because be is conscious of the presence of the world of spirits. Long before he has been told tales of terror, there is an instinctive dread of the supernatural in the infant mind. It is the instinct that we have from childhood that gives us the feeling of another world. Mark, brethren, if the child is not at home in the thought of that world of God’s, the deep of darkness and eternity is around him—God’s home, but not his home, for his flesh creeps. That feeling grows through life: not the fear—when the child becomes a man, he gets over fear—but the dislike. The man feels as much aversion as the child for the world of spirits.
Sunday comes. It breaks across the current of a man’s worldliness. It suggests thoughts of death, judgement, and everlasting existence. Is that home? Can the worldly man feel Sunday like a foretaste of his Father’s mansion? If we could but know how many have come here today, not to have their soul lifted up heavenward, but from curiosity, idleness, or criticism, it would give us an appalling estimate of the number who are living in a far country, “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
The second truth conveyed to us in this parable is the unsatisfying nature of worldly happiness. The outcast son tried to satiate his appetite with husks. A husk is an empty thing; it is a thing that resembles food and promises food, but it is not food. It is a thing that when chewed will stay the appetite, but leaves the emaciated body without nourishment.
Earthly happiness is a husk. We say not that there is no satisfaction in worldly pleasures. That would be an overstatement. Something there is, or why would men persist in living for them? But the cravings of man’s appetite may be stayed by things that cannot satisfy. Every new pursuit contains in it a new hope, and it is long before hope is bankrupt. But, my brethren, it is strange if a man has not found out before he has reached the age of thirty, that everything here is empty and disappointing. The nobler his heart and the more unquenchable his hunger for the high and the good, the sooner will he find that out. Bubble after bubble bursts, each bubble tinted with the celestial colors of the rainbow, and each leaving in the hand that crushes it a cold damp drop of disappointment. All that is described in Scripture by the metaphor of “sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7)—the whirlwind of blighted hopes, unreturned feelings, and crushed expectations—that is the harvest the world gives.
And now the question is asked, Why is this world unsatisfying? Brethren, it is the grandeur of the soul God has given us that makes it insatiable in its desires—with an infinite void that cannot be filled. The soul was made for God—how can the world fill it? If the ocean can be still with miles of unstable waters beneath it, then the soul of man, rocking itself on its own deep longings, with the infinite beneath it, may rest. We were created once in majesty, to find enjoyment in God; and if our heart is empty now, there is nothing for it but to fill up the hollow place with God.
Let not that expression—filling the soul with God—pass away without a distinct meaning. God is love and goodness. Fill the soul with goodness, and fill the soul with love: that is filling it with God. If we love one another, God dwells in us. Nothing else can satisfy. So when we hear men of this world acknowledge, as they sometimes do, that they are wearied with this phantom chase of life, sick of gaieties and tired of toil, that it is not in their pursuits that they can drink the fount of blessedness; and when we see then, instead of turning aside either brokenhearted or wisened, still persisting to trust to expectations—at fifty, sixty, or seventy years, still feverish with some new ambition—what we see is this: we see a soul—formed with a capacity for high and noble things, fit for the banquet-table of God Himself—trying to fill that hollow place with husks.
Once more, there is degradation in the life of irreligion. The things the wanderer tried to live on were not only husks. They were husks the swine did eat. Degradation means the application of a thing to purposes lower than that for which it was intended. It is degradation to a man to live on husks, because these are not his true food. We call it degradation when we see the members of an ancient family, decayed by extravagance, working for their bread. It is not degradation for a born laborer to work for an honest livelihood. It is degradation for them, for they are not what they might have been.
And, therefore, for a man to be degraded, it is not necessary that he should have given himself up to low and mean practices. It is quite enough that he is living for purposes lower than those for which God intended. He may be a man of unblemished reputation, and yet debased in the truest meaning of the word. We were sent into this world to love God, to love man, and to do good—to full up life with deeds of generosity and usefulness. He who refuses to work out that high destiny is a degraded man. He may turn away revolted from everything that is gross. His sensuous indulgences may be marked by refinement and taste. His house may be filled with elegance. His library may be adorned with books. There may be sounds in his mansion that regale the ear, delicacies that stimulate the palate, and beauty that pleases the eye. There may be nothing in his whole life to offend the most chastened and fastidious delicacy. Yet, if the history of all this be powers meant for eternity frittered on time, the man is degraded—if the spirit created to find its enjoyment in the love of God has settled down, satisfied with the love of the world, then, as surely as the sensualist of this parable, that man has turned aside from a celestial feast to prey on garbage.
We pass on to the second period of the history of God’s treatment of a sinner. It is the period of his coming to himself, or what we call repentance. The first fact of religious experience this parable suggests is that common truth—men desert the world when the world deserts them. The renegade came to himself when there was no more husk to eat. He would have remained away if he could have gotten more, but it is written, “no man gave to him.” This, brethren, is the record of our shame. Invitation is not enough; we must be driven to God. The famine comes not by chance. God sends the famine into the soul—the hunger, thirst, and disappointment—to bring his erring child to the fold.
Now the world fastens on that truth and gets out of it a triumphant sarcasm against religion. They tell us that as the caterpillar passes into the chrysalis, and the chrysalis into the butterfly, so profligacy passes into disgust, and disgust passes into religion. To use their own phraseology, when people become disappointed with the world, it is the last resource, they say, to turn saint. So the men of the world speak, and they think they are profoundly philosophical and concise in the account they give.
The world is welcome to its small sneer. It is the glory of our Master’s gospel that it is the refuge of the brokenhearted. It is the strange mercy of our God that He does not reject the writhings of a jaded heart. Let the world curl its lip if it will, when it sees through the causes of the Prodigal’s return.
And if the sinner does not come to God taught by this disappointment, what then? If affections crushed in early life have driven one man to God; if wrecked and ruined hopes have made another man religious; if want of success in a profession has broken the spirit; if the human life lived out too passionately has left a surfeit and a craving behind that end in seriousness; if one is brought by the sadness of widowed life, and another by the forced desolation of involuntary single life; if when the mighty famine comes into the heart, and not a husk is left, not a pleasure untried, then, and not till then, the remorseful resolve is made, “I will arise and go to my Father”—well, brethren, what then? I will tell you what then. This: that the history of penitence, produced as it so often is by mere disappointment, sheds only a brighter luster round the love of Christ, who rejoices to receive such wanderers, worthless as they are, back into His bosom. Thank God, the world’s sneer is true! It is the last resource to turn saint. Thanks to our God that when this gaudy world has ceased to charm, when the heart begins to feel its hollowness, and the world has lost its satisfying power, still all is not yet lost, if penitence and Christ remain, to still, to humble, and to soothe a sin-fevered heart!
There is another truth contained in this section of the parable. After a life of wild sinfulness, religion is servitude at first, not freedom. Observe, the Prodigal went back to duty with the feelings of a slave: “I am no more worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants.” Anyone who has lived in the excitement of the world, and then tried to settle down at once to quiet duty, knows how true that is. To borrow a metaphor from Israel’s desert life, it is a tasteless thing to live on manna after you have been feasting on quails. It is a dull cold drudgery to find pleasure in simple occupation when life has been a succession of strong emotions. Sonship it is not; it is slavery. A son obeys in love, entering heartily into his father’s meaning. A servant obeys mechanically, rising early because he must; doing, it may be, his duty well, but feeling in all its force the irksomeness of the service. Sonship does not come all at once. The yoke of Christ is easy, the burden of Christ is light (cf Matthew 11:28-30); but it is not light to everybody. It is light when you love it, and no man who has sinned much can love it all at once.
Therefore, if I speak to anyone who is trying to be religious, and heavy in heart because his duty is done too formally, my Christian brother, fear not. You are returning, like the Prodigal, with the feelings of a servant. Still it is a real return. The “Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15) will come afterward. You will often have to do duties you cannot relish, and in which you see no meaning. So it was with Naaman at the prophet’s command (cf 2 Kings 5:8-14). He bathed, not knowing why he was bidden to bathe, in Jordan. When you bend to prayer, often and often you will have to kneel with wandering thoughts, and constraining lips to repeat words into which your heart scarcely enters. You will have to perform duties when the heart is cold, and without a spark of enthusiasm to warm you.
But, my Christian brother, onward still. Struggle to the cross, even though it be struggling as in chains. Just as on a day of clouds, when you have watched the distant hills, dark and gray with mist, suddenly a gleam of sunshine passing over reveals to you, in that flat surface, valleys, dells, and spots of sunny happiness, which slept before unsuspected in the fog, so in the gloom of penitential life there will be times when God’s deep peace and love will be felt shining into the soul with supernatural refreshment. Let the penitent be content with the servant’s lot at first. Liberty and peace, and the bounding sensations of a Father’s arms around you, come afterward.
The last circumstance in this division of our subject is the reception a sinner meets on his return to God. “Bring the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and be merry.” This banquet represents to us two things. It tells of the father’s gladness on his son’s return: that represents God’s joy on the reformation of a sinner. It tells of a banquet and a dance given to the long-lost son: that represents the sinner’s gladness when he first understood that God was reconciled to him in Christ. There is a strange, almost wild, rapture, a strong gush of love and happiness in those days of early conversion. When a man who has sinned much—a profligate—turns to God, and it becomes first clear to his apprehension that there is love instead of spurning for him, there is a luxury of emotions—a banquet of tumultuous blessedness in the moment of first love to God. It stands alone in life, nothing before and nothing after like it.
And let us observe: This forgiveness is a thing granted while a man is yet afar off. We are not to wait for the right of being happy till we are good: we might wait forever. Joy is not delayed till we deserve it. As soon as a sinful man trusts that the mercy of God in Christ has done away with his transgression, the ring, the robe, and the shoes are his—the banquet and the light of a Father’s countenance.
GOD’S EXPOSTULATION OF THE SAINT
There is another brother mentioned in this parable, the older brother who never left home and who expressed indignation at the reception his brother received. Commentators have imagined that this person represents the Pharisees who complained that Jesus was receiving sinners. This is manifestly impossible, because the father expostulates [expresses strong disapproval] of him in this language, “Son, you are ever with me.” Not for one moment could that be true of the Pharisees. The true interpretation seems to be that this elder brother represents a real Christian perplexed with God’s mysterious dealings with wayward persons. We have before us the description of one who, on the whole (with imperfections, of course), remained God’s servant all his life. For this is his own account of himself, which the father does not contradict. “Lo! these many years do I serve you.”
We observe, then, the objection made to the reception of a notorious sinner—“You never gave me a kid.” Now, in this we have a fact true to Christian experience. Joy seems to be felt more vividly and more exuberantly by men who have sinned much (cf Luke 7:47) than by men who have grown up consistently from childhood with religious education. Rapture belongs to him whose sins, which are forgiven, are many. In the perplexity this fact occasions, there is a feeling that is partly right and partly wrong. There is surprise, which is natural. There is jealousy, which is to be rebuked.
There is, first, surprise. It was natural that the older brother should feel perplexed and hurt. When a sinner, it seems, is rewarded with more happiness than a saint, it appears as if good and evil were alike undistinguished in God’s dealings. It seems like putting a reconciled enemy over the head of a tried servant. It looks as if it were a kind of encouragement held out to sin, and a man begins to feel, “Well, if this is to be the caprice of my father’s dealing, if this rich feast of gladness be the reward of a licentious life, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.” This is natural surprise.
There is, second, jealousy, which God sees fit to rebuke. You have been trying to serve God all your life, and still find it struggle, heaviness, and dullness. You see another who has outraced every obligation of life, and he is not tried by the deep prostration you think he ought to have, but is bright with happiness. You have been making sacrifices all your life, and your worst trials come out of your most generous sacrifices. Your errors in judgement have been followed by sufferings sharper than those crime itself could have brought. You see men who never made a sacrifice unexposed to trial—men whose life has been rapture purchased by the ruin of others’ innocence—tasting first the pleasures of sin, and then the banquet of religion. You have been a moral man from childhood, and yet with all your efforts you feel the crushing conviction that it has never once been granted you to win a soul to God. You see another man marked by inconsistency and impetuosity, banqueting every day on the blessed success of impressing and saving souls. All that is startling. Then comes sadness and despondency. Then come those feelings so graphically depicted here: irritation—“he was angry” ; swelling pride—“he would not go in”; jealousy, which required soothing—“his father came out and entreated him.”
Mark the father’s answer. It does not account for this strange dealing by God’s sovereignty. It does not cut the knot of the difficulty, instead of untying it, by saying, “God has a right to do what He will. He does not urge. God has a right to act on favoritism if He please.” But it assigns two reasons. The first reason is, “It was fitting that we should make merry.” It is fitting that God should be glad on the reclamation of a sinner. It is fitting that that sinner, looking down into the dreadful chasm over which he had been tottering, should feel a shudder of delight through all his frame on thinking of his escape. It is fitting that religious men should not feel jealous of one another, but freely and generously join in thanking God that others have found happiness, even if they have not. The spirit of religious exclusiveness, that looks contemptuously instead of tenderly on worldly men, and banishes a man forever from the circle of its joys because he has sinned notoriously, is a bad spirit.
The reason given for this dealing is, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” By which, it seems, Christ is telling us that the disproportion between man and man is much less than we suppose. The profligate [squanderer] had had one hour of ecstasy—the other had had a whole life of peace. A consistent Christian may not have rapture; but he has that which is much better: calmness—God’s serene and perpetual presence. After all, brethren, that is the best. One to whom much is forgiven has much joy. He must have it, if it were only to support him through those fearful trials to come—those haunting reminiscences of a polluted heart—those frailties—those inconsistencies to which the habits of past indulgence have made him liable.
A terrible struggle is in store for him yet. Grudge him not one hour of unclouded exultation. But religion’s best gift—rest, serenity—the quiet daily love of one who lives perpetually with his Father’s family—uninterrupted usefulness—that belongs to him who has lived steadily, and walked with duty, neither grieving nor insulting the Holy Spirit. The man who serves God early has the best of it; joy is well in its way, but a few flashes of joy are trifles in comparison with a life of peace. Which is best? the flash of joy lighting up the whole heart, and then darkness till the next flash comes—or the steady calm sunlight of day in which men work?
And now, a word to those who are living this young man’s life—thinking to become religious, as he did, when they have gotten tired of the world. I speak to those who are leading what, in the world’s softened language of concealment, is called a gay life. Young brethren, let two motives be urged earnestly on your attention. The first is the motive of mere honorable feeling. We will say nothing about the uncertainty of life. We will not dwell on this fact, that impressions resisted now may never come back again. We will not appeal to terror. That is not the weapon a Christian minister loves to use. If our lips were clothed with thunder, it is not denunciation that makes men Christians; let the appeal be made to every high and generous feeling in a young man’s bosom.
Deliberately and calmly you are going to do this: to spend the best and most vigorous portion of your days in idleness, in uselessness, in the gratification of self, in the contamination of others. And then weakness, the relics, and the miserable dregs of life—you are going to give that sorry offering to God, because “His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 118:29)! Shame—shame on the heart that can let such a plan rest in it one moment. If it be there, crush it like a man. It is a degrading thing to enjoy husks till there is no man to give them. It a base thing to resolve to give to God as little as possible, and not to serve Him till you must.
Young brethren, I speak principally to you. You have health for God now. You have strength of mind and body. You have powers that may fit you for real usefulness. You have appetites for enjoyment that can be consecrated to God. You acknowledge the law of honor. Well, then, by every feeling of manliness and generosity remember this: now, and not later, is your time to learn what religion means (cf Ecclesiastes 12:1).
There is another motive, and a solemn one, to be urged on those who are delaying. Every moment of delay adds bitterness to after-struggles. The moment of a feeling of hired servitude must come. If a man will not obey God with a warm heart, he may hereafter have to do it with a cold one. To be holy is the work of a long life. The experience of ten thousand lessons teaches only a little of it, and all this, the work of becoming Christlike, the man who delays is crowding into the space of a few years or a few months. When we have lived long a life of sin, do we think that repentance and forgiveness will obliterate all the traces of sin on the character? Be sure that every sin pays its price: “Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
Oh! there are recollections of past sin that come crowding up to the brain, with temptation in them. There are old habits that refuse to be mastered by a few enthusiastic sensations. There is so much of the old man clinging to the penitent who has waited long—he is so much, as a religious man, like what he was when he was a worldly man—that it is doubtful whether he ever reaches in this world the full stature of Christian manhood. Much warm earnestness, but strange inconsistencies—that is the character of one who is an old man and a young Christian. Do you wish to risk all this? Do you want to learn holiness with terrible struggles, sore affliction, and the plague of much remaining evil? Then wait before you turn to God.
The world will try to satisfy that longing in your soul
You may search the wide world over but you’ll be just as before
You’ll never find true satisfaction until you’ve found the Lord
For only Jesus can satisfy your soul. ~Lanny Wolfe (1971)
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 20. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.