And he said, A certain man had two sons:…
That cry of the prodigal to his father, which framed itself spontaneously in his mind, when first he came to himself in his misery and degradation — I suppose it is the common cry of repentant humanity. Taking this cry, therefore, as the natural utterance of penitent humanity, let us observe two things about it. In the first place, it is very humble, and therefore very hopeful. "I am no more worthy to be called thy son," is no mere formal expression, such as might serve a purpose without costing anything; his condition and his state of mind were too serious to allow of hypocrisies, conscious or unconscious; it was the genuine feeling of the man, a feeling very painful and humiliating, yet the one which had the greatest hold of his mind, and therefore found the strongest expression in his words. I need not say that a genuine sense of unworthiness and of self-condemnation is the most hopeful sign which God can behold in His returning children. But we have to observe, in the second place, that the words which the prodigal intended to say, however natural and however hopeful they might be, were founded on a mistake, and implied an impossibility. For better or worse, he was a son, and a son he must remain; his sins had been the sins of a son, not of a servant; his punishment had been the misery of a self-exiled son, not of a runaway servant. Now let us ask how it may have fared with him in after days. Was there nothing hard in store, nothing difficult, when the first absorbing happiness of his welcome home was past? Would the habits and the manners which he had learnt in his long wanderings suit the gravity of his father's house? Would the restlessness which grows with travel let him be at ease even within those pleasant walls? Could he without great effort exchange his former unrestrained licence for the dutiful behaviour of a younger son? In one word, could he, without a constant struggle with himself, fill again the place of a child within his father's home? Now, it seems to me that here is a lesson most true, most necessary for us to learn. Many of us are apt to think that when once the prodigal has returned, when once the sinner has repented, then all the struggle and the difficulty and the sad consequence of former wilfulness is past and over — that henceforth all is calm and easy. Alas! what ignorance of human nature, even of redeemed human nature, does such a fancy display. The starved and ragged wanderer is indeed clasped within his father's arms, is clothed in the finest and feasted of the best, but — he has to live henceforth as a son, and to render to his father the ready, thoughtful, loving obedience which is due from a son. And this, although it be so great a privilege, so much more than we could have asked, is yet so hard to the obstinate waywardness, to the ingrained lawlessness of our hearts. It is so hard that God will have us as children, or not have us at all. If we might only be as hired servants, and have our tasks assigned to us, and if we did not do them bear the loss of wages, and hear no more about it! The more unworthy we feel ourselves to be, the more conscious we are of the real inferiority of our character and of the very mixed nature of our motives, the more painful must we feel our position to be as sons of God. For my own part, I will say that this demand of a free and loving obedience, of an obedience which is absolutely unlimited, and which must be a law unto itself, is harder than any which God could have made of perverse and fallen creatures such as we. It seems to me that it would be infinitely easier to face the fires or the wild beasts once for all, than always to render the loving service of a child to the Father in heaven, always to strain after conformity to a standard which is far above our reach, always to accommodate ourselves to the dispositions of One who is infinitely holier than we. What is this to one who feels the law of sin at work within him, who feels the old wildness yet untamed, the old self-will yet unbroken, who consents to the rule of the Divine life with his mind, but cannot find how to put it in practice — what is it to him but a lifelong, a daily, hourly martyrdom? What is it but a perpetual crucifixion — as, indeed, the Bible calls it? Even so; that is the law of Christian life. What is happy and hopeful about it is due to God's great love in receiving us once more as His children; what is sad and disheartening about it is due to our own sin and folly in having been alienated so long from Him. This is sad and disheartening in very truth, but it is saved from being intolerable by two things — the hope of heaven, and the sympathy of Christ. For concerning heaven, while many beautiful things are written in the Word of God, none is written so beautiful as that simple saying, "His servants shall serve Him"; for that is the very thing we are always trying to do, and always failing to do properly in this life. There shall really come a time when it will not be hard, not be painful, not be against the grain to do God's wilt in all things — when we shall serve Him joyfully, naturally, as children should, from love, not from fear, for love, not for reward. And then for the present distress there is the sympathy of Christ. That prodigal had an eider brother who would certainly have added to his difficulties, who would have watched for and reported any breach of propriety, and rejoiced in any mortification. We have an elder Brother who has shared the same hardships and endured the same discipline as ourselves — who feels an infinite sympathy for the failures, the self-reproaches, the mortifications, which He understands so well. Far from alienating Him by our want of success, every disappointment over which we grieve only wakes in Him a livelier pity and a more tender love.
(R. Winterbotham, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And he said, A certain man had two sons: