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§ 142. Christ’s different Modes of Reply to those who questioned his Conduct in consorting with Sinners.—The Value of a Soul.—Parable of the Prodigal Son.—Of the Pharisee and the Publican.

There is a difference in one respect in Christ’s replies at different times to those who found fault with his kindness to publicans and degraded sinners. In some cases he stopped short after vividly exhibiting 215the mercy of God to all truly repentant sinners; in others, he not only justified his own conduct, but took the offensive against those who had attacked him, and showed them their own deficiencies in true righteousness, and their inferiority to the sincerely repentant publicans. The former course was probably taken with those who were more sincerely striving after righteousness, and who took offence at him on purer grounds. It is necessary to note this distinction is order to apprehend Christ’s words rightly, and to derive, from comparing his discourses together, a connected system of doctrine.

Under the first class may be placed the parables which are recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. In verses 3-10 we have a vivid illustration of the value which God attaches to the salvation of one soul, shown by the great joy which the repentance of a sinner causes in a world of spirits, allied in their sympathies to Him. This is the one point which is to be made prominent and emphatic in interpreting the passage; we should err in pressing the separate points of comparison further.

To the same class, also, belongs the parable of the Prodigal Son.374374   Luke, xv., 11-32. The elder son, who remains at home and serves his father faithfully, represents a Pharisee375375   This must be the case, on the supposition that Luke, xv., 2, expresses the precise occasion of this parable, but we cannot positively assert this. It is possible that one of the disciples who had not fully imbibed the spirit of Christ may have given the occasion for it. of the better class, who sincerely strives to keep the law and is free from glaring sins, but still occupies a strictly legal stand-point. The younger son represents one who seeks his highest good in the world, throws off the restraints of the law, and gives full play to his passions. But experience shows him the emptiness of such a life; estranged from God, he becomes conscious of wretchedness, and returns, sincerely penitent, to seek forgiveness in the Father’s love.

Christ does not go far, in this parable, in illustrating the deficiencies of the Pharisee. His legal righteousness goes without specific rebuke, but his envy (v. 28) and his want of love (“the fulfilling of the law”) show clearly the emptiness of his morality. It may have been the Saviour’s intention to lead the person here represented to discover, of himself, his total want of the substance of religion.

The one chief point of the parable is to illustrate, under the figure of relations drawn from human life, the manner in which the paternal love of God meets the vilest of sinners when he returns sincerely penitent. How strikingly does this picture of the Father’s love, ever ready to pardon sin, rebuke not merely the Jewish exclusiveness, but all those limitations of God’s purposes for the salvation of the human race, 216whether before or after Christ, which the arbitrary creeds of men have attributed to the Divine decrees! The parable clearly implies that the love of the Father contemplates the salvation of all his fallen children, among all generations of men. Yet it by no means excludes, although it does not expressly declare, the necessity of the mediatorial work of Christ; we must not expect to find the whole circle of Christian doctrine in every parable. Indeed; the mediation of Christ itself is the precise way in which the paternal love of God goes out to meet and welcome all his fallen children when they return in repentance. The parable images the condition of fallen man in general, as well as of that class of gross sinners to which, from the occasion on which Christ uttered it, it necessarily gives special prominence.

The line of distinction between the Pharisee and the publican is still more closely drawn in the parable contained in Luke, xviii., 9-14.376376   This parable is one (cf. p. 107) in which a truth relating to the kingdom of God is illustrated by an assumed fact; but the fact is one taken from the same sphere of life as that which it intended to depict. Moreover, the relation which must exist, in all time, between the self-righteous saint by works and the humbly penitent sinner is illustrated by an example such as once constantly occurred in real life—in Pharisees and publicans. The publican humbles himself before God, deeply sensible of sin, and only seeking forgiveness, and is therefore represented as having the dispositions necessary for pardon and justification. The Pharisee, trusting in his supposed righteousness, exalts himself above the notorious sinner, and is therefore destitute of the conditions of pardon, though he needs it as much as the other. Christ himself deduces from the example this general truth: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” That is, he who sets up great pretensions before God on account of his self-acquired virtue or wisdom, will be disappointed; his arrogant assumption of a worth which is nothing but vileness will exclude him from that true dignity which the grace of God alone can bestow; which dignity will be bestowed, on the other hand, upon the sinner who truly humbles himself before God from a conscious sense of moral unworthiness.

In this parable we find the germ of Paul’s doctrine; even of some of his weighty expressions on this subject. The doctrine is the same as that which Christ taught in pronouncing the “poor in spirit” blessed.

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