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20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.


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20. And while he was still afar off. This is the main point of the parable. If men, who are by nature prone to revenge, and too tenacious of their own rights, are moved by fatherly love kindly to forgive their children, and freely to bring them back, when they are sunk in wretchedness, God, whose boundless goodness exceeds all the affection of parents, 536536     “L’amour de tous les peres de ce monde;” — “the love of all the fathers in the world.” will not treat us more harshly. 537537     “Sera bien pour le moins aussi debonnaire envers nous;” — “will be at least as gentle towards us.” And certainly nothing is here attributed to an earthly father which God does not promise with respect to himself. Before they call, says he, I will answer, (Isaiah 65:24.) That passage too of David is well known,

I said, I will acknowledge against me my unrighteousness to the Lord and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,
(Psalm 32:5.)

As this father, therefore, is not merely pacified by the entreaties of his son, but meets him when he is coming, and before he has heard a word, embraces him, filthy and ugly as he is, so God does not wait for a long prayer, but of his own free will meets the sinner as soon as he proposes to confess his fault.

It is wretched sophistry to infer from this, that the grace of God is not exhibited to sinners until they anticipate it by their repentance. “Here,” say they, “is held out to us a father ready to pardon, but it is after that his son has begun to return to him; and therefore God does not look, and does not bestow his grace, on any but those who begin to seek him.” It is, no doubt, true that, in order to his obtaining pardon, the sinner is required to have grief of conscience, and to be dissatisfied with himself; but it is wrong to infer from this, that repentance, which is the gift of God, is yielded by men from their own movement of their heart. And in this respect it would be improper to compare a mortal man to God; for it is not in the power of an earthly father to renew the stubborn heart of his son, as God changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. In short, the question here is not whether a man is converted by himself, and returns to him; but only under the figure of a man is commended the fatherly gentleness of God, and his readiness to grant forgiveness.

21. Father, I have sinned against heaven. Here is pointed out another branch of repentance, namely, such a conviction of sin as is accompanied by grief and shame. For he who is not grieved for having sinned, and whose offense is not placed before his eyes, will sooner attempt any thing than think of returning to the path of duty. Displeasure with sin must therefore go before repentance. And there is great emphasis in this expression, that the young man is said to have come to himself, as one whom the wanderings of wild desires had hurried away into forgetfulness of himself. And certainly so far astray are the impulses of the flesh, that any one who gives himself up to them may be said to have gone out of himself, and to have lost his senses. For this reason transgressors are commanded to return to the heart, 538538     “A ceste cause en l’Escriture Dieu commande aux transgresseurs de retourner a leur coeur;” — “For this reason, in Scripture God commands transgressors to return to their heart.” In the authorized version the passage runs thus: Bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. — Ed. (Isaiah 46:8.) Next follows a confession, 539539     “Apres la cognoissance du peche s’ensuit aussi la confession;” — “after the knowledge of sin there follows also confession.” not such a one as the Pope has contrived, but one by which the son appeases his offended father; for this humility is absolutely necessary in order to obtain forgiveness of sins. This mode of expression, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, is of the same import as if he had said, that God was offended in the person of an earthly father. And certainly this is the dictate of nature, that every one who rebels against a father rises wickedly also against God, who has placed children in subjection to parents.

22. Bring out the best robe. Although in parables (as we have frequently observed) it would be idle to follow out every minute circumstance, yet it will be no violence to the literal meaning, if we say, that our heavenly Father not only pardons our sins in such a manner as to bury the remembrance of them, but even restores those gifts of which we had been deprived; as, on the other hand, by taking them from us, he chastises our ingratitude in order to make us feel ashamed at the reproach and disgrace of our nakedness.




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