(1) Then drew near unto him . . .—Better, and all the publicans and the sinners were drawing near to hear Him. There is not quite the same direct sequence in the Greek as in the English, but what follows comes naturally after the mention of the “multitudes” in Luke 14:25. Publicans and sinners knew that Jesus had turned, as in indignation, from the house of the Pharisee, and this, it may be, gave them courage to approach Him.
Doth not light a candle, and. . . . seek diligently . . .?—The symbolic meaning of each act lies almost on the surface. To “light the candle” can be nothing else than to put forth the full power of truth and holiness. To “sweep the house” can be nothing else than to use all available means for discovering the possible good that lies hidden or seemingly lost. In the later actual life of the Church, faithful preaching of the word answers to the one, faithful organisation of charity to the other. The rest of the parable is simply an identical reproduction, mutatis mutandis, of the conclusion of the former.
In the immediate application of the parable, the father is the great Father of the souls of men; the elder son represents the respectably religious Pharisees; the younger stands for the class of publicans and sinners. In its subsequent developments it applies to the two types of character which answers to these in any age or country. On a wider scale, but with a less close parallelism, the elder son may stand for Israel according to the flesh; the younger for the whole heathen world. Looking back to the genealogies of Genesis 5:10; Genesis 9:18, and even (according to the true construction of the words) Genesis 10:21, they correspond respectively to the descendants of Shem and those of Japheth. It is obvious from the whole structure of the parable that the elder son cannot represent the unfallen part of God’s creation; and, so far as it goes, this tells against that interpretation of the ninety and nine sheep, or the nine pieces of silver.
Divided unto them his living.—In the normal scale of distribution, the elder son would have as his portion two-thirds of the personal, and possibly also of the real, property, the younger the remainder. In the framework of the story, the father and the elder son become, as it were, tenants in common (Luke 15:31), the former still retaining the general direction of affairs. The state of things so described represents roughly the life of Israel under its theocracy, acknowledging God as its true King and Father.
Riotous.—The exact meaning of the word is prodigal, thriftless.
To a citizen.—Literally, to one of the citizens. In the outer story of the parable, this would emphasise the misery into which the man had fallen. The son of Abraham had to depend upon the bounty of an alien. In the two lines of interpretation, the “citizen” is one who all along has been of the world, worldly, living for no higher end than gain or pleasure. The prodigal is as one who, called to a higher life, has forfeited its blessedness, and now depends for such joy as he is capable of on those who are more completely identified with evil. It is, perhaps, natural that as we diverge more widely from the primary scope of the parable, its application in detail should become more difficult; and looking at the parable, as giving an outline of the history of the human race, one fails to see who answers to the “citizen.” Not the Tempter, the great author of the world’s evil, for the citizen is one of many. Nor is it the part of the citizen here to tempt to evil, but rather to be half-unconsciously God’s instrument in punishing it—half-unconsciously, again, the means of preserving the evil-doer from perishing, and so of making a subsequent deliverance possible. It is truer to facts, therefore, to see in the “citizen” the representative of the wisdom and knowledge, maxims of worldly prudence or principles of ethics without religion, which for a time sustain the soul, and “still the hungry edge of appetite,” and keep it from sinking utterly, while yet they leave it in its wretchedness and do not satisfy its cravings.
To feed swine.—We feel at once the shudder that would pass through the hearers of the parable as they listened to these words. Could there be for an Israelite a greater depth of debasement? In the inner teaching of the parable, this perhaps implies a state in which the man’s will and energies have but the one work of ministering to his baser appetites. Such, in the long-run, is the outcome of the wisdom described in the previous note as answering to the “citizen.”
The husks that the swine did eat.—The word is generic, but it is commonly identified with the long bean-like pods of the carob-tree, or Ceratonia siliqua, or St. John’s bread, in which some have seen the “locusts” of Matthew 3:4. They contain a good deal of saccharine matter, and are commonly used as food for swine in Syria and Egypt. Spiritually, they answer to the sensual pleasures in which men who are as the swine, identified with brute appetites, find adequate sustenance. The soul that was born to a higher inheritance cannot so satisfy itself. It seeks to be “like a beast with lower pleasures,” but it is part of the Father’s discipline that that baser satisfaction is beyond its reach.
I have sinned . . .—More strictly, I sinned, as going back in thought to the first act of sin as virtually including all that grew out of it.
All that I have is thine.—More literally, all mine is thine.