Being gospel papers by F. W. Grant.
Not Lost and Not Saved.
The Elder Son.
Every one of the class that were now following the Lord would realize in the prodigal his picture, and thus would find the invitation of grace superscribed with his name. Publicans and sinners would have the mirror plainly before them, and the truth in the description was absolute truth, the condition of all men, if they could but realize it. With the other class who murmured against this grace, their lack of realization made it necessary to deal differently. They needed, above all, the mirror; and to be that, it must reflect the truth: but there would be a great difference in this respect, that the truth it conveyed would be no longer absolute, but only relative truth. Christ's words must exhibit them to themselves in such a way as they could recognize themselves; not, therefore, simply as God saw them, but according to their own thoughts about themselves; and yet with that in it which — appealing to their conscious experience would bring them into the reality of what they were before God.
This is the whole difficulty as to the elder son in the last of our Lord's three parables here; and it is a difficulty which has already faced us in the first of them. The ninety and nine sheep which went not astray, — the ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance, — have no real representatives among men: yet they vividly portrayed those scribes and Pharisees who were not lost, and needed no Saviour. The light is let in there where it is said that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over them.
In this last parable, the inner workings of the heart are much more exposed, and consequently these features of the first one are found in more development. But the whole is so plain that certainly the Pharisees here would make no mistake about the application. They, at least, would not think of Jews and Gentiles being in question, or of the recovery of a backslider: they would not think of the Lord meaning the whole lesson for others than themselves!
But there is nothing that is not clear if only we are at the right point of view. Thus that it is the elder son that represents the Pharisees has point in this way. Certainly they would not have accepted the position of the younger. To the elder belonged the birthright, with its double portion, in every way of value in the eyes of a Jew. On the other hand, in the book of Genesis, nothing is more distinct than the way the first-born all through loses the birthright. "That which is first is natural" merely, rings through the book. And even so it is here.
When the younger son is restored to his father's house, the elder son is in the field. It is characteristic of him that he is a worker, and a hard worker. All that is due is credited to the busy religion of the Pharisee. But his secret soon comes out: when he hears music and dancing in his father's house, he does not know what to make of it. It is not that he has heard yet of the return of his brother. It is not that he is simply a stranger to grace. But the sounds in themselves are unaccustomed ones: he called a servant, and asked what these things meant." He is the picture of that joyless, cheerless service which finds nothing in God. No pleasures are known as at His right hand forevermore. The soul cannot say, "In Thy presence is fullness of joy." There is work of a certain kind perhaps in plenty, but it is work in the field simply — afar off. Such work is no test of piety; it is only the "work of faith and the labor of love" which are so. And where faith and love are, the soul works amid music, and is never outside the Father's presence. As His grace can be no surprise, so the merry heart sings with melody to the Lord, — "music and dancing" cannot surprise it. Joy is the atmosphere in which we are called to live, — the strength for labor, the secret of holiness. It can lodge in our hearts with sorrow, and abide all the changes of the way. The apostle says, "He that sinneth hath not seen [Christ], neither known Him." May we not say, "He that rejoiceth not, cannot have seen Christ"?
These Pharisees had Him before their eyes, yet saw Him not, — looked into His face, and knew Him not. Theirs was work in the field, while the Father's house was dull and pleasureless. Thus to have it opened after this sort to publicans and sinners could not but anger them — could not but rouse an unwelcome voice in them — a voice they could not but hear, while they would not listen to it. The truth commends itself to men's consciences, when their hearts reject it, hardened through a pride which will not brook humiliation. Did the grace which showed itself so readily to other men refuse them? Nay, the gospel expressly comes out to all, — to every creature — in the same tender tones, addressing itself to all. This elder brother had no door closed in his face. He was angry, and would not go in." Nor was there any thing of indifference toward him, but the contrary: "then came his father out and entreated him."
It will not be found at last that the Father's heart has failed toward any of His creatures. How solemn is His protestation, — "As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye." No: men must tear themselves out of the arms which are ready to inclose them. God is not estranged from us, — needs no reconciliation, although men's creeds may impute it to Him. We pray in Christ's stead, Be ye reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:20.) Man indeed needs his heart changed. Listen to the elder son, and you will find the grudge which is in the heart of many religionists: "But he said unto his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandments; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this thy son is come, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou has killed for him the fatted calf.' "
Thus it is plain, men may be busy for God, with all along a grudge in the heart against God. Their blank and cheerless lives, spite of all that they can do, witness against them; but they would fling the accusation against God. Their hearts are not with Him. They have "friends" to whom they turn to find what with Him they cannot. They take outwardly His yoke, but they do not find it easy: there is no fulfillment of that — "Ye shall find rest to your souls."
Who is in fault? How vain to think that God is! How impossible to find aught but perfection in the Holy One! Do that, and indeed you will stop all the harps of heaven, darken its blessed light, and bring in disaster and ruin everywhere. There is no fear: He will be justified in His sayings, and overcome when He is judged. But it is an old contention, and a frequent one: "Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me that thou mayest be righteous?" Ah, we must do that, or submit to that judgment of God ourselves; for it is recorded as to us, "There is none righteous, — no, not one," and "what things soever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God."
To take this place is repentance, and then we are Pharisees no longer. We need grace, and thus we come to understand it. We understand it, and so appreciate it. We find it in God, and thus turn to Him. How sweet is then His voice! and how the spring of joy begins to bubble up within the soul Repentance and faith are never separate, and the tear of penitence is the dew of the Spirit, that already sparkles in the morning brightness — fuller of joy itself than all the pleasures of sin can make one for a moment!
Of this the elder son knows nothing. His heart is shut up in self-righteousness, and there is nothing that can harden a heart more. Self-righteousness claims its due, and sees nothing but its due in all the blessing God can shower upon it. The more it gets, the more it values itself upon it. The getting so much is proof positive of so much merit. Poverty and misfortune (as the world calls it) are equal proofs of demerit, except indeed when they come upon itself, and then they are unrighteousness in God. So the heart is, as the Scripture expresses it, "shut up in its own fat," insensible, even to the grossest stupidity, or living but to murmur out its folly and its shame.
But the father's words seem to many to refute this account of the elder son. How could he say to such an one as this, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine"? Does God speak to the self-righteous and unsaved after this manner? Could it be said of them that they are ever with God, or that all that He has is theirs? If so, would it not seem as if after all they had the better portion?
We have only to look, however, at the facts of the parable to find a convincing answer to all this. Let us take these two things separately, and inquire what is the real truth as to each.
First, "Thou art ever with me." This must of course express a fact, but what is the fact? That the elder son was with the father, had lived a decorous life, and not wandered as the younger had, is plain upon the surface; and it is not strange that the father should express his approbation of that. The open sins of publican and harlot certainly are not, in God's eyes, better, or as good, as the moral and well-ordered life of the respectable religionist. So the woman in Simon's house the Lord evidently puts down as owing the five hundred pence, rather than the fifty; and of her He says, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven." It would not magnify God's grace to say that because they were minor sinners it flowed forth so freely to "publicans and harlots," nor is there ever any such reason given. He does not set a premium upon vice — God forbid! — but all natural laws, and all His government among men operate against it. Even the infidel, as to Scripture, allows in nature a "power that makes for righteousness" — meaning by that too just what the Pharisee would mean. Thus the father's, "Son, thou art ever with me," has its basis of truth.
To make out the complete meaning, however, we must certainly supplement it with something else than this. That there was inward nearness to the father upon the son's part is impossible to believe: he had never rewarded his toil with even a kid for festivity with his friends! And in truth the Father makes no provision for merriment elsewhere, and would have no "friends" recognized outside His household.
There was no real nearness to the father, then, in this elder son, and we cannot supplement thus the thought of his outward nearness. What remains for us? Surely as to the younger, so to the elder, it was the father's heart that spoke; and from his side, "Thou art ever near me," tells of One who is not distant from His creatures, in whose heart they dwell near indeed. Yes, He is not far from every one of us; and of this He would persuade the Pharisee no less than the prodigal. "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
But "all that I have is thine"? That is plainly an earthly portion, not a heavenly. If we look at the beginning of the parable, we find that the father had divided between his two sons his living. The younger had spent his portion, wasted it with harlots, — plainly the earthly things, which God does entirely divide to His offspring by creation. To the elder, there still belonged his: he had not squandered it, and it was all that was left. Heavenly grace, when it bestows the best robe, does not thereby give back the lost health, the wasted substance, the natural things which may be gone forever. These things belong still to the prudent and careful liver, such as the elder son was. The meaning here should be very plain, and God would thus appeal to those who, receiving daily from His hand, are yet content to live in practical distance from Him. "The goodness of God leadeth to repentance."
But He keeps to His grace: "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."