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An Exposition Of The Gospels by The Most Rev. John Macevilly D.D.

In this chapter, our Lord puts forward three parables, illustrative of the great and tender mercy of God towards sinners. The first, of the lost sheep (1–7). The second, of the lost piece of silver (8–11.) The third, and most affecting of all, of the prodigal son (12–32).

1. Now the Publicans,” &c. Among the multitudes who followed our Lord (chap. 14:25), were to be found “Publicans” (see Matthew 9:10). “And sinners,” that is, other public and well-known sinners, who were drawn to Him by His heavenly doctrine, by His promise of pardon on the condition of doing penance, by the experience they had of the merciful meekness displayed by Him towards the most abandoned sinners, while, towards the Pharisees and others reputed just, they knew Him to display the most marked sternness.

The Greek has, “all the Publicans,” &c., that is, many of them used to approach Him without reserve, when an opportunity offered.

“Drew near to Him,” is interpreted by Maldonatus, were wont to draw near to Him, thus denoting custom, and not referring to any one particular occasion.

2. “The Pharisees,” &c. These men were probably among those who were rebuked by our Lord at Simon’s feast (14:15). Wherever our Lord appeared in public, in the discharge of His sacred mission, the Pharisees were to be found tracking His steps, for the purpose of narrowly watching all He did and said, with the view of having wherewith to accuse Him.

“Murmured.” When they should have praised Him for His clemency, they spoke to the people in terms of censure and reproach (see Matthew 9:10; Luke 5:30). These hypocrites erroneously supposed that, as in the case of legal defilement caused by contact with any unclean object, their souls were defiled by contact with sinners.

“This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” Very likely, our Lord was invited by these men to partake of food, after His discourses. He was pleased to accept such invitations. Hence, the words mean, He takes food with them, on all occasions.

3. In order to refute them, although undeserving of any answer, our Lord, with His accustomed mildness, addresses to them the following parables, or similitudes, of the lost sheep, of the lost piece of money, and of the prodigal son, with a view of showing how agreeable and pleasing to God is the conversion of sinners; with what great care they should be sought after; with what great clemency they should be received back. He thus justifies His own conduct, and conveys, that if the Pharisees had the least share in the Spirit of God, far from murmuring, they should rejoice at seeing the mercy displayed by our Lord towards sinners, His solicitude and loving condescension in their regard. These examples, or parables, are founded on the daily and ordinary occurrences of life.

4. The straying sheep is frequently employed in SS. Scripture, to represent the sinner straying from the ways of God (Isaias 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25). By “the ninety-nine sheep,” St. Ambrose understands, the heavenly hosts whom our Lord left in heaven, and came to redeem “the one that was lost;” which, according to St. Ambrose—in hunc locum—represents human nature, or lost man. This “sheep,” though but one, represents many; since we all together, while constituting one body, are many members. “For, the Son of Man was come to seek and save what was lost” (Matthew 18:11), that is to say, all men. “For, as all die in Adam; so all shall revive again in Christ” (1 Cor. 15) “Let us rejoice, that this sheep which was lost in Adam, is found again, and carried back by Jesus Christ. The arms in which He carries it, are the arms of His cross.… This rich Pastor, of whose flock we form only the one hundredth part, has an infinity of other blessed spirits, whom He leaves behind Him in the heavenly mountains, who share in His joy, and rejoice with Him upon the redemption of the human race” (St Ambrose). It, however, more probably refers to an individual sinner, who, by sin against faith or morals, separates himself from the society of the good, as appears from the conclusion, “one sinner doing penance” (v. 10). Hence, the lost sheep and groat clearly refer to some one sinful man returning to God by penance, rather than to the entire human race. Our Lord, in this example, means to give an idea of the magnitude of the loss of one, since, to recover it, He postpones the care of others for a time.

5. “Rejoicing,” with a singular feeling of joy. Not that the lost one is loved or valued more than the ninety-nine, who were free from danger. Our Lord meant only to convey, that the Pastor experiences a sensible feeling of joy, on account of finding this lost one, which he did not experience on account of the others. Men often feel greater joy on account of some unexpected turn of fortune, even of lesser value, than they do on account of their former acquisitions, though far more valuable than what they unexpectedly acquire. Men experience a more sensible feeling of joy on the recovery of an article of inferior value, after it had been lost, than they do for articles of greater value, safely secured. This joy partly arises from the opposite feeling of sorrow which they before sensibly experienced, and which is now removed.

6. From this we see the great, exuberant joy, which he could not confine to himself, but felt forced to communicate to his neighbours, and to all his friends. This, as appears from the following verse, denotes the joy caused by the conversion of a sinner, to the citizens of heaven, viz., our Lord as man, the angels, and souls of the just, who are admitted to the presence and beatific vision of God.

7. This is the application of the above similitude, from which our Lord wishes us to infer, that far from murmuring at His tenderness and mercy towards sinners—these lost sheep, whom He wishes to bring back to the fold of His Heavenly Father—the Pharisees should rather rejoice with the angels of God on seeing it. The “one sinner that doth penance,” may refer to the entire human race plunged in sin, before the Incarnation of our Lord. For them, penance is the only means of appeasing God, and sharing in the fruits of His redemption, who bore our sins, and carried us in His arms on the cross. Or, it may denote some individual sinner, converted by the grace of God, and returning by penance, to join the just in the Church, who were preserved from falling into grievous sins, and straying away from God.

7. “There shall be joy in heaven,” both with Christ, as man, the Supreme Pastor, and the angels and just souls, who are “his neighbours and friends” there. The words, “shall be,” refer to the future abode of our Lord as man, and of the just souls, in heaven, which they did not yat enter; or, “shall be,” may signify is, or, is wont to be. By the “ninety-nine just who need not penance,” are commonly understood, not such men as are altogether sinless, since we all cry out daily, “forgive us our trespasses,” &c., but, men who are free from mortal sin, and need not a change of heart or life, such as penance implies, and especially need not such penance as those require who are great sinners.

As to the comparison between the feeling of joy in heaven, which is said to be greater in case of one converted sinner, than in that of ninety-nine just men, it is not to be understood, as if the salvation of one were a greater good than that of ninety-nine, or that God loves or esteems one man more than ninety-nine, but that He feels greater actual present and sensible joy from the recovery of the lost one, than for the ninety-nine—first, on account of the unexpected suddenness of the pleasure succeeding the pain which the loss had caused him (see Matthew 18:12, 13); 2ndly, because the converted sinner usually displays far greater fervour, owing to his gratitude for the recovery and bestowal of God’s friendship, than is displayed by those who do not sensibly feel the sweets of God’s returning friendship. The great joy which the conversion of a sinner brings to God and His angels justifies our Lord against the calumnies of His enemies.

This passage furnishes a crushing reply to those who object to the doctrine of the Invocation of Saints, on the ground that they know not what occurs on this earth. In the first place, the assertion that the saints know nothing of what passes on earth, is utterly gratuitous, hazarded without any proof from Scripture or Tradition. Wherever in Scripture there is allusion to absence of knowledge on the part of the dead, there can be no reference whatever to the saints, who live with God in glory. For, in proving the Resurrection against the Sadducees, our Lord, by calling Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, &c., shows that these still live. For, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). The saints, therefore, live with God in glory. Again, when it is said in Scripture, that the saints know not their children on earth, it means, that they disown them on account of their sins, just as God knows not the workers of iniquity.

Secondly, we have in this passage the clearest evidence that the saints and angels in heaven do know what occurs on earth. For, they rejoice at the conversion of individual sinners scattered all over the earth. What is said of the angels, applies equally to the just, who “shall be as the angels of God.” If they did not know of the conversion of the sinners, how could they feel joy thereat. In the Book of Tobias (12:12), the Angel Raphael tells Tobias that when engaged in acts of mercy he prayed with tears, he (Raphael) offered up his prayers to the Lord. How offer them up unless he knew of them?

But, if it be asked how can the angels and saints know what passes in different parts of the earth? our only answer is, we cannot say. Whether it be through the medium of visual rays or undulating sounds; or whether, as is more probable, they see all things in God, who makes this knowledge a portion of their beatitude, is perfectly unknown to us. How God communicates this knowledge to them we know not, nor does it concern us to know. It is sufficient for us to know and believe the revealed fact, or doctrine. The mode in which that fact is accomplished is quite another question, beyond our knowledge and comprehension.

And, let us ask those, who reject the doctrine of the Invocation of Saints—the truth of which is revealed in Scripture, and proposed by the Church—simply because they cannot understand the mode of its existence, do they understand the mode of the existence of everything else they believe, or affect to believe, before admitting it? The first truth of either natural or revealed religion is, that there is one God, existing from eternity, filling heaven and earth with His immensity, in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Do they understand God’s eternal existence and glorious immensity? The first truth, which is the foundation of the Christian faith, is, the mystery of the Trinity—one God, in three distinct Divine persons—the Nature, in which these persons are one, and the Personality, by which they are distinguished, being one and the same thing. Do they understand how this is? Do they understand the mystery of the Incarnation; viz., how the Second Person of the adorable Trinity united human nature so perfectly to Him, that you can say of God, that He is man, and of man, that He is God, “et verbum caro factum est.” Do they understand this? Do they understand the mysterious and awful doctrine of Original Sin, how “all sinned in one,” how all were punished with death for the sin of that one, and all rendered liable to be excluded, on account of it, from the beatific vision of God? Do they understand how our Lord is really, truly, and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist, in that mode of existence, which, although we can hardly express in words, we still believe through faith, as the Council of Trent expresses it? (§ xiii., c. 1.) Do they understand the mysteries of nature, how the soul animates the body? &c., &c.

In truth, without unnecessarily multiplying further instances, if we were to reject everything, the mode of whose existence or accomplishment we cannot comprehend, there is scarcely a religious truth or natural phenomenon which we should not reject.

8–10. This second example is also intended to show the joy there is in heaven for the conversion of a sinner. Its scope is the same as that of the parable of the lost sheep. Some Commentators observe, that the parable chiefly regards, not so much the “groat,” which was hardly deserving of all the care and anxiety referred to,—since it was but a comparatively trifling coin, upon which was impressed the image of the reigning prince,—as the thing represented by “the groat,” viz., the immortal soul of man, impressed with the image and likeness of God. It was meant, like the former similitude, to refute the Pharisees, who, like the angels of heaven, should rather rejoice than murmur, at seeing sinners returning to God by the road of penance.

11. The scope of this third example is the same as that of the two preceding ones, viz., to show the great mercy of God, His joy on the return of the sinner. Hence, the Pharisees should rather commend our Lord for conversing with sinners, with a view to their return to God, than murmur, as they had ungenerously done. In the former examples, we are taught how great is the anxiety and solicitude of God in procuring the conversion of sinners; in the third, viz., that of the prodigal son, so feelingly descriptive of the reckless life of the sinner, of his penance and pardon, we are taught how great are the benignity and joy with which God receives him on his return; all brought about, whether there be question of seeking the sinner or of receiving him back when divinely inspired to return, by the attracting force and assistance of God’s own preventing and efficacious graces, without which the sinner could neither conceive a good thought conducive to salvation, nor advance a single step in the ways of justice.

“A certain man,” who represents, according to all, Almighty God; or, what comes to the same, our Divine Redeemer Himself, who became “man,” for our sakes.

“Two sons.” According to St. Augustine (Lib. 2, Quæst. Evang.), and others, these “two sons” represent two peoples, the Jews and Gentiles, the “elder,” the Jews; the “younger,” the Gentiles. But although the parable or example might, in an allegorical sense, apply to these different peoples, the more so, as the murmuring of the Pharisees, represented by the murmuring of the elder brother, might be regarded as the prelude to the indignation of the Jewish people afterwards, on seeing the Gospel transferred to the Gentiles; still, the “two sons,” more probably, refer to the just, or those reputed just, such as the Pharisees; and to the public sinners, the Publicans and harlots, whom our Lord graciously received and conversed with. For, besides that the Gentiles could hardly be said to be sons of God, having been estranged from Him, it was in reference to the murmuring of the Pharisees at our Lord’s condescension towards sinners, who were Jews; and for the purpose of justifying His conduct, that this and the two preceding parables were introduced. Some parts of the parable would better suit those who are really just; while other parts of it, such as, for instance, the murmuring and envy of the “elder brother” (verses 27–29), would hardly suit these, who could not be properly represented, as feeling anger or jealous envy at the reconciliation of sinners. Unless, perhaps, it might be said, that this latter part of the parable, from verse 21, to the end, was merely ornamental, having no place in the application, which, as Tertullian observes, we need not trouble ourselves in explaining “nec valde laboramus omnia in expositione torquere” (Tertullian de Pudicitia, chap. 8, 9); or, that the jealousy expressed, merely signifies that such is the benignity of God towards sinners, such the abundance of graces, such the happiness He mercifully bestows, that it would be calculated to beget feelings of jealousy and envy even among the very elect.

12. “The younger,” borne forward by the impetuosity of youthful passions, becomes impatient of paternal restraint.

“The portion of the substance,” a fair and equitable portion, that would fall to me, in case of your death, or my marriage engagement. According to the Roman and Jewish laws, a man’s property was entailed on his children after his death in equal portions, save that the first-born received a double portion. Hence, the father was not permitted to dispose of his property arbitrarily. Sometimes, a father during his lifetime, distributed his property in the above proportions, with certain reservations in regard to his own and his wife’s support.

“And he divided to him his substance.” The Greek word, βιος, signifies life, or the substance, necessary for the support of life. He gave them their respective portions of his substance, to be freely used by them. It is not said, if the elder received his; but it is understood from the parable, that having received his portion also, he left it to be wisely administered, with the rest of his father’s goods, under the guardianship and care of his father.

The words of this verse convey, that God, having created man, and having endowed him with several gifts of nature and grace, “left him free in the hand of his own counsel” (Eccles. 15:14), to the full exercise of free will, which He, if invoked, will assist by His grace. They also convey that there are some who foolishly imagine, that they can employ their goods and gifts without any further need of God’s protection or dependence on His providential care, as is conveyed here in the case of the prodigal.

13. “Not many days after.” His youthful impetuosity hurried him headlong, to carry out without delay his purpose of gratifying his passions.

“Gathering all together.” Converting into money, all the property at his disposal.

“Went abroad into a far country,” to be far away from paternal admonition and vigilance, the more to indulge in unrestrained gratification. Applied to the sinner, this does not mean distance of place; but, of affection, “sciendum non locorum spatiis, sed affectu, aut nos esse cum Deo aut ab eo discedere” (St. Jerome, Ep. 146). It is “oblivion of God” (St. Augustine, Lib. Quæst. Evang. c. 33).

Of Cain, it is said, that “he went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth” (Gen. 4:16), after he had committed the unnatural crime of slaying his brother.

“And there wasted his substance by living riotously;” “devouring his substance with harlots” (v. 30). This conveys to us, that the sinner abused all the gifts of nature and grace, and turned them against their very Author. This abuse embraces not only carnal sins, strictly so called, but all kinds of sins, whereby man perverts the gifts and graces of God.

14. This unhappy young man having squandered all the gifts of nature and of grace; with his intellect rendered darker; his will, more and more inclined to evil; living among wicked associates, now falls into great want of spiritual bread; viz:, the Word of God, and of the virtues whereby the mind is nourished and strengthened. Now destitute of everything, he finds that a great famine prevails in the country, which renders it hard even for the rich to preserve life, and, therefore; much more difficult for this destitute young stranger. This renders the subsequent part of the parable more probable, relating to his having hired himself to one of the citizens of the country, and having submitted to the most menial and revolting occupation to sustain life.

In its application to the sinner, St. Augustine understands the famine of the want of the Word of Truth (Lib. 2, Quæst. 33, in Quæst. Evangel.; so do Bede and Theophylact). St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, Euthymius—of the want of all virtues. In the region of luxury, of lust and pleasure, there is no room for virtue. In the pressure of spiritual famine, this wretched young man felt the want of the Word of God, exhortation, admonition, also of the sacraments, to help him to correct his depraved morals; hence, he is sent to feed swine.

15. We here see the dreadful condition he was reduced to, and the pressure of want which forced him to join himself to “one of the citizens of the country.” No employment, ever so menial or degrading, is too low for him, in order to avert death from famine. He becomes more and more estranged from God. This “citizen” is generally understood of the Prince of demons, of whom he becomes the slave. What an exchange for the miserable sinner, who cannot bear to be dependent on God, his loving Father, to become the slave of impure demons, bound over hand and foot, to them, and still more estranged from God. What masters compared with the loving Father whom he left! What slavery in comparison with the liberty of the children of God!

“He sent him into his farm to feed swine.” The most degrading condition in all countries to which a man could be reduced; but particularly degrading among the Jews, on account of their peculiar abhorrence of these unclean animals, and the provisions of the Jewish law in reference to them.

In their application to the sinner, these words show the utter degradation of those who commit sinful deeds, and glory in their shame; and the deep feeling of humiliation they should experience in considering their state, is compared by the Son of God with that of the man who was reduced to the degrading condition of feeding swine.

16. “He would fain,” &c., shows the extreme want to which the sinner is reduced. To this the Holy Ghost refers, according to St. Jerome. when he describes the wretched condition of the sinner under the figure of Jerusalem, that had gratuitously prostituted herself and received no recompense (Ezechiel 16:34).

“And no one gave unto him.” Here are probably understood the words, nutritious food, or bread, or food fit for human use; since, he needed not, that any one would give him of “the husks” which he was dealing out to the swine, unless it be meant that the husks should be distributed according to measure, to the swine; and that even of these he had not remaining what he would wish to use for satisfying the cravings of hunger; it may be, that this cruel master was more concerned for the wants of his cattle than of his domestics—a thing not altogether uncommon in this hard world. The former seems the more probable, since, of the husks, no one could give him or allow him any save the master himself. What a just retribution on him who squandered his property luxuriously on others, now to find no one to stretch him in his dire distress, a morsel of bread.

These “husks,” according to some, meant the rind or outward covering of grain, given to swine, and utterly unfit for human use; according to others, a kind of pulse or acorn, usually given to swine. Considering the dire famine above referred to, the former is the more probable. In their application to the case of the sinner, they denote the hollow emptiness and utter worthlessness of sinful gratification to satisfy the craving of the human soul for that happiness for which it was created, since God alone can satisfy the human heart. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is not at rest till it rest in Thee” (St. Augustine).

17. Like one recovering from an unconscious state of drunkenness or sleep, the prodigal, “returning to himself,” remembers his father’s house. This is very intelligible in the parable, inasmuch, as it usually happens, that temporal privations and misfortunes have the effect of making men enter into themselves and consider the foolish and extravagant conduct that caused all the misery and want that came upon them. “Vexation alone shall make you understand what you hear” (Isaias 28:19). In its application to the sinner, it means that although the prolonged habit of sin generally renders men more insensible and more callous in regard to their miserable condition; still, God sometimes employs great spiritual destitution and want, particularly in the case of those who before had tasted His heavenly sweetness, to make men enter into themselves, aided by His heavenly grace, without which they could not entertain a single thought conducive to salvation. Here God, by His preventing grace, rouses the sinner from the lethargic sleep of spiritual death in which he was sunk, and brings him back to himself to consider his miserable state. This opening of his eyes to a consciousness of his own condition and to a sense of the Divine mercy, was the first grace, the first motion of penance which God mercifully accorded to him, and thus stimulated him to further exertions to go forth from his miserable state and seek reconciliation with his offended and outraged father.

“How many hired servants in my father’s house,” &c. “By hired servants” (mercenarii), are meant, those who work for daily wages. The contrast or antithesis here is very striking. “Hired servants.” Strangers to the household, having bread in abundance and to spare in the father’s house, while the son of that household, far away in a strange land, is perishing from hunger, in want of the commonest food.

By “hired servants,” or, mercenaries, St. Jerome (Ep. 146) understands, those among the Jewish people who observed the law from love of temporal goods; and who, being just, by the justice of the law, and also merciful, were such, not from the love of justice or mercy; but from the motive of receiving from God, according to promise, a long and happy life in this world. What is said of the Jews, St. Jerome observes, might generally apply to those in the Church, the house of God, our Father, who act well, not from love, as dutiful children should do, but, from a mercenary fear of punishment and a desire of temporal recompense.

As the prodigal in the application of the parable to sinners, who departed from God, suffered from spiritual want, from a privation of the blessings of grace and spiritual gifts, the abundance “of bread,” therefore, which the mercenaries enjoyed in His Father’s house, must refer to spiritual blessings; and these must be, in one sense, sons of God, but of an inferior class, who acted principally from the hope of remuneration, as mercenaries do, and not from the pure and more exalted motives of filial love. They are of that class referred to by David, “Inclinavi cor meum ad faciendas justificationes tuas … propter retributionem.” Whereas, the children in the more exalted sense are represented by those of whom he speaks, “Quomodo dilexi legem tuam, tota die meditatio mea est?” “Levavi manus meas ad mandata tua quæ dilexi.” It may be, the words have no application at all, in the parable, and are only introduced ornamentally, to convey the deep consciousness of his degradation and misery on the part of the prodigal, contrasting his own miserable degraded condition with the happiness of those who were his inferiors; or, if applied, it may designate those, who were of no consideration in the Church compared with him, before he fell away from God. The first step in the prodigal’s recession from God was oblivion of God. Hence, his first step in returning is remembrance of God and of the things of His house.

18. Now that the grace of God has opened his eyes and touched his heart, he does not tarry long, aided by the same grace, in taking a firm resolution. He determines at once to abandon the wretched condition and place he was in, and to throw himself on the mercy and forgiveness of Him whom he knew to have still for him the bowels of tenderness and the compassion of a Father.

“I will arise”—a Hebrew form of expressing the commencement of energetic action, or it may be allusive to the sluggish state of sin, in which he lay, the mire in which he was wallowing. I will leave this wretched country—these gloomy shadows of death.

“And will go to my father.” I will hasten to cast myself at the feet of “my father,” who has still the patient bowels of mercy for me. “I shall confess my injustice to him” (Psalm 31:5), humbly acknowledge my innumerable offences against God and man; against heaven and earth.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven.” In the mouth of the prodigal, looking on his father as a mere earthly parent, whom he offended, the words will mean, I have committed sins against God in heaven, and offended thee, and scandalized my fellow-creatures on earth. I have committed innumerable sins against heaven and earth. But, viewed in reference to God, “against heaven and before thee,” mean the same. Or, “before thee,” might mean, I have sinned against heaven; and, to aggravate my fault, I committed it in thy very presence, who fillest all space, and art everywhere present, with Thy glorious immensity.

19. “No more worthy to be called thy son,” to be reinstated in the same place of exalted dignity I forfeited. The parable supposes him to occupy the most dignified place in his father’s household. He now only asks to be admitted into his father’s house, and restored to his favour, on any terms, be they ever so humble. “Make me one of thy hired servants.” Let me now be admitted back into the ranks of the humblest of the faithful within Thy holy Church. These humble sentiments, inspired by God’s grace, this resolution to confess his iniquity, were pleasing to God, who looks to the humble. “Humilia respicit et alta a longe cognoscit;” “Exaltat humiles.” The prodigal entertained feelings of humble sorrow in his heart, with a determination to confess his sins, as he afterwards did (v. 21). But he had not yet done so, as is observed by St. Augustine (Quæst. Evangel. 23, Lib. 2).

20. “And rising up, he came to his father.” He was not long in carrying out his resolve under the inspirations of Divine grace.

“And when he was yet a great way off,” &c. This represents to us, in vivid colours, the infinite mercy and amiable condescension of God in dealing with sinners. This beneficent Father does not wait at home till His son appears before him, humbled to the earth and crying for forgiveness and confessing his faults. No, His bowels of paternal affection are moved. “He saw him” coming. He beheld the miserable plight, the sad condition he was reduced to. Far from rejecting or spurning him from his presence, “he was moved to compassion.” All his parental love is now excited, and he has compassion on his fallen, degraded son. He gives him the most sensible proof of his affection. Although the parable may be understood of the general fruits of Redemption, resulting from the Incarnation of our Lord, when “God so loved the world, as to give up for it His only begotten Son” (John 3:16), and gave us the kiss of peace, when “afar off” (Ephes. 2), reconciling us through Jesus Christ, who, on His part, came from afar, descending from heaven, for that end; still, it in a more special way, vividly represents the infinite mercy and loving condescension of Almighty God in regard to particular sinners whom He inspires to return to Him by penance. By His preventing graces, He attracts them: infuses into them the spirit of true contrition; thus admitting them to His loving, paternal embraces, and giving them the kiss of reconciliation and peace.

21. His sincere sorrow now finds vent in the humble confession of his guilt, on which he had already resolved (v. 18, 19). St. Augustine observes (Lib. 2 Quæst. Evangel, c. 33), that the prodigal stops short in the confession he proposed making. He now omits saying, “make me as one of thy hired servants.” This may have arisen from his seeing the great love manifested by his father now receiving him back once more as his son; and hence, the prodigal would not undervalue it by seeking a lower place. Overpowered by his father’s beneficent goodness, he thinks it unnecessary. St. Augustine says, he omitted it from a feeling of generosity. He disdains to exhibit a servile spirit towards him, who exhibits loving signs of paternal affection; or, it may be, his father interrupted him, before he came to that part, by telling his servants, “Bring forth quickly the first robe” (v. 22). Some hold that the prodigal did utter these words; but, that St. Luke omits recording them, as being easily perceived from what preceded. Unmindful of his former outrages, this good father with wonderful celerity pardons him, and clothes him in the robes suited to his original dignity.

22. “The first stole,” “the ring,” “and shoes,” indicate that he was admitted to his former place of dignity, which he had forfeited. “The first,” that is, excellent, “stole,” a robe worn only by the children of distinguished houses. The particle, “the stole,” would point to the garment he wore in his father’s house, and left behind him, on his departure for the journey to the distant country, in which he wrecked his fortune and character. This robe represents charity, which covers a multitude of sins, and sanctifying grace, the chief ornament of the soul, now once more restored to him—the distinctive robe of the sons of God, with which those who are “baptized are clad” (Galatians 3:27), being clothed “with the new man,” &c. (Ephes. 4:24.)

The “ring,” which was a mark of dignity among the Easterns, an ornament of the rich, and a pledge of solemn engagements, denotes the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul. “In hoc cognoscimus quoniam in eo manemus et ipse in nobis quoniam de spiritu suo dedit nobis.” (John 4) “In quem credentes signati estis spiritu vromissionis sancto.” (Ephes. 6)

The putting of “the ring on his hand,” denotes, according to some Expositors, the performance of good works, consequent on his conversion.

“Shoes on his feet,” which servants or slaves were not allowed, denote promptitude and readiness to walk in the way of virtue, and to preach the glad tidings of reconciliation and its sweets to others. (Ephes. 6) The “shoes” were given to guard his feet in the way of virtue, from impinging against a stone, or any scandalous obstruction, that might cause him to fall. Among the ornaments with which the Lord promised to adorn Jerusalem in crowning her with gifts, was to have her magnificently shod (Ezech. 16:10); and the Jews were ordered by Moses, to have their feet shod, as a preparation for eating the Paschal lamb (Exod. 12:24), which was a figure of the “fatted calf,” mentioned here. They are a part of the spiritual ornaments necessary to render a soul pleasing to God. By the grace which they typify, we may “now walk according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:4), and with it, under the protection of the Most High, “walk upon the asp and basilisk, and trample under foot the lion and the dragon” (Psalm 90:13), unto the preparation of the Gospel of peace. It is necessary to be clothed with the virtues typified by the above ornaments, suited only to the sons of the household, in order to be allowed to partake of “the fatted calf” (v. 23).

23. “The fatted calf.” The article, in the Greek, would indicate that there is question of a “calf” fattened and reserved for some occasion of special rejoicing like the present. Some understand this, of the fulness and abundance of heavenly graces, peace, and interior joy in the Holy Ghost, which God plentifully bestows on sinners after their conversion and return to Him. Others understand it, of the Holy Eucharist, of which St. Augustine says: “Although God be omnipotent, He can do no more; although infinitely wise, He can contrive nothing greater; although infinitely rich, He can give nothing greater.” Regarding which, the Council of Trent also declares (§ 13, c. 2), “that in it our amiable Saviour poured forth all the riches of His love for man.” This is the greatest gift, the most precious pledge of His love that God can give to men. It was the last proof of his affection, that he ordered his servants to bring forth on the occasion of the rejoicings for his lost child.

24. All this denotes the great joy there is in heaven over the conversion of a penitent sinner. “My son.” He does not disdain to bestow on him the original title—so endearing—of “son.” “Was dead,” reputed such, owing to his long absence; and in its spiritual application to the sinner, really dead to God and to grace, “and is come to life again,” by a spiritual resurrection from the grave of sin. “Was lost,” &c. This clause is but an explanation of the preceding, expressed in different words and in a different form.

“And they began to be merry.” The whole household. This indicates the great joy there is in heaven over the conversion of a sinner.

25–27. This refers to an imaginary detail of the parable, which naturally fits into the literal narrative, as a thing that might occur; and it well suits, as a natural introduction to the cause of the jealous feelings expressed in v. 28, by the elder brother.

28. If by the elder brother, we understand those really just; then, the jealousy expressed only conveys, that such is the abundance of gifts which God bestows on converted sinners, that it would be calculated to excite the jealousy of the just themselves, although this cannot be, since the just always rejoice at the conversion of sinners. But the words taken in the above sense, convey the magnitude of the graces conferred on the penitent sinner (Euthymius).

If the words refer to those only reputed just, such as the Scribes and Pharisees, in reference to whose murmurs at our Lord’s condescension to sinners, they are introduced; then, the passage conveys a deep reproach to the Scribes and Pharisees. For, as no one would censure the benevolent father referred to in the parable, for his great kindness and loving condescension and merciful forgiveness towards his lost child, whom he went half way to meet, and feasted with; so, neither should the Pharisees murmur at the like conduct on the part of our Lord when eating with sinners with a view to reclaim them; and as the elder son was blameable for these feelings of mumuring jealousy; so were the Pharisees, who were typified in him.

The elder son may be said, under different respects and circumstances, to typify the really just and the reputed just, such as the Scribes and Pharisees. He represented the really just, inasmuch as he remained with his father and observed his mandates. But, inasmuch as he spoke disparagingly of his father, looking on himself as just, and his brother a sinner, he represented the murmurs and scornful arrogance of the Pharisees. It was only as representing these latter, he is said, in the parable, to express murmurs and jealousy. How admirably the amiable condescension of the loving father is depicted here. He goes out to this jealous son. He gently remonstrates with him (v. 31), pointing out the great advantage he always possessed in enjoying the plenty of his father’s house, and in being made partaker of all his goods.

So, those whom God by His grace preserved from sin—for without His grace and assistance, any one, no matter how just, would commit, at times, the greatest crimes—should always be grateful to their good God, who wonderfully preserved them, and should compassionate those who were not equally blessed.

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