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SON, THOU ART EVER WITH ME,
Luke xv. 31, 32.
And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all
that I have is thine. 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.
THESE are the words with which our Saviour concludes his instructive Parable of the Prodigal Son. He was attended, on this occasion, by a very large audience ; for the Evangelist tells us that “all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear him.” They were the very class of persons to profit by his instructions ; inasmuch as they were “the sick who needed the Spiritual Physician.”
The Pharisees, however, and the Scribes, who took every opportunity of depreciating our blessed Lord, and of insulting him when he was engaged in his holy labours, now murmured, and reproached him with “receiving
sinners, and eating with them.' It was this that drew from him the recital of the three parables contained in the chapter of the text, all of which were intended as encouragements to the humble and repentant hearer. The subjects of those parables are the Lost Sheep, the Lost Piece of Money, and the Prodigal Son. The last of the three is the longest. It is stored with most ingenious illustrations; and every circumstance is brought forward that is calculated to affect the heart and improve the understanding, so as to produce an effectual influence on our conduct.
In discoursing on this subject, I shall take the usual method of considering mankind, as divided into the two classes, of sinners and of just persons,— -meaning, by "just persons” those who, as compared with the sinful class, may be styled, in a certain sense, innocent. Our Saviour himself has made this distinction between them; and therefore, we may safely and with propriety adopt it, upon his authority. Reason, indeed, suggests to us, that innocence, or an unsinning obedience, is more valuable, and more esteemed by God and man, than sin, or than a broken and interrupted obedience. The Gospel, however, assures us that there is “joy in heaven;" even when “one sinner” cordially repents, and returns to his duty. That the angels themselves rejoice over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance,” is also one of our Saviour's own assertions,--and can be
shewn to be, in fact, consonant to the voice of reason, and agreeable to all the sensations of our nature. Angels possess not only a higher rank in the creation, but also a higher perfection, than ourselves. They are free from those angry and envious sensations to which men are subject; for they have no feelings of competition, and are above all dread of being excelled or equalled by any thing in human nature. On those points, however, I have elsewhere discoursed in another sermon; and I come now to the instruction which our Saviour meant to convey, as to the behaviour of men, and not of angels.
It is the behaviour of the elder son in the Parable, which now offers itself to our view, and which is generally the least considered, though it is worth our particular attention :—for the other circumstances of the narrative, as they strike immediately upon, and strongly interest, the passions, are apt to withdraw our attention from those which aim only at our reason and judgment.
The elder son, then, is supposed to have been in the field,-engaged in the innocent and useful business of agriculture, or in such contemplations as naturally occur to a good and worthy man, when viewing the God of nature in the beautiful works of his creation. On returning from this occupation to the house of his father, with whom he resided, “he heard music and dancing: and he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.” The servant's answer was, “Thy brother is come: and
thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.” Upon this, the elder brother grew angry. What his thoughts were, is not fully expressed, because it may easily be conceived. We may suppose him to have ruminated in this way: _“What! all this exultation and merriment, for the sake of a giddy youth, who, in the pride and conceit of his heart, was not content with staying at home, but who chose to go away, and be his own uncontrolled master !—who has rambled about the world, wasting his property and ruining his health, in folly and polluted pleasures ! - headstrong, disobedient, prodigal, and profligate !” And is not such indignation natural to a well-disposed person on such an occasion ? Is it not natural to every ingenuous mind to be impressed with a hatred of vice and folly ? Would not a sensation of surprise and disapproval be excited, at first, and before there was time for explanation, in the bosom of any right-thinking young man, when he saw what he supposed to be partiality and doating favour shewn to a profligate and unprincipled person,—even though that person were his own and only brother? A feeling of indignation in such a case is natural. It rises spontaneously in the human breast, and must have time to subside and to correct itself. We cannot, in the generality of cases, repress it in a moment, or without either the serious reflections and mature reasonings of our own minds, or the gentle and prudent suggestions of a friend. The young man to whom the text relates, was indignant; but it was a virtuous indignation. He refused to go into the house ; because he thought that there too much partiality and favour were shewn to the cause of vice and profligacy ;—for to receive with an exulting welcome one who had revelled in dissipation and pursued it to its extreme, and who had quitted it merely because he had no means of pursuing it further, was, in his estimation, a sanction and encouragement to vice itself. His father came out to him ;-and excellent does the character of this father appear throughout the parable. He did not use the language of remonstrance or of authoritative command, but condescended to intreat his son that he would go in. But the son's anger was not yet subdued,-nor was the feeling of pride and self-love laid to rest in his bosom. He took up the matter, as if it strongly affected bimself; and, in the consciousness of having always deserved well of his father, he could not refrain from expressing a degree of resentment. He charged him with an unjust and officious fondness for his worthless son, and with neglect and niggardliness towards himself, whose conduct had been not only unblamable but actively valuable. “ For many years,” said he,
” said he, “ have I been a slave to you, and at no time have I transgressed your commands. My conduct has always been obedient and dutiful. But when did you make a feast for me, or even indulge me with enjoying at home any social entertainment with my acquaintance and panions? Never. You never so much as gave me