On the Parable of the Prodigal

Luke history
the history and the mystery
Luke 15:11­_ to the end [1]

No. 1

Luke 15:11-12      Vol 1
And he said, A certain man had two sons:
And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.
And he divided unto them his living.
When we think of the perfection of our Lord's character, the wisdom of his discourses, and the goodness and compassion which he manifested in his wonderful works, we are at first ready to think it strange that he was not universally received. But when we rightly understand what the Scripture teaches of the depravity of the heart of man, it is no longer surprising to hear that though he spake as never man spake [2] he was slighted and opposed, and particularly so by those who accounted themselves and were accounted by others the Wise and the Good. These were the whole, who needed not a Physician. [3] The most of his few followers were of the lower sort, and many of them far from being able to boast of their obedience, had been vile to a proverb, publicans and sinners. To some of these who were spiritually enlightened to feel their misery, and to see his power to save, he was welcome. They heard him gladly and followed him from place to place. And they likewise were welcome to him. He received them graciously, and was not unwilling to be called (what the Pharisees intended as the keenest reproach) their friend. To comfort them against the scorn of their enemies, and to set forth his gracious readiness to receive all who come to him for mercy, he delivered the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost piece of money. This of the prodigal as we usually call it, is to the same purpose, but enlarged by many beautiful and instructive circumstances, and the latter part seems more directly designed to silence the proud cavils of the Scribes and Pharisees and of all who are activated by the same spirit. At this time, I can only enter upon the subject from these first verses.
A certain man had two sons
Our business here is to endeavour in general to illustrate the Lord's dealings with the children of men, from this affecting representation of the conduct of a good father towards his two sons. If we find a difficulty in applying every circumstance of the parable, we may at least attend to the principal scope. It is said indeed a parable does not go upon all fours, which I believe is a proper hint to preachers and expositors, the best of whom labour under much remaining darkness, that we should not endeavour to hide our own ignorance, by fanciful and laboured explications of what we do not understand. But when I consider who spoke this parable, I am ready to think there is not a single expression, but has an important meaning, whether we are able to discover that meaning or no. It has hitherto been my desire, and I hope always will be, to go upon sure ground, not to attempt to teach what I cannot prove, or put you off with conjectures instead of truth. In every parable there is the outward letter and [meaning] in the inward sense – the history and the mystery. The sense and mystery of this parable sets for the grace of God to sinners – to this I shall chiefly attend, but as the letter or history of the parable, may sometimes afford a ground for profitable observations, I shall not pass it wholly unnoticed.
By the certain man, the Lord intends to lead our thoughts to himself under the character of a tender and compassionate father. He is the Father of all by creation, and as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is in an especial sense the Father of his chosen people. The first question, and it is a point of difficulty, is, how we are to apply the distinction here, of the two sons. It may not be amiss to mention some different sentiments on this head.
1. Some think they represent the two great branches of God's family, angels and men, an opinion which seems countenanced by some parts of the foregoing parables. By the fall of man, the Lord might be said to have lost one sheep out of his flock, one piece out of his treasure. Sin deprived him of a part of the revenue of his glory. He was rich enough to bear the loss – though men had been forever ruined, he would have been happy in himself, and surrounded with countless millions of happy servants, the angels. But though the mention of this opinion may give us occasion to admire his distinguishing love to mankind, I cannot think this the sense – the carriage of the elder brother is directly opposite to what is said of the angels, that they rejoice over one sinner that repenteth.
[2.] Some by the two brothers understand the churches of the Jews and Gentiles. He is evidently an elder and a younger, a prodigal received with favour, and the conduct of the Jews was much answerable to that of the elder brother – but our Lord seems to have spoken the parable occasionally, and for the use of those to whom he spoke it – and it is probable that neither the Pharisees or the Publicans had any notion of the calling of the Gentile church.
[3.] Some think that as our Lord evidently designed the younger brother's reception, for the encouragement of the publicans and sinners, so he sets forth the proud, self-righteous Pharisees by the elder. Nothing seems against this, but the words, Thou art ever with me, and even these may be interpreted as spoken by way of concession – as they are elsewhere called the children of the kingdom.
I think with respect to our own improvement of the passage, and as applied to our own times, we may make it thus:
1. By the elder brother may be meant religious professors [4] in general –
  1.1 The self-righteous
Like him they boast of their own obedience – confess themselves strangers to the joys and comforts of experimental religion, and despise and hate all who profess to know more of these things than they do themselves.
  1.2 True believers
If it should be asked, What, can true believers be displeased at the conversion of sinners, and be angry when prodigals obtain mercy? I might answer by asking, Can they not? If indeed they are called by the instruments we love, added to our own party, led just in our way, and agree with us to a hairsbreadth in judgement, we are under no great temptation to be angry. But let them that know their hearts, confess with me what even believers are capable of. The Lord forbid that I should unchristian all, who have been more or less displeased with what he has wrought even in our own days and in our own sight. Many may say, Not the world only but my mother's children have been angry with me. I believe prejudice and a party spirit has often made true Christians act unworthy of their characters in this respect, and deprived them of a share in the joy of angels. Again, did you never feel a displeasure rising in your mind, when you heard another speak of that joy and comfort in the Lord which seemed to you, more than you had experienced yourself? You have perhaps waited long upon the Lord and for the most part gone heavy and mourning – when you have seen a prodigal quickly called and quickly comforted, the fatted calf killed for him, and not so much as a kid for you, have you not been ready to think if not to say, It's well if all be right, I am sure I find it quite otherwise. And if some such have declined afterwards, instead of grieving for them, have not you rather congratulated your own judgement and said, I thought what it would come to! Alas, the spirit of the elder brother cleaves closer to us than we are aware. The Lord help us to discover it and to mourn over it.
2. The younger brother, represents the case of the Lord's people, before their conversion, the steps by which he brings them to himself, and the gracious manner in which he receives them. On these things we shall have occasion if the Lord please to enlarge hereafter.
You that are in the prodigal's state, abusing the Lord's mercies, and feeding upon husks – O may you, like him, come to yourselves, be restored to your right minds. See what goodness you are sinning against. Hear him say, Thou hast done evil things as thou couldst, yet return unto me, saith the Lord. [5]

[1] Although this notebook is undated, Newton’s form of expression seems of an early style. Since his Olney sermon texts are listed in his extant diaries from 1764-1767 and then from 1772-1779, unless this was written in Liverpool, the series looks likely to have been preached on during 1768-1771. The numbering of Newton’s notebooks is not necessarily chronological. No. 2 for instance begins in March 1765, while No. 16 begins in August 1764. It may also be that he copied out this series later for someone – something he was known to do. “Vol 1”, which finished at verse 20, implies that he continued preaching on verses 21-32, as indicated in his heading “to the end” [of the parable, which is also the end of the chapter]. We are not [yet] aware of the existence of “Vol 2” in this series and would love to know if anyone comes across “Vol 2”.
[2] John 7:46 The officers answered, Never man spake like this man.
[3] e.g. Luke 5:31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.
[4] professor – one who professes belief
[5] e.g. Jeremiah 3:1 …but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord.

Lambeth Palace Library MS 2939