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The John Newton Project

On the Parable of the Prodigal

 

No. 5

Luke 15:15,16
And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
 
 
Some expositors by the citizen understand Satan, but I think this is not agreeable to the scope of the parable. We may consider the prodigal to have [been] in his service from the hour when he first formed the design of leaving his father's house, and all the time he was wasting his substance. This circumstance seems rather added, the more strongly to mark two particulars in the prodigal's case before he came to himself, and which illustrate the state of the Lord's prodigals, when their own follies, or the hand of his providence, or the light of his convincing Spirit, have brought them into a state of famine and distress.
 
1. The great extremity to which he was reduced, that he should offer himself to such an employment. Here we may observe that our Lord spoke this parable in Judea, where swine were looked upon as unclean creatures, and unfit for food. The service of keeping swine, must therefore to them denote, a drudgery of the lowest and most contemptible sort. And his wages was as poor as his work was mean; he was reduced not only to feed swine, but to feed with them. Such is the service of sin, dishonourable and unsatisfying. Sin debases the soul, incapacitates it for any true or nobler pleasure – and subjects it to continual disappointments. God is the Father of our spirits – his favour is our proper happiness. The change which the prodigal brought upon himself is but a faint representation of our loss.
  1.1 The state of the meanest slave is more honourable than that of the sinner in his most prosperous days. So it appears when the eyes of the mind are opened. It is so in the judgement of good of angels, and of the Holy God. Now they may boast themselves, but hereafter, shame and confusion will cover their faces.
  1.2 They are as destitute of comfort as of honour, they feed upon the wind, upon husks; the passions to which they are given up are insatiable, often inconsistent or opposite to each: pride and meanness, revenge and fear, avarice and extravagance, thwart each other, and raise a continual strife in the same breast.
 
2. His obstinacy
He had left his father's house. His first thoughts in his misery might have been of returning home. But he was not yet come to himself, and therefore for a season would submit to the poorest shifts, rather than humble himself to go home again. If he could have kept himself alive by feeding with the swine, he would have preferred it to being beholden to his father. Such is the obstinacy and madness of sinners. Though they meet with many troubles they harden themselves yet more. No afflictions have a good effect upon them, till the Lord is pleased to sanctify them by his grace. Even convictions, if they go no farther, than to make them feel themselves miserable, will not bring them in good earnest to return to God.
  2.1 In some the effect is to make them worse. When I see and hear some poor creatures, who seem to take pleasure in committing wickedness with greediness – who seem to delight in profaneness, in expressing their contempt of godliness, and uttering hard and desperate speeches, I am ready to think that this is the effect of convictions, which they are labouring to suppress and stifle. As it is said of some, They blasphemed God because of their pains [1] – Satan endeavours to persuade them there is no hope, and therefore they rage, and desperately rush upon the thick bosses of God's buckler. [2] O that I could persuade you, that the Lord would persuade you, it is not yet too late. You cannot indeed recall what is past, but there is forgiveness with him, etc. [3]
  2.2 If they do not go to these lengths, yet they endeavour to banish all serious thoughts, to put the evil day far from them, and for the present to live as pleasantly as they can. I am persuaded this is the case of many. They have a secret apprehension they shall perish at last – but they endeavour to forget it if possible, and to make the most of life, which they live. What is this but feeding upon husks? They soon must leave all. They meet many disappointments, and there is a secret foreboding upon their hearts, which embitter their sweets.
 
3. When a religious appearance is the effect of trouble and convictions, it may often be compared to living upon husks. Perhaps outward sins may be for a while forsaken, a course of duties taken up – hearing, reading, praying. These are good things when used in a right way, but they are often rested in, as a shift, rather than to return to their Father's house. That is, instead of betaking themselves to the free mercy of God in Christ, they labour to establish a righteousness for themselves, and to seek pardon and acceptance with God by their own works. We are very prone upon our first sense of danger, to make attempts of this sort, and I believe there are few of the saved of the Lord, but have first endeavoured in vain to save themselves. We seldom flee with a willing mind to the refuge of God's appointment, till we have tried to find some other way of escape. Thus they who come to Christ, are not only heavy laden, but wearied with fruitless efforts to get off their own burdens. The truths of the Gospel are bread, the bread of life, pleasant to the taste, and strengthening to the heart – but all the works of self-righteousness are as husks.
  3.1 They are not pleasant
Such persons serve God as a slave does his master, only through fear. He has a task appointed him which he would gladly omit [4] but he dares not; he would willingly run away, but he is afraid. Thus a legal conscience pushes them in a round of duties, in which their hearts have little concern. Their affections cleave to the earth, but as they know they cannot stay here always, rather than go to hell, they will entertain some thoughts of religion and heaven – And if God will accept a form of godliness without the power, they will do something of this sort. How different is this from the spirit of true religion which works by love – from a sense of the love of Christ and free forgiveness through him. To this spirit, the service of God is sweet, refreshing and delightful.
  3.2 They yield no strength
If you saw a person living upon husks and bran – you would not expect that such food could give him strength for labour. The law gives no power to those who are under it – they are still under the dominion of easy besetting sins of one kind or another, and their natural evil tempers are unsanctified and uncured. If they have taken up a new course, they may seem greatly changed to themselves, because they know no rule but their outward performances to judge by, but to others, especially to those who are spiritually minded, they appear the same as formerly.
 
I would observe, however, there are two sorts of self-righteous persons:
1. There are some who seem quite satisfied their state is right and good – and if any presume to question it, they are angry, perhaps show their anger, or at least feel a contempt in their hearts. If such appear as Gospel professors, they will affect to like the converse of the Lord's people, but whoever will deal faithfully with them, will not long be troubled with them.
2. There are others who though they [know] no better way as yet, are not satisfied with this, they still suspect all is not right. Conscience suggests, What lack I yet? Now these are like the prodigal. We may hope when they find themselves quite starving, they will think of their Father's house.


Endnotes:
[1] Revelation 16:11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.
[2] Job 15:26 He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers:
[3] Psalm 130:4 But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
[4] ms ‘He has a task appointed him which we would gladly omit’


Acknowledgements:
Lambeth Palace Library MS 2939



 

Marylynn Rouse, 03/01/2017


Article printed from johnnewton.org at 21:11 on 13 December 2019