THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON
John N Darby
This chapter is familiar to all of us. It presents divine love to us in touching ways.
The Lord had to justify Himself for manifesting God’s goodness (v 1); this is sad to say, but that is how it was. Jesus was not seeking the self-righteous; He came from heaven because man was a sinner, to bring back hearts to God by grace, however degraded they were, and nothing could hinder God from thus drawing near to man in his misery. The most degraded by sin understood that there was grace for them, and that God was able to do what was needed to set them in His presence without question of sin.
There are many things to produce and awake in the heart to exercise it and lead it back. We are as hard as stone. There are indeed certain natural affections in man, but that does not stop selfishness being the spring of all that is done in the world. His own interest: that is what governs man under one form or another. This is what came to light in the discourse of the older son: “to me hast thou never given a kid that I might make merry with my friends”. To enjoy himself with his friends, to have what satisfies his selfishness, that is his whole thought. With such a heart, who could be happy in heaven? He would suffer, as the elder son, from not being treated according to his importance. No, a man occupied with himself would not find in heaven a single feeling which answers to this seeking. Happiness consists precisely in having finished with this.
Someone absolutely degraded, and who is obliged to own it, has lost all pretension of this sort. But where do you find somebody who feels they have sinned so much as not to seek to justify themselves? The worst sinner will tell you that he has only harmed himself. In one way or another, one always keeps a good opinion of oneself, and finds something to one’s credit to avoid saying: I am wicked and nothing but that. It needs the work of grace to be there, and it is this work which the Lord illustrates here.
God uses two means to lead the soul back to Himself: needs and affections.
One can understand the word 'need' for the sinner in two ways. If I am lost, I have need to be saved. There is then the need to enjoy God, the breathing of the heart after Him, the desire to possess Him. The prodigal reckoned the position of the hired servants to be happy, though the least close to the father, because they would be in his house. To be there, to have the father, even were it in this way, that is the object of his heart. But that is linked with the feeling of sin and of responsibility before God. It is necessary above all to know where we are in that. And the Lord depicts the operation of His perfect grace, in showing us the prodigal awakening, “coming to himself”.
He remained for a long time in his sad state without knowing this awakening. He had needs, urgent ones even, but not of this kind. Indeed, certain needs, entirely selfish needs, were not at all attached to the knowledge of God. Nature asserts itself, the mind becomes restless and is active, and all this energy of nature produces a certain joy for a time. Then, when all that disappears, a void is left which one does not know how to fill. The prodigal, in the far country, shows us this; he surely went a long way in this direction, to the point of losing all dignity. One sees man degrading himself, making himself drunk, or worse still, to forget what he is, making use of the world so as not to be left to himself, a thing which, for the natural man, is already a hell. If he manages to harden his conscience to the point of not having any remorse whatever, what will become of him, his life ended? He will have managed to forget his miserable condition down here, and that is all; but then the judgment of all that has produced such a state will come, with a righteous God as judge! If his conscience speaks, on the other hand, the more he reproaches these things, the more unhappy he is, to the point of cursing himself, and he will try to hide this from his own eyes. There is nothing for him in this world ruled by famine. One cannot bear it oneself, and one finds no meaningful compassion whatever. One will find companions to try to stifle things, but no true affection, in this kind of need. At the bottom of it, these are the needs of absolute selfishness. To eat husks is to try to suppress the remorse, and to want to remain there at all costs. It is a selfish need which still hardens the heart. We have an extreme case in this picture. The destitution of the prodigal did not bring him back, rather the opposite. But his moral state is the same from the beginning: he was as wicked when he dissipated his goods and only sought his own satisfaction, as when he had turned his back on the father’s house, or when he was eating the husks with the swine. All this history makes us understand that this kind of need, which leads him to this point, although very real, does not relate to true affection. On the contrary, he defiles himself by more and more degraded means, even striving for the husks of the swine, but he remains there.
See now the grace which acts; then the needs, very real and felt the more, link themselves to new affections. The prodigal comes to himself; he feels his sorrow in a way so much more profound that he remembers his father’s house where the hired servants have abundance of bread. He connects another thought with this: I perish! It is not only that I am hungry, I am in misery, but I perish! His sorrow is now felt in an entirely different way because he has seen it from the side of the father's house. What makes him see that he is perishing is the remembrance of the father’s house. It is the thought of a God of goodness which makes him understand how miserable he is to prefer to be with the swine. God is revealed; affections are awakened, affections which accompany the needs of the soul and which bring it back to God. The elder son had not the least idea of that; there was no such need with him, as with the Pharisees, as with every self-righteous man. They do not say, ‘I perish’; they blame God. The prodigal blames himself. The repenting sinner says: ‘I perish, in spite of God’s goodness, far from God! I have sought pleasures where the swine could seek them, the house is full of goodness and I am not there!’ Behold the converted man; ‘I will go’, he says. Up to that point where the prodigal’s conscience did not judge him, he sought to forget, to forget himself, and even more to forget his father - the only way, he thought, to be happy. Now all is changed: his need links with both the conscience and the affections. He sees that he perishes, and he has a new knowledge of the father and of his house. The awakened conscience is not awakened exclusively to the feeling that God is just. There is more in the “I have sinned against … thee; I am no longer worthy to be called thy son”. It is the feeling of having sinned against a God full of this goodness, through which even hired servants would be happy. It is a God whose goodness attracts, and to think that one has despised Him produces even more the feeling of horror of self than of fear. One does not get angry against God for being condemned; there is affection for Him in this horror of oneself. How have you been able to forsake a God who has given His Son? You have preferred the world, its pleasures, its emptiness, the swine’s husks! You have made God a convenience! - It is thus that the awakened conscience speaks, judging all man’s ways, producing true repentance: one does not only fear being judged, one judges oneself; one is no longer overcome by sin, one judges it. The awakened sinner does not excuse himself; he detests himself; he will excuse others rather than himself; he sees God, as one might say, and it is this God worthy of being loved that he hates himself for having sinned against. The conscience recognises God’s righteousness, and that one deserves to perish, but it turns back towards God. “I will rise up and go …”. If I could be at the house! - How, if you think of returning there, are you going to present yourself before God? Impossible! God is righteous and cannot behold iniquity! The conscience takes the double-edged sword of God’s righteousness, speaks in the name of the rights of justice: ‘You cannot find yourself there!’ - This would be true, if all was not grace.
There is still no free play of affections in the heart. One is not yet reconciled. I cannot prove the feelings of a child close to his father as long as I do not know if he wants to receive me in his house. We have only yet the state of an awakened man. It would indeed be happy if he was allowed to go back into the house, even as a hired servant. But he is still not in the position of enjoying the house in any capacity. Notice that even great progress in spiritual things will not be enough for it. The prodigal returns, draws near to the house, but the nearer he draws, the more his unease must increase, the more he is aware of his rags. The more he has a conscience about what the father’s house is, the more he has the feeling of being unworthy of being found there! Thus it is when one approaches God with one’s sins; needs, destitution and awakening of conscience are always felt more, even if moreover hope rises as the land of famine gets farther away. The prodigal in arriving always says: “I am no longer worthy!”. Peace is not in progress; the affections are just and true, and have a good object, but as long as one does not have the certainty of the full goodness of God, the more affections are true, the more anxiety one has in wondering how one will be received. There is a key question to be resolved. One does not doubt having been in the far country and having left it, but now, can one have some hope of being reconciled with God?
That does not depend on us. It is necessary to have the thought of God Himself about it; He must answer Himself. This is what He has done in a perfect way in Christ. I see Christ suffering on the cross, and I find there the divine answer to the fearful question. I say: ‘Why was He there?’. Ah! it is because my Father loved me when I was still far from him. And from then on everything changes.
I learn to know the will of God in grace. It is represented to us in the first two parables of this chapter as searching for the sinner. The shepherd goes after his lost sheep: it is not the sheep who seeks the shepherd, it is the shepherd who seeks it, who is interested in it. I did not seek God when Christ came to die for me; I sought my pleasure; sin had the upper hand in my heart. There is nobody who seeks God. But Christ came to seek the sheep because they were lost. Grace seeks, and all its joy is to bring back; but even more, to carry the lost sheep. In the same way one sees the same in the woman expending herself to seek the lost drachma.
There, therefore, are the glad tidings answering to the soul; although the conscience protests that God cannot bear sin, that sin must be removed, it comes to say that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin, that Jesus has come for this, that all is accomplished. Grace can have its free course towards a defiled sinner. The father falls upon the neck of the prodigal son while still in his rags. It is not that he loved his rags; he loved his son. This joy of the father is the peace of the child. Nothing else could satisfy him. To have left the debauchery could not stop him from thinking that he had broken the father’s heart; to have fled the country of famine did not assure him that the house would be open to him, but to see his father happy to receive him, embracing him in spite of his rags, sufficed for ever. What gives pleasure to the repentant sinner is to find in God, instead of the justice which smites, the joy of the Father in possessing His child. To kill the fatted calf satisfies the father’s own affections, God is glorified, content Himself in blessing. His pleasure is to take poor sinners and to make their heart happy by the testimony of His grace. I am happy in thinking, not of myself, but of the joy which the Father finds in blessing me because He is love. The proof of it is given in the sacrifice of Christ. Sin which kept us far away is removed by Him; God has glorified His grace by His goodness towards us in Jesus. The rags are removed. Instead of the righteousness of the law, God clothes me in His own righteousness, and holds me clothed in Christ in God’s presence. Christ is our righteousness, we will appear in Him before God, and God does not impute the sins to us that Christ has removed by the sacrifice of Himself.
Every need is satisfied from now on. I have Christ; I can need nothing else: He is my righteousness, my holiness, my High Priest, my life. He gives me everything, and He can answer to all that concerns me, for He who is the highest in heaven has been the humblest on earth. He has come down here to make me rise to Him. It is impossible that I should lack anything.
I can even say that needs no longer exist. If I am hungry and one sets a good meal before me, I enjoy the meal and there is no longer a question of hunger. In Christ, all my affections are rejoicing; their enjoyment replaces the needs themselves. I enjoy them in liberty, under the eye of a Father happy to give. It is an established relationship; I am there as child, the conscience as at ease as the heart. The prodigal son could only be astonished at all the goodness of which he was the object: all the affections, and all the activity of the house were in his favour. His father’s fortune would always be at his disposal, it would still be the father’s pleasure to have him. He knew his father as he had never known him before. He had known him through his needs, his sorrow, his sin, but he now knew that he had with him enough riches to receive him when he had spent all far from him. Thus God reveals Himself according to the riches of His grace; the heart proves the attraction of His goodness; but yet more, it finds peace, the answer to all its needs, a perfect rest. The precious blood of Christ which removes sin sets all the affections in liberty towards God.
I will find still in me the lusts which I have to resist; but the heart is satisfied, it knows grace and it proves that this grace suffices me, the power of the Lord made perfect in its weakness. Abiding now in the house, I know the Father better. Not that there would be change or advance in what the Father is for me, but I learn to know Him better. My heart can deceive me, but Jesus never deceives; He is always there to lift me up, so as to introduce me as the fruit of the travail of His soul, without sin, into the Father’s house for eternity. How blessed to have to do with Him.
Translated from ‘Le Messager Evangélique’