1 The parable of the lost sheep: 8 of the piece of silver: 11 of the prodigal son.
HEN drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
Douay Rheims Version
The parables of the lost sheep and of the prodigal son.
OW the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him.
Ver. 1.—Then drew near under Him all the publicans and sinners. πάντες, all, that is, many came together to hear Christ, attracted by His sanctity and by the loving-kindness with which He called sinners to Himself, and promised pardon and salvation to the penitent. For His preaching was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” S. Matt. iv. 17.
Ver. 2.—And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured. For as they avoided the touch of unclean bodies, so did they avoid that of sinful souls. Hence they did not deign to speak to sinners, much less to eat with them. This constituted the proud spirit of the Pharisees, who thought themselves pure and holy in all things pertaining to the law, and therefore kept apart from the impure that they might not be defiled. To them the spirit of Christ was clearly opposed; for He came into the world to save sinners, and therefore sought opportunity to converse with them, and when invited was present at their feasts; for nothing is more pleasing to God than the conversion of the sinner. “From which we may gather,” says S. Gregory (Hom. 34), “that true justice, i.e. the justice of Christ, is full of compassion, but that the false justice of the Pharisees is scornful.” “Indeed, it is,” says S. Chrysostom, “the mark of the apostolic life, to think for the salvation of souls.”
Ver. 4.—What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he 1ose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? For a sheep is a simple and foolish animal, which, in search of pasture, easily loses its way and wanders from the fold, and when once astray is unable to return. So that there is need of a shepherd to go forth and seek it.
So we, by reason of our sinful lusts, were as wandering sheep, treading the path which led to perdition, without a thought of God or of heaven, or of the salvation of our souls. Wherefore Christ came down from heaven to seek us, and to lead us back from the way of destruction to that which leadeth to eternal life. So we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” Isa. liii. 6; and again, “Ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” 1 S. Pet. ii. 25.
Ver. 5.—And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Or as the Arabic renders it, “He carries it on his shoulders joyfully,” that he may the more quickly return it to the flock.
In like manner on Christ “was laid,” as saith the prophet Isaiah, the iniquity of us all.” Hence Gregory of Nyssa, writes in the Catena, “When the shepherd had found the sheep, he did not punish it, he did not drive it to the fold, but placing it on his shoulder, and carrying it gently, he reunited it with the flock.” Oh how wondrous is the meekness, clemency, and love of Christ our Lord! It was to represent this love to the faithful that Christ is depicted in our temples with the lost sheep on His shoulders, carrying it back to the flock, and it is related of the son of Charlemagne, that laying aside his royal state, he became a monk, and when employed in keeping sheep, followed to the letter the example set by the Good Shepherd: for humility and the imitation of Christ is in truth the glory of Christian kings.
Ver. 6.—Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. Συγχάζητέ μοι, Let My joy be one with yours—partake of My joy. His joy is so great that he cannot confine it to Himself, His friends must rejoice also. He further indicates that the event is such a happy one, that it ought to afford matter for rejoicing to all. He says not, “Rejoice with the sheep that is found,” but, “with Me.” Because truly our life is His joy. S. Gregory.
Ver. 7.—I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven, &c., i.e. greater joy, for such is implied by the comparative particle ρ̀, “than.”
The angels then, and the saints in heaven rejoice with exceeding great joy when it is made known to them, by the revelation of God, that a sinner is converted; for when such an one by repentance passes from condemnation to life, it is a gain to the sinner—to the angels—and above all to God Himself.
The sinner passes from sin unto righteousness, from hell to heaven. The angels therefore rejoice at the blessedness of such an one, because, says Euthymius, they are kindly disposed towards men and because by repentance men become like them in purity and in holiness. They rejoice also on their own account because the ruin which was effected by Lucifer and his angels is remedied by the justification and sanctification of men, and because the places from which these angels fell are restored and filled up. It is a joy to God because He is φιλόψυχος, a lover of souls, and thirsts for the salvation of men.
Again the angels rejoice that the desire of God, whom they love above all things, is fulfilled, and that He is a partaker of this joy, as well as honoured by the penitence of the, sinner. Apposite to this matter is the vision of Carpus, to whom Christ made known that He so longed for the conversion of sinners, as to be ready again to suffer death upon the Cross, if thereby this object could be effected. And Palladius relates that a certain Anchorite, who had fallen into sin, repented in sackcloth and ashes with many tears; whereupon an angel appeared to him and said, “The Lord hath accepted thy penitence, and hath had compassion on thee. Take heed that thou art not again led astray.”
By this argument, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for murmuring against Him because He companied with sinners in order to convert them. For the conversion of sinners is a work most pleasing to God and His angels. The Pharisees ought therefore to take part in this work, and to share in the rejoicing. For “all the fruit” of the Incarnation, and of the death of Christ upon the Cross is “to take away sin,” Isa. xxvii. 9,—“to bring in everlasting righteousness,” and to extend the kingdom of God. S. Matt. vi. 10. The knowledge of this ought to excite in every follower of Christ a zealous love for the souls of men.
Hence S. Gregory, when he heard that the English had been converted by the preaching of Augustine, rejoiced in spirit, and wrote; “If there is great joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, what joy, think you, has there been over the conversion of so great a people; for by their repentance and faith they have condemned the sins which they aforetime had committed. Whilst heaven is thus rejoicing, let us repeat the angelic strain, and let us all with one accord exclaim, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.’”
More than over ninety and nine just persons. God and His holy angels, then, rejoice over one penitent more than over one righteous man, nay, more than over ninety and nine just persons; because from the conversion of the sinner there arises a new joy, which seems more perceptible, and is in reality felt more than that continuous and long-standing joy which attaches itself to the ninety and nine; a joy which, although actually the greater, seems to men to lose its freshness by reason of its long duration. For the novelty of a thing which we long for awakens in us a vast and a new joy, which is felt all the more on account of its novelty, as we find when we receive tidings of victories or conversions; and Christ often speaks after the manner of men, especially in His parables. The saying of S. Bernard, that “The tears of penitents are the wine of the angels,” applies here:—The joy over the conversion of a sinner, writes Emmanuel Sà, is sensibly greater. Although in other respects, a man undoubtedly rejoices more over ninety-nine sheep than over one, and God joys more over ninety and nine just persons than over one sinner that repenteth.
S. Gregory adds that God and His angels rejoice the more, because penitents are wont to be more fervent in their love than those who have not fallen away. And elsewhere he says, “The life of fervent devotion which follows after sins committed is often more pleasing to God than that innocence which grows sluggish in its security.” “Just as the leader in battle loves that soldier more who, having turned from flight, bravely pursues the enemy, than he who never turned his back and never did a brave act.” “And as again the husbandman loves that land more which, after bearing thorns, yields abundant fruit, than that which never had thorns, and never gave him a plentiful crop.” Finally (Hom. 34), he cites the example of Victorinus who, having fallen into carnal sin, entered a monastery, and there subjected himself to the severest penance, and so merited to be transfused with the light of heaven, and to hear the voice of God, “Thy sin is forgiven thee!”
If therefore penance be of such avail in a sinner, how great, infers S. Gregory, must be its power in a just man! For many, he says, are conscious of no evil, yet subject themselves to austerities as extreme as if they were beset by every kind of sin. They eschew all things, even such as are lawful, they gird themselves about with a lofty disdain of earth and earthly things, they consider every pleasure forbidden, they deprive themselves of such good things as are allowed them, things that are seen they despise, they yearn for the things which are invisible, they rejoice in mourning, in all things they humble themselves, and deplore sins of thought, as many mourn over sins actually committed.
Ver. 8.—Either that woman having ten pieces of silver, &c. “Sweep,” or as the Arabic renders it, “cleanse;” not “overturn,” as some read with S. Gregory.
The “piece of silver,” or drachma, was a coin weighing the eighth part of an ounce. Hence S. Cyril explains, that by the parable of the lost sheep we are to understand, mystically, that we are the creatures of God who made us, and the sheep of His pasture, but that by this second parable we are taught that we were created in the image and likeness of God, just as the coin bears the image of the king.
S. Gregory (Hom. 34), very fully explains the parable, and applies it in the following manner: “He who is signified by the shepherd, is signified also by the woman. For it is God Himself—God and the wisdom of God. And because there is an image impressed on the piece, the woman lost the piece of silver when man, who was created after the image of God, by sinning fell away from the likeness of his Creator. The woman lighted a candle, because the wisdom of God appeared in man. For the candle is a light in an earthen vessel, but the light in an earthen vessel is the Godhead in the flesh, and when the candle was lit she overturned (evertit) the house. Because as soon as His divinity shone forth through the flesh, all our consciences were appalled. But the word ‘overturn’ differs not from the ‘cleanse’ or ‘sweep’ of the other MSS. Because the corrupt mind, if it be not first overthrown through fear is not cleansed from its habitual faults. But when the house is overturned the piece of silver is found, for when the conscience of man is disturbed, the likeness of the Creator is restored in him.” And again, “Who are the friends and neighbours but those heavenly powers afore mentioned, who are near to the Divine Wisdom, inasmuch as they approach Him through the grace of continual vision?” Hence in conclusion he says, “The woman had ten pieces of silver, because there are nine orders of angels, but, that the number of the elect might be filled up, man, the tenth, was created, who even after his sin did not fall utterly away from his Maker, because the eternal Wisdom, shining through the flesh by His miracles, restored him by the light of the earthen vessel.”
Or, as Theophylact interprets it, “The friends are all the heavenly powers; but the neighbours, the thrones—cherubims and seraphims—which are most nigh unto God.”
Lastly, S. Gregory Nyssen, says, “The ten pieces of silver are so many virtues, of which we ought to lack none, for like the commandments they are complete in themselves (decem). The candle is the divine word or perhaps the torch of repentance; the neighbours, reason, desire, anger, and such like affections.”
Ver. 11.—And He said, A Certain man had two sons. This parable is the third of the series, and like the two preceding ones, is designed to show the joy which is in heaven over the conversion of a sinner. And so there are three principal persons in the parable, the father and his two sons, the elder careful of his possessions, the younger a spendthrift. The father is God, who created all men, or Christ, who redeemed and regenerated all men with His blood, and who daily regenerates them by baptism. The two sons are understood by universal consent to represent the Jews and the Gentiles. By the elder, who was ever with his father, we may understand the Jews; by the younger the Gentiles, who having worshipped God in the days of Adam and Noah, turned aside to idols and the sins of the flesh: an interpretation which is borne out by the 25th verse, for it was the Jews who murmured because the Gentiles were received into grace and favour by Christ.
But still more in accordance with the purpose of the parable, we may take the two sons to represent the just and the unjust, whether Jews or Gentiles. For the sinners with whom Christ companied, thereby causing the Pharisees to murmur against Him, were clearly Jews and not Gentiles.
The elder son represents the just, i.e. those who were really just, as well as those who, like the Scribes and Pharisees, claimed to be such.
The younger son, the prodigal, is put for open and notorious sinners, such as the publicans and harlots, with whom Christ was wont to associate in order that He might win them from the error of their way. So S. Jerome and most other interpreters explain the parable.
Ver. 12.—And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. The younger, i.e. sinners and harlots. For youth is less restrained, more foolish, more inconstant, and more prone to indulgences of every kind. According to the Fathers, the “goods,” “substantia,” must be taken to mean man’s free will, called in Greek βίος. “Because by it,” says S. Jerome, “man lives freely and as it pleases him.” “For,” observes Theophylact, “the substance of man is the capacity of reason which is accompanied by free will.” S. Ambrose and others, by substance, understand more fitly the grace of God, virtues and good habits. For it is these which are really wasted and destroyed by the sinner, whilst his free will cannot be lost, as is clear from the parable. You may therefore take the word to mean all the gifts of God, of body and soul, of nature and grace; for these the younger son demands to be entirely given up to him, because he was unwilling any longer to submit to the authority of his father, but desirous of being his own master, and of being free to use or abuse the gifts of God as might seem to him good.
So S. Augustine (Evang. lib. ii. q. 35) writes, “To live, to understand, to remember, to excel in quickness of intellect, these things are gifts of God, which men receive into their own power by freewill.” So also S. Jerome, Titus, and Euthymius.
And he divided unto them his living. Placing the gifts just mentioned at the free disposal of each, for “He left man in the hand of his counsel.” Ecclus. xv. 14.
Ver. 13.—And not many days after the younger son, gathered all together, or, according to the Syriac version, “collected together all that had come to him,” and took his journey, into a far country—“far off,” says Euthymius, “not by local separation, but by separation in point of virtue.” Such is a state of concupiscence and sin, for the sinner by sinning goes far from God and from heaven, and subjects himself to the dominion of Satan. “But,” says Euthymius, “the elder son being wise, remained with his father.”
Hence S. Augustine goes on to say, “The far country is forgetfulness of God, a forgetfulness which is mutual, for inasmuch as the sinner forgets God, God in His turn is in a manner forgetful of the sinner, i.e. God ceases to bestow on him light, grace, or guidance.” For S. Jerome says, “We must bear in mind that we are with God, or depart from Him, according to our disposition, not according to ‘distances of place.’”
Therefore, adds Theophylact, “when a man departs from God, and from the fear of God, he wastes and consumes all God’s gifts.”
And there wasted his substance, i.e., all the gifts of nature and grace. For the sinner, giving himself up to pleasure and licentiousness, incurs the loss of all God’s gifts of grace.
He becomes dull of understanding and is unable to recognise God, or the beauty of holiness. He grows forgetful of God’s law and God’s goodness towards him. He so corrupts his will as to prefer vice to virtue, pleasure to reason, earth to heaven, the evil one to God; and forsaking the paths of virtue, gives himself up to every kind of evil. Hence he becomes destitute of counsel, reason, sense, and everything that is good; and at last, with all the powers of his soul and body, he worships the creature rather than the Creator, and falls into that sin to which the Psalmist refers, “So they that forsake Thee shall perish; Thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against Thee.” Ps. lxxiii. 26.
The prodigal son “wasted all the graces of nature,” says Euthymius, because, adds S. Augustine, “he made a wrong use of his natural gifts.” “He then,” says Titus, “expended his goods” (substantiam), i.e., the light which was in him, temperance, the knowledge of the truth, the remembrance of God. And lastly, says Euthymius again, “he corrupted the gift which he had received at his baptism, i.e. nobility of soul, and the capability of living a godly life, for such things as these made up the riches of the prodigal.
With riotous living. By living an abandoned life (α̉σώτως), only sinful but also luxurious and intemperate.
“A prodigal life,” says the Gloss, “loves to occupy itself in outward show, forgetful of God, who has His dwelling within.”
Ver. 14.—And when he had spent all . . . he began to be in want. Or, according to the Arabic, “he became destitute,” as those who lose by one year’s debauchery all that their parents have left them; and after that are reduced to misery and to begging their bread. Nor do they lose their property only, but their health and good name as well, and by reason of the foulness of their habits and the diseases which they contract, become a burden to themselves, and a disgust to their fellowmen. For it is acknowledged by all that luxury and extravagance make the richest poor, and reduce men to the very verge of starvation.
Mystically. The sinner suffers from the want of all things, whether of nature or of grace, because he turns the gifts which he possesses to his own destruction, and therefore is in a far worse condition than if he had never received them.
And again, the sinner being without God, lacks everything; for all things depend upon Him, and in Him live and have their being. Hence the Interlinear, “Every place whence the Father is absent, is a place of penury and want.” For he who has not God possesses nothing, although he be king of the whole world. Again he who has God possesses all things, although he may not have a farthing to call his own. Or, as S. Francis expresses it, “God is mine and all things.” For God alone can be said to be; and all things else compared to Him, not to be. See Exod. iii
Moreover, the Gloss says, “Pleasure always hungers for itself—the more we indulge in it, the more insatiably we thirst after it;” and S. Jerome, “Our health and strength depart from us by reason of our sinful indulgences, yet we do not lose the desire of indulging.
“While yet in sport, for other sports we burn,
In gardens fair, for other gardens yearn.”
Ver. 15.—And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, i.e., to an evil spirit, for the devils are the citizens of the country far off from God. So S. Augustine (Quæst. Evang. lib. ii. q. 33.) says, “He joined himself to a certain prince of the air belonging to the army of the devil, whose fields signify the manner of his power. The swine are the unclean spirits which are under him, and to feed them is to work those things in which they delight.”
So also S. Ambrose, “The citizen is the prince of this world,” and in like manner the Gloss.
S. Peter Chrysologus (Serm. 2.) says, “Behold the effect of unbridled desires. It turned a citizen into an alien, a son into a hireling, a rich man into a beggar, a free man into a slave. It associated him whom it separated from a kind father with swine; that he who had despised a holy affection might be the slave of the greedy herd.”
S. Ambrose judges rightly that by the expression “he joined himself to” we are to understand a dangerous as well as a laborious service. For as a bird is snared when seeking food, so the unhappy sinner, hoping for the delights of freedom, falls into a perilous slavery.
And he sent him into his field. That is, says Bede, “he became a slave of earthly desires.”
To feed swine. “To feed swine,” says S. Chrysostom in the Catena, “is to nourish in the soul sordid and unclean thoughts. See here how marvellously the condition of the sinner is changed, as a just punishment for the foolish use he made of his freedom. He who was unwilling to be held in honour as a son, is obliged to become the bond slave of an alien. He who would not obey the laws of God, is compelled to serve Satan. He who would not abide in his father’s palace, is sent to dwell amongst clowns. He who would not associate with his brethren and with princes, becomes the attendant and companion of swine. He who refused the bread of angels, would fain satisfy his hunger with husks from the hog-trough.”
Ver. 16.—And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat. So those who foolishly squander their possessions on others, find none to give them even husks in their misery and want. S. Chrysostom (Serm. 1) says, “Hunger, to luxury a torment, is now his lot, that where his guilt had been flagrant there an avenging punishment might rage.” And again, “How cruel a service! He lives with unclean animals, yet does not share in their feast. Wretched man that he is; half famished, he hungers for the swine’s coarse food, yet does not obtain it.
S. Jerome (Epist. 146) here remarks, “that the Devil, when he has brought a man into subjection, fires his soul with desires of all kinds, but cheats him of their gratification, that by longing after them he may increase his guilt, and by failing to gratify them may add to his punishment and misery.” Such is the deceitfulness and the tyranny of Satan. “Husks” are the empty pods of beans, peas, and the like, which fill but do not nourish the body. Yet country folk mix these husks with flour or meal, and make thereof a common kind of black bread on which they live. Hence Horace (Epist. 1, lib. ii.) writes, “He lives on husks and coarse bread.” Jansenius understands by “husks,” the fruit of the Carob tree, which is like a bean, of a blackish colour, curved, as long as a man’s finger, and as broad as his thumb. Each pod contains four berries called ceratia from their likeness to a horn (κέζας;). These afford excellent food for swine, and are also eaten by men.
But by “husks” the Fathers understand “that worldly and vain knowledge which begets vanity, such as the writings of the poets, or the harangues of the orators.” “Wherein,” says S. Augustine, “this man sought to find something belonging to the higher life, but could not.” The word, however, may be taken to mean more fully “carnal gratifications which puff out and afflict the soul but do not satisfy its yearnings.” So S. Chrysostom in the Catena writes, “If thou lovest good wine, thou lovest husks; if thou longest for gold, thou dost seek for husks; if thou followest after sensual pleasures, thou askest for the food of swine.”
Ver. 17.—And when he came to himself, or, as the Arabic renders it, “when he was considering within himself.” Euthymius says, becoming master of himself, and as it were waking up from the deep sleep of the drunken.” “Returning from his wanderings abroad.” Theophylact. “For,” says the Interlinear, “he who has gone away from himself does well to return;” and the prodigal had been in a manner beside himself, and a raving madman, but his misery gave him understanding, and hunger taught him to be wise. So S. Gregory Nyssen. (Trad de Oratione) writes, “He did not return to his former state of happiness until, coming to himself, he felt the full weight of his cares.” And S. Augustine (Quæst. Evang. lib. xxi.): “He turned his thoughts (intentionem) from these things, which act externally as snares and temptations, to his inner conscience” “For,” says S. Ambrose, “he who returns to it returns to himself, but he who departs from Christ forfeits his rights in Christ.”
How many hired servants of my father’s, &c. They have bread enough and to spare, but I, his son, am perishing with hunger. So God is wont to take away from those who live for pleasure all their delights, and send them hunger, sickness, and pain, that they may return to a better mind, and see what happiness they have forfeited, and into what misery they have fallen; which is the first stage of repentance. Hence Titus writes, “Coming to himself, i.e. comparing his former happiness with his after misery, he thought of what he was whilst he abode with his father, and meditated over and over again on the vile and wretched state to which he had reduced himself by his rejection of God, and subjection to Satan.” Learn then from the example of the prodigal, that “repentance follows on hasty counsel, and that a bad beginning makes a bad ending;” and again, “that thou be not conquered by a shameful adversary, regard pleasure only when it is departing from thee, for pleasure is the food of the wicked.”
Mystically. If we serve God and follow virtue in hope of worldly gain, we are hirelings; if from fear, slaves; if from love, sons. As the Interlinear says, “How many Jews are there who keep the law only for the sake of present prosperity, and obtain of God that which they desire; but I, who neglect God’s law, prosper neither in my temporal nor my spiritual concerns.”
S. Augustine, on the other hand, says, “These are the reflections of a man who is coming to a better mind again, and finds himself amongst those who preach the truth, not from love of the truth, but from the desire of earthly gain.” But the Gloss takes higher ground: “The hirelings are they who busy themselves in walking worthily, looking for the reward which is to be. These have bread enough and to spare, i.e. they are sustained by the daily nourishment of Divine grace.”
He then who is restrained from vice by fear of punishment is the slave; by hope and longing for the kingdom of heaven, the hireling; by love of that which is good, the son. And Theophylact, in like manner, makes this threefold distinction amongst those who are saved.
The Interlinear again, and others who understand by the two sons the Jews and Gentiles, explain thus: “The Jews, who like hirelings serve God in hope of obtaining the good things of this world, possess them plentifully; but the people of the Gentiles, together with the idolaters, are wholly cut off from the truth.”
Ver. 18.—I will arise and go to my father. “I will arise,” says the Interlinear, “because I perceive that I have fallen prone before idolatry and vice. I will go to my father, for I have wandered far from him, and am wearing away my life in misery and want. I will rise from this wretched life. I will break away from my vices, cease from sin, amend my life. I will repent, and humbly beg of God the pardon of my sin.”
“Well does he say, ‘I will arise,’” writes S. Jerome (Epist. 146), “for away from his father he could not stand upright. It is the part of sinners to lie prone, of the just to stand upright.” For as Chrysologus (Serm. 1) says, “As long as a man is with his father, his state is happy, his service free, and his safety assured. He reverences his father with gladness. If corrected it is with gentleness. Though poor he is rich, and his possessions are secure.” And again, “he determines to return, because he perceived that with a stranger his liberty was slavery, and because he believed that with his father his slavery would be liberty.”
And will say unto him. These words, says Titus, are few, but enough for my salvation; for I know my father’s loving-kindness, and that he will have compassion on the penitent, whom he did not abandon, even when wallowing in the foulness of sin.
Father, I have sinned. “This,” says S. Ambrose, “is his first confession to the author of nature, the dispenser of mercy, the judge of his sin. For although God knows all things, He waits to hear the acknowledgment of our sins, because he who takes the burden of his sin upon himself lessens its weight, and he who by confession anticipates the accuser, deprives the accusation of its sting. In vain wilt thou endeavour to hide from Him, whom nothing escapes, and you may safely discover what you know to be already known.”
God, therefore, justly and fitly demands of the sinner the confession of his sin.
1. Because a criminal ought to humble himself, and confess his crime, if he would be forgiven.
2. Because, according to Origen (Hom. ii on Ps. xxxviii.), as a disordered stomach must be purged by emetics, so must the soul which is full of corruption be purified by confession.
3. Because the sinner has cast contempt on the majesty of God, and can only make amends for his fault by repentance. For repentance gives glory to God, and restores to Him the honour which sin takes away. In a word, the penitent acknowledges that he himself is a sinner, but that God is most holy.
4. The confession of the sinner therefore is for the praise and glory of God the Creator, as well as of Jesus Christ our Saviour. “For,” says S. Cyprian, or the author of the Treatise on the Passion, whoever he way be, “when the sinner takes upon himself the office of judge and tormentor, becoming his own prosecutor, and showing by the shame he exhibits that his confession is genuine, his entire self-sacrifice obtains pardon for him in the sight of God. For God does not pass judgment twice on the same offence.”
Against heaven That is, (1.) I have sinned so grievously that my sins, as it were, cry to heaven for vengeance, or by a Hebraism, we may understand “against heaven” to mean, against God who dwelleth therein. (See S. Matt. xxi 25.)
2. “Against heaven,” because in preferring earth to heaven, I have committed a great wrong and have lightly esteemed heavenly things; so that if heaven were endowed with voice and reason, it would cry out and make accusation against me.
3. “Against heaven” because heaven is my home, and I am only a sojourner here on earth. I have therefore betrayed my native land. So S. Gregory Nyssen, (De Oratione), says, “He would not have confessed that he had sinned against heaven, unless he had been persuaded that heaven was his country and that he had sinned in leaving it.” And S. Jerome, “He sins against heaven who leaves the heavenly Jerusalem.”
4. “Against heaven,” i.e. “against the angels and those that dwell therein,” says the Interlinear, and also S. Augustine
5. Or “against heaven” because according to S. Ambrose, “he had wasted the gifts of heaven.” By which we may understand “the endowments of the soul and the spiritual gifts which are impaired by sin and by our departure from the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the mother of us all.”
Symbolically, S. Chrysostom, in the Catena, says, “He sins against heaven who sins against the humanity of Christ, which although above us as heaven, is yet visible.” For the sinner makes of none effect the blood of Christ, and in a manner “crucifies the Son of God afresh.” Heb. vi. 6.
And before Thee. “Who alone,” says S. Chrysostom, “seest all things, and to whom the thoughts of all hearts are revealed. Great then is the shamelessness of the sinner in daring to sin before the living God, who will punish him for his offences in the day of judgment, and who not unfrequently inflicts punishment in this life as a warning to others not to offend.”
S. Jerome here explains that “he had sinned against his father in that, forsaking his Creator, he had bowed down in worship to idols of wood and of stone.”
Symbolically, S Augustine (Quæst. Evang. lib. ii. q. 33) interprets the words “before thee” to mean “in the inmost conscience.” For the sinner ought to blush even for the sins which he commits in secret, and for the conscience which he defiles, renders dumb, and hands over to Satan.
Ver. 19.—And am no more worthy to be called thy son. Because, says S. Jerome, I preferred to serve idols, and to be the slave of vices. “He does not presume,” says Bede, “to ask to be treated as a son,” because, adds Euthymius, “his life had been unworthy of such a father.”
Make me as one of thy hired servants. I have forfeited my position as son, but cast me not out of thy presence, suffer me to take the lowest place in thy household, says Euthymius, that I may make open confession of my sin. For formerly those who had been put to public penance were not allowed to enter the church, but knelt without, humbly asking the prayers and the pardon of all, as S. Jerome tells us that Fabiola did.
These, says S. Augustine (lib. ii. Quæst. Evang. q. 33), are the words of one who is turning his thoughts to repentance, not of one actually repentant. For he is not addressing his father, but only determining what to say when he meets him. “But,” says Primasius, commenting on Rev. iv., “as the smoke precedes the flame, so must there be confession of sin before the fires of faith and love are kindled in the sinner’s heart. Hence the smoke bursts into flame as the fire gains power and intensity; so in like manner confession of sin through force of contrition burns up and becomes aflame with love.”
Ver. 20.—But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him. Before he had given any expression to his penitence, his father prevented him.
See here God’s wonderful loving-kindness towards penitent sinners. “He is wont,” says Titus, “in His mercy and pity to anticipate the repentance of men;” and, adds S. Gregory of Nyssa, “when he resolved to repent, his father was reconciled to him.”
And had compassion, ε̉σπλαγχνίσθη, was moved with pity at the sight of his misery.
And ran. In excess of joy, says Euthymius, he waited not for him to draw nigh, but went to meet him, running and thereby showing the greatness of his love.
And fell on his neck, and kissed him. “To fall on his neck,” says S. Augustine, “is to lower to his embrace the arm of God, which is Christ; to give the kiss is to comfort by the word of God’s grace unto the hope of pardon of sin.” But S. Chrysostom says, “The mouth is kissed as that from which the heartfelt confession of the penitent proceeded.”
The embrace and the kiss are here set forth as the tokens of pardon and reconciliation, and of especial love and goodwill, as well as of the exultation and joy with which God and His angels regard a sinner that repenteth.
Ver. 21.—And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned, &c. He desires, says the Interlinear, that to be done by grace, which he acknowledges himself to be unworthy of by any merit of his own. (See above on ver. 18.) He omits to say, “make me as one of thy hired servants,” either because his father, out of love and joy, had cut short his confession, by bidding the attendants “bring forth the best robe,” or because his father’s embrace and kiss had encouraged him to hope that again he might be acknowledged as a son. “He does not add,” says S. Augustine (Lib. ii. Quæst. Evang. q. 33), “what he had before determined to say, for after the kiss of his father he most nobly disdained to become a hireling.” Titus, however, is of opinion that the words were actually uttered, although S. Luke, has not recorded them.
Ver. 22.—But the father said to his servant, &c. “The servants,” says Theophylact, “are the angels or the priests,” or, according to S. Augustine, the preachers, for by their ministry God reconciles sinners to Himself.
The best robe. The “first” robe, that which he was wont to wear before he left his father’s house, for from the repetition of the article τὴυ στολὴν τὴν πζώτην, it is clear that some particular garment is indicated.
Hence, in the lives of the Fathers, it is related that a certain Bishop saw in a vision two women who were sinners, clothed, after having made sacramental confession, in white garments and radiant with light. He inquired the cause of this from an angel that appeared unto him, and was told that the women, by their confession and tears, had rendered themselves worthy to be numbered with the elect.
And put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. A ring of gold, i.e. the mark of a free and rich or noble man, as also are shoes, for slaves go barefoot, but citizens are shod.
Ver. 23.—And bring hither the fatted calf. τον μόσχον, that particular calf which I ordered to be fattened for such a solemn occasion as this. All these things, the robe, the ring, the shoes, and the fatted calf, show the delight of the father, i.e. the joy of God and His angels at the conversion of a sinner, and teach us that by the great mercy of God, a penitent is restored to the same, or even a better position than that, which he held before he fell into sin.
But with S. Augustine, S. Jerome, and Bede, we may attach a separate meaning to each.
So we may take the best robe to mean not innocence, for this once lost cannot be regained, but first grace and love. Thus the Interlinear interprets it as, “the robe of the Holy Spirit, which is an earnest of immortal life.” According to S. Ambrose, it is “the cloke of wisdom;” but S. Augustine considers it “the dignity which Adam lost.”
By the ring we may understand the express image of God, which some see in one virtue, some in another.
“The ring,” says Bede, “is the seal of our unfeigned faith,” or, according to S. Chrysostom in the Catena, the symbol of the seal of salvation, or rather, the badge of betrothment, the pledge of nuptials with Christ. It is “the signet of faith with which the promises are sealed in the hearts of the faithful.” Gloss. “The seal of Christ’s image, and impress of the truth.” Interlinear. “The pledge of the Holy Spirit, because of the participation of grace, which is well signified by the finger.” S. Augustine. See Gen. xli. 42; Jer. xxii. 24; Hag. ii 23.
“On his hand,” i.e. by his working, that his faith may be made manifest by his works, and that his works may be established by his faith. Interlinear.
By “the shoes on his feet” is typified promptitude in the exercise of acts of virtue, particularly as regards the preaching of the gospel; for those who are converted greatly desire the conversion of others. Or, as S. Augustine explains, “The shoes are the preparation for preaching the gospel, in order not to touch earthly things,” that, says S. Chrysostom, “a man may walk firmly along the slippery path of the world;” the course of our life is called in Scripture a foot (pes).
Again, “the shoes” are the examples of good men, which, as it were, leave footprints, to enable us to follow in their steps.
“The fatted calf” is a figure of Christ, who in the Eucharist feeds the just, and those sinners who are penitent, with His body and His blood, comforting and soothing in a wonderful manner those who have been newly converted as well as those who have long since repented.
Hence the Interlinear says, “Christ is the fatted calf abounding in every spiritual virtue, so that He suffices for the salvation of the whole world.” And S. Chrysostom: “Christ is called the calf because of the sacrifice of His body, and fatted, because He made satisfaction for all.” And Augustine: “The fatted calf is our Lord Himself in the flesh, 1oaded with insults. The father commands it to be brought, i.e. commands Christ to be preached. He also bids them kill it, in allusion to the death of Christ. For He is then killed to each man who believes him slain.”
Let us eat and be merry. God, says Euthymius, is said to eat in proof of His joy. “For,” adds S. Jerome (Ep. 146), “there can be no rejoicing if our Father be absent from the feast,” because, says Bede and S. Ambrose, “the food of the Father is our salvation; the joy of the Father the redemption of our sins.” And according to the Gloss, “The salvation of sinners is the refreshment of God and the saints. Observe also that the calf is slain after that the robe, the ring, and the shoes are provided, to teach us that we must put on the hope of the immortality for which we were created, that we must seal our works with the signet of faith, and preach by the confession of Christ, if we would partake of the heavenly mysteries.”
Ver. 24.—For this my son was dead, and is alive again. He was dead by reason of his sins; he is alive again because of his repentance.
Ver. 28.—And he was angry, and would not go in. The anger and the murmuring of the elder son is the application of the parable, and is intended to show how justly God rejoices over the conversion of a sinner, and what answer can be given to those who murmur at the consideration shown to those that repent.
“Hence we learn,” says Euthymius, “that God rejoices so greatly over the return of the prodigal, in order that He may provoke others to jealousy.”
So also Theophylact, Titus, and S. Chrysostom in the Catena; for it is certain that the righteous do not envy penitent sinners the blessings they enjoy, but rejoice greatly and exalt in their happiness. See S. Matt. xx. II.
Hence we are to understand rather by the murmuring of the elder son, the envy of the Pharisees who murmured against Christ because He received sinners. For this was the occasion as well as scope of the parable, as is clear from the opening verses of the chapter. Similarly also the parable applies to the Jews, who hated the Apostles and murmured against them, because they preached the Gospel to the Gentiles. So S. Ambrose says, “The Jews envied the Gentiles the paternal blessing,” and S. Augustine (Quæst. Evang. ii. 33), “He is angry now, and will not go in. But when the fulness of the nations shall have entered in, then the father will go forth that all Israel may be saved.” Again S. Ambrose, “He is called the elder because he envied his brother, and envy causes a man very quickly to grow old.”
He heard music and dancing. That is, as S. Augustine explains, “He heard the Apostles full of the Holy Spirit preaching the Gospel with harmonious voices. He takes one of the prophets to read, and as he searches in it, asks in a manner, why are these feasts celebrated in the Church at which he finds himself not present.” But S. Ambrose says, “He heard the harmony of the Christian people singing with united voice, and raising sweet sounding strains of joy over the salvation of the sinner. But he stands without, for his evil disposition hinders him from entering in;” and the Gloss, “The Church’s symphony is the accord of different ages and varying virtues, whence the chorus and spiritual dance of holy and exultant joy.”
Tropologically, S. Jerome (Epist. 146) says, “Daily is this feast kept, daily does the Father receive His Son, for Christ is ever being crucified for them that believe.” See also Salmeron (Tom. vii. Tract. 27 and 28).
Therefore came his father out and intreated him.—Symbolically, this signifies that God through the preaching of Christ and His Apostles invited the Pharisees and the unbelieving Jews to enter His Church, and therein to partake of the gospel feast, and share in the joy of the faithful. But they refused the invitation from hatred of Christ crucified, and because they were offended that the Gentiles should believe on Him, and they will remain obstinate in their refusal until the coming of Elias at the end of the world. So S. Augustine bids us “admire God’s goodness towards His people;” and S. Jerome, “How kind and how merciful a father! He asks his son to share in the joy of the household.”
Ver. 29.—And he answering said, Lo, these many years do I serve thee. The Syriac has “servio tibi servitutem,” so the Jews were in bondage to the observance of the law.
Neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment. This answer shows the lying arrogance and the ingratitude of the Jews, who boasted of their work done under the law, and forgot the many benefits which God had conferred upon them. They lie when they say they have never transgressed the commandment of God. They transgress often! For, says St. Jerome (Ep. 146), “Is it not a transgression to envy our brother his salvation?” With like arrogancy, the Pharisee justifies himself, and despises the Publican. St. Luke xviii. II. But as St. Augustine and the Interlinear point out, the Jews did not bow down to idols, as the Gentiles did, and therefore, inasmuch as they worshipped the one true God, and Him alone, in this particular they did not transgress the commandment.
And yet thou never gavest me a kid. The fathers explain this symbolically in many ways.
“No blood of prophet or priest has delivered us from the Roman yoke, but for the prodigal, i.e., for the Gentiles, for sinners, throughout the whole world, Thy precious blood was shed.” St. Jerome (Ep. 146), “Thou hast never, for my sake, ordered a kid, i.e. a sinner who persecuted me, to be slain.” Theophylact.
“Thou, 0 Christ, hast never given me Thyself for my food, because I accounted Thee as a kid, i.e., as a sinner, and a perverter of the Law.” St. Augustine.
“The Jews demand a kid: the Christians a lamb. For them Barabbas is set free; for us the lamb is slain.” St. Ambrose.
Ver. 30.—This thy son . . . which hath devoured thy living with harlots. The Pharisees accuse God of sin, in preferring the unworthy to the worthy, i.e., Gentiles to the Jews, sinners to themselves, as if He had regard to the persons of men; but their accusation is false. For the Gentiles, though sinners, by their repentance and faith made themselves worthy of the gospel and the grace of Christ; but the Pharisees, by their pride, envy, and unbelief, showed themselves unworthy of these benefits. Hence they became reprobate, and the Gentiles were chosen in their stead. See S. Matt. xx. 16.
Ver. 31.—And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. “The law, the prophets, the oracles of God,” says St. Jerome. To this we must add, the worship of the one true God, and faith in Him, in the teachings of the Church, and the benefits arising therefrom. For all these blessings, which were lacking to the Gentiles before the coming of Christ, were the possession of God’s people Israel.
The sense is, “Thou, as my son, art at liberty to enjoy all my possessions, as seems to thee good. Thou oughtest not then to envy thy brother, or to take it amiss that out of our common property, I have ordered a calf to be slain, in honour of his return, especially as thou also art invited to the banquet.” St. Ambrose. And the Interlinear adds, “All mine is thine, if so be, thou ceasest to envy thy brother,” for, says St. Augustine, “desire obtains nothing without want, charity nothing with want, and when we shall have obtained that blessedness, the higher things will be ours to live upon, equal things ours to have fellowship with, the lower things ours to rule;” and he assigns the reason, “for it is thus that all things are looked upon by perfect and immortal children, that each is the possession of all, and all of each.” Hence there will arise for the blessed hereafter the perfection of mutual charity and love, and the fulness of glory and of bliss.
Ver. 32.—It was meet that we should make merry and be glad. For the most convincing of reasons, because this my son, thy brother, who was dead in trespasses and sins, is now restored to grace and favour, wherefore it behovest thee to take part in our rejoicing, and not to be envious and to murmur against him.
Christ now leaves the Pharisees to apply the parable to themselves. For, says Theophylact, “It is intended to teach that although we may be just, we must not cast off sinners nor murmur because God receives them;” and again, “The Lord speaks as it were after this manner; I beseech you who are righteous and free from reproach, that ye murmur not at the salvation of sons, for this prodigal is still a son.”