Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
11. And he said, 514 A certain man had two sons: 12. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of property which falls to me. And he divided between them the property. 13. And not many days afterwards, 515 the younger son, having gathered all together, set out on a journey to a distant country, and there wasted his property by living extravagantly. 14. But when he had spent all, a sore famine arose in that country; and he began to be in want. 15. And he went and entered into the service of one of the inhabitants of that country; and he sent him into his field to feed swine. 16. And he was desirous to fill his belly with the husks on which the swine were feeding: and no man gave to him. 516 17. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hirelings of my father have abundance of bread, 517 while I perish with hunger! 18. I will arise, and go to my father, 518 and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19. And am no longer worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hirelings. 20. And he arose, and came to his father. And while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son. 22. And the father said to his servants, Bring out the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23. And bring the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us feast, and be merry: 24. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. 519 And they began to be merry.
This parable is nothing else than a confirmation of the preceding doctrine. 520 In the first part is shown how readily God is disposed to pardon our sins, and in the second part (which we shall afterwards treat in the proper place) is shown the great malignity and obstinacy of those who murmur at his compassion. In the person of a young prodigal who, after having been reduced to the deepest poverty by luxury and extravagance, returns as a suppliant to his father, 521 to whom he had been disobedient and rebellious, Christ describes all sinners who, wearied of their folly, apply to the grace of God. To the kind father, 522 on the other hand, who not only pardons the crimes of his son, but of his own accord meets him when returning, he compares God, who is not satisfied with pardoning those who pray to him, but even advances to meet them with the compassion of a father. 523 Let us now examine the parable in detail.
Luke 15:12. And the younger of them said to his father. The parable opens by describing a mark of wicked arrogance in the youth, which appears in his being desirous to leave his father, and in thinking that he cannot be right without being permitted to indulge in debauchery, free from his father’s control. There is also ingratitude in leaving the old man, 524 and not only withholding the performance of the duties which be owed to him, but crippling and diminishing the wealth of his house. 525 This is at length followed by wasteful luxury and wicked extravagance, by which he squanders all that he had. 526 After so many offenses he deserved to find his father implacable. 527
Under this image our Lord unquestionably depicts to us the boundless goodness and inestimable forbearance of God, that no crimes, however aggravated, may deter us from the hope of obtaining pardon, There would be some foundation for the analogy, if we were to say that this foolish and insolent youth resembles those persons who, enjoying at the hand of God a great abundance of good things, are moved by a blind and mad ambition to be separated from Him, that they may enjoy perfect freedom; as if it were not more desirable than all the kingdoms of the world to live under the fatherly care and government of God. But as I am afraid that this allusion may be thought overstrained, I shall satisfy myself with the literal meaning; not that I disapprove of the opinion, that under this figure is reproved the madness of those who imagine that it will be advantageous for them to have something of their own, and to be rich apart from the heavenly Father; but that I now confine myself within the limits of a Commentator. 528
Christ here describes what usually happens with young men, when they are carried away by their natural disposition. Destitute of sound judgment, and maddened by passion, they are ill fitted for governing themselves, and are not restrained by fear or shame. It is therefore impossible but that they shall abandon themselves to every thing to which their sinful inclination prompts them, and rush on in a disgraceful course, till they are involved in shameful poverty. He afterwards describes the punishment which, in the righteous judgment of God, generally overtakes spendthrifts and prodigals. After having wickedly squandered their means, they are left to pine in hunger, and not having known how to use in moderation an abundant supply of the best bread, they are reduced to eat acorns and husks. In short, they become the companions of swine, and are made to feel that they are unworthy to partake of human food; for it is swinish gluttony 529 to squander wickedly what was given for the support of life. 530 As to the ingenious exposition which some have brought forward, that it is the just punishment of wicked scorn, when those who have rejected delicious bread in the house of our heavenly Father are driven by hunger to eat husks, it is a true and useful doctrine; but in the meantime, we must bear in mind the difference that exists between allegories and the natural meaning. 531
And was desirous to fill his belly. This means that, in consequence of hunger, he no longer thought of his former luxuries, but greedily devoured husks; for of that kind of food he could not be in want, when he was giving it to the swine There is a well-known saying of Cyrus who, having for a long time suffered hunger during a flight, and having been slightly refreshed by eating coarse black bread, declared that he had never tasted savory bread till now; so the young man who is here mentioned was compelled by necessity to betake himself with appetite to husks The reason is added, because no man gave to him; for the copulative conjunction and (καὶ) must, in my opinion, signify because, 532 and what is here said does not refer to husks, which he had at hand, but I understand the meaning to be, that no man pitied his poverty; for prodigals who throw away the whole of their property are persons whom no man thinks himself bound to relieve, — nay more, as they have been accustomed to squander every thing, men think that nothing ought to be given to them. 533
17. And when he came to himself. Here is described to us the way in which God invites men to repentance. If of their own accord they were wise, and became submissive, he would draw them more gently; but as they never stoop to obedience, till they have been subdued by the rod, he chastises them severely. Accordingly, to this young man, whom abundance 534 rendered fierce and rebellious, hunger proved to be the best teacher. Instructed by this example, let us not imagine that God deals cruelly with us, if at any time he visits us with heavy afflictions; for in this manner those who were obstinate and intoxicated with mirth are taught by him to be obedient. In short, all the miseries which we endure are a profitable invitation to repentance. 535 But as we are slow, we scarcely ever regain a sound mind, unless when we are forced by extreme distress; for until we are pressed by difficulties on every hand, and shut up to despair, the flesh always indulges in gaiety, or at least recoils. Hence we infer, that there is no reason to wonder, if the Lord often uses violent and even repeated strokes, in order to subdue our obstinacy, and, as the proverb runs, applies hard wedges to hard knots. It must also be observed, that the hope of bettering his condition, if he returned to his father, gave this young man courage to repent; for no severity of punishment will soften our depravity, or make us displeased with our sins, till we perceive some advantage. As this young man, therefore, is induced by confidence in his father’s kindness to seek reconciliation, so the beginning of our repentance must be an acknowledgment of the mercy of God to excite in us favorable hopes.
20. And while he was still afar off. This is the main point of the parable. If men, who are by nature prone to revenge, and too tenacious of their own rights, are moved by fatherly love kindly to forgive their children, and freely to bring them back, when they are sunk in wretchedness, God, whose boundless goodness exceeds all the affection of parents, 536 will not treat us more harshly. 537 And certainly nothing is here attributed to an earthly father which God does not promise with respect to himself. Before they call, says he, I will answer, (Isa 65:24.) That passage too of David is well known,
I said, I will acknowledge against me my unrighteousness to the Lord and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,
As this father, therefore, is not merely pacified by the entreaties of his son, but meets him when he is coming, and before he has heard a word, embraces him, filthy and ugly as he is, so God does not wait for a long prayer, but of his own free will meets the sinner as soon as he proposes to confess his fault.
It is wretched sophistry to infer from this, that the grace of God is not exhibited to sinners until they anticipate it by their repentance. “Here,” say they, “is held out to us a father ready to pardon, but it is after that his son has begun to return to him; and therefore God does not look, and does not bestow his grace, on any but those who begin to seek him.” It is, no doubt, true that, in order to his obtaining pardon, the sinner is required to have grief of conscience, and to be dissatisfied with himself; but it is wrong to infer from this, that repentance, which is the gift of God, is yielded by men from their own movement of their heart. And in this respect it would be improper to compare a mortal man to God; for it is not in the power of an earthly father to renew the stubborn heart of his son, as God changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. In short, the question here is not whether a man is converted by himself, and returns to him; but only under the figure of a man is commended the fatherly gentleness of God, and his readiness to grant forgiveness.
21. Father, I have sinned against heaven. Here is pointed out another branch of repentance, namely, such a conviction of sin as is accompanied by grief and shame. For he who is not grieved for having sinned, and whose offense is not placed before his eyes, will sooner attempt any thing than think of returning to the path of duty. Displeasure with sin must therefore go before repentance. And there is great emphasis in this expression, that the young man is said to have come to himself, as one whom the wanderings of wild desires had hurried away into forgetfulness of himself. And certainly so far astray are the impulses of the flesh, that any one who gives himself up to them may be said to have gone out of himself, and to have lost his senses. For this reason transgressors are commanded to return to the heart, 538 (Isa 46:8.) Next follows a confession, 539 not such a one as the Pope has contrived, but one by which the son appeases his offended father; for this humility is absolutely necessary in order to obtain forgiveness of sins. This mode of expression, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, is of the same import as if he had said, that God was offended in the person of an earthly father. And certainly this is the dictate of nature, that every one who rebels against a father rises wickedly also against God, who has placed children in subjection to parents.
22. Bring out the best robe. Although in parables (as we have frequently observed) it would be idle to follow out every minute circumstance, yet it will be no violence to the literal meaning, if we say, that our heavenly Father not only pardons our sins in such a manner as to bury the remembrance of them, but even restores those gifts of which we had been deprived; as, on the other hand, by taking them from us, he chastises our ingratitude in order to make us feel ashamed at the reproach and disgrace of our nakedness.
“Il dit aussi;” — “he said also.”
“Et peu de iours apres;” — “and a few days after.”
“Et (ou, mais) personne ne luy donnoit;” — “and (or, but) nobody gave to him.”
“Combien y-a-il de mercenaires en la maison de mon pere, qui ont force pain;” — “how may hirelings are there in my father’s house, who have plenty of bread.”
“Ie partiray d’icy, et m’en iray a mon pere;” — “I will depart hence, and will go away to my father.”
“Car mon fils que voyci estoit mort, et il est retourne a vie: il estoit perdu, mais il est retrouve;” — “for this is my son who was dead, and he is returned to life; he was lost, but he is found again.”
“De la doctrine que nous venons de voir;” — “of the doctrine which we have just now seen.”
“Retourne pour demander pardon a son pere;” — “returns to ask pardon from his father.”
“Aussi en la personne de ce bon pere il nous propose l’affection de Dieu;” — “also in the person of this good father he holds out to us the affection of God.”
“Mais les previent par sa bonte et misericorde paternelle;” — “but anticipates them by his fatherly goodness and compassion.”
“Delaissant le bon vieil hemme de pere;” — “leaving the good old man his father.”
“Mais aussi diminue le bien de la maison, et en emporte une bonne partie;” — “but also diminishes the wealth of the house, and carries off a good part of it.”
“Tout ce qu’il avoit eu du pere;” — “all that he had got from his father.”
“Il avoit bien merite de trouver puis apres un pere rigoreux, et qui teint son coeur contre luy iusqu’au bout;” — “he had well deserved to find afterwards a father who was severe, and who kept his heart shut against him to the end.”
“Pource que ie me tien maintenant dans mes limites, et ne veux point passer l’office d’expositeur;” — “because I now keep myself within my limits, and do not wish to go beyond the duty of an expositor.”
“C’est une gourmandise plustost convenable a des porceaux qu’a des hommes;” — “it is a gluttony more suitable to swine than to men.”
“Pour subvenir aux necessitez de ceste vie;” — “to supply the necessities of this life.”
“Mais cependant il faut tousiours aviser quelle difference il y a entre les allegories et le vray sens naturel d’un passage;” — “but yet we must always consider what difference there is between allegories and the true natural meaning of a passage.”
“Car selon mon avis ce mot et se doit resoudre en Car, ou Pource que;” — “for in my opinion this word and must mean For, or Because.”
“Il semble que ce qu’on leur donne soit autant de perdu;” — “what is given to them appears to be as good as thrown away.”
“L’aise et la trop grande abondance;” — “ease and too great abundance.”
“Ce sont autant d’avertissemens proufitables, par lequel Dieu nous convie a repentance;” — “they are so many profitable warnings, by which God invites us to repentance.”
“L’amour de tous les peres de ce monde;” — “the love of all the fathers in the world.”
“Sera bien pour le moins aussi debonnaire envers nous;” — “will be at least as gentle towards us.”
“A ceste cause en l’Escriture Dieu commande aux transgresseurs de retourner a leur coeur;” — “For this reason, in Scripture God commands transgressors to return to their heart.” In the authorized version the passage runs thus: Bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. — Ed.
“Apres la cognoissance du peche s’ensuit aussi la confession;” — “after the knowledge of sin there follows also confession.”