Spiritual Meaning of
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THE PRODIGAL SON.
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 falls to me. And he divided to them his property. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his sub-stance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and, he began to be in want. 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 rather have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave to him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my Father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew near to the home, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, Your brother is come; and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve you, neither transgressed I at any time your commandment: and yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this your son has come, who has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf. And he said to him, Son, you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours. It was necessary that we should make merry, and be glad: for this your brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
By a certain man is to be understood the Great Father of the universe; and by His two sons are here meant to be described two general classes of mankind; the first, including those who do not wander so far as others in the way of disobedience from their Father's house; and the second, including those who wander, and afterwards return by repentance; or, in other words, the first, including those who stand more in original good; and the second, including those who attain to what may be called the good of repentance.
It is said of the younger, that he said to his Father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me. And he divided to them his property. The portion of goods here spoken of means a portion of spiritual goods, and not mere natural wealth or property; and all spiritual goods have relation principally to the things contained in the two faculties of the will and understanding. Thus the younger son, by desiring the portion of goods which fell to him, manifested an inclination to possess spiritual property independent of his Father, thus to separate from his Father the things of his will and of his understanding.
By the Father's living is meant His life, that is to say, His love and His wisdom, for all the life of God has relation to these two divine principles, which God, therefore, in His mercy, is disposed to communicate to all His children, and for the reception of which He has endowed all His children with the two faculties of will and understanding.
It is said, that not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. By gathering all together are to be understood all the principles of his mind and life which he had derived from the two grand fountains of his life, the will and understanding; and by taking his journey into a far country, is further to be understood his departure from dependence on his Heavenly Father, to live to himself and the world, separate from divine guidance and governance.
His substance means the faculty which he had received from his Heavenly Father of understanding truth, and thereby of procuring to himself an eternal good; and wasting this his substance, in riotous living, further implies, that he nearly destroyed in himself that faculty, by immersing it in mere selfish and earthly loves.
It is next said, that when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Whenever man, in pursuit of what he calls happiness, or good, separates himself from dependence on his Heavenly Father, by immersing his affections in selfish and worldly love, which is here signified by spending all, he presently finds himself disappointed in the expectations he had formed, and that, instead of the happiness and good which he had looked for, he meets with nothing but distress and misery, which is here signified by a mighty famine in that land, and by beginning to be in want. For the term famine relates not only to a scarcity of bread, or nourishment for the body, but also to a scarcity of what is signified by bread, which is the food of the soul, and which food is nothing else but the divine truth and good of God's Most Holy Word. It is accordingly written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4).
It is added, that he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he rather would have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat: and no man gave to him.
By that country is here to be understood the region of selfish and worldly love, with all its follies and cravings; and by a citizen of that country is implied, every one who submits himself to the dominion of such love.
Swine denote the lowest principles of selfish and sensual life; and by sending him, therefore, into the fields to feed swine, is to be understood, that he was instructed in no knowledges but what tended to cherish and strengthen such corrupt principles.
His being prepared to fill his belly with the husks which the swine did eat, instructs us that the knowledges which he had imbibed in this filthy state of his love and affections, and by which he cherished and strengthened the sensual principles of his life, were not sufficient to satisfy his immortal spirit; and, therefore, it is added, that no man gave to him, to instruct us, further, that he was destitute of all light and comfort to be derived from the eternal wisdom, which is here signified by man, and was thus reduced to the level of a beast, as to all limits belonging to true understanding and rationality.
And when he, came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough, and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will, arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.
By the prodigal coming to himself, we are to understand the return of his affections and thoughts to their proper centre, which had before been wandering amongst objects which had drawn them away from that centre. For this is the case with every thoughtless and unconverted man, that he wanders out of himself, by suffering his affections and thoughts to seek gratification in mere external objects. Whenever, therefore, persons of such a character give way to serious reflection and the admonitions of conscience, they are then said, to come, or return, to themselves, because their affections and thoughts, which properly constitute themselves, so come and return. This seriousness of penitent reflection thus expresses itself in the parable, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! For it is made sensible that the children of God alone abound in true peace and comfort, and that in the ways of sin nothing is to be found but a miserable desolation of all true joy. The true penitent, therefore, adds further, I will arise, by which is to be understood, an approach and exaltation to the Supreme Good of the Divine Love; and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants, implying still further acknowledgement and confession of his natural opposition to the Divine Love, attended with a humble sense of his own deep depravity and unworthiness on that account, together with an earnest desire to be admitted to the lowest place amongst those who are true servants of their Heavenly Father.
The words, he arose, and came to his father, express that his will, or love, began to be affected by his understanding and thoughts, for the first conviction of sin is usually worked in the understanding and thoughts, by which man is led to aspire after the good of heavenly love and wisdom; but this good is not attained until the will, or love, begins to be affected, and to be made sensible of the blessedness of that good in itself. When this is the case, then, there is an accomplishment of that which had before been purposed and thought of, and the happy penitent not only says, I will arise and go to my father, but really does arise and comes to his Father.
It is written, that when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. By his being yet a great way off, is meant that his affections were not yet in a state to enter into conjunction with his Father; for distance, according to the spiritual idea, is determined in all cases by the state of the affections, insomuch that, where the affections of two persons are congenial and in agreement, the persons themselves are near each other; as, on the contrary, where the affections are not in agreement and harmony, the persons themselves are proportionably remote from each other. The case is similar with respect to God and man, so that their distance or remoteness from each other depends altogether on the state of man's affections in respect to God.
The other expressions in this verse denote the different effects and operations of the Divine Mercy, together with the various degrees of its approach to eternal conjunction with every penitent and returning sinner. The first effect is described by seeing him, because God is said to see, as he is said to know, only those whose affections are in some state of agreement with Him. The second effect is described by His having compassion, this being an emotion of the Divine Mercy towards all who begin to feel a want of mercy, and, under the influence of that want, are led to return, in the spirit of sincere penitence, to the bosom of their Heavenly Father. The third effect is described by running, because by running is signified the strong affection resulting from compassion, and, therefore every one, according to the spiritual idea, is said to run who is under the influence of a strong affection, whether it be good or evil. The fourth effect is described by falling on his neck, because the neck is that part of the body by which communication is effected between the head, or upper region of the body, and the trunk, or lower region. To fall on the neck, therefore, is a figurative way of speaking, to denote communication, and in the present case was intended to express the new communication opened between the Divine Mercy, on the one part, and the heart of a sincere penitent, on the other. The fifth effect is described by kissing him, because a kiss, as every one knows, is a token of conjunction by love, and, therefore, in the present instance, it denotes a further degree of the operation of the Divine Mercy, in conjoining itself by love with the true penitent, and by reciprocally conjoining the true penitent with itself.
We have already seen what is meant by what is written in the next verse, where it is said, The son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son. In the two following verses we find, The father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring here the fatted calf, and kill it; and Let us eat and be merry.
The father's saying to the servants expresses that he did not do immediately from himself, but mediately by others, the things which are afterwards described. For the subject now recorded concerning the returning penitent, is his instruction in those heavenly truths and doctrines which were to make him wise to salvation; and this instruction is not taught immediately by God, but mediately by His Word, and by the ministers of His Word, who are here, therefore, called servants. According to this view of the meaning of servants bringing forth the best robe and putting it on the returning penitent, expresses in the language of figure, the initiation of the prodigal into the saving knowledges of the eternal truth, which knowledges are as a garment, or robe, for the adorning or protecting of that celestial good of innocence and peace into which he was to be introduced. Putting a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, further describes the conjunction of heavenly good and truth, both in the internal and external man; the ring on the hand denoting this conjunction in the internal man, and the shoes oil the feet denoting the same in the external man. Thus both together are expressive of man's regeneration, which is nothing else but man's restoration to the order of heaven in every principle both of his inner and outer man, and thus his conjunction of life with God. By the fatted calf, is further intended to be figured the initiation of the prodigal into the good of celestial love and charity, which good is constantly described in the Word of God under the figure of a fatted calf. By eating and being merry is, lastly, meant to be expressed the heavenly consociation and joy to which the returning penitent never fails to be introduced, when he has put on the best robe, with a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and when the fatted calf has been brought forth and killed. For by eating, according to a spiritual idea, is understood the appropriation of heavenly good, and thus consociation with the angelic heaven; and by being merry, or glad, according to the same idea, is to be understood the delight arising from such appropriation and consociation.
The reason which is here assigned for thus eating and being merry, is given in the following verse, For this my son was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found.
By the son being dead is meant, being spiritually dead, that is to say, dead in trespasses and sins; for in the Word of God nothing is called death but alienation from the life of God, that is from the life of love and charity; and nothing is called life but conjunction with God, through a participation of His love. And by the son being lost, is meant his wandering in the ways of error, through ignorance of the eternal truth; for in the Word of God every one is said to be lost who does not follow the guidance of the eternal truth, and suffer himself to be led by its heavenly light to the mansions of eternal day. When, therefore, it is said, that the son was both dead and lost, it denotes that he was deprived both of the good of heavenly love and charity in his will, and also of the truth of heavenly wisdom and intelligence in his understanding. And when it is said, further, that he is alive again, and found, it is to denote that he was beginning to recover from this deprivation, and to be restored to the possession of heavenly life in his will, and of heavenly wisdom in his understanding.
It is said at the close of this verse, that they began to be merry. This is to describe the effect of what had been before said, where it is written, let us eat and be merry; thus it is to describe that what was before only in the thought and intention, was now brought into the will and act. This is an usual method of speaking in the Sacred Scriptures, and occurs particularly in the first chapter of Genesis, where mention is so repeatedly made, first, of the divine thought, or purpose, and, next, of its agency and effect, being designed to lead us to reflect on the two distinct processes of regeneration; first, whilst truth is implanting and growing in the understanding; and, secondly, when it enters into the will or love, and is brought into operation and effect.
But it is written afterwards, that his elder son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
In one sense, by the elder son is here to be understood the Jewish nation, who were envious at, the calling in of the Gentiles to the Christian Church, which Gentiles, agreeably to the same sense, are figured in the parable by the younger son. But in a sense still more remote from the letter, by the elder son, as was observed above, are here to be understood those who stand more in original good, and have not wandered so far from their Father's house in the ways of sin and error.
By his being in the field is to be understood, that they who stand more in original good, and have not wandered so far from their Father's house, which is the divine love and mercy, are in an external state of good, when compared with those who are in the good of repentance, which good is here signified by the house in which was heard music and dancing. For when mention is made, in the Sacred Scriptures, of a field and a house, by a house is signified an interior state of good, and by a field an exterior state, comparatively.
Music and dancing, like all other natural expressions, are applied, in the Word of God, to convey spiritual ideas, which is the case, too, with all the various instruments of music spoken of in the Sacred Volume. For all music originates in some spiritual affection, and is expressive of, and attended to excite, the affection in which it originates. And as music is expressive of some spiritual affection, so dancing is expressive of some corresponding natural affection; in other words, dancing is expressive of the agreement between the internal and external man. For dancing, we know, is a motion of the feet in concord, or agreement, with some sound or tune; and as the feet, in consequence of being the lowest part of the body, are representative of the lowest principles of the mind, which are called natural principles, so dancing is representative of the motion, or action of these principles, as they accord with the higher, which are represented by music. It is, therefore, written in the book of Psalms, Praise him with the timbrel and dance; praise him with stringed instruments and organs (Psalm 150:4), to denote that man ought to exalt his Maker in all the affections of his spirit, or internal man, and also in all the actions and energies of his external man, influenced by those affections. By the music, and dancing, then, here spoken of, are to be understood the affections of holy joy arising from the good of repentance, which good is here signified by the house, together with the correspondent delight in the external man, originating in that internal joy.
It is said that he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant? And he said to him, Your brother is come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. By calling one of the servants, and asking what these things meant, is to be understood an inquisition in the minds of those who stand more in original good concerning the joys and delights of the good of repentance; and by asking one of the servants, is to be understood an inquiry in the lower principles of the mind, called rational and scientific, concerning these joys and delights. And by the servant's reply to this inquiry, is further to be understood the assent of those principles to the reasonableness of the superior joys and delights annexed to the good of repentance over the original good. This reasonableness is pointed out in a forcible manner, by the expression, because he has received him safe and sound; the term safe having relation to the state of the will in its recovery from disorderly love, to the pure and orderly love of heaven; and the term sound having relation to the state of the understanding, in its restoration from false and erroneous principles of life, to see by the light of the eternal truth and wisdom of the Most High.
It is written, further, that he was angry and would not go in; therefore came his father out and entreated him. By anger, and being angry, when the terms occur in the Sacred Scripture, is to be understood contrariety to another, or contrariety of affection; and in this case it denotes the contrariety between the affections of those who stand more in original good, and those who are in the good of repentance; in which sense God is said to be angry with the wicked, not that He feels anything like anger or resentment towards them, but that the good, which constitutes His divine nature, is contrary to the evil which constitutes their natures. The elder brother is, therefore, unwilling to go in, because they who are in original good cannot enter into the joys and delights of those who are in the good of repentance.
By the Father we are here to understand, the divine good of the divine love; and by His coming out and entreating him, is to be understood the influx, or influence, of this love into those who are in original good, inclining them to enter into the joys and delights of those who are in the good of repentance, from the consideration that all such joys and delights originate in the divine love, and are communicated in a more abundant measure to those transgressors who, having wandered from their Father's house in the ways of sin and vanity, are earnest and anxious to return back thither by a vigorous repentance and entire conversion.
But it is said of the elder brother, that, notwithstanding his Father's entreaties, he answering said to him, Lo, these many years do I serve you, neither transgressed I at any time your commandment; and yet you never gave me a kid to make merry with my friends. But as soon as this your son has come, who has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fatted calf. These words, in a subordinate sense, have reference to the Jewish nation, and speak of the reluctance with which they witnessed the extension of the divine mercy and favour to the Gentiles. They are intended also to teach the perverse spirit of that nation, and the undue sense they entertained of their own superior merits and deserts. But, according to a more internal view, the words have reference to the temper and disposition of those who stand more in original good, and the sense they also cherish of their own unspotted purity, when compared with what they call the defilement of those who are in the good of repentance. All such, therefore, tacitly reproach the Almighty for not giving them a kid to make merry with their friends; in other words, they are indignant at the idea that their joys and delights are not equal to their merits; and thus they charge God foolishly with not giving them a recompense proportioned to their services, not aware that the reward of obedience is always dealt out in an exact measure according to the affection which produced it.
We come now to the Father's reply, Son, than are ever with me, and all that I have is yours. It was necessary that we should make merry and be glad, for this my son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. By the eldest son being ever with his father, is to be understood that they who stand more in original good are ever present with its Divine Source, the Supreme Good; and by all that the Father has being his, is to be understood further that original good contains in it the all of the Supreme good. The Father, therefore, by these words meant to convince His son that he had nothing to complain of because he had all things in his possession by virtue of his conjunction with his Father. And thus He meant to convince those who are more in original good of the blessedness of their state, and that they have no need to envy those who are in the good of repentance, since both original good, and the good of repentance, are in this respect equal; and that each is ever conjoined with the Supreme Good; and that each also contains within itself the all of that Good; thus the all of peace, wisdom, holiness, and blessedness, which all is infinite.
From this parable we learn, in general, the most powerful motives to repentance, and at the same time the nature of that heavenly duty, or in what it principally consists. The motives to repentance are inculcated in the most endearing terms, grounded in the tender mercy of the Almighty, which is here represented as rejoicing more over the returning penitent, than over the sinless and innocent child. And the nature of repentance is taught us by the description here given of the pattern of all true penitents, who makes his return to his Heavenly Father to consist, first, in forsaking the ways of sin and vanity; secondly, in elevating his affections and thoughts to the Supreme Good; and, thirdly, in acknowledging, from the depth of a contrite heart, the greatness and guilt of his transgressions. We are instructed further by this interesting parable, that the beginning of all sin is when man quits the bosom of his Heavenly Father to live in the indulgence of his own will and wisdom, separate from the will and wisdom of God; and that the beginning of all holiness is when man is made sensible of the misery of such a separation, and with his whole heart and soul and mind, labours after a reconjunction of all his purposes, affections, thoughts, and works, with the Divine Source of his life, his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us resolve, therefore, from now on, to shun all the ways of sin and separation from our heavenly Father. But if, notwithstanding all our purposes to lead a good life, we should still in the hour of infirmity fall into transgression, let us yet not despair utterly of the Divine Mercy, but, recollecting its tenderness and compassion towards the humble and the penitent, let us hasten to confess our faults to our Heavenly Father, entreating Him that we may no more offend, but, learning a lesson of wisdom from our faults, may thus attain, by the sincerity of our repentance, to a more full experience and reception of the Divine Mercy than could otherwise have been attained. Amen.