[Ninety-and-nine.] This was a very familiar way of numbering and dividing amongst the Jews, viz. betwixt one and ninety. I have given instances elsewhere, let me in this place add one more: "Of those hundred cries that a woman in travail uttereth, ninety-and-nine of them are to death, and only one of them to life."
7. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
[Which need no repentance.] Here we are to consider the distinction commonly used in the Jewish schools:--
I. All the good, and those that were to be saved at last, they called just persons. [It is opposed to the word wicked persons, as we may observe more than once in the first Psalm.] Hence this and the like passage very frequently, Paradise is for the just: good things laid up for the just.
Let us by the way play a little with the Gemarists, as they themselves also play with the letters of the alphabet, and amongst the rest especially the letter Tsadi, there is Tsadi that begins a word [or the crooked Tsadi] and Tsadi that ends a word [or the straight Tsadi]. What follows from hence? There is the just person that is crooked [or bowed down], and there is the just person that is erect or straight. Where the Gloss hath it, "It is necessary that the man that is right and straight should be bowed or humble, and he shall be erect in the world to come." Aruch acknowledgeth the same Gloss; but he also brings another which seems of his own making; That "there is a just person who is mild or humble; but there is also a just person who is not so." Let him tell, if he can, what kind of just person that should be that is not mild or humble. But to return to our business.
II. They divide the just into those that are just and no more: and those that are perfectly just. Under the first rank they place those that were not always upright; but having lived a wicked and irreligious life, have at length betaken themselves to repentance and reformation. These they call penitents. Under the latter rank are they placed who have been always upright and never declined from the right way: these they call perfectly just, and just from their first original: as also, holy or good men, and men of good works. Such a one did he account himself, and probably was so esteemed by others, that saith, "All these have I kept from my youth." And such a one might that holy man be thought, who never committed one trespass all the days of his life: excepting this one misfortune that befel him, that once he put on the phylacteries for his forehead before the phylacteries for his arms. A wondrous fault indeed! And what pity is it that for this one trespass of his life he should lose the title of one perfectly holy. Yet for this dreadful crime is the poor wretch deprived of a solemn interment, and by this was his atonement made.
We meet with this distinction of just persons in Beracoth: "R. Abhu saith, In the place where stand the penitents, there do not stand the perfectly just." This distinction also appeared both in the tongues and persons of those that were dancing in the Temple at the feast of Tabernacles. "Some of them said, 'Blessed be our youth that have not made our old men ashamed.' These were the holy and men of good works. Others said, 'Blessed be our old men who have expiated for our youth.' These were they who became penitents."
This phrase of perfectly just persons, puts me in mind of that of the apostle, the spirits of just men made perfect. Where (if I understand aright the scope of the apostle in the argument he is upon) he speaks of just men who are still in this life, and shews that the souls and spirits of believers are made perfectly righteous by faith, contrary to what the Jews held, that men were complete in their righteousness by works, even bodily works.
Seeing those whom they accounted perfectly just are termed men of works; so that perfectly just and men of works were convertible terms, it may not be improbable that the Essenes or Essaei may have their name from of works; so that they might be called workers, and by that be distinguished from the penitents. But of that matter I will raise no dispute.
III. Now which of these had the preference, whether perfect righteousness to repentance, or repentance to perfect righteousness, it is not easy to discern at first view, because even amongst themselves there are different opinions about it. We have a disputation in Beracoth, in the place newly cited, in these words: "R. Chaiah Bar Abba saith, R. Jochanan saith, All the prophets did not prophesy, unless for those that repent. As for those that are perfectly just, eye hath not seen besides thee, O God. But R. Abhu contradicts this: for R. Abhu saith, The penitent do not stand in the place where the perfectly just stand; as it is said, Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near. He names him that is far off first, and then him that is nigh. But R. Jochanan, Who is he that is far off? He that was far off from transgressing from his first original. And who is he that is nigh? He that was next to transgression, but now is afar off from it."
These passages of the Talmud are quoted by Kimchi upon Isaiah 57:19; and, out of him, by Drusius upon this place; but as far as I can perceive, very far wide from the mind of Kimchi. For thus Drusius hath it; R. David Isaiah 57:19, Hoc in loco, &c. In this place the penitent is said to be far off, and the just to be nigh, according to the ancients: but he that is far off is preferred; whence they say, The penitents are better than the perfectly just. As if this obtained amongst them all as a rule or maxim; when indeed the words of Kimchi are these: "He that is far off, that is, he that is far off from Jerusalem, and he that is near, that is, he that is near to Jerusalem. But there is a dispute in the words of our Rabbins about this matter. And some of them interpret it otherwise; for they expound him that is afar off, as to be understood of the penitent, and him that is near, as meaning the just: from whence they teach and say, That the penitent are better than those that are perfectly just."
Some, indeed, that do so expound it, say, that those that are penitent are to be preferred before those that are the perfectly just, but this was not the common and received opinion of all. Nay, the more general opinion gave so great a preference to perfect righteousness, that repentance was not to be compared with it. Hence that of R. Jochanan, approved of by R. Chaijah the great Rabbin, that those good and comfortable things concerning which the prophets do mention in their prophecies, belong only to those who were sometimes wicked men but afterward came unto repentance; but they were far greater things that were laid up for perfectly just persons,--things which had never been revealed to the prophets, nor no prophetic eye ever saw, but God only; things which were indeed of a higher nature than that they could be made known to men; for so the Gloss explaineth those words of theirs.
In this, indeed, they attribute some peculiar excellency to the penitent; in that, although they had tasted the sweets of sin, yet they had abandoned it, and got out of the snare: which it might have been a question whether those that are perfectly just would have done if they had tasted and experienced the same. But still they esteemed it much nobler never to have been stained with the pollutions of sin, always to have been just, and never otherwise than good. Nor is it seldom that we meet with some in the Talmudists making their own perfection the subject of their boast, glorying that they have never done any enormous thing throughout their whole life; placing those whom they called holy or good men, who were also the same with perfectly just, placing them (I say) in the highest form of just persons.
IV. After all this, therefore, judge whether Christ spoke simply or directly of any such persons (as if there were really any such) that could need no repentance; or rather, whether he did not at that time utter himself according to the common conceptions that nation had about some perfectly just persons, which he himself opposed. And this seems so much the more likely by how much he saith, "I say unto you," as if he set himself against that common conceit of theirs: and that example he brings of a certain person that needed no repentance, viz., the prodigal's brother, savours rather of the Jewish doctrine than that he supposed any one in this world perfectly just.
8. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
[A woman lighteth a candle.] There is a parable not much unlike this in Midras Schir, "R. Phineas Ben Jair expoundeth. If thou seek wisdom as silver, that is, if thou seek the things of the law as hidden treasures--A parable. It is like a man who if he lose a shekel or ornament in his house, he lighteth some candles, some torches, till he find it. If it be thus for the things of this world, how much more may it be for the things of the world to come!"
11. And he said, A certain man had two sons:
[A certain man had two sons.] It is no new thing so to apply this parable, as if the elder son denoted the Jew, and the younger the Gentile. And, indeed, the elder son doth suit well enough with the Jew in this, that he boasts so much of his obedience, "I have not transgressed at any time thy commandment": as also, that he is so much against the entertainment of his brother, now a penitent. Nothing can be more grievous to the Jews than the reception of the Gentiles.
13. And 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.
[He wasted his substance with riotous living.] Ought not this prodigal to be looked upon as that stubborn and rebellious son mentioned Deuteronomy 21:18? By no means, if we take the judgment of the Sanhedrim itself. For, according to the character that is given of a stubborn and rebellious son in Sanhedrim, cap. 8, where there is a set discourse upon that subject, there can hardly be such a one found in nature as he is there described. Unless he steal from his father and his mother, he is not such a son; unless he eat half a pound of flesh, and drink half a log of wine, he is not such a son. If his father or mother be lame or blind, he is not such a son, &c. Half a pound of flesh! It is told of Maximin, that "he drank frequently in one day a Capitoline bottle of wine, and ate forty pounds of flesh; or, as Cordus saith, threescore."