This morning I find myself contemplating the parable of the prodigal son. I find myself in the unusual position of identifying with, and perhaps “being” all three characters in the story at once.
The parable of the prodigal son is the most developed of the three parables of the “lost”, the “seeker”, and the “found.” The story chronicles the three act drama: the departure of a wayward son, a parent’s enthusiastic welcome at his return, and the bitter reaction of the dutiful son.
In many ways I identify with the wayward son. I make so many mistakes. Some I feel cannot be erased or “fixed.” I squandered so many opportunities to teach my children correct principles. I wasted some many of my precious minutes on frivolous media and even procrastination. I abandoned opportunities that were placed in my path to better myself, my family’s life, and even the lives of my friends and accountancies. And for what? I know hold the cards of the consequences of my choices.
In the parable, Jesus described the consequences with painful touches of realism. A great famine arises, and the young man who did not discipline himself to plan for the future, suddenly becomes the victim of that future. Believing he had liberated himself by settling in a different country, he found himself forced to work in a job that was beneath his potential as far away from his true self as he could possibly get. The pain of hunger overcomes his situation as he is unable to even share the garbage that he is asked to feed the pigs he lives with.
The headstrong son had already thrown away his moral standards, his testimony and gospel standards and suffered a loss of status, both physically and spiritually.
Once defiant, the rebellious brother soon “comes to himself.” He determines to go to his father and admit his mistakes, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
“And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15:17–19.)
Up to this point, the parable has dealt with the effects of sin and rebellion. I can’t think of a single person who cannot identify with the prodigal son. No matter how “good” we think we are, we all make mistakes and are in need of the “Healer” to restore our souls that perfect state that we all began as at our creation. If I can remember that we are all sinners I will be a more effective spouse, parent, friend, teacher, leader, and daughter.
As the story continues the story focuses on the effects of repentance and forgiveness. When I remember that I am a “prodigal” daughter and I have great need to “return” I gain the help I need from the courageous example of this son. I say courageous because it takes great effort to admit that you are wrong. Humble isn’t a strong enough word. Perhaps that is why Christ requires a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.” I reflect on how hard it is to swallow my pride to admit my mistakes and work up the courage to face those I have wronged and my respect for this prodigal son increases. It is hard work! But it is oh so worth it if we reach deep into our souls and find the courage to return!
In the story I learn that while the prodigal “was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20.) (Wow! The father RAN... That is a huge statement of the worth of his son's soul!) The son admits his guilt, and the father receives him with honor and celebrates his homecoming. No matter how hard the past or the future road, the father insists personally and publicly that the returning child is still his son and that he is still loved, saying,
“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:24; see also Luke 15:32.)
Today I identify with the father in the story. I imagine this father mourned the loss of his son to riotous living. I believe he was heart sick. I wonder if his worry sometimes threatened to paralyze him. I wonder because I feel that way. I mourn my good health that is lost. I am heart sick when I lose peace at home to contention. I worry most as my loved ones make decisions that are contrary to the ways of God that I love so much. Yet, I know I would rejoice if things changed. Whether it is rejoicing because health is returning to me one pound or one step at a time or its rejoicing because peace is returned from chaos in my life and in my home or rejoicing in the little choices made to return to gospel principles, I see the “need” to rejoice when people and things are returned and restored. In the last verse, the father also says that “it was meet” that the happy celebration take place. This English phrase means “it was fitting or appropriate.” The Greek phrase is actually more intense - the happiness was “necessary.”
Some have suggested this story could also be called the parable of the father’s love, or the parable of the faithful father. Certainly the parable symbolizes God’s constant concern for his children. Since he is above all a God of love, he naturally welcomes the truly penitent. I want to develop His characteristics that I may react in such a way.
Sometimes I feel like I identify most with the older son. I often feel “wronged” because I felt I had done all I could and yet the fat cells still hung around. Or I made every effort to serve and to teach and to persuade and to follow the prophets and the commandments and yet I am currently struggling with losing a wayward son for myself. I have found myself surprised at concern for those I have wrongly deemed unworthy. I wonder where is the “fair” in allowing the returned back into full fellowship. I forget that I have experienced that greater blessing, one that will not be fully restored, and that is I always had the father’s influence near me. I know that the “returnee” now has the opportunity to have that influence again, but think of all the time lost, never to be returned. We can’t turn back time. In the process of “not transgressing” the father’s commandments, the elder son has failed to learn to love others as his father does. The son does not have a correct understanding of the principles of repentance and forgiveness. Yet his father replies: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (Luke 15:31.) Sad that I find myself in this position far too often. Ironically, this kind of thinking really sends me right back to being the prodigal sinful son.
To debate about which son is more acceptable to God goes beyond the story. The truth is, we are all both sons. Salvation in both situations depends not on God’s love—which is freely given to all—but upon how one accepts God’s love.
Today as I mourn the choices of my son I sit here brokenhearted seeking understanding, comfort, and guidance. I have learned a few important principles from contemplating the parable of the prodigal son:
Trust Father in Heaven. Life is a complex mixture of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, good and bad. Heavenly Father fully understands my conditions here in mortality, having allowed those conditions and provided agency (not FREE agency…. A price has definitely been paid for that!) as a kind of living laboratory for growth. Moreover, He Himself must have experienced all of the conditions and feelings we do, for, as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “God himself was once as we are now” and “dwelt on an earth” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith , 345, 346). Not only did one of His choicest sons rebel during our premortal existence, but that son also persuaded a third part of the Father’s children to take a devilish path.
He knows EXACTLY the heartache I feel. He will know how to heal it and make things right again.
I can remember parents in scripture who suffered parental disappointment: Adam and Eve, whose son Cain murdered his brother Abel; Lehi and Sariah, whose two older sons rebelled; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those towering figures who, with their wives, experienced much parental sorrow; Alma the Younger, who had a rebellious son, Corianton; and Mosiah, who had several rebellious sons. Even parents who do all that the can to point their children to Christ don’t always succeed.
In 1929 Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “You parents of the willful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours—long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fullness of knowledge brings the fullness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend” (in Conference Report, April 1929, 110).
Thanks be to GOD! Love changes everything!
I have the ultimate hope that because my children have been sealed to us in the temple, the bonds of eternal covenants will be stronger than the bonds of the adversary that now seem to grip lives. I must live with hope that the day will come when all family members will return to their eternal families and repent of wayward behavior. The prodigal son’s father trusted. I must find the courage to trust too.
Respect Agency. A governing doctrine of the universe, applicable in all ages including the eternities before God formed this earth, is that God has granted to people their agency—the right to choose between good and evil. Because we have agency, it is fair and just that we account to Him for our use of it, whether good or bad. If we had no agency, God would be responsible for us and everything we did, which would result in our never really knowing the depth of our personal convictions regarding either good or evil.
Good and evil bombard my children and I. I can do my best to teach my children correct principles allowing them to make informed choices. I must also teach that when they make choices contrary to gospel teachings, they will always suffer the consequences, some of which are serious and not always immediate. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “My people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer” (D&C 105:6; emphasis added). While it’s the harder pathway, the Lord is aware of young people who have been caught in addictive behaviors and is watching patiently over them as they learn through their own experience about good and evil.
As hard as it is, I must “let” my son go… yet I must “hold the line”. I wish is wasn’t so hard to tell when to let go and when to hold tight.
Paraphrasing the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Orson F. Whitney said “that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. … They will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God” (in Conference Report, April 1929, 110).
I can do this. This gives me something to hold onto. I can and should expect much of my children, but I cannot force them into the Lord’s mold. My children will not stay with the Church and live the gospel unless they want to.
I guess that takes me back to loving them to “want” to. The prodigal son’s father allowed him to experience life. I can do the same.
Turn to the Savior. Because God knows the inevitable consequences of agency—we all choose right as well as wrong, and we all transgress to some degree—He has provided a Savior to snatch us from our precarious situation. The Savior has taken upon Himself the burden of our sins, pains, infirmities, and feelings of despair, and we are able to receive of the healing power of His Atonement if we soften our hearts and repent of our sins and become a different person. He mourns with us in our extreme agitation, even when His long view of things requires that for our ultimate good in some situations He withhold His hand from lifting our burdens too quickly.
The spirit of the Savior’s teachings helps me understand how I should react when my loved ones go astray. I should prepare to leave the “ninety and nine” to seek the one (see Luke 15:1–7); search the house to reclaim the lost coin (see Luke 15:8–10); and welcome home even one who has wasted our goods in riotous living (see Luke 15:11–32). There is no perfect answer except through the Savior. The only answer lies in seeking help from the Lord in prayer to obtain needed direction specific for our situation. In Romans 8:26 [Rom. 8:26], the Apostle Paul explains that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” I’m glad the Spirit helps. Some days I don’t know what to pray for anymore. Drawing very close to the Lord and seeking the Spirit’s guidance is helping me know what steps to take next. The prodigal son’s father held to the faith. The son listened to the “pull” that was drawing him closer to the Father. I can do the same.
Heed Promptings. Once we receive whisperings of the Spirit, we need to move forward steadfastly. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart,” states the proverb, “and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Sometimes the things we feel impressed to do may require faith on our part. Be humble! Only the Lord knows the full picture. I don’t know what will happen next. What’s more, I don’t really know the hearts of those I love. Only God does. If I am willing to turn my mind and heart over to Him, I can obtain insight that allows me to take a wise course of action for those I love at any given time. I believe that the prodigal son heeded promptings to return. I can do that. I believe the older son heeded promptings to be humble and to learn charity. I can do that. I believe the Father heeded promptings to have faith and believe that all things will be “alright”. I can do that.
Never Give Up. It seems that I cannot reach all of my children right now, but I can at least keep trying and keep loving them. I can reach out, nurture, and extend help to them as an act of love. I can believe that those efforts won’t always go unnoticed. President Joseph F. Smith offered advice that may helped me: “Fathers, (mothers can be inserted here) if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! … However wayward they might be … when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly. … You can’t drive them; they won’t be driven” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th edition , 316).
I can remember that.
The greatest message of all from the character of the father is: God welcomes us back as full sons and daughters… always. Indeed, as we read in Alma, God is a God of love, and in his mercy, he has provided repentance as a way for us to return to him: “There is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; … if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
“But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent.” (Alma 42:22–23.)
The lesson learned from the prodigal son is: to return to our Father, we must make the hard climb of consistent repentance and true reform. The powerful love of the Father and of the Savior can provide us with an immeasurable motivation. Indeed, Jesus may have added the killing of the best animal to the parable of the prodigal son as a hint that he would die for the sins of all repentant prodigals. Now that is LOVE that changes everything!
The lesson from the dutiful son: Perhaps he is like those of us who fill our assignments and attend our meetings, but fail to learn charity—that unconditional love the Father has for all his children and which he commands us to obtain and exercise. (See Moro. 7:33–48.) For those of us whose lives are similar to that of the dutiful elder brother, the challenge is to learn to welcome God’s repentant sons and daughters—our brothers and sisters—with godly love… a love that invites, persuades and changes everything.
The Savior sharply opposed sin, but frequently cautioned his disciples against rejecting the sinner. I can seek to obtain that level of powerful, earth moving love.
God help me to find it… to return… to restore through His Love.