This article is Part 2 of Luke 15—The Heart of the Gospel Message
(Note: This article is adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.)
No greater work has the Lord God of heaven ever undertaken than to save the souls of his children. It is the grandest, the greatest undertaking that ever has been inaugurated.—Elder Rulon S. Wells (i)
Sometimes called “the heart of the gospel” or “the gospel within the gospel,” Luke 15 describes the work of the Father and the Son as well as any section of the scriptures. If the gospel doesn’t work at this level, it doesn’t work at all.
Last week, we discussed the first two of Jesus’ parables in Luke 15: The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin. We are amazed at the effort made to recover an animal and an object. In the parable of The Prodigal Son, we are shown a completely new side to the Father’s character: the long-suffering, unconditionally-loving Parent
The Prodigal Son
The parable of the prodigal son (ii) is about the Lord’s waiting process. Brian M. Hauglid wrote, “With both the lost sheep and the lost coin, it is interesting that neither of the two can fully represent repentance because repentance is a human act. However . . . if the first two parables demonstrate God’s initiative to search out those who are lost and then hold subsequent celebrations, the Parable of the Prodigal Son shows that sometimes God will wait for the lost to choose to repent and return and still hold a celebration.” (iii)
Prodigal is an adjective that means “rashly or wastefully extravagant.” (iv) In this parable, Jesus used the extreme situation of a wickedly rash and wasteful boy to illustrate abysmal sin that is eventually covered by infinite atoning love. The parable introduces a father who had two sons. Both boys, we will discover, had need of repentance, and in both cases the father becomes the reconciling and unifying agent. We learn at least two disconcerting things about the younger son: he sought his own terms, and he clearly rejected family and tradition.
Turning his property into quick cash, the prodigal now had all the resources he needed to lose himself. That he “took his journey into a far country” (v) strikes a familiar chord in the heart of any parent of a wayward child. Jesus’ description of this far country and its conditions suggests that the boy had departed the land of his inheritance to live with and like Gentiles—shedding himself of his covenants and trampling into the ground the teachings of his father. Worse, the boy brought shame to his father and the family’s name by wasting “his substance with riotous living . . . and with harlots” until “he had spent all.” (vi)
How many parents of wayward children have watched their children abandon their heritage and covenants, openly reject their family, and finally, squander all their resources, and often the family’s fortune, to live a perverse, gentile life?
From Bad to Worse
Then came the “mighty famine”;(vii) it always does. No one can escape the law of the harvest—it holds everyone and every action in its grasp. Now no “friend” would help him; friends like that never will. Satan, the father of such “friends,” won’t allow support: “the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.” (viii) The plus side to this, as Ted Gibbons wrote, is that “This famine in the far country is as much a messenger of the love of God as was the angel who visited Alma.” (ix) Its purpose was to call the prodigal son home.
Soon the boy was starving, but he had not yet hit rock bottom. In a frantic attempt to retain his residence in the far country and cling to his rebellious lifestyle, he “joined himself to a citizen of that country [who] sent him into his fields to feed swine.” (x) Once again we see the depths to which the young man had fallen. Brian Hauglid wrote,
Of course, the occupation of feeding pigs (as with the eating of them) is absolutely forbidden in Jewish law, so this act underscores the desperate and despicable state the young man had brought upon himself. As a feeder of pigs, “he was forced to be in contact with unclean animals (Lev. 11:7) and could not have observed the Sabbath; he must have been reduced to the lowest depths of degradation and practically forced to renounce the regular practice of his religion.” (xi)
“He came to himself”
Apparently, he finally hit rock bottom when “no man gave unto him,” and “he would fain [gladly] have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat,” (xii) suggesting that he had now arrived at the point where he gladly would have eaten the food of the swine. Maybe the boy’s revulsion at eating with the pigs was the last thing tethering him to his roots. Perhaps his disgust with being reduced to this level finally called him back. Maybe in his heart he finally cried, “What am I doing? Have I really fallen this far?” For whatever reason, as the scripture says, “he came to himself.” (xiii) Perhaps no phrase in all scripture summons more relief than this.
Every parent of a wayward child weeps and prays and longs for the day that their child will come to himself. As Ted Gibbons noted, “Like Alma, he reached out for mercy. ‘I will arise and go to my father’ (Luke 15:18). Like Alma, when there seemed to be nowhere else he could go, he remembered that there was a place.” (xiv)
We can almost hear the boy say, “I am ready to go home. I may have to go home in shame and accept the lowliest place in my father’s home, but nonetheless I am going home. Even the lowliest place there is loftier than the highest place in this far country.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
I know of no more beautiful story in all literature than that found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. It is the story of a repentant son and a forgiving father. It is the story of a son who wasted his inheritance in riotous living, rejecting his father’s counsel, spurning those who loved him. When he had spent all, he was hungry and friendless, and “when he came to himself” (Luke 15:17), he turned back to his father, who, on seeing him afar off, ‘ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20).
I ask you to read that story. Every parent ought to read it again and again. It is large enough to encompass every household, and enough larger than that to encompass all mankind, for are we not all prodigal sons and daughters who need to repent and partake of the forgiving mercy of our Heavenly Father and then follow His example? (xv)
Revealing the Character of the Father
When the boy “came to himself,” he turned toward home and his father.
Elder Richard G. Hinckley said, “The Hebrew root of the word [repentance] means, simply, ‘to turn,’ or ‘to return to God.’” (xvi) Now that the boy had turned, “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.” (xvii)
No poet has ever captured the character of the Father better than these simple words spoken by his Beloved Son. The Father, who “stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long,” (xviii) has always had His arms outstretched, waiting for this embrace. The father and son’s embrace is followed by the boy’s confession and admission that his actions are worthy of the forfeiture of his name and status as son; but the father reacts only with the same forgiveness and compassion he displayed even before the confession.
Significantly, the prodigal’s father saw his boy “a great way off” and ran to him. Gibbons says, “The Greek words for ‘a great way off’ and for ‘far country’ are from the same root. The implication is that the father may have seen the son the moment he started for home.” (xix) The father’s compassionate and forgiving nature may have been what brought the boy home. Once the boy had turned for home, perhaps the father had even walked with distance home with him.
In this parable, the father waits. He does not search for the young man, as if the boy had strayed like the lost sheep; he does not seek the young man, as if the boy, like the coin, had been lost due to careless neglect; rather, the father waits for the boy to hit rock bottom. Often, the kindest thing a parent can do is to help a wayward child reach rock bottom as soon as possible, because that is the place where reconsideration and change begin.
The Difficult Test of Waiting
A parent’s test of waiting is often much harder than the tests of searching and seeking—at least we feel that we are in control when we are actively working with the child. But to wait for pain to do its work on a child can be excruciating for the parent; consequently waiting requires godlike discipline, maturity, and, most of all, faith that God is guiding the situation. Nevertheless, we parents must learn this discipline if we expect to become as God. He understands perfectly how to exhibit unconditional love while temporarily withholding unconditional support. If rock bottom is where repentance is likely to take place, then He wants to get the wayward child there as soon as possible. And He will do so unless we impatient, albeit loving, parents get in His way.
Keep in mind that the father in this parable had the resources to find and bail out his son at any time, but he did not. This is a powerful lesson for parents who have exhausted searching and seeking efforts and must make the agonizing decision to wait. Sometimes “all we can do” is defined as choosing to do nothing except to love and to wait for God to do the work that He has promised: “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” (xx)
From Prisoner to Prince
Another important point in the parable of the prodigal son relates to the level of the boy’s redemption. In the parable of the prodigal son, after the son makes his confession, his father reacts only with reconciliation and immediate restitution: “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 hither 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.” (xxi)
This illustrates a principle I call “from prisoner to prince,” which I believe can broaden our view of how similar exaltation might await every soul that has lingered in the captivity of sin. Joachim Jeremias observed the return of the prodigal son in light of this principle:
(1) First comes the ceremonial robe, which in the East is a mark of high distinction. . . . The returning son is treated as a guest of honour. (2) The ring and shoes. Excavations have shown that the ring is to be regarded as a signet ring; the gift of a ring signified the bestowal of authority (cf. 1 Maccabees 6.15). Shoes are a luxury, worn by free men; here they mean that the son must no longer go about barefoot like a slave. (3) As a rule meat is rarely eaten. For special occasions a fatted calf is prepared. Its killing means a feast for the family and the servants, and the festal reception of the returning son to the family table.(xxii)
Being Sensitive to Our Faithful Children
There is one last important point this parable makes; sometimes, in the battle for the soul of the prodigal, the other son may feel neglected and angry. Siblings of a prodigal may feel less important to parents and become jealous, or they may become misguided simply because we don’t notice their struggles due to the smoke and clamor of the louder and more blinding battle before us. In the instance where our fear and guilt is aroused over such casualties of the fray, may we remember what we can do and what the Savior can do for us where our efforts and best intentions have fallen short.
For instance, in the parable, the older son, upon observing the attention being lavished upon his brother, becomes “angry, and would not go in.” (xxiii) To take offense and refuse to go into the Father’s house is at the heart of many gospel abandonments. Taking offense, we have been taught, is a personal choice that is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual sickness, which, unchecked, can lead to apostasy and misery. We cannot hide behind the falsehood that the offense was inflicted or imposed upon us, no matter how rude or crass the offender may have been. Nonetheless, our children are often “offended” in one way or another before they are spiritually mature enough to reason through their “wounding” and resulting spiritual “infection.”
In an effort to catch his older son before he, too, departs for a far country, the father comes out “and entreat[s] him.” (xxiv) Reassuringly, the father confirms the boy’s standing in the family if he will only remain faithful and not be consumed by offense: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (xxv) What a terrible forfeiture of blessings for the sake of an offense, and yet how many of our faithful children have been offended by the attention their parents heap upon their prodigal brothers and sisters?
The example of the father in this parable is one that could benefit every parent of wayward and faithful children: We should be sensitive to our faithful children who are ever with us.
We should watch for their taking offense when, of necessity, we must pay inordinate attention to a prodigal child. We should be willing to entreat our faithful children, pleading with them not to take offense, specifically assuring them of our love and their solid position in the family, lest they be “driven away.”
In instances where we simply do not have the time and emotional means to be perfect stewards over all our children’s needs, the Lord can make up for our shortcomings when we are trying our best and sanctifying ourselves. He employs all the resources in heaven and on earth to rescue all our wayward children. To imagine that we parents are carrying the burden of any child’s waywardness alone or that we are somehow excluded from the Father’s grace is to deny the scriptures, which state,
Behold I, even I, will both search my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places [and ways] they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day . . . I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away. (xxvi)
Some children are lost and others have been driven away, but the Father will find every one. The Father will work with the wayward child for long periods of time and make repeated efforts to save him. As with the lost sheep that strayed, He will search until He finds the child, then carry him home. As with the lost coin, He will shine a light on our lives, assist us in cleaning up our personal clutter, then help us seek that which is most valuable but was lost due to our careless neglect. As with the prodigal son, He will patiently wait until the child comes to himself, tires of living like a Gentile and eating with pigs, and desires to return to the safety and abundance of home and compassionate, forgiving parents. In every case, the Father and the Son will throw a banquet to rejoice over the returning wayward one.
Note: This article is adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.
Also, to receive a sample of my new 5-book series, The Three Pillars of Zion, Click here.
i. Rulon S. Wells, Conference Report, April 1927, 72–73.
ii. See Luke 15:11–32.
iii. The God of Old quoted in Brian M. Hauglid’s “Luke’s Three Parables of the Lost and Found: A Textual Study,” The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Volume 2, 247.
iv. American Heritage Dictionary, “Prodigal.”
v. Luke 15:13.
vi. Luke 15:13–14, 30.
vii. Luke 15:14.
viii. Alma 30:60.
ix. Ted Gibbons, Nowhere Else to Go.
x. Luke 15:15.
xi. Joachim Jeremias, quoted in Brian M. Hauglid’s “Luke’s Three Parables of the Lost and Found: A Textual Study,” The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Volume 2, 251–252.
xii. Luke 15:16.
xiii. Luke 15:17.
xiv. Ted Gibbons, Nowhere Else to Go (unpublished manuscript in author’s possession).
xv. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Of You It Is Required to Forgive,” Ensign, June 1991.
xvi. Richard G. Hinckley, “Repentance, a Blessing of Membership,” Ensign, May 2006, 48.
xvii. Luke 15:20.
xviii. Jacob 6:4.
xix. Ted Gibbons, Nowhere Else to Go, emphasis added
xx. D&C 123:17.
xxi. Luke 15:22–24.
xxii. Joachim Jeremias, quoted in Brian M. Hauglid’s “Luke’s Three Parables of the Lost and Found: A Textual Study,” The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Volume 2, 253.
xxiii. Luke 15:28.
xxiv. Luke 15:28.
xxv. Luke 15:31.
xxvi. Ezekiel 34:11–12, 16, emphasis added.