In Luke chapter 15 the Saviour give three parables: the parable of the lost sheep; the parable of the lost silver; and the parable of the lost or prodigal son. All seem to a variation on a theme- that which is lost can be, and should be, found. The prodigal son is the parable that I use most when I teach about the purpose of life, and the central focus of our faith. Let’s look at the parable:
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 falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
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. 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 fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto 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 unto him, 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.
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 unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy 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 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. And they began to be merry.
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath 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 thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found (Luke 15:11-32).
When we read this parable where do we place ourselves? I think the most common place is either as an observer or as the older son. In doing so there are many wonderful things that we can learn about the Gospel plan.
As an observer to the story we can:
- Learn of the continued faithfulness of the father; the focus is that the father was continually watching and waiting for the son to return. This is a metaphor for our Heavenly Father whose arm is constantly outstretched. The Book of Mormon uses the imagery of a hen and her chicks to teach this important truth:
O ye people of these great cities which have fallen, who are descendants of Jacob, yea, who are of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you. And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart (3 Nephi 10:4-6).
- Learn of the joy that we should feel when someone returns to the fold of God. The fatted calf is killed and a party held reflecting the belief that:
the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;… And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth! (D&C 18:10, 13)
The parable reminds us continually of the Father’s love for each one of us, and the love that we should reflect to others:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).
- Learn of the sin of comparison. I remember watching a dramatization of the Prodigal Son when I was younger. The line I always remember is: “No one ever threw a party for me, and I’ve been the good guy!” Do we sometimes think that there is no ‘glory’ in a steady living of the Gospel? There is virtue in a consistent living of the Gospel but not if we’re doing it to be recognised. We live the Gospel not because we seek a reward but because we love the Father, The Saviour reminds us of this as he speaks of his role as the ‘vine’- we are to constantly be in a relationship with him:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love (John 15:4-10).
These are all exceptional lessons that can help us in our living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, if I’m honest I think that if this is the way that we interpret the parable we are missing the Saviour’s intended meaning. I think if we are to be placed anywhere in this story, we are to be placed in the role of the Prodigal Son. This parable is the story of each of us- it is the story of humanity as a whole.
Moving out to what can be called the ‘meta-narrative’ of Christianity we can see the whole Gospel plan outlined in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
When humanity was first created- as represented in the persons of Adam and Eve- they were created in a relationship with the Father- they walked and talked with him.
This state was indeed paradisiacal. Man knew his God and walked and talked with him. Adam was, as Joseph Smith taught, “lord or governor of all things on earth …. at the same time enjoying communication and intercourse with his Maker, without a vail to separate between.” (Millet, Robert L.. The Man Adam . Deseret Book Company).
In some ways, as being the story of Adam, and by extension all of humanity, it is also the story of us as individuals. In the pre-mortal existence we were with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, and were able to see and take counsel from them. We were, as were Adam and Eve, in an intimate personal relationship with God.
Adam and Eve’s (and by extension all of humanity’s) relationship with God is broken because of their transgression.
For us, because of our birth and Adam and Eve’s choice that made that possible, we have a huge chasm in our relationship with God.
The whole purpose of this life is for us to be reconciled with God. Reconciliation is not a theological term that we hear very often in the Church, but it is the concept that lies at the heart of the message of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son we have the Father who is always hoping for reconciliation.
In distinction to the parable, however, the Lord places the means to overcome this split, to be reconciled with him in front of us:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
The whole purpose of Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection is to reconcile each of us with God today and in eternity. One of the recent changes to the Temple recommend questions highlights this to me. In the past it was:
Do you have a testimony of the atonement of Christ and of his role as Saviour and Redeemer?
This is now:
Do you have a testimony of the atonement of Christ and of his role as your Saviour and Redeemer?(emphasis added)
As we recognise the two aspects of the chasm- death and sin we recognise the love that Jesus has for each of us.
First of all, death:
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:17-22).
This resurrection, the overcoming of death that separates us from God is freely given to each person who lives on this earth:
Now, there is a death which is called a temporal death; and the death of Christ shall loose the bands of this temporal death, that all shall be raised from this temporal death. The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt. Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body, and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God, to be judged according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil (Alma 11:42-43).
This resurrection will be to exaltation or to salvation in one of the three kingdoms of glory in all but a few cases.
While it guarantees that we will be brought into God’s presence, it is the second chasm that determines whether reconciliation will be eternal.
The second obstacle, or pit, is that of sin. In distinction to the gift of the resurrection, we all fall into this pit and become dirty.
This is the part of the parable where the prodigal son is involved in debauchery, or more correctly ‘riotous living’. There comes a point where we reach recognise our situation. Sometimes it takes someone else to point it out to us, but we find ourselves filthy in a pit from which there is seemingly no escape- or no hope for reconciliation. It is then that we remember the Father and the relationship that was once ours, and could be ours again.
If I extend the analogy of the pit- the only way out, that we don’t see because of the darkness, is a rope that through the grace of Jesus Christ has been lowered for us.
Our first act of faith is to reach out and to grab the rope and begin our relationship with Christ.
Alma describes this process in his life:
But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds. And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvellous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! (Alma 36:12-20).
Once we have grabbed that rope, the Saviour because of his grace and his love shown through the atonement begins to pull us up. We realise what is happening and that this rescue is an expression of his love and grace. We are changed through this realisation, we become a new creature abiding in the love of our Saviour. The musician, Stormzy expresses this in his song “Blinded by your Grace”:
Lord, I’ve been broken
Although I’m not worthy
You fixed me, now I’m blinded
By your grace, you came and saved me
Lord, I’ve been broken
Although I’m not worthy
You fixed me, now I’m blinded
By your grace, you came and saved me
As an expression of our love for him we begin to climb the rope- he does not need us to but because we now recognise our relationship to, and reconciliation with, him we feel compelled to. Some people believe that while grace is a free gift from God they have to respond to that grace every day of their lives. This climbing, this living of the Gospel showing our love for him by keeping his commandments keeps us holding on to the rope and abiding in the vine. We are saved by his grace, but our continued expressions of love by following him is key:
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:20-24).
Sometimes in this imagery we imagine that since we have found the rope Christ’s work is done- it is not so- we are not left to climb the rope alone, every inch he is with us, we just need to recognise him. He is there for every muscle ache and every slip down the rope:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succour his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).
There may be times where we feel we are alone but invariably it is when we focus only on ourselves rather than the Saviour:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it(Matthew 16:25).
I think of times in my life where I become preoccupied with immediate issues and concerns and how they seem to be dragging me down. I get focussed on my grip on the rope or maybe a strand that seems to be becoming loose and lose sight of my Saviour and his continued love. I adopt a ‘Wo is me’ attitude and question whether I have the strength to carry on, forgetting that it is the Saviour that will enable this to happen. If we feel this way we are in good company. Joseph Smith had a similar conversation with the Lord:
O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them? (D&C 121:1-3)
And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way… (D&C 122:7-9)
The response is not ‘quit bellyaching, I’ve had it worse’ which is one way it could be read, but ‘Hold on! And you can hold on because I have descended below them all- I know the end from the beginning and I can give you the strength to both hold on and to understand the situation.’
The beginning of this reconciled relationship is now. One day we will be found in our Father’s eternal mansions but today we live in a renewed relationship with the Father and the Son.
In the story of the prodigal son- we are not an onlooker to what is happening, we are not the ‘good one’- we are the prodigal son. The one who through the very act of living in mortality was separated from God. We are him who very nearly shared the pig’s food- but we are also the one for whom the Father is constantly watching, ready with our robe and the party all ready to welcome us home.