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What we can learn from the father of the Prodigal Son about love

This excerpt originally appeared in the January/February issue of LDS Living magazine.

The parable we normally think of as the story of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11–32) could more helpfully be titled the story of The Righteous Father of Two Sons. We can learn of Christ in His role of Father as the Creator of this earth, as the Head of those who have accepted His gospel, and as the One who has made possible our resurrection—our spiritual rebirth and physical salvation.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides several definitions of the word prodigal. The first two connote the way we normally think of the younger son in the story: “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure” and “recklessly spendthrift.” But the third definition describes the father: “yielding abundantly.”1 So we could also, with that abundance in mind, call this the parable of the Prodigal Father.

The portrait Jesus provides us of this family is necessarily broad. We know nothing of the life either son had led prior to the younger son’s desire to depart. We have no insight into the thoughts and expectations of this younger son, so the image we have of him at the outset is unidimensional. All we initially learn is that he wasted his substance with riotous living.

A friend and scholar, David Butler, has said that when the younger son asks, while his father yet lives, for the share of property that would be his upon the death of his father, he is saying in effect, “I wish you were dead.”2 And yet the father apparently liquidates assets to accomplish what this seemingly unkind and ungrateful son has requested.

Have you and I never wanted a reward before it was fully due? The first lesson the parable teaches us about Christ as Father is that He acts in love toward us even when our love for Him has grown cold. (And a second lesson could be that we should exercise caution in what we ask of Him, because He might comply!)

Another image of Christ as Father occurs as we envision this abundant, generous, loving patriarch standing at his window watching the road with hope and faith that his son will return; perhaps he spends days on the high point of his land searching, ever searching, for that longed-for moment when he who is lost will come home.

In the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

The tender image of this boy’s anxious, faithful father running to meet him and showering him with kisses is one of the most moving and compassionate scenes in all of holy writ. It tells every child of God, wayward or otherwise, how much God wants us back in the protection of His arms.3

That the father does not wait for the son to reach him, nor walk at the stately pace of a man of prominence, but runs to bathe with his tears he who was lost is another lesson of Christ as Father: He is always eager to welcome any approach we make to Him; He is ever watchful, ever joyful when we seek Him.

To let this truth sink deep, let’s think for a moment of the converse, the antithesis of this father’s unqualified love. Perhaps in those unholy years of junior high school you had the experience of seeing fellow students shun others because they feared that their own social standing could be diminished if they were seen to be too friendly, too kind to those stamped “uncool.” Were you the shunner, were you the shunned, were you the silent observer, uncomfortable but inert? Like me, in various circumstances and times, you probably fit each role.

So we know how easy, how human it is to parse a meager dosage of love that is absolutely conditional upon our view of the merits of the recipient.

This father, though—this type and symbol of Christ the Father—provides an eager and tender welcome, and he does it before the son has ever opened his mouth. This father has not waited to hear confessions, repentant words, proclamations of regret, and pleas for forgiveness.

This father never lets his son beg for the opportunity to become his servant. This son, with faults and errors aplenty (a symbol and type of each of us), is received by his father as a son and once again as an heir. Christ as Father likewise cloaks us with His perfect love, bestows forgiveness and mercy hard-won in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary, upon any indication of penance and any desire to become better. Can there be a more profound way to demonstrate that His love is unqualified, and that when a heart is changed, the past is forgotten and a glorious inheritance unfolds?

When the older son appears in the story, we learn even more of the greatness and character of the father. He turns away the misplaced anger of this son with soft, tender words, words we all pray to hear someday: “Thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine” (Luke 15:31). Of course, a most wonderful thing we know about our Heavenly Father and Christ as Father is that each would as accurately give the same glorious benediction and promise to the younger son as well.

As I read of the reaction of the older son upon hearing the sounds of rejoicing and merriment, and perhaps smelling the fatted calf on the spit, I am reminded of an experience I had as a college student babysitting some of my nieces and nephews when their parents had gone out for the evening. One niece, about 4 or 5 years old at the time, had developed the habit of prolonging the inevitable bedtime for as long as possible. I had sent all the children upstairs to bed and was washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. This niece appeared several times, needing a drink of water, having a question, requesting another story. Finally, I told her quite firmly to go to bed. She sat on the bottom tread of the stairs wailing for a while and finally went to her room. After it had been quiet for about half an hour, I tiptoed to her room to see what she was doing. When I reached her bed, I could see that she had her arms tightly folded across her chest, with her lower lip pushed out in a pout—and she was fast asleep!

It’s easy to hold on to frustration, as my niece did that night, and as the elder brother in the parable seemed to do. If each of us can recall moments in our lives when we were in the position of the younger son, I expect we can also think of times when we were in the shoes of the older one. Don’t we all want to be acknowledged for our good work? For our loyalty and dependability? Do we occasionally twist a little inside when the spotlight shines on those who have done less, or for a shorter time, or with fewer obstacles in front of them?

Or perhaps we have become accustomed to being shown respect and appreciation for our faithfulness, and we feel justified in expecting others to recognize our contributions. It is as if the cameras on the smartphones of our lives are in permanent “selfie” mode, always reversed to face us rather than to capture the world about us.

We may even feel that we demonstrate our loyalty, in this case to the father, by our poor treatment of those we feel have demeaned him. When I was 10 or 11 years old, our family lived in Glenview, Illinois. Across the street from us had lived a mother and daughter who had joined the Church soon after we moved there, but who had now moved to Hawaii. A father and his rather unruly sons had moved in.

One day my mother mentioned that one of the boys had made a rude gesture with one finger and said something unkind as she backed out of our driveway. A few days later, one of these boys knocked on our door and, when I answered, asked if he could borrow some sugar (as I recall). I dismissively told him that because they had disrespected my mother, I wouldn’t give them anything. When Mother returned home that day, I was eager to tell her how I had stood up for her honor. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “Oh, I think they have a challenging life, and if they need food, we always want to help.” I instantly went from feeling that I had been her stalwart defender to realizing that I had instead disappointed her. When I went across the street bringing sugar, I was curtly told they no longer needed it, and a relationship that might have been helpful to all involved was stillborn. That memory haunts me still.

The lesson I learned from my mother was not simply that we should always share our food with those in need, but, of greater importance, that poor conduct by another does not give us dispensation to respond in kind. Jesus taught that a disciple will turn the other cheek, will go a second mile, will “give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:42). My mother heard in the Master’s call the opportunity to grow in love, even for those who initially saw her in a less gracious light.

And so, what becomes apparent in this parable is that although the older son may love his father, love has not been the motivation for his work and effort. In his world, dividing the wealth is a zero-sum game—anything for his brother means less for himself. To again quote Elder Holland:

One who has heretofore presumably been very happy with his life and content with his good fortune suddenly feels very unhappy simply because another has had some good fortune as well.

Who is it that whispers so subtly in our ear that a gift given to another somehow diminishes the blessings we have received? Who makes us feel that if God is smiling on another, then He surely must somehow be frowning on us? You and I both know who does this—it is the father of all lies.4

What did the older son think should be the reward for his labors, for being the faithful, stayed-at-home son? Whatever it was, in some measure it would be insufficient in his eyes were it also to be given to his brother. He seems to have placed his belief in a gospel of scarcity.

We learn of Christ as Father that His love is never lessened because it is equally bestowed. Every recipient is invited to gain all that His Father has to give. We learn that His willingness to forgive, His grace to meet us where we are and lift us toward Him, and His mercy and compassion are fully available to every one of us. We learn that His goodness is without limit, a well that will never run dry. There is no grading curve: for one to gain eternal life does not mean that another one, or one thousand, must receive a lesser glory. Eternal life, which is a description of the quality rather than the duration of God’s life, is not a zero-sum game. There is only abundance in His home.

Christ the Father’s goal and purpose is that every single individual born to mortal life will return and be exalted, to enjoy the kind of life that He enjoys, forever. Let us learn of Him.

Lead image from Shutterstock

In A Better Heart: The Impact of Christ’s Pure Love, Tom Christofferson blends scripture stories, personal experiences, quotes, metaphors, and commentary to show that, like a doctor treating patients for diseases of the heart, the Master Physician cares for us and will change our spiritual hearts to work in rhythm with His. Available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.


Notes

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prodigal
  2. David Butler and Emily Belle Freeman, “Don’t Miss This,” podcast video, Apr. 29, 2019; https://youtu.be/WwnCotAkIaA
  3. “The Other Prodigal,” Ensign, May 2002
  4. “The Other Prodigal,” Ensign, May 2002
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