The Prodigal Son and the Plan of Salvation. Not Just a Parable of Repentance.

A friend suggested that the parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t a fully happy story, and suggested that life would continue to be miserable for the prodigal son after the party was over. Some people defended the story as being a parable of hope and the endless capacity for forgiveness of the Lord. He felt we were missing something. With some discussion I went back to the parable, found in Luke 15, and learned something new and surprising.

The Prodigal SonIt was this phrase which gave me pause:

this thy brother was dead, and is alive again;

The father in the parable says it twice. But why use those words? Why not say “thy brother has come home again!” or “Thy brother has repented!” Is it possible that this parable has a deeper meaning? I began to think that the story of the Prodigal Son is also a parable for the plan of salvation. I spent some time in the scriptures and doing some searching on the internet. I’m not the first to think along these lines, though the unique doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints add a level of clarity to the parable that I didn’t see anywhere else. Check it out!

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.

If the sons represent us, and the father is God, then what is the inheritance that God has given? The verse calls it “his living.” I suggest that it represents the ability to live in this world. Our bodies, our lives, even this earth; our ability to choose good and evil, and the time to make those choices. Those things are all the inheritance we have received from our Father in Heaven.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country

The prodigal journeys into a far country – this earth, this life. Like the parable of the good Samaritan, in which a person “goes down” from the holy city, this “far country” indicates that the earth is far removed from the conditions where our Father dwells. I also want to point out that these verses clearly indicate that we existed in some form before coming to live on the earth.

So, what happens to the prodigal son in this far country?

and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

the prodigal son spending his life awayAgain, “his substance” in this case represents what God has given him – his whole life. He didn’t just blow a part of it, he blew all of it. I’m sure he enjoyed it, though. Isn’t that the idea? In fact, if this parable really is about the plan of salvation, there are apparently no earthly consequences of his actions. To outsiders, his whole life might have been seen as one wild success after another, all while living against the commandments. The parable makes no mention of temporal difficulties before death. Speaking of which:

And when he had spent all…

All. Everything. All that the Father had given him was gone, including the time to act. This represents death.

…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.

prodigal son feeding pigsI believe this represents spirit prison, (Alma 40:11-14) or as it is otherwise known as: hell. This son, having wasted his opportunity, found himself lacking when it really mattered, and any friends he had in life are gone. He finds himself subjected to the torments of being left without anything his father had offered, (Alma 42:28) and stuck following a master who would not even give him the slightest nourishment. (Alma 34:35) I find it telling that the symbolism is a famine, and that the prodigal thought he could get food from a local of “that country” but got less than nothing – being forced instead to watch unclean animals eat.

Yet this is not a permanent situation. The restoration’s unique doctrines about the afterlife reveal that Christ’s atonement reaches beyond the grave and gives even the most miserable sinner a chance at repentance. We see that doctrine in action in what happens next:

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.

Repentance! Humility! A desire to return home! There’s so much to consider here that I don’t understand yet, but this much is clear: the prodigal, having suffered, now develops hope and faith enough to return home. I’m amazed at how much there is in these verses! (He came to himself, the hired servants having bread enough and to spare (even during famine), the decision to arise, and especially the choice to reject being a “son.” I don’t want to overload this post with too much speculation, but I hope you can see that there’s so much more to learn from these simple verses!) Without the unique doctrines of the restored church, these verses simply would not make sense in terms of an analogy for the afterlife. Who ever heard of somebody deciding to leave hell? Yet with the teaching of Spirit Prison as taught in the LDS church this parable unfolds beautifully!

And he arose, and came to his father.

In our version of the parable this represents the resurrection. (Alma 40:23) The suffering has ended. This is another time when the parable matches with Mormon doctrine, showing that the pains of hell are temporary in their duration, and that all of us – even the worst of us – will someday be lifted up to be judged.

return of the prodigal sonBut 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.

Again, there’s a lot there to examine, but the key is that the returning home of a spiritually dead son is going to be call for the best of celebrations. The behaviors of the past do not ever diminish the love of our God for us.

I will point out a few things: first, that the Father did not say “Oh be quiet. Of course you’re my son.” In fact, if there was any judgement in this meeting it was done by the prodigal himself, (Alma 41:7) and not the father.

As far as teaching the plan of salvation goes, this could easily be the end, but there’s more to consider. Something of a warning, as well as a final lesson about the condition of the righteous after death.

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…

So this righteous son, who was “in the field,” working, comes home. (Perhaps this also represents death, but the death of the righteous, who need no spirit prison.) He comes to learn of what was happening, and gets angry. I imagine him asking “What’s the point of the years of diligent service I have given if the unrighteous son is so celebrated?” Well, the first answer to that question can be seen in what happens next.

therefore came his father out, and entreated him.

I love this line. What does a lifetime of work gain you? It means your Father is never far away, and always willing to come to you. Oh, but there’s more.

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.

You hear variations of this all the time, right? It’s an echo of that deeply felt question of “Why is life so unfair?” You’ve probably felt it before. You probably know people who ache with a desire to know why they suffer when they try to do right. The person who struggles with creating an eternal family while struggling with homosexual tendencies. The woman who hears church leaders preach about women being “in the home” while she struggles to support her children alone. The young man who only wants to know why he can’t seem to believe like his friends. The implication of the steady son in this story is clear, though never spoken: “Why, God, if you are so loving, so fair, so kind, Why? Why am I suffering? Why isn’t it fair? What’s the point of it all if the result for the wicked is a life of leisure and a celebration and comfort after death? Why do I even try at all?”

Patiently, lovingly, the Father reminds the older son of what it means to be the obedient one, and reminds all of us what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

Clearly this speaks of the blessings of eternal life. It’s notable that by pointing this out as being unique to the elder son he is illustrating that the final rewards of the two sons are different. That while they rejoice over the prodigal, the younger son may receive exactly what he asked for – no more to be called his son, to live in his father’s house but have no inheritance there. (D&C 76:76) Again, this parallels unique Latter-Day teachings about the nature of the kingdoms of glory after the resurrection. Specifically that, while we will all return home, there are degrees of eternity to be had there. For those who endure well the challenges of life, what awaits us is all that the father has. Further, that simply “accepting Christ” is insufficient to receive the highest of blessings.

Finally, the parable closes with a reminder of what it means to be Christlike, to rejoice over every lost soul who comes back, no matter what they have done.

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.

We rejoice for the son who has finally come home, for the miracle of the resurrection, and for repentance. Some will let the unfairness of life give them pause on the pathway home. God will help those who strive to serve him. He will come and provide answers. He will give encouragement. He will remind us of our final goal. But it is our decision to keep moving forward, even when it’s hard. The parable ends with that cliffhanger and a clear invitation for those who desire to serve God to take the final steps home.

Whew. That’s long. I hope you enjoyed it.

I’m grateful for friends who challenge us. I’m so grateful for the richness in the words of Christ. I’m grateful for the spirit which teaches us as we study and speaks to each of us according to our needs. I truly hope this helps you in your own studies and efforts to stay near to your Father in Heaven.

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About

Greg is a business owner, writer, husband and father. (not in that order, though.)

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Posted in doctrine, obedience, Salvation, Struggles, The Bible, Theory, thoughts on scriptures
11 comments on “The Prodigal Son and the Plan of Salvation. Not Just a Parable of Repentance.
  1. countzeroasl says:

    Holy crap! I’ve never thought of it like that. I’m going to have to go dig into that some more. Thanks, Greg Hamblin!

  2. I dunno, I like everything you said except your conclusion about verse 31. I think the prodigal receives his full spiritual inheritance, same as the older son, all the the Father hath. See also the parable of the workers of the twelfth hour. He was given the robe, the ring, and the shoes. I think he is brought back into the full effect of the Atonement (covered by the hem of his father’s cloak, brought back into his embrace, given power to rule and officiate and not a slave.)

    • Greg says:

      That’s what I thought too, and the response I left to my friend before thinking of it in terms of a parable of the plan of salvation. I think the reality is it can go either way. For those who repent in this life and return to Heavenly Father the promise is a complete restoration of blessings. After all, half the father’s all is still infinite. On the other hand, for those “live riotously” in this life and who wait until the sufferings of hell to repent, the Doctrine and Covenants is clear that exaltation is not an option. http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/76.73-76?lang=eng#72

      • Manny says:

        First of all, half of infinity is not “still infinity”. Calculus and simple math can prove that. (I can provide examples if you’d like).

        Second of all, I can’t believe the contention that 72 years of “riotous living” justify a loving, merciful father sentencing his child to billions upon billions upon billions of years of suffering (not being with loved ones, without ability to progress). That would be the equivalent of a person who is to live to the age of 72 being locked in solitary confinement his whole life for 18 SECONDS of bad choices.

  3. ALM says:

    Greg, in the light of losing my youngest brother in such tragic circumstances, this touches me in a way I can’t even describe. Thank you so much for this beautiful insight. I weep as I write this. This was exactly what I needed at this time. Thank you.

  4. First off, great article! Second, God is great. I believe, as crazy as it may seem, that even Lucifer is to be saved. How can anyone, having walked this life, with it’s travails, pain, suffering, etc. can condemn another, if they expect any mercy for themselves? I often think of a talk McConkie gave wherein he basically said it was a waste of time for a particular woman to do her husband’s temple work because he was “an old reprobate.” Doesn’t sound like mercy to me, regardless of Bruce’s feelings about it, or his position in the church. I mean, Peter, the chief apostle, denied the Christ, surely that’s a “bad thing,” that some would condemn if it were anyone else doing the denying.

    I hope Lucifer receives mercy, because without that hope, I’m truly miserable – if he were a son of the morning, I want to know him again – we all make mistakes, and surely his pride can be forgiven. If you’ve been to the temple recently, and seen the new movie, pay close attention to the facial expressions of Lucifer’s character – he appears genuinely to sorrow at parts. I believe the “sealed portion of the plates” is a figurative thing, and perhaps this is just one such gem from that which has long been hidden from our view.

    Thank you for the inspiration, Greg!

  5. larry bingham says:

    Greg,

    Thank you for your insight of that parable. It is amazing what truths we can find in the Scriptures when we first come to understand basic truths, like the Plan of Salvation. I have come to understand that this plan, which Father uses for our benefit, is founded upon eternal laws which govern all things in eternity. After reading the various replies to your insights, I believe that all of their concerns would be answered if they came to an understanding of those laws.

    The following scripture points to this conclusion; ” There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated….”
    ( D& C 130:20) “…all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law……appointed for that blessing”. (D&C 132:5). Our desires dictate which blessing we receive.

    The miracle of the Atonement is that when a person, who has made the decision to go against the law, changes his mind and begins to live by the law, they can still receive the benefits of the law. However, it is also very clear that there is a time frame given in which that change (repentance) can take place. If a person goes beyond that time frame, the law prohibits the receipt of those blessings.

    When a person, like Father who has preceded us in this process on another world, receives Godhood, they become administrators of these eternal laws. He, like you and I, are subject to these laws. There is no room for arbitrary decisions, no preferential treatment.

    The Plan of Salvation, is in all reality a Plan of Exaltation. Exaltation is a process not an event. In transitioning from our native state of being, the Intelligence state of being as described in Abraham 3, into our First Estate we were exalted to a higher level or state of being. That transition was accomplished by the exercise of our agency.

    This principle applies to our Second Estate and also to the Resurrection. This Plan provides four levels of exaltation; Perdition, Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial. Entry into any of these states of being is based upon obedience to the laws that govern them.

    When the Prophet Joseph Smith was allowed a peak into the Telestial Kingdom, he saw not a Hell, but a glory beyond comprehension. Entry into any state of being is driven by one’s desire, which is the greatest power in Eternity. Change the desire and you change the state of being, according to the eternal laws that apply.

    I have no problem with those that we presume to be” Prodigal Sons”.After all, are we not
    all Prodigal Sons in one way or another? Is not the purpose of this journey to help each other learn and apply the laws that all may benefit there from? Is this not the essence of the true love of Christ?

    As each individual has the inalienable right of agency, they cannot be forced. They and they alone must make their own decisions. The doctrine of the Priesthood (D&C 121:41-43) is
    ” No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood, only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned……”
    Through the application of this doctrine, many will change their desires. Unfortunately, many will not.

    The vary nature of the Plan of Exaltation tells us that no matter what we may do on behalf of others, some will chose the level of exaltation that they desire. Hence,the Plan provides for various states of being or kingdoms, each having its own degree of glory in which the individual will find satisfaction according to their desires.

    Jason may find solace in the fact that Lucifer, and those that remained behind in the glory of our First Estate, chose to do so of their own volition. They were not forced, they and they alone made that decision. That Estate is a state of glory commensurate with their desires. Once they made that decision within the time frame allotted by the law, Father, as administrator of the law, had no choice but to apply the law to them. Did they have an opportunity to change their decision? Of course they did. That is according to the eternal law of the Priesthood. as stated in the 121st section of the D&C state above. I assure you that it is not a state of Hell, but rather a state of glory that is so much greater than that of our native state of being in the realm of Intelligence.

    Greg, Once again, thank you for your insights.

    Larry Bingham

    • Ca sey says:

      Mr. Bingham,
      You speak of Eternity and time frames in the same paragraph. Can you explain to me what estate your speaking of? With all due respect, I use the words of Paul when He wrote to the Galatians (Paul was appointed by none other than Jesus Christ) Paul asks; “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith”? “Having begun with The Holy Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh”? “Does he who supplies The Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith”? Is Joseph Smith in the lineage of Abraham? Was Joseph Smith appointed by Our Father or appointed by Christ himself? So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham, it doesn’t state; ‘Men of Choice’ are the sons of Abraham. With all due respect, your message is convoluted Sir and I beg you to read a non-Mormon Bible. With what I’ve read of just on this page alone, I only have more questions. When I kept reading, YOUR Scripture produces more mysteries openly. When I read non-Mormon Scripture, as in my Holy Bible, all the answers are given openly. The Gospels of The Holy Bible are not open for interpretation. It is not a “Take what you like and refuse the rest”. The Gospels are not based on option or choice. The Gospels of The Holy Bible are self-sustaining truths that is the embodiment of power, therein lies all the answers from creation to the end. It is like a lion in a cage in your backyard, you don’t need someone to guard the cage. I pray that you hear the Truth.

  6. Ca sey says:

    I believe that you are actually doing a disservice by perverting the Gospels. Choice does not equal sin. The parable of The Prodigal Son is about a Father and his 2 Sons. One is a legalist and admits to being a slave his entire life only to please his Father and his PRIDE keeps him from entering the celebration for his Brother returning home. The Prodigal is a sinner who has come to his senses from “Being in need” of someone to save him. By his own humility he humbles himself in front of his Father and the unconditional LOVE of Our Father in Heaven is the point of the story. You should find a copy of THE HOLY BIBLE (Revised Standard Edition) and read the TRUTH. Revelation 22:18 – 22:21
    The New Covenant has already been established. All the Prophets have already spoken. Christ walked this Earth as a man, He bore OUR punishment for the sin we all were born into. On the 3rd day, He was risen. There are no mysteries or unanswered questions as are in your “Book of Alma”. The Will of God has been established and the Truth has been given. I pray you receive it Brothers. I am not attacking your faith because I know how precious it is, that is not my intention, my intention is to boldly speak the Truth. I pray that you all seek no truth in the flesh and only listen to the Gospels appointed by Our Father in Heaven. I know that you speak of Christ Jesus but I do not know enough about Mormonism to debate your foundation. I do know that you only go to Our Father through His Son and anything else is simply irrelevant. If you are a sinner, how can a man save you? I will pray for you Brothers In Christ not to be lead astray by polluted writings.

    • Hans says:

      Ca sey,

      You seem like a genuine and honest person and I applaud your efforts to not overly criticize, ridicule, or belittle the beliefs of the LDS faithful. We do not usually attempt to “bible-bash” with others concerning our beliefs because it usually results in both parties being even more convinced that they are correct, and that the other person is crazy for not seeing how wrong they are. Trust me, I’ve talked with many pastors, preachers, and scriptorians with opposing views.

      What I can say is this: LDS faithful believe in personal revelation. This means that we believe that we can all receive the fulfillment of the promise given in so many places in the bible: “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened”. We believe that God can, and will, answer our sincere prayers to find truth. One of the main reasons that we don’t argue and fight with others when they condemn our faith, and yell, and scream, and tell us how wrong we are is because we have already received a sure witness of the faith we carry directly from the one source of all truth and light: God Himself. I’m sure that there were many who prayed for the soul of Jesus Christ when he was on the Earth that he would repent of his blasphemy and deny that he was the Christ. I’m sure that they were absolutely convinced that he COULD NOT be the Messiah because his didn’t conform to all of the scriptures (they thought) were about the Messiah. The Jews weren’t dumb, and they were certainly religious enough to study their own scriptures diligently. Why did they reject him? They were stuck on what (they thought) their scriptures said about the Messiah and failed to exercise FAITH in Jesus Christ. They were blinded to the truth because they were unwilling to ASK GOD if he was who he said he was.

      LDS members study the bible extensively (The King James version). The Book of Mormon is not the “mormon bible” as some people call it. It is another testament of Jesus Christ that testifies of his divinity, saving grace, and eternal love for all people everywhere.

      I’m glad that there are people like you who are willing to stand up for their beliefs and “boldly speak the truth” as you are. I would invite you to learn more about the LDS faith by reading the literature released by the LDS church. Some insist upon studying the Church only through the eyes of its defectors (or opponents)—like interviewing Judas to understand Jesus. Please visit mormon.org or invite some of our missionaries to your home to learn more. All that I ask is that you go into your research with an open mind.

      Hans

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