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.
It 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.
Again, “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.
I 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.
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.
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.