“Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God
is the thrill of being merciful,
especially to those who don’t expect it
and often feel they don’t deserve it.”
Elder Jeffrey R Holland
We’re not really sure why he left. Maybe he thought the old man was too far past his prime to run the place. Maybe somebody said something that made him mad or hurt his feelings. Perhaps he was simply tired of being weighed down by high expectations, of having to live a certain way or having to be a certain kind of guy. Or maybe he just no longer believed in what he was doing anymore.
But for whatever reason, he finally walked away, leaving behind the only life he had ever known and all of the advantages and privileges that came with it. Forsaking the promise of a too-far-distant reward, he cashed in his inheritance and entered the enticing world of “anything goes”—where he could do or be whatever he wanted and no one would be standing by to raise an eyebrow or to sharply remind him of how his choices might besmirch the family name. Thus liberated from obligations and responsibility, he experimented, indulged, spent time and money as he never had before, did things he had been taught he should not do. And all too quickly, the inheritance ran out, “wasted,” we are told, “with riotous living.”
And then, as so often happens in life, extraneous circumstance complicated the natural consequences of choice. Famine brought widespread economic hardship, so that when he had spent every last penny and found himself compelled to look for work, there were no good jobs to be found. Ere long, he who was born to privilege, and had but recently enjoyed some degree of personal wealth, found himself settling for what work he could get. So it was that he was hired on as a farm laborer, assigned (one suspects, with some degree of horror) to feed the hogs—unclean beasts according to the religion of his youth.
Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine him sloshing about his daily chores, nostrils filled with the foulest of stenches, boots covered in unspeakable muck, doling out table scraps to the swine while his own belly remained unfilled. The humiliation of it must have been soul-crushing. Hungry, ashamed, brokenhearted and contrite, he reached such a lowly state that he finally “came to himself,” and in a moment of clarity recognized a potential way out.
Was it possible, he wondered, to ask his father for a job? His father’s servants always had food in their stomachs, didn’t they? And you could be sure that no one in his father’s employ would be asked to slop the hogs. But could he truly go home again after what he had done? Could he ever be forgiven for his foolish choices, his hubris, his transgressions against the family name?
Although he must have felt unbearable emotional anguish, his physical hunger was even greater. Desperate, willing to do anything to reclaim his broken life, he quit his job, put on the best of his tattered and splattered clothes, and began the long walk home.
As he walked, no doubt he rehearsed and re-rehearsed the words that he would speak when he finally arrived back on his father’s doorstep. He would acknowledge his transgressions against God and family and beg forgiveness. He would pledge renewed faithfulness and hard work. He would disavow his vices and welcome whatever conditions might be placed upon him if only he might be granted the lowliest assignment, the most meager of wages, among his father’s group of servants.
His father, in turn, would be fully justified if he ranted a bit, lectured sternly, questioned his son’s judgment, and lamented the tragic waste of time and money and opportunity. What’s more, there might be a time of agonizing uncertainty while his father paced and raged, leaving his wayward son to feel the full extent of a parent’s disappointment. But the young man would willingly endure all of that and more because he felt that he deserved it—and, let’s be honest: He had nowhere else to turn.
Were this a true-life story, that might be exactly how it played out. But this is an allegory, originally told by the Master Teacher who had a different lesson in mind. The ultimate message in this story is less about disobedience and repentance than it is about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus tells it this way:
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.
. . . (Luke 15:20-24)
As you envision that scene, please notice how the moment of reconciliation plays out. The father in this tale does not stand proudly in front of his house, forcing his despondent son to complete the long, difficult walk home alone. Rather, when the son is still “a great way off,” the father in this case runs to him, literally shortening the journey back to family and fellowship. As soon as the son has finished his sincere expression of regret, the father envelops him in love and security—restoring the benefits and honor set aside for his children. The natural consequences of the son’s choices have apparently been punishment enough, so that rather than castigate the prodigal for his wastrel ways, the father instead focuses on celebrating his return.
At its very core, the story of the Prodigal Son is the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its promise is intended to fill all of us with hope that, no matter what we may have done and no matter why we may have done it, we can all “come to ourselves” and turn back toward our Father, who will certainly run to us, accept our contrition and make us whole once again. In the Book of Mormon He says it this way: “Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13).
That invitation extends to all of us. Who among us has not found him or herself in a similar, lowly state? Who hasn’t at some point made regrettable choices that have caused us to drift ever farther from our Heavenly Father? Even if we may not have been as willful as the prodigal in this story, we can certainly relate to his state of regret and longing for home. Whether we have walked away literally or figuratively, we certainly know what it’s like to feel cut off, wrung out, desperate for help we may feel unworthy to ask for.
It’s true that we do not know why the Prodigal Son wandered off. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether someone has hurt your feelings, or you’re tired of the Gospel’s high expectations, or you have made unwise choices, or you resent the Church’s lofty standards, or you have lost your faith in those in charge, or you’re simply not sure what you believe anymore, may I invite you to turn back toward home? Whatever might be your current source of pain and longing and disaffection, return unto the Savior that He may heal you. Reclaim your divine inheritance which—no matter what choices you may have made or may yet make—will never be fully spent.
I express my own faith in the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the healing power of His Atonement. As one who is also prone to wander, I am well familiar with the long road home. Come. Let’s walk that road together.