Parts of this article were adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.)
How many people, trapped by sin or the urgency of their circumstances, helplessly flounder about while inside they are silently screaming? How should we react when we perceive that a person is in misery? Jesus gave us the answer in the account of the Prodigal son’s brother.[i]
The Heart of the Gospel Message
Luke recounted an instance when Jesus was eating with known sinners.[ii] This incensed the Pharisees, and they challenged Jesus about the propriety of his actions. Apparently, the thing that disturbed the Pharisees more than sinners living amongst them was the Lord’s willingness to have fellowship with such people. Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s criticism was his relating three parables: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Prodigal Son.
The central themes of these parables are the love of Christ, the value he places on a wayward soul, and his disdain for hypocrisy in people who ought to be about the work of the Father. These parables are sometimes called the “heart of the gospel.” If the gospel doesn’t work on this level, nothing else matters.
When we read these parables, we are drawn to how much value Jesus places on a wayward soul and the effort he is willing to expend to reclaim that soul. But there is a side story that is often overlooked: the story of the prodigal son’s brother.
The Brother “would not go in”
We are informed that when the prodigal son finally returned home, his father immediately reinstated the boy into full family fellowship, which was represented by the robe, ring and shoes. Then the father called together his household for a celebration and a feast.
Everyone was happy, except one: the prodigal’s brother. Upon hearing the news that the prodigal had returned and was suddenly his equal, the brother reacted with anger and discouragement. Significantly, we are told, he stood outside his father’s house “and would not go in.” The symbolism of remaining outside the Father’s house is striking.
When the father came out to beg the second son to reconsider (notice that the father has now rushed to recover both his sons), the boy complained that he was being treated unfairly. This selfish attitude betrays the boy’s true character. Was he really the dutiful son? Was he really interested in his father and his father’s concerns? If he had been interested in his father’s concerns, why had he apparently abandoned his father to shoulder alone the burden of a lost son?
We have no mention of the second son’s waiting with his father, day after day, scanning the horizon for a familiar figure to finally appear. Over the long, agonizing years, did the second son ever kneel with his father to plead for his brother to reconsider his ways and return home?
There are other glaring character flaws. For example, Jesus makes no mention that this brother ever tried to talk his prodigal sibling out of leaving home or thereafter to go out and try to find him. We wonder if he was relieved that he no longer had to associate with his sinful brother. Perhaps his judgment of his brother urged the separation in the first place.
After his prodigal brother departed, did the brother continue to criticize his brother’s actions by comparing them to his own? When he received news that his prodigal brother had wasted his substance on riotous living and was now eating with the pigs, did he say in his heart, “Well, at last my brother has received his due”?
Prodigals Among Us
I once spoke with a prodigal. She was sick of her sinful life and wanted to come home. She had made a recent attempt, quietly sitting alone on the back row of Relief Society. No one came to sit by her; no one shook her hand. She attracted what she interpreted as judgmental glances. You see, in her neighborhood, she is a known sinner. She came to church for love and relief but she was met by Pharisees.
Now she was afraid for her daughter, who also wanted to return to church, but this daughter was an unwed mother who was struggling to recover from years of drug abuse. And everybody in the ward knew.
Both of the mother and the daughter could have made it all the way home, if someone had rushed to their side, helped them return, greeted them with a robe, ring, shoes, and thrown a celebratory feast. At that critical moment, a true friend could have made all the difference. The mother and the daughter wanted to escape the “far country,” stop eating with the swine and return to the full fellowship of home, but they were not sure if their brothers and sisters would welcome them.
Remember, the heart of the gospel message is The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Prodigal Son. If the gospel does not power to save from incredible distances, it is just a nice philosophy. Jesus gave these parables to defend his preferring to work with sinners over his seeking the fellowship of the self-righteous.
He set the perfect example of being about his Father’s business, which is redemption. He always had his antennae up, searching for the one who had wandered, seeking the one who was lost, and patiently waiting and praying for the rebellious one to reconsider and start home.
True sons and daughters of God do the work of their Father. Like Jesus, they plead with their prodigal siblings not to leave home, but when that happens, they go out to find them. They search the mountains and valleys; they shine a light and sweep and seek for their precious missing brothers and sisters.
When nothing else works, they sit patiently with their Father and scan the horizon for the first motion of their loved ones’ return. They pray with their Father, hurt with their Father, yearn with their Father, and finally they rejoice with their Father and support him in his decisions when their prodigal siblings come home. In every way, they do as Jesus does: they do the work of the Father. They devote their lives to the plan of redemption. They always have their antennae up, looking for opportunities to bring people to Christ.
I will love you even if…
All the gospel learning in the world does not compensate for failure to do the work of redemption. Both Paul and Mormon—two witnesses!—taught us that without charity we are nothing.[iii] Charity is a different kind of love; it is the celestial quality of love--saving love.