The Parable of the Loving Father

The Parable of the Loving Father

As the Savior was teaching in Galilee, a group of publicans and sinners gathered to hear Him.  This caused the Pharisees and the scribes to murmur at the kind of company that Jesus was keeping.[i]  The Savior’s response to this murmuring was to tell three parables that deal with those who have gone astray. First, He told the parable of the lost sheep, emphasizing the effort to find the sheep that strayed and the joy of its return.  The application of the parable is made clear by Jesus:  “[L]ikewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. . . .”[ii] Next, He told the parable of the lost coin, once again stressing the effort made and the joy of recovery.  The application, once again, is clearly stated by the Savior: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”[iii]

The Prodigal Son

The third parable is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it might be more aptly called the Parable of the Loving Father.  In it the Savior told of a man requesting and obtaining his inheritance from his father and going to a far country.  There the son “wasted his substance in riotous living.”[iv] Once the money was gone, he tried working for a farmer, but still found himself in want.  He even envied the swine he was feeding, who at least had something to eat.[v]  

“He Came to Himself”

As he mused on his predicament, the son’s thoughts turned to home.  He realized that the hired servants in his father’s house lived better than he did.  He “came to himself” and acknowledged that he had “sinned against heaven” and against his father.[vi]  And so, he resolved upon a plan.  He determined to go home.  He prepared to acknowledge to his father his errors, confess his unworthiness to be his son, and plead to be allowed to be his father’s hired servant.  And, with that speech prepared, he headed toward home.[vii]   

The Father Runs to Meet His Wayward Son

At this point in the story that the Savior includes some very important details.  While the son is “yet a great way off”, the father sees him, has compassion on him, runs to him, falls on his neck and kisses him.  The son tries to give his speech, but does not get far beyond acknowledging his sins.  The father calls for a robe and a ring to be put on his son, and orders the fatted calf to be killed for a feast to celebrate the happy reunion.[viii]  The father’s joy in the return of his son is unbounded.

The Loving, Forgiving Father

All three parables speak of the recovering of that which was lost, but the focus of the third parable is different than that of the first two.  The focus of the third parable is on the actions of the father of the returning prodigal.  For me, the most important aspect of this parable is what it tells us of our Heavenly Father’s reaction when any of us turns toward Him:  He “runs” to embrace us.  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has taught:

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.[ix]

I have seen God’s love for the returning prodigal played out time after time as I have watched people come back to Him.  As a priesthood leader, the first time I listened to a repentant member confess wrongdoing, I was somewhat taken back by the strength and depth of God’s love for her that I felt.  That feeling has returned every time I have helped someone with the repentance process.  As a bishop, I had a man move into our ward that years previously had been a faithful, temple-going member.  In the intervening years he had drifted away from God and the standards of the Church.  When he relocated to our ward, he was ready to come back to God. He repented, and then worked to qualify for a temple recommend.  When he finally was ready, I was with him when he returned, for the first time in decades, to the House of the Lord.  As we sat together in the temple, Heavenly Father’s love for him filled both of us.  The embrace, kiss, robe and ring described in the parable of the prodigal son all seemed to be rolled into one as I sat with a son of God that had “come to himself”, repented and made it back to God’s holy temple.

Returning to God

Over and over again the invitation to return to God is made in the scriptures.  The voice of God told the Nephites, “How oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.”[x]  Through the prophet Malachi the Lord said, “Return to me and I will return to you.”[xi]  The Prophet Joseph Smith, in the revealed dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, prayed, “And when thy people transgress, any of them, they may speedily repent and return unto thee, and find favor in thy sight, and be restored to the blessings which thou hast ordained to be poured out upon those who shall reverence thee in thy house.” [xii]

One of the great blessings that we have as members of God’s Church is the opportunity to assist Him in helping His children return to full activity in His Church.  President Thomas S. Monson has called on all of us to go to the rescue of those who have drifted away.[xiii]  As we do so, we help God’s children feel the warm embrace of a loving Heavenly Father longing to welcome them back into His fold.

Over the years I have seen many loving Relief Society presidencies.  One of those presidencies was exceptionally good at welcoming people into our ward, and along with other members of the ward council, finding ways that the new members could participate in ward activities.  After we got to know these new people better, we were sometimes surprised to learn that they had not been very active in their previous wards.  As these new ward members enjoyed the fellowship of the other members, we watched them progress in the Church and, in several instances, were with them in the temple when they received temple ordinances.  On one such occasion, the father of one of these members approached me in a temple sealing room and said, “I can never thank you enough for what your ward has done for my son.”  He did not have to thank us.  All of us present felt the loving spiritual embrace of our Heavenly Father for this man’s son and his family.

The Older Son

Of course, the parable of the prodigal son does not end with the father embracing his formerly wayward son and celebrating his return.  The father had an older son who had not wasted the family assets in riotous living, but had dutifully stayed at his father’s side.  But when this older son learned of the celebration for the return of his brother, he was angry.  He resented the attention and money spent on the other son, and he condemned him for his previous sinful ways.[xiv]  In the parable, the loving father left the feast and went out to the older son to entreat him to join the celebration.   His words to this son are full of love for both sons:

Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

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.[xv]

In the example of this older son there is a warning for all of us.  Heavenly Father’s love for all His children is unbounded, and there is no need to resent that love as it is manifest in the lives of others.  Not only is there plenty of love for us, but we share more fully in the love as we not only celebrate the return of the prodigal, but also assist as many as possible to return to the fold “safe and sound”.[xvi]


As Jesus taught the publicans and sinners, he was doing what all of us should do:  help our brothers and sisters to know Heavenly Father and come to Him.  Through the parable of the prodigal son, we catch a glimpse of the love that Heavenly Father has for His children, and how He feels when one of them takes steps to repent and return to Him.  This is a love that “passeth knowledge”.[xvii]  It is not only our privilege to feel the love that He has for us, but also the love that He has for our brothers and sisters as we assist in the great work of helping them “come to themselves”, and, more importantly, come to God.


[i] Luke 15:1

[ii] Luke 15:7

[iii] Luke 15:10

[iv] Luke 15:13

[v] Luke 15:15-16

[vi] Luke 15:17-18

[vii] Luke 15:18-20

[viii] Luke 15:20-24

[ix] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Other Prodigal,” Liahona, July 2002.

[x] 3 Nephi 10:6

[xi] Malachi 3:7

[xii] Doctrine and Covenants 109:21

[xiii] See, for example, President Thomas S. Monson, “Our Responsibility to Rescue”, Liahona, October 2013, p. 1.

[xiv] Luke 15:25-28

[xv] Luke15:31-32

[xvi] Luke 15:27

[xvii] Ephesians 3:19