The Patience of the Prodigal Son’s Father: Always Looking, Waiting, with a Fatted Calf Ready for the Feast

In Alfred Edersheim’s masterpiece, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he offers some insights to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

Nor would he go back with the hope of being reinstated in his position as son, seeing he had already received, and wasted in sin, his portion of the patrimony. All he sought was to be made as one of the hired servants. And . . . he would preface his request by the confession, that he had sinned ‘against heaven’ – a frequent Hebraism for ‘against God’ – and in the sight of his father, and hence could no longer lay claim to the name of son. The provision of the son he had, as stated, already spent, the name he no longer deserved. This favour only would he seek, to be as a hired servant in his father’s house, instead of in that terrible, strange land of famine and harshness.

But the result was far other than he could have expected. When we read that, ‘while he was yet afar off, his father saw him,’ we must evidently understand it in the sense, that his father had been always on the outlook for him, an impression which is strengthened by the later command to the servants to ‘bring the calf, the fatted one,’ as if it had been specially fattened against his return. As he now saw him, ‘he was moved with compassion, and he ran, and he fell on his neck, and covered him with kisses.’ Such a reception rendered the purposed request, to be made as one of the hired servants, impossible – and its spurious insertion in the text of some important manuscripts affords sad evidence of the want of spiritual tact and insight of early copyists. The father’s love had anticipated his confession, and rendered its self-spoken sentence of condemnation impossible. ‘Perfect love casteth out fear,’ and the hard thoughts concerning himself and his deserts on the part of the returning sinner were banished by the love of the father. And so he only made confession of his sin and wrong – not now as preface to the request to be taken in as a servant, but as the outgoing of a humbled, grateful, truly penitent heart. Him whom want had humbled, thought had brought to himself, and mingled need and hope led a suppliant servant – the love of a father, which anticipated his confession, and did not even speak the words of pardon, conquered, and so morally begat him a second time as his son. (Chapter 17 of Book IV of Edersheim – emphasis mine)

I was especially touched by the insight that the father must have been on the lookout for the son to have spotted him “afar off.” And it seems that he had been constantly prepared for the feast upon the son’s return, having kept a fatted calf ready.

This reminds me of some great parents I know who have a child who wandered. They have been patient and loving, always waiting and watching for the time when the child might return, ready to celebrate and forgive and help heal at the first opportunity. And of course, it is how our Heavenly Father is toward us, always waiting for the first sign of our desire to return to Him, ready to receive and forgive and rejoice over the lost son or daughter who may come to their senses and desire to repent and return.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

16 thoughts on “The Patience of the Prodigal Son’s Father: Always Looking, Waiting, with a Fatted Calf Ready for the Feast

  1. I’ve often wondered if the “elder son” wasn’t a jab at those who consider themselves righteous. Are we not all the prodigal son?

  2. As a convert this story is some times my only hope of the compassion of my Heavenly Father a life wasted following worldly ways.

  3. nathanielmacrae,

    Hear, hear. Repentance and obedience is the only thing any of us can do, they themselves being direct offshoots of Christ’s Atonement.

  4. It’s a curious thing that “works” keeps being brought up as if LDS members don’t believe repentance (again an action or “work”) will save them. You can propose that we can let our lives be “devoured thy living with harlots” (Luke 15:30) as long as “we believe in Christ” but as for me and my house, we will believe and we will “work” to live by our lives by the examples Christ laid down. (service is a big one and keeping the Sabbath day holy another)

    The silly thing is I know you are not proposing we just run around saying we believe in Christ while we selfishly behave like Paris Hilton. Nor are LDS members saying we can work our way into Heaven whether or not we believe in Christ or have an “angry” attitude like the “elder son”. Isn’t the promise that if we “art ever with me, … all that I have is thine”? Luke 15:31.

    So stop bringing it up already. 🙂

    On a side note, Pops… I appreciate your comments. A recent book I read called “the Peacegiver” by James L. Ferrell makes a good arguement that there are no righteous people, only degrees of the unrighteous. Because we’re all unrighteous, we put ourselves in jepoardy when we don’t / can’t forgive those who have hurt us. I found it to be an enjoyable read.


  5. How is “I can’t dig myself out of this rut anymore” not a choice? It seems like the ultimate choice.

  6. Nat,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    What I object to is the all the straining at a gnat whilst swallowing a camel with respect to the discussion of grace and works.

    I don’t recall Christ having ever said, “Accept me as your personal Savior, and you’ll get admission into heaven.” I do recall statements like, “If ye love me, keep my commandments,”, “Be ye therefore perfect,”, and “Come, follow me.” Following Christ takes work and effort.

    It is the action of Christ’s grace on us as we strive to follow him that sanctifies and perfects us. Perhaps Christ could perfect us without any effort on our part, but if that is the case he chooses not to do so. That doesn’t imply that we somehow “earn” salvation. It just means that we have to participate in the process.

    A stationary conductor in a magnetic field produces no current. Sandpaper in contact with wood, but with no exertion or motion, does not smooth the wood. Stagnant water is not purified by the rocks and soil below it. In like manner, grace is not available to those who do nothing more than profess a belief in Christ. It seems natural that it would be so. Christ is not a magician. He is a Savior, and there are conditions and requirements associated with the grace that he offers.

    I don’t represent the LDS church, but that’s how I understand their doctrine. Don’t be fooled by claims that Mormons believe they can earn salvation — that’s a misrepresentation. It may be the case that some are of that opinion, but it is not the doctrine and belief of the faith.

  7. Nat,

    I am fully confident in saying that I agree, at least in basic substance with everything you have said. If you prefer to call repentance an “emptying” rather than “work,” it’s not a big deal to a Latter Day Saint. Our own leaders have bounced around various meanings for words that defy traditional (ie cultural) Mormon teachings. You’re right, “repentance keeps going”; it is a process.

    Mormon doctrine and evangelical doctrine differs on some points, but not really on this one. It’s the old game of theological semantics ad nauseum. Let’s agree to agree on this one, eh? 🙂

  8. Nat,

    Let me be more precise: I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I do not speak on its behalf. I can only offer my opinion of what I believe the official doctrine to be.

    What you call “emptying” I see as a two-for-one: getting rid of faults and weaknesses is the first part. The second is building strengths and becoming synchronized with the will of God — more of a “filling up”, or replacing the bad with good. I don’t think God wants us to be robots or automatons that blindly do as he wishes, but rather that we eventually reach the point that we can act independently in a manner that is harmonious with his will, and with truth and righteousness. But that’s a difficult process, the first step of which is to surrender our own will for his in order to learn from him.

    But however we analyze it, we agree about what we need to do, and that our focus must be on Christ.

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