“When He Was Yet a Great Way Off”

The Prodigal Son (detail) by Clark Kelley Price

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, while the younger son is away from home, “[wasting] his substance with riotous living,” and during his subsequent time of hard labor, caring for pigs, there is no indication of what is happening back home. The fact that his father missed him terribly and thought of him constantly is conveyed by his reaction the moment his son returns home: “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” (Luke 15:20).

One of my favorite poems imagines the father’s long wait, ever hopeful, never giving up on his son. Here is “To Any Who Have Watched for a Son’s Returning,” by Mary Lyman Henrie:

He watched his son gather all the goods
that were his lot,
anxious to be gone from tending flocks,
the dullness of the fields.
He stood by the olive tree gate long
after the caravan disappeared
where the road climbs the hills
on the far side of the valley,
into infinity.
Through changing seasons he spent the light
in a great chair, facing the far country,
and that speck of road on the horizon.
Mocking friends: “He will not come.”
Whispering servants: “The old man
has lost his senses.”
A chiding son: “You should not have let him go.”
A grieving wife: “You need rest and sleep.”
She covered his drooping shoulders,
his callused knees, when east winds blew chill, until that day …
A form familiar, even at infinity,
in shreds, alone, stumbling over pebbles.
“When he was a great way off,
His father saw him,
and had compassion, and ran,
and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”

Published in Ensign Magazine, March 1983

When I think of this fictional father, I am reminded of a real father who patiently prayed for his wayward son in the Book of Mormon. Like the Prodigal Son, this story focuses on the son, Alma, traveling around with his friends, using his gift of language to cause havoc and to harm the church, which his father (also named Alma) led. The first hint of his father’s faith comes when the angel who appears to him says, “The Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth” (Mosiah 27:14). How long had this faithful father prayed for his son? We don’t know. It may have been years; it must have seemed like eternity.

When young Alma’s friends brought him to his father after the vision, he was unable to move or talk. In response, “his father rejoiced, for he knew that it was the power of God. And he caused that a multitude should be gathered together that they might witness what the Lord had done for his son, and also for those that were with him” (Mosiah 27:20-21). He and his fellow priests fasted and prayed two days and two nights until his son recovered his strength. (See Mosiah 27:22-23.)

I am inspired by faithful parents who never give up on their children. They may carry sorrow and worry for years, but they never lose hope. Like these two fathers, they remain eager to welcome their wayward children home as soon as those children are ready to return.

We can follow their examples as parents, but also in other roles where we serve others, including church leader, ministering brother or sister, and friend.

Today, I will strive to love those I serve with the same patient determination displayed by these two fathers. I will maintain hope that even those who seem lost forever may find themselves in the future. I will continue to love them, to pray for them and to wait eagerly for their safe return.

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