My sympathies are with the older son in the story of the prodigal. As the story goes, the older son had never “transgressed … at any time [the father’s] commandment” and had served him “many years.” Yet when the prodigal returned, the father made no mention of the seriousness of the prodigal son’s transgressions; instead, he killed the “fatted calf” and “began to be merry.” The older son, understandably, felt left out and slighted. (Luke 15:11–32.)
My parents have four children who, like the older son in the story, have served them well for many years and have not strayed seriously from the strait and narrow path. But the youngest child in my family chose another way. May brother—I’ll call him Bill—became involved with drugs in junior high school, was arrested at age fourteen for selling a controlled substance, and eventually told a heartbreaking tale of moral crimes that were heinous to my church-going parents. Bill’s disclosures had a devastating effect on my family—but my parents did not give up on him.
Like the biblical story, Bill’s tale has a happy ending. Instead of coming home of his own accord after he had “wasted his substance with riotous living,” he was forced, because of his arrest, to face the consequences of his actions. He received help at a drug treatment center for youth and has been totally drug-free for more than a year.
Bill’s victory over drug addiction is a success story, but the story I want to tell is the story of the “gospel of love” that my parents followed in dealing with an errant child.
It was Christmastime, and Mom was visiting me at work the day the call came that Bill had been arrested. The sheriff called my sister at home, and she, in turn, called me. When I told Mom, her face went white, and she looked as if she might pass out. Her first words, when she was finally breathing normally again, asked for action and cohesiveness: “Call your father; tell him to meet me.”
No one knew the extent of what Bill was doing before his arrest, but we had some idea. He had all the classic signs: getting low grades, staying out late at night with unknown friends, showing radical mood swings—alternating between being outgoing and loving, and surly and withdrawn. He vehemently resisted all efforts at control and discipline, he lied and manipulated others, and he openly defied and denied authority. Mom had worked actively with the school administration and the police to catch my brother in order to drive home the seriousness of his actions. Still, the reality of his arrest was a shock. The possibility that he might be facing a youth detention home and a lasting criminal record caused us great concern. Rather than pulling back, being embarrassed, or requesting that he leave their home, my parents jumped into the heart of the conflict to save Bill from himself.
Retrieving him from the sheriff’s office was only the first step on the long road to sobriety. The next two years brought trips to court to vouch for Bill’s character and the stability of his home life, along with the search for a treatment center that would meet his needs.
When my parents settled on a treatment facility, they immediately became totally—though I can’t say wholeheartedly—involved. Mom and Dad were apprehensive about the time and energy required to support Bill’s treatment program and to attend the parents’ meetings. There was a large monetary commitment also, not only for treatment but for gas, food, and supplies during the time spent away from home, en route to, or participating in the program. The emotional commitment was especially taxing. They often disagreed on a course of action for Bill; they argued, compromised, discussed, and compromised again. The atmosphere of their home was often tinged with the doubt, despair, and disagreement that typify the influence of sin in a home.
But in time, Bill’s treatment was so successful that the treatment center staff asked him to help as a counselor. My parents then began taking in youths who were beginning their treatment and needed to be away from the home environments that fostered their drug addiction. Teens came to my parents’ home, usually staying for a week. Mom and Dad listened, counseled, and watched to see that the hospital’s rules of abstinence from drugs were not broken. They fed these young people and cared for their physical needs.
Back to the prodigal’s older brother. At times, we as siblings felt jealous of the time Mom and Dad spent with Bill. My older brother and I have both graduated from college and are successfully employed. My younger brother and sister are currently attending college, getting good grades, and working to pay their own tuition and provide for their other scholastic needs. While Bill was “doing drugs” and recovering from his addiction, we were studying, working, buying cars, graduating, marrying, and starting families.
Our successes were always colored by the activities of the one who was failing. Maybe we were part of the cause of Bill’s problem; maybe we could have done more to prevent it. The hard reality is that at that time in our lives, Bill unalterably affected the way we perceived—and the way our parents perceived—our accomplishments. Because of the circumstances, they needed to spend more time working out his problems than celebrating our victories.
We couldn’t and wouldn’t have had it any other way. When I think of Bill’s story, I am reminded of the words of the Savior: “What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
“And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
“Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” (Luke 15:8–10.)
And there is joy in the household when a lost child is reclaimed.
The story of the prodigal is a story of repentance. But I think that in concentrating all our attention on the prodigal himself, we miss the lesson in the behavior of the older brother and the father. I see the older brother can be likened to one who obeyed only the letter of the law; he obeyed his father’s commandments and served him well in the physical aspects of their everyday life. But perhaps he missed out on the spirit of the law. He did not comprehend the love that reaches out to “them which despitefully use you.” (Matt. 5:44.) He was unable to extend to his prodigal brother the same love that he would have expected for himself. In the older brother and the father, we have a sharp contrast between one who follows only the letter of the law and one who also accepts the spirit of the law taught by Christ.
Through my limited involvement with the drug treatment program, I have seen parents who make a bad situation worse by denying that their child has a problem. I have seen parents who try to buy the child’s love and obedience with gifts of money and material items that usually end up being traded for drugs. And I have seen parents who, when they see that their child is a sinner, turn away because of their embarrassment or their own supposed commitment to gospel goals.
I think my parents are extraordinary. They never wavered in their love for Bill, though they disagreed with and even hated what he was doing to himself and to their family life. But they were committed enough to their family to support Bill in any way necessary to get him through the tough times and onto more solid ground. They practiced the deeper, more sensitive, and extensive gospel of Christ by loving one who had gone astray. I have also come to see that they did this while loving and appreciating those of us who stayed on the strait and narrow path, who were in some ways like the “older brother.”
Believe it or not, Dad and Mom, we have also learned much from Bill’s experience and your treatment of him. We’re not standing outside, angry, like the prodigal’s older brother—watching the festivities from a distance. We also rejoice with you that our brother who “was dead, … is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:32.)