Parables of Mercy
February 1987

“Parables of Mercy,” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 20

New Testament

Parables of Mercy

Joseph Smith looks at love and self-righteousness in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

One of the frequent criticisms the Pharisees aimed at Jesus was that he kept company with sinners. This accusation surfaced early in his ministry. Luke reports the call of Matthew the publican, then narrates Jesus’ participation afterward at a feast in Matthew’s house with other publicans and their “irreligious” friends. Challenged for eating with this group, the Savior defended himself with a counter-challenge: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32.)

That terse answer is, of course, ironic. In reality, the Son of God came to call all men to repentance—because all mankind has sinned. But some are so virtuous in their own eyes that they will not listen. Jesus told many parables that illustrated the narrow-mindedness of the self-righteous. Before one such story—the parable of the Pharisee and the publican—Luke mentions that Jesus “spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (Luke 18:9.)

Joseph Smith clearly identified why self-righteousness is so dangerous: it prevents repentance and keeps a person from developing the love of God. In an 1842 discourse, he said, “All the religious world is boasting of its righteousness—it is the doctrine of the devil to retard … our progress by filling us with self-righteousness.”1

On another occasion, the Prophet said: “Christ was condemned by the righteous Jews because he took sinners into his society. He took them upon the principle that they repented of their sins. … The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more are we disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our back. … There should be no license for sin, but mercy should go hand in hand with reproof. … You must repent and get the love of God.”2

The Savior constantly responded to remarks from self-righteous individuals—Pharisees, priests, scribes, and their associates—with words that stressed the value of repentant souls. Self-righteousness versus mercy, lack of forgiveness versus repentance—these conflicts were so crucial that Jesus focused a set of three parables on them: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.

Recognizing the central issue of these parables, Joseph Smith analyzed the stories in an address he gave in the Nauvoo Temple in January 1843. Most of his attention was directed to the parable of the prodigal son. In his diary, William Clayton recorded the Prophet’s approach:

“Pres. Joseph [Smith] preached in the temple on the prodigal son and showed that it did not refer to any nation, but was merely an answer to the remark, ‘he receiveth the sinners and eateth with them.’”3

In the same discourse, the Prophet reportedly explained that the setting or context of the parables revealed their meaning. He said: “I have [a] key by which I understand the scripture—I enquire what was the question which drew out the answer.”4

Applying this rule, Joseph Smith pointed to the two verses that immediately precede the three parables: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

“And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” (Luke 15:1–2.)

Perhaps because of these verses, Joseph Smith disagreed with the interpretation that the two sons in the third parable symbolized the Jews and the Gentiles. Instead, he taught that the Savior used these three stories to correct those Pharisees who feared that the uncleansed would contaminate the purified. Though not all Pharisees shared this attitude, the New Testament clearly shows that others in Jesus’ time associated exclusivism with religious commitment. So Joseph Smith logically added “Sadducees” in his comments.

Any religious group that values purity and morality must deal with the problem of clannishness. However, clannishness can be largely avoided if the members of the group have a vigorous concern to share. There is a big difference between reaching out and shutting out—and Jesus steadily opposed every hint of the latter.

The Prophet Joseph Smith viewed the three parables as the Savior’s answer to the murmuring of the Pharisees and the scribes. The Prophet understood the veiled rebuke directed at the narrow views of the Jewish leaders. This rebuke can be seen most easily in the first parable, that of the lost sheep.

The story of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep and finding the lost animal as told in the Gospel of Luke was also given on another occasion. (See Matt. 18:12–14.) In both cases, God’s concern for the lost soul is the main point. But in light of the Pharisees’ and scribes’ self-righteousness, the story’s moral also becomes a caricature of smugness when the Savior says, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7.)

Actually, Jesus recognized that no person is exempt from repentance. Nor did his disciples make any exceptions. John the Beloved, for example, insisted that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8.) Thus, the phrase “just persons, which need no repentance” is ironic, for no such persons exist.

Willard Richards’s rough notes of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s 1843 sermon show that the Prophet compared the one hundred sheep with one hundred Pharisees and Sadducees. The Prophet then said, “If you Pharisees and Sadducees are in the sheepfold, I have no mission for you. [I am] sent to look up sheep that are lost. [I will] back him up and make joy in heaven.”5

Note how, according to the Prophet’s explanation, the characters in the parable—shepherd, lost sheep, and sheep in the fold—reflect the situation Christ was facing: the divine searcher, the repentant minority, and the group of people who were so self-righteous that they would not repent.

The next story, that of the lost coin, is simple. In Greek, the piece of silver is a drachma—a coin equivalent to a day’s wage. In this parable, a woman sweeps corners and cracks in an attempt to find the coin, possibly because of its sentimental value as a coin that was sewn onto her wedding costume, or possibly because she is a poor manager and has lost the coin, or perhaps even the opposite, because she is a careful manager and carefully guards her resources.

Whatever the circumstances, like the shepherd, when she finds the coin the woman calls her friends together to rejoice with her. The moral of the story is similar to that of the parable of the sheep: there is joy in heaven “over one sinner that repenteth.” (Luke 15:7, 10.)

In discussing this parable, Joseph Smith pointed out the irony: “One publican you despise [is] one piece of silver, the piece which was lost. Joy [is] found of the angels over one sinner that repenteth. [The rest are] so righteous … you cannot save them.”6 Again we see the roles of the searcher, the sinner, and the self-righteous person.

The parable of the prodigal son is the most developed of the three parables. It is a drama in three acts: the departure of the erring son, the father’s welcome at his return, and the reaction of the dutiful son. The erring son is traditionally called prodigal, a word that refers to careless extravagance. As Jesus said, he “wasted his substance with riotous living.” (Luke 15:13.)

Jesus described the consequences with painful touches of realism. A famine arises, and the young man, who has lacked the discipline to plan for the future, suddenly becomes the victim of that future. He had thought he had liberated himself by settling in a different country, but he now finds himself forced to work in a job that is despised in his own country because Jewish law declares that pigs are unclean for eating.7

The headstrong son had already thrown away his moral standards and suffered a loss of status. In the story, painful hunger follows. The “husks” he feeds to the pigs were probably the pods of the native carob tree, which contained dried pulp, “as much as fifty percent sugar,” that was “edible by man and livestock.”8 However, the unfortunate man cannot even share the fodder that he throws to the animals.

Once defiant, the rebellious brother soon “comes to himself.” He determines to go to his father and admit his mistakes, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,

“And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” (Luke 15:17–19.)

Up to this point, the parable has dealt with the effects of sin and rebellion. But now the story focuses on the effects of repentance and forgiveness. We read that while the prodigal “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.) The son admits his guilt, and the father receives him with honor and celebrates his homecoming. No matter how hard the past or the future road, the father insists personally and publicly that the returning child is still his son and that he is still loved, saying,

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:24; see also Luke 15:32.) So important was this point that the father repeats it to the elder brother as the final line in the parable, with the variation for “this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” (Italics added.)

In the last verse, the father also says that “it was meet” that the happy celebration take place. This English phrase means “it was fitting or appropriate.” However, the Greek phrase is actually more intense: as the LDS edition of the Bible notes, the happiness was “necessary.” This thought appears in many current translations. For instance, in the New International Version, the father tells the elder brother, “But we had to celebrate and be glad.”

This parable deals with more than the effects of sin and repentance. As some have suggested, the story could also be called the parable of the father’s love, or the parable of the faithful father. Certainly the parable symbolizes God’s constant concern for his children. Since he is above all a God of love, he naturally welcomes the truly penitent.

Since parents ordinarily have a more mature love for their children than their children have for each other, the feelings of the elder brother reflects life. Through the parable, the Savior also challenged the Pharisees to learn to have a broader, more mature concern for their errant but repentant brothers and sisters.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that in this parable, the elder son represented the judgmental Pharisees in the Savior’s audience and that the younger son represented the publicans. Though sketchy, Willard Richards’s notes of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s sermon clearly indicate that this was how the Prophet interpreted the parable. They read: “‘[A] certain man had two sons,’ etc. [One said I] am a poor publican, a sinner. … All that is meant is brought to bear upon the Pharisee, Sadducee, the publicans and sinners. Eldest son—Pharisees and Sadducees murmuring and complaining because Jesus sat with publicans and sinners.”9

The obedient son, surprised at concern for one whom he considered unworthy, has the narrow vision of the Pharisees who criticized Jesus. He is angry and points out his own righteousness to his father: “These many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment.” (Luke 15:29.)

Yet, in the process of “not transgressing” the father’s commandments, the elder son has failed to learn to love others as his father does. The son does not have a correct understanding of the principles of repentance and forgiveness. Yet his father replies: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (Luke 15:31.)

Thus, the parable ends with the father’s thought-provoking expressions of overwhelming love and loyalty to both sons. To debate about which son is more acceptable to God goes beyond the story. Salvation in both situations depends not on God’s love—which is freely given to all—but upon how one accepts God’s love.

For those whose lives may resemble that of the prodigal son, the message is reassuring: God welcomes us back as full sons and daughters. Indeed, as we read in Alma, God is a God of love, and in his mercy, he has provided repentance as a way for us to return to him: “There is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; … if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.

“But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent.” (Alma 42:22–23.)

However, to return to our Father in Heaven, we must make the hard climb of consistent repentance and true reform. The powerful love of the Father and of the Savior can provide us with an immeasurable motivation. Indeed, Jesus may have added the killing of the best animal to the parable of the prodigal son as a hint that he would die for the sins of all repentant prodigals.

What does the ending of the parable signify for the dutiful son? Perhaps he is like those of us who fill our assignments and attend our meetings, but fail to learn charity—that unconditional love the Father has for all his children and which he commands us to obtain and exercise. (See Moro. 7:33–48.) For those of us whose lives are similar to that of the dutiful elder brother, the challenge is to learn to welcome God’s repentant sons and daughters—our brothers and sisters—with godly love.

Self-righteousness is a form of egotism that breeds intolerance and impatience. Lack of empathy is its major symptom. Since self-righteousness is an unhealthy inner pride, the cure for it is honest humility. Jesus, the most righteous of all, was the perfect example of humility. He said, “I am meek and lowly in heart.” (Matt. 11:29.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith followed that example. Despite his spiritual stature as a prophet, he never claimed personal superiority to other Saints. In fact, he said, “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous. God judgeth men according to the light he gives them.”10 Like Jesus, the Prophet Joseph taught that true spiritual growth included the development of forbearance, tolerance, and compassion.

On this subject, the Prophet also said, “Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbors’ virtues, but be limited towards your own virtues; and do not think yourselves more righteous than others. You must enlarge your souls toward others if you would do like Jesus. … As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand—let them be enlarged towards others. You must be longsuffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of man!”11

The Prophet was concerned about the lack of compassion the elder brother displays for his repentant brother. Perhaps Joseph saw how self-righteousness could easily lead to non-involvement. The ending line of his sermon on the three parables stresses the need to reach out and share the gospel with all mankind: “[The] servants of God of the last days—myself and those I have ordained—have the priesthood and a mission to the publicans and sinners.”12

How did the Prophet regard the returning prodigals in his life? He felt betrayed when leaders left the Saints, and he bluntly said so. But some of these talented men “came to themselves” and were invited back to share in the work. Two of the most prominent were William W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery, both of whom left the Church in 1838.

By 1840, William W. Phelps had written of the spiritual loneliness he felt without the fellowship of the Saints. The former Church editor and counselor in the Zion Stake presidency told the Prophet:

“I am as the prodigal son, though I never doubt or disbelieve the fulness of the gospel: I have been greatly abased and humbled. … Says I, I will repent and live, and ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten one to death, yet I will die with them, for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me; yea, it is larger and better than all Babylon.”13

The Prophet’s answer is a remarkable blend of honesty and charity. He responded, “Truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves. … Believing your confession to be real and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. …

“‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,

“For friends at first are friends again at last.’”14

A number of years later, Oliver Cowdery also returned to the Church. Halfway through Oliver’s exile, the Prophet sensed that Oliver was ready to return and to receive an important assignment—to go with Orson Hyde on a projected second European mission. In 1843, in a meeting with the Council of the Twelve, Joseph Smith directed that a letter be sent to his former counselor, alluding to the prodigal son’s misfortune and eventual celebration:

“Write to Oliver Cowdery and ask him if he has not eaten husks long enough, if he is not almost ready to return, be clothed with robes of righteousness, and go up to Jerusalem. Orson Hyde hath need of him.”15

Such a letter apparently was not received. But after the martyrdom, the Council of the Twelve repeated Joseph’s invitation in a letter to Oliver “exhorting him to be rebaptized.”16 Within the year, hurt feelings were set aside as the Book of Mormon witness cast his lot once again with that of the persecuted believers.

The Savior sharply opposed sin, but frequently cautioned his disciples against rejecting the sinner. Joseph Smith also lived by this principle. In the letter inviting William Phelps to return, the Prophet showed how to treat the repentant: “Inasmuch as long-suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our Heavenly Father towards the humble and penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example and cherish the same principles, by so doing be a Savior of my fellow men.”17


  1. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), p. 123. See also History of the Church, 5:24. Quotations herein have moderate spelling and punctuation changes for clarification, but the wording follows the original source documents.

  2. Ehat and Cook, pp. 123–24. See also History 5:23–24.

  3. William Clayton Diary, 29 January 1843. See also Ehat and Cook, p. 164.

  4. Willard Richards, Joseph Smith Journal, 29 January 1843. See also Ehat and Cook, p. 161.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 342 (Baba Kamma, 7:7). This collection was made about A.D. 200.

  8. Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 63.

  9. Richards, Smith Journal, 29 January 1843. See also Ehat and Cook, pp. 161–62.

  10. Ehat and Cook, p. 204. See also History of the Church, 5:401.

  11. Ehat and Cook, p. 118. See also History of the Church, 4:606.

  12. Richards, Smith Journal, 29 January 1843. See also Ehat and Cook, p. 162.

  13. William W. Phelps to “Brother Joseph,” 29 June 1840, Times and Seasons, 1 February 1841, p. 304.

  14. Dean C. Jessee, comp. and ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), pp. 472–73. See also History of the Church, 4:163–64.

  15. Richards, Smith Journal, 19 April 1843. See also History of the Church, 5:368.

  16. History of the Church, 7:619.

  17. Jessee, p. 472. See also History of the Church, 4:163.

  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, teaches Gospel Doctrine in his Provo, Utah, ward.

“The Good Shepherd,” by James J. Tissot

“The Lost Piece of Silver,” by James J. Tissot

“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by James J. Tissot