The Prodigal's Father
Chris and Michelle Groff
Parenting by Design
Wouldn’t it be great if our kids would just heed our words of wisdom? Why is it that life’s most valuable lessons are often learned the hard way?
Most of us are familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, but, how often do we look at the parable from a parenting perspective? We can learn from the example of the father who recognizes, like our Heavenly Father, that real transformation sometimes requires our kids to travel the painful path of personal experience.
Let’s recap the story: A father has two sons. The first one we meet is the younger, wayward one who rebels against his father’s authority. He does something that, in the culture of the day, would have been truly shocking – he demands his share of the father’s estate before the father has even died – a request that was tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead!” The father, however, acquiesces and divides his estate between his two sons. The younger son gathers up his money and belongings and travels as far away as he can.
Free of his father’s influence, he proceeds to waste his entire inheritance in wild living. He finds himself destitute, his “friends” desert him and a famine strikes the country. Even worse, the only job he can find is working on a pig farm – something a good Jewish boy would never consider! As his life spirals ever downward, he finally “comes to his senses”. Although he no longer feels worthy to be called a son, with all the rights and privileges of that position, he decides to go back to his father to ask for forgiveness and a job.
His return is emotional indeed! The father sees his son “from a long way off” and “was filled with compassion for him.” You get the sense that he has been looking, yearning, even aching for this son to return to him for a very long time. Once again, the father does something shocking. He picks up his robe and runs to his son, an act that would have been considered undignified and humiliating for an older man at the time. What a picture – the approaching son, covered in pig slop, being greeted with hugs and kisses from his joyful father! The son confesses his sin, but before he can even bring up the subject of a job, the father restores him to his former place in the family. He covers his shame with the family’s best robe and re-establishes his sonship by giving him sandals and a ring. They celebrate with a party because the son who once was lost has returned!
Meanwhile the older, compliant son remained at home and worked for the father. When he hears the celebration for his brother’s return, he becomes angry and refuses to join in. In no uncertain terms, he lets his father know it is he who deserves the party, not his brother, because he stayed home and “slaved” for the father. He wants what is due him! The father responds gently be telling him the family wealth has always been his, not because he worked extra hard, but because he is a member of the family.
As Jesus told this story, the father’s behavior would probably have been more shocking to the listeners than that of his sons. Here are a just a few examples of the father’s unusual behavior: (1) he divided up his estate, even before he was dead, and gave it to his ungrateful kids, (2) he didn’t scold, lecture, order, or nag the younger son about his responsibilities to the family, (3) he let the younger son take the money and run off to certain ruin, (4) he waited and watched for the younger son’s return and, upon seeing him after all that time, ran to him, kissing him and welcoming him back to the fold, (5) he didn’t mention the younger son’s mistakes, and he never once said “I told you so”, and (6) he covered the son’s shame and restored him to his place in the family, even going so far as to have a big party to welcome the rebellious kid back.
Any one of these acts would have been shocking in a patriarchal, first century community, and the fact that the father did all of these things tells us that his foremost concern was for his son’s growth and maturity. He was willing to risk everything – his money, standing in the community, and reputation – to ensure his son became the man he was designed to be. When you understand that the father in the story represents our Heavenly Father, the implications are staggering! Our Father’s concern, first and foremost, is for our redemption. He is willing to endure humiliation, scorn, pain and even death on a cross to win us back to Him. What a Dad!
What else can we learn about parenting from the Prodigal’s Father? First, let me suggest the dad in the story knew that personal experience would be the best teacher for his younger son, as opposed to lectures, orders or nagging. He was willing to sacrifice his personal wealth and comfort to let the son make significant (and poor) choices with his life. Why would the father allow this? Because he knew his words were not reaching this son effectively and that authentic heart change would only come from the boy’s personal experience.
Second, the father let the consequences of the son’s experience teach important life lessons. These consequences were serious – loss of friends and status, poverty and starvation, to name a few. Yet, dad did not ride to the rescue. And, even when the boy came to his senses, repented and returned, the father never said, “I told you so!” That had to be hard, but the father didn’t need to reinforce the lesson. The experience and consequences were enough.
Third, the father let the son know that no matter how foolish, rebellious and angry he had been, he would always be welcomed back to the family. No matter how difficult the situation became, his desire was always for heart change and a restored relationship with the son. That meant the father couldn’t rescue him from the consequences because the lesson would have been lost. But it also meant the father was committed to loving the son wherever he ended up. You can almost hear him saying, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5), even if it meant loving a son working on a pig farm or some other place of ill repute.
Finally, the father’s conversation with the older brother tells us a parent’s love must be unconditional, whether the children rebel or comply. Isn’t it fascinating that, despite the outward appearance, the older brother didn’t seem to love the father any more than the younger one? He didn’t protest when the property was divvied up at the beginning of the story. He described his labor on behalf of the father as “slavery”. He demonstrated the ultimate sign of a compliant legalist – entitlement. His behavior towards the father was designed to force the father to reward him with his inheritance, rather than being a grateful response to the father’s loving provision. He was running away from the father’s love just as much as his brother, but in a socially acceptable, self-righteous kind of way. Of course, the father gives the older son the same response as the younger – he gently lets this son know that compliance didn’t earn him anything. He already has everything the father has just by being his son. Working for the father should have been his response, rather than a condition, to his love.
The story of the prodigal “son” challenges parents to value real heart change and authenticity over superficial compliance. James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Although it’s tough, sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our kids is to allow the transforming power of personal experience.
Parenting by Design (www.parentingbydesign.com) was created by Chris & Michelle Groff with Lee Long, MA, LPC to help parents understand the Biblical model for parenting their children. It is a faith-based parenting series that compares current parenting paradigms to the ageless parenting principles in the Bible.