The progressive reformer, Jane Addams, in 1911 wrote, “Poor Father has been left out in the cold. He doesn’t get much recognition. It would be a good thing if he had a day that would mean recognition of him.”
Sixty-one years later, President Richard Nixon signed a bill into law making Father’s Day a national holiday.
Although this is not part of the liturgical calendar, I am happy that we recognize this day. The first four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God. The remaining six instruct us about our relationship with our fellow human beings. The first of these human-relationship commands reads, “‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you'” (
It is a command with promise. Give honor to your parents, and you will be a person whose life will be a quality existence. Although the person who lives respectful of parents has a much better chance for long life, the primary theme is quality living. So it is fitting that we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
The reason God includes this in his commands is that it runs against our human nature. Our tendency is to fight authority, whether it be the authority of God or the authority of our parents. We want to be free. We want to do our thing. Someone this week gave me this piece titled “Father.”
4 Years: My daddy can do anything.
7 Years: My dad knows a lot, a whole lot.
8 Years: My father doesn’t quite know everything.
12 Years: Oh well, naturally Father doesn’t know everything.
14 Years: Father? Hopelessly old-fashioned.
21 Years: Oh that man is out of date. What did you expect?
25 Years: He knows a little bit about it, but not much.
30 Years: Must find out what Dad thinks about it.
35 Years: A little patience, let’s get Dad’s meaning first.
50 Years: What would Dad have thought about it?
60 Years: My dad knew literally everything.
65 Years: I wish I could talk it over with Dad once more.
We are a society searching for a model father.
Sociologist Michael S. Kimmel, writing in the June, 1986, issue of Psychology Today, states:
“America is suddenly having a love affair with fathers. Bathing, perhaps in the afterglow of Kramer vs. Kramer, we see fathers as safe and nurturing, exactly the emotionally expressive men that feminists suggested they should become. No longer the ‘forgotten parent’ of earlier psychological studies, father now shares center stage with mother in a flood of books about the joys of co-parenting and joint custody, or the political correctness of becoming a househusband. In fact, mother had better be careful or she’ll be pushed to the wings.”
The Bill Cosby show at one time was the hottest item on television, marking a major change in public taste. He has written a best-selling book, Fatherhood, in which Cosby casts a jaundiced eye at the trials and tribulations of fatherhood, while winking impishly with the other. Even Cosby is somewhat ambivalent about what is involved.
On the one hand, he writes about the essence of good fatherhood, as the total acceptance of the child for better or for worse, urging parents to keep trying and keep having patience. On the other hand, there is a contradictory undercurrent in which he portrays children as selfish, expensive, and contrary liars, “young adversaries.” He expresses Cosby’s First Law of Intergenerational Perversity, in which “No matter what you tell a child to do, he will always do the opposite.”
Cosby’s relationship with his own father remains unresolved. His references to him are few and unpleasant, referring to the days when “my own father used me for batting practice.” He goes on referring to h”s father (never by name) as a strict and stingy tyrant, a throwback to the absolute monarchist.
In another Father’s Day book, Finding Our Fathers: The Unfinished Business of Manhood, Harvard University psychologist Samuel Osherson takes his own troubled relationship with his father as the spring-board to his search for the meaning of fatherhood. He bases it on his own autobiographical explorations and his clinical experience, as well as a longitudinal study of 370 Harvard graduates over a twenty-year period.
He concludes that if you don’t come to terms with past relationships, especially with your parents, you may be condemned to reproduce them. We become in essence the parents we swore we would never be. He goes on then to describe a “remote sadness” in his relationship with his own father and broadens that to conclude that very few men report a close and secure relationship with their fathers.
Most men feel that their fathers lack the emotional strength to tolerate openness with their sons. It’s a man’s world. It’s a world of work, solitary pursuits and isolation. As a researcher, he explains how man’s early and ongoing relationships with his father shapes the intimacy and work dilemmas men coming of age today face. As a therapist, he is impelled by a psychological urgency to “heal the wounded father” that men carry around inside themselves so that these men can become more loving and nurturing in relationships with their own children.
Young Ronald Reagan Jr. added to this search for the model father. He stated that his dad, the president, wasn’t naturally equipped to be a perfect father but made up for it by being kind, understanding, and a good friend. He told how the president’s father, his grandfather, suffered from alcoholism and was often absent, providing no role model for fathering. “So he’s (President Reagan) not the most naturally equipped to be everybody’s idea of a perfect father. He makes up for it by being a genuinely kind and nice person.” Young Reagan went on to note that, as a result of his own difficult background, the president was a person who was difficult to get to know well.
Is there any model? The answer is yes …. and no. There is no such thing as a perfect human father. Some do it better than others, and, as a result, this comes easier for them. None of us is perfect. I try hard to be a good father, and I fail. But I am not giving up. As a Christian, I know I can’t do it perfectly. But I do have a model.
One day Jesus told a story that is probably the most appreciated story in the entire Bible. It has come to be known as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” We find it recorded in
I have, on various occasions, used this story as a preaching text, coming at it from various perspectives. I’ve talked about the Prodigal Son, noting the tendency in some of us to rebel and run away from God’s love, entering into a far country, wasting the tremendous inheritance the Lord has given to us in disregard of the price we are paying and the heart of God which is breaking on our behalf. This story, viewed from this perspective, tells us how we can come back to the Lord, our resources exhausted, finding Him loving and waiting for us. It’s never too late to come home.
I’ve preached on this text from the perspective of the elder brother, referring to this as Christ’s message to mildewed saints. Isn’t it easy to be like this cold, calculating, work-ethic, self-righteous character who did things the way they were supposed to be done, scornful of his younger brother’s profligacy, living with a “good-riddance to bad-rubbish” attitude? How stunned he was when the young prodigal returned home only to get a banquet prepared in his honor. How resentful you and I can be, when we’ve tried to do everything right, when we discover that God embraces, in even deathbed conversions, persons who have wasted their lives. The elder brother puts a mirror up to me, showing me how maybe my motivation for good works wasn’t out of love for God and desire to be in relationship with Him but out of pride, arrogance, and self protection.
I’ve preached about this parable from the perspective of the “waiting father.” He stands as a parabolic representation of God. I tried to probe the divine-human interaction of the way in which God deals with you and me in our wild acts of rebellion and in our cold, cynical, calculated self-righteousness. God has a word for both the prodigal and the elder brother. It’s an important word in which He calls us both back to ourselves and what it is to be in relationship with Him.
However, during the last few weeks, I have come to this parable from an entirely different perspective. I have been looking all over the place for something more than theory about what it is to be a model father. Suddenly it dawned upon me that it is possible to revisit this parable and see in it the ideal representation of what it is to be a model father. Here we have the father, of whom Jesus tells this story, interacting with his sons in a way which gives insight to you and me of how to be model fathers and, in a broader sense, model parents.
I. The model father teaches the truth from infancy up.
Jesus did not tell this story in a vacuum. He was telling it to Jews, Jews who knew the Old Testament Scriptures, men and women who were familiar with the Mosaic Law. Basic to this great heritage is the parental responsibility to expose one’s children to the teachings of the Scriptures, both in precept and in action. Just before entering the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of Israel:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (
Discipline is essential to this teaching. Moses incorporates these words into his address. “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (
As we live under His authority, what we teach our children about the ways of God takes on more existential relevance to them. If I teach them one mode of conduct and live under a different mode myself, they will see the hypocrisy of it all. I must live under the teaching and the discipline of God, even as I endeavor to faithfully teach and discipline my children.
II. The model father has respect for individual autonomy.
What would be your reaction if one of your children came to you, thumbing his nose at you, demanding that you give him total freedom and his fair share to finance his rebellion? That’s a tough one, isn’t it?
It was not unusual for a Jewish father to distribute his estate before he died if he wished to retire from the actual management of his business affairs. Under the law, there was a clear delineation of his financial responsibilities. The older son must get two-thirds and the younger son one-third. But there is a certain demanding attitude, is there not, on the part of this younger son? He is saying, “Life is too short for me to wait for you to die or to retire. I am going to get it anyway. Give it to me now. I’m bored. I’m hemmed in. I want out!”
The father could have said no. He could have tried to blackmail him, telling him how much more he would have in the long run if he stayed around home. He could have played the comparison game, saying, “Why aren’t you a good son like your older brother? What are you trying to do, break your mother’s heart?” You know those little games we play!
No, this father was prepared to stand by the teachings and the humble modelings that he and his wife had shared from the infancy of these two boys. He was willing to evaluate each one of them for who they were as individuals. He knew their strengths and weaknesses. He was prepared to let this young man be an adult.
After all, he himself was human. He had had a father who had raised him. He had his own individual sibling rivalries with his brothers and sisters. He knew the feeling of being compared. He knew what it was to want to be his own person. And he knew what it was to rebel.
We don’t know the nature of his rebellion. We don’t know much about his past. Perhaps he at one time had been a prodigal. Perhaps he at one time had been the elder brother or some interesting blend of both of these personality types. He, too, had his secret sins as well as his more obvious shortcomings.
He wasn’t perfect. He knew that God, in His creative design, had not made human persons robots, automatons, who function as mechanical men and women. To be created human was to have freedom to obey or to disobey. This model father had respect for the individual autonomy of each of his sons. So, without preaching a doomsday sermon, he divided his estate. He gave his son what he wanted, and he bid him farewell.
III. The model father won’t stand in the way of consequences.
Apparently he had money, and he had servants. He could have played a manipulative game. He could have assigned one of his servants to shadow the rebellious kid, carrying various disguises, going wherever he went, making certain he had no idea he was there, keeping an eye on him and then reporting back what was going on, letting him know if things went well or if things went poorly.
He could have kept track of his associations, so that he wouldn’t squander the fortune, thinking, “I’ve worked hard for all this money, and no son of mine is entitled to waste it.” He could have had little anonymous reminders put in his way if he began to get in trouble, “Your father wouldn’t like this, would he?” If things got real bad, he could have had him brought home, thinking, “His mother and I could never live with ourselves if we knew our son was hanging out with prostitutes or becoming an alcoholic or catching a venereal disease or marrying outside of our faith.” At the first sting of homesickness, he could have had him reminded of his mother’s hot chicken soup and the fact that there is always plenty of work here at home.
No, the model father won’t stand in the way of consequences. He is not in the business of premature rescue. As much as his heart is breaking, and he knows that there is trouble ahead, he lets go.
I ask you and I ask myself: Is this the kind of father, is this the kind of mother we are? Are we willing to faithfully teach and model? Do we respect the autonomy of our children as they come of age? Are we willing to let them walk away from us, no longer nurtured and controlled by us, but free to live in a tough, hard world unprotected?
The reality is we haven’t got much choice. If we don’t let them go, they are going to rebel anyway, aren’t they? How much better to take the initiative and say, “Hey, this is your life. I’ve done the best I can. It hasn’t been that good at some points. You know my weaknesses and my mistakes. Forgive me for them. It’s your life. You know what I believe. I am willing to cut the strings of control. You are free to be who you choose to be, to do what you choose to do, and live with the consequences. You know I love you, and I always will. I may not have always handled you correctly, and I will make my mistakes in the future. But I am your dad.”
With a big hug and perhaps a few tears, we are prepared to send them off to seek their own fortune, to face whatever may be the consequences-positive, negative, or in between.
IV. The model father has a love that refuses to give up.
Most of us have a breaking point. We can put up with just so much nonsense. We are patient up to a point. We have hope up to a point. We are willing to be tolerant up to a point.
The fact is that our children have the God-given freedom to go their own ways and never come back. We cannot force them to show us honor. At the same time, God pity the son or daughter who has a parent who has given up on them. Very few experiences could be more devastating than to be disowned by one’s parent.
We are called to faithfulness, the same faithfulness that is modeled by the father in this story. Just imagine how the plot would change if the father took the attitude of, “Okay, this is the way my son wants to have it. I’ll go along with it. I think it’s dumb. He’s making a terrible mistake. He is entitled to do it. That’s it. But he better never come back here again. I’m done with that ungrateful kid.”
Instead we see the father faithfully carrying out his ongoing responsibilities. He is not chasing after the prodigal. But he is daily aware of his breaking heart.
It’s important for us to learn how to live with a broken heart. Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. Take courage, I have overcome the world.” There is a realistic candor in the biblical teachings. We are alerted to the reality of life. None of us is free from trouble. We are called to continue doing what God has called us to do, while at the same time, we are privileged to scan the horizon just hoping for that reunion with the rebel.
We may have caused some of the rebellion. If so, we need to make our overtures. Perhaps a phone call or a letter that says, “I’m sorry. Forgive me for what I said. I love you. I want a restored relationship with you.” I am talking about an initiative that frees the young person to accept it or not accept it. Others have already communicated that love and vulnerability. For you, it’s just a matter of going on and fulfilling the responsibilities which you assumed.
Somehow, I am never able to rid myself of the picture of that father who, as he worked his field, was constantly scanning the horizon. Jesus alerts us of that fact. For He says, “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (
V. The model father is forgiving.
What would your reaction be if your child did to you what the prodigal did to his father? Being a preacher, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would probably have written a sermon titled, “I Told You So!” I would probably be prepared to deliver this on a moment’s notice.
The father in Jesus’ story avoids a vindictive attitude. Instead, love explodes within him. He has compassion. He runs, embraces his son, kisses him.
The son gives the speech he has carefully prepared, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (
VI. The model father is a celebrative person.
He doesn’t even give his son a chance to ask to be a servant. He calls for the best robe. In the Hebrew tradition, that robe stands for honor. He calls for a ring. The ring stands for authority. If a man gave another his signet ring, it was the same as giving him power of attorney. He calls for shoes. The shoes stand for a son as opposed to a slave. The children of the family wore shoes. Often the slaves didn’t. The slaves dream, in the black spiritual, of a time when, “All God’s chillun got shoes.” Shoes were the sign of freedom. He calls for a banquet, a feast to make merry, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (
Are you a celebrative person? I need to work more at this. I am inclined to approach things with that Calvinistic work-ethic. I am not certain that I could have been quite as spontaneous and exuberant as was this model father. I think that I would have to wait to have the party until I had checked into his recidivistic rate. I would want to know whether or not he had really come clean or if he would turn right around and break my heart again. I think I would put the party off for a few months.
I’d give him a job. I’d try to measure how good a job he was doing. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to his older brother, my son who had been so faithful, to have this big extravaganza. I guess what I am saying is that I don’t like some things I see in myself when I compare myself to this model father. I have to learn. I have to grow. I have to develop, as I take a close look at this biblical example.
VII. The model father is willing to live with ambiguity.
We don’t know the end of the story. We do know that the other son got angry. The father had to live with that anger. The other son viewed this as unfair. He wasn’t the least bit interested in being part of the celebration.
Jesus had a very interesting way of bringing this story to a conclusion. It ends with the father’s response to the elder brother’s sneering accusation that there had never been a party for him but that this no-good brother who had devoured the father’s hard-earned money with harlots ends up getting the fatted calf killed in his honor.
What’s the father’s response? He acknowledges the faithfulness of the older brother. He makes no demands for performance on the younger brother. Life goes on.
None of us knows the future, do we? Being a father, being a mother has no sealed and signed guarantees. We are called to live with the ambiguity which is built into relationships. The model father accepts this as a fact of life and moves on, faithfully doing and being what God has called him to do and be, no matter what the significant others in his life choose to do and be.
Our final reward isn’t the privilege of sitting back and saying, “Wasn’t I a good father?” Granted, we’ll have some joys that come from the hoped-for friendship with our children. But the final reward will be when the real model father, God himself, looks us in the eye and says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest.”
Remember that the model is God. You and I are not God. We are not perfect. The key is that I am willing to say, “I am sorry,” when I am wrong. The key is that I am willing to stand by the children God has given to me when they are wrong.
The progressive reformer, Jane Addams, in 1911 wrote, “Poor Father has been left out in the cold. He doesn’t get much recognition. It would be a good thing if he had a day that would mean recognition of him.”