Jesus often used the idea of an earthly father to teach us about God. The disciples came and said, “Lord teach us to pray.” He said when you pray, pray like this, “Our father which art in heaven.”
One day when trying to convince His disciples God was concerned about their needs, He pointed out how they were taking care of their children’s needs and He said, “If you, then being bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will the heavenly Father give the holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” This teaching is not about the maleness of God but the personhood of God. God is a person and is best to be understood as a loving parent.
The text is probably Jesus’ most famous parable. It’s about God’s love for sinners but it is set in the context of a loving, caring, forgiving, reconciling father. We know it best as The Prodigal Son.
Most of us have identified with the prodigal. We have had the restlessness of staying home. We have been to the far country – some are still in the far country. Some have come to their senses and experienced what it is like to come home to God.
This is salvation’s story. This is about how God loves us even when we live in rebellion to Him and how when we come home, we find His love and forgiveness.
Helmut Thielicke, the great German pastor/theologian, wrote a book on the parables of Jesus. This is the first parable he writes about in his book, The Waiting Father. He says the parable is not so much about a rebellious child as it is about a loving father.
Today, imagine you are this father — get inside his thoughts and feelings, examine his decision and action, listen to his words. Ask “What did Jesus leave out of the story you would like to know? Would you have done things differently had you been there?” Some of you have played the role of this father so you will be especially good at this.
What was your dad like? My dad was the youngest child in a large family. He was a mountain man, spent most of his life with a chew of tobacco in his mouth, raised hunting dogs and loved to go to the store where people gathered around the stove in winter or sat on the porch in the summer and visited. He was standing on the porch at the store when a tornado came through and ripped all the trees up in the valley. He became the community’s authority on the power of the tornado.
What kind of relationship did you have with your dad? When I was younger, I was embarrassed about my dad. Most children go through a period when they are ashamed of their parents and don’t want to be seen with them. That is normal. My dad was an introvert and was very uncomfortable in all social situations; he had not had the opportunity to go to school so he could not read or write as well as his children after they had been through the first or second grade. This was a source of embarrassment to him.
He was a very superstitious man with many mountain superstitions. Long before he died, I grew up enough to know and to appreciate him for the many things that were admirable — understood his sensitivity, found joy in his sense of humor, took pride in what a dependable man he was and enjoyed his love of nature. We used to walk in the woods at the farm and he would carry a shovel. He had lived in Idaho where there wasn’t any water so every time he found a spring, he thought he had discovered gold. It was a joy to be with him.
Think about your dad today — who he is/was, what he is/was like, what kind of relationship you had/have to him. We also need to think about our role as fathers — not about our father, but our fathering.
I remember how overwhelmed I was when our first child was born — the sheer responsibility of being a father. This is when I bought my first life insurance to protect Barbara and Nancy if something happened to me.
All three of our children are grown and I often think of ways in which I fall short as a father. I was away from home too much, working. It’s bad enough to neglect your children for work but there’s a temptation to think if you work for the church it doesn’t count as neglect if you’re working for God. This is not true. Whether you are a Baptist preacher or franchise Pizza Huts, if you neglect your children, it’s not a good thing.
Another thing is, I didn’t realize how quickly they would grow up. Time seems to move slowly but one day I turned around and they were grown. One thing I can pass on to you from my mistakes is I underestimated the pressures my children would get from outside my family. When a child is small, you think God has given you a piece of putty to mold into everything that child ought to be. You discover soon the putty has a will of its own and will stand in the middle of the kitchen floor with hands on hips, look you in the eye and say “No.” You can survive that if your ego is strong.
You often learn too late there are other people working on the putty, too — tremendous influences from schoolmates and from society. Our family is at the place now where we like to spend time together, and I am grateful for that. There was a time when the children didn’t have time for us. All of us fathers need to think about our role as fathers — some with regret and some with anticipation.
The story in the text gives us clues for building relationships with our children. It is primarily the story of God’s love for us but by using an idealized father for the parable, Jesus taught us words we can say to our children that will help build relationships. I’ve picked out of this story four things we need to say to our children as fathers or mothers. Each of them has three words so I’m going to load you down with twelve heavy words.
The first words are, “You are free.” These are the “letting go” words. When rearing children you have to learn some “letting go” words.
The second set of words are, “I love you.” These are the bonding words. Many things bond you to your children but the main adhesive in the bonding process is love.
The third set of words are, “All is forgiven.” These are the reconciling words. In relationships you need “starting over” words — ways of beginning again with your children and with your parents.
The last words are, “I enjoy you.” These are the words of celebration. Relationships are to be enjoyed. If you can take these four sets of words, learn to say them, to feel them and learn to act them out in your relationship with your children, you will discover tremendous power in building relationships with them.
Let’s look at the words, “You are free.” A child is born totally dependent upon its parents for everything — food, clothing, shelter, medicine, protection. The child needs rules, boundaries, examples and love. The child will grow up assuming this.
The boy in the story did this. He lived in his father’s house. He didn’t know what it was like not to live in his father’s house. He took his heritage for granted. But the time comes when loving hands of parents must turn loose these children as they seek independence.
We get the term for it from the language of birds. We talk about “leaving the nest.” Some of you have said, “Well my last child is leaving the nest this summer.” When they have all left home, we talk about the “empty nest.”
Recently Barbara noticed that in the nest a purple finch had built over the neighbor’s drainpipe, three little ones were popping up and practicing their wings. She said, “I think they are going to leave the nest right away.” I fixed lunch and sat with her to watch the process. The parents lured all of them out of the nest, watched each of them make their first flight and leave the nest forever. I thought, “I wish it were that simple and that quick.” Leaving home is hard for children and it is equally hard for parents to turn them loose.
Look at the two sides of the story. The restless son is smothered by his parents, can’t stand the rules and limitations, can’t stand his older brother and is pulled by the lure of the unknown. The anxious father sees his son as immature and unequipped to make the kind of decision he was requesting. I wonder how long this discussion had been going on and all the different forms it took.
The father divided his property; when he did he was saying, “You are free.” He didn’t think the son was ready because he didn’t say, “You are ready.” He said, “You are free.” He loved the son so much he could not force him to stay home.
When you say to your sons or daughters, “You are free,” you are acknowledging they are other persons. They are not extensions of yourself. They are not your form of immortality. They are not an extension of your ego.
It’s not without pain, anxiety or uncertainty. God in the Garden made people like us with a will that could be exercised by making a bad decision. It is more difficult to do this than most people dream, even when they love their children. But we must learn to say to our children when they are ready, “You are free” — and sometimes before they are ready.
The second words are, “I love you.” The most valuable gift you can give your children is to really love them – to will what is best for them whatever the cost to you. It is important not only for fathers to feel this, but also to communicate this.
I remember my father saying, “Son, I feel bad that I’ve not made more money and not provided you with more things.” I feel it is dangerous to provide children with too many things. We exhaust ourselves making provision for our children and worrying about the things we don’t buy them when the one thing every child has to have is love. It is something each of us can provide our children.
This is how a child gets his/her identity, feeling of worth, feels wanted and secure in this world. A child deprived of love, no matter what else has been given, is a deprived child.
The text is the story of a father’s never ending, never faltering and never diminishing love. The boy left his father’s house, provision and authority but never left his father’s love and concern. The fact the father watched the road, recognized the son and ran to meet him, acts out his love. The fact he embraced him, kissed him and interrupted his confession, speaks of his love.
Love should be without interruption. Sometimes we tell children God doesn’t love them when they are bad. That’s not true. We often don’t love them when they are bad. Ego and pride become barriers to love. This is hard for men.
I remember a couple sitting in my office telling me about their daughter. She had been a delightful young girl but something happened in her life. She ran away from home and moved in with a man three times her age. The mother wept and said, “Pastor, tell me how to communicate with my daughter.” The father said, “Pastor, what I want to know is how many years are they going to put me in prison after I get my shotgun and blow the ______ out of him?”
Here are two different ways the parents — one weeping but trying to build a relationship and one a raging bull whose pride had been injured — were dealing with the problem. Fathers need to love their children and communicate that love — not afraid of showing affection and not afraid of putting their feelings into words.
My father was not articulate. I know my father loved me. The closest he ever came to saying the words were when he said, “I’m mighty proud of you, son.” This macho world in which we live teaches fathers they are to be stern, never affectionate, never tender and never articulate about their love, causing a terrible disservice to their children. Learn to say, “I love you.”
The third set of words are, “All is forgiven.” There are things that damage every relationship which need to be repaired and children need to learn to forgive parents. Some of you need to forgive things your parents have done to you and parents need to learn to forgive children. Things need to be surfaced and dealt with.
The father’s love made forgiveness possible and the son’s change made it actual. He started to think straight, began to face realistically his situation, and remembered home differently. How many of you have adult children and remember, when they came home, you suddenly realized they had begun to understand things about home? Things they used to resent are now coveted. Jesus told this story of how we come back to God but the young man’s decision to go back was the decision to hear the words, “You are forgiven.”
The last words are, “I enjoy you.” The story began with estrangement and ends with a party, a feast, music, dancing and joy. It’s the story of a father enjoying his child again. Fathers need to learn to enjoy their children as grownups.
A man said to me years ago, “When my children were small, I really enjoyed them. Then something happened.” What happened is, they grew up and he never figured out a way to build an adult relationship with those children.
Are these words you can say — you are free, I love you, all is forgiven, I enjoy you! These are the words our heavenly Father can and has said to us. These are the words that call us home. These are the words that give us clues of how we can be better fathers and better parents.