It’s a testament to the power of Jesus’ parables that you can hear one for what seems like the millionth time and still find something new in it to ponder.
For example: the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which was our lectionary text earlier this month. As familiar as it is, I sometimes keep the story at arm’s length, since I identify so strongly with the elder son: the dutiful, hard-working, family-honoring child who comes back from slaving away in the fields to find his wayward younger brother back home, not only restored to his position but the featured guest at an unimaginably lavish party. How easily I can remember myself speaking (or thinking) sentiments as ungenerous and self-righteous as these:
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 11:28-30, NRSV)
How rarely I’ve responded with words anything like the father’s:
… “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (vv 31-32)
Then I had children myself, and hoped that perhaps I would begin to see the world less like an easily aggrieved eldest child and more like the forgiving father. Early in the life of this blog, I envisioned a series of posts in which I would share wisdom that had transferred easily from parenting to teaching. Post #1 was going to focus on how parenting had taught me patience and grace.
But you’ll have noticed that there’s no link embedded in the previous paragraph: that post, to say nothing of that series, never came to pass. Despite myself, I too often find myself impatient with my children, particularly now that they’re three-year olds eager to test boundaries and assert their autonomy. Far becoming slower to anger, my temper has, if anything, quickened. (We’re nearing the end of Lent — forgive me if the blog takes on an unusually confessional tone today…)
It rarely takes more than a few minutes for me to recognize how I’ve acted, and mere seconds to feel that too-familiar mix of shame and horror set in. And the horrible questions start: what kind of a father am I? How can they forgive me? How can they not be afraid of me?
And no doubt this is something I need to work on — my children notice everything and forget nothing, and they are being formed by my behavior in ways at which I can only guess.
But here’s what else is true: they forgive me. Every time.
While I’m agonizing over the ways that I’m damaging our relationship and scarring them for life, they’re already smiling and hugging me, saying that they love me and planning our next game.
So I read the father’s response to the return of the prodigal with new eyes and realized, first, that I should identify myself with both sons in this story, and second, that my children are like no one so much as the gracious, loving father.
But when he [the prodigal son] came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (vv 17-24)
I’ve only been to one parenting seminar in my life, and only two ideas remain with me from that experience. But they’re big ones.
First, that at this age, children experience God primarily via the love and security provided by their parents.
Second, that having children gives you two absolutely unique opportunities that are precious beyond all price: the chance to love someone unconditionally, and the chance to be loved unconditionally.
I don’t make enough of the first chance; I need to thank God more often for the second. So says this prodigal father.