I love Jesus’ parables. They are so simple and yet so complex. I especially love our parable for today, usually known as the parable of the prodigal son. No matter how often I read it or hear it read it has something new to say to me. At this point in my life, as a mother of two children, I found myself very curious about the father. I never really understood, prior to having children, why the father would give the younger son what he asked for. Why on earth would you give your child their inheritance just because they asked for it? Why wouldn’t you say to your child, “How dare you ask for what is not yours? You are basically saying to me that you wish I were dead”? How could he be so unfair to his older son? But, as a parent, I have a different view of the father’s actions in this parable. I have a different understanding of parental love and a different understanding of fairness. He actually expresses tremendous love to his sons, to both his sons.
Any of you who has more than one child knows that it is impossible to treat both your children exactly the same because they are different people with different personalities and needs. What works with one won’t work with the other. And anyone who has more than one child knows that they will be accused by their children of being unfair or of loving the other child more. It is part of the challenge of being a parent.
Anyone who has children also knows that even though we would like to protect our children from making mistakes, we can’t. Within appropriate developmental limits, parents have to give their children freedom to make their own choices, even when we can see that those choices might lead to less than desirable outcomes. Some things can only be learned through experience, and some people are born with temperaments for which this is especially true.
I find myself having to wrestle with these two aspects of parenting all the time. “That’s not fair” is a common refrain in my household. Usually, it isn’t actually a question of fairness. “How come she got a pinwheel from her teacher, and I didn’t get one?” “How come he got to watch tv when he was home sick from school, and I didn’t while I was at school?” “His piece of cake is bigger than mine.” “Her cookie is bigger than mine.” Sibling rivalry is a constant in all families with more than one child.
And the mistake thing. I don’t know how it was for you, but this is an enormous challenge as a parent. “I want to bring my dollar to the grocery store.” “Are you sure you want to? You know that you usually lose things that you put into your pocket. I’m not giving you another one if you lose it.” “I won’t lose it. I’m bringing it.” “OK, but I’m not giving you another one.” The dollar gets lost, upset begins. The freedom to make mistakes has only small risks now as my children are young, but I know that the risks will get much bigger as my children grow. It is hard to step back and give space for mistakes and failure, but we parents have to do this if we want our children to grow and learn. Love demands this of us, even when it is hard for us to let go. And love demands that we remain in the background ready to love our children when they fail and come back to us again.
And this is what I see the father in this parable doing. His younger son makes a ridiculous, preposterous, and entirely inappropriate request of his father. The father had every right to say no, but he doesn’t. I suspect that he knew that there were lessons his son needed to learn, and no amount of talking or parenting was going to teach him these lessons. I suspect he knew that this particular young man was only going to learn through experience. So, he gives his son his inheritance, probably knowing that it would be squandered and lost. He loved his son so much that he was able to give him the space that he needed to learn what he needed to learn. He was able to give his son the space he needed to fail and get up again. He cared more about his son’s development than he did for his own possessions.
And boy does his son mess up. He blows everything he had and ends up destitute in a foreign country. And hitting rock bottom wakes him up. He “comes to himself.” He sets aside his ego and returns to his father and his family, asking for nothing more than a place to earn enough to have something to eat and a place to lay down to sleep each night. He returns in humility. And the father who wants nothing more than the return of his son welcomes him with open arms.
I was once leading a confirmation class that was studying this parable, and the high school students in the class were very disturbed by the father’s warm welcome. From their perspective the father should have done more to hold the younger son accountable. Clearly none of these young people had yet made any major mistakes in their lives. I asked them how they would like their parents to respond if they really messed up but recognized their mistake and turned to their parents to seek help. There was silence, and then one of them finally said, I guess I hope that my parents would hug me and help me. I said, “me too.”
I think the father recognized that he could be right, or he could have a relationship with his younger son. Ultimately, he decided that it was more important to have the relationship than be right and lose his son. And isn’t that exactly what the older son is struggling with? He has to decide if he wants to be right or have a relationship with his father and his younger brother.
And what about the older son? He is clearly harboring a lot of resentment. He feels very put upon because his father hasn’t treated him and his brother exactly the same. He doesn’t recognize that fairness doesn’t always mean sameness. He has different needs, has a different temperament, and has different life-lessons to learn than his younger brother. I suppose he could have asked for his inheritance too, and the father might have given it to him. He didn’t ask though. And he claims that he is working for his father as a slave, but this is not really true, is it? A slave doesn’t inherit from his owner. The older son is working land and with animals that will be his when his father dies. So, he is really working for himself. All the labor and work he has put into the family farm has and will benefit him. I suspect if he had asked his father for a fatted calf to throw a party, his father would have said yes, but he never asked. He so mired in his resentments and mental ledger of rights and wrongs that he has placed himself in quite a pit of unhappiness. He assumes that there is only so much love to go around, and therefore if his father shows love to his brother than that means his father has less love for him.
The older brother is now at a crossroads. He has a choice. Will he choose to be right, to linger in his place of resentment and anger or will he choose relationship? Again, the father very lovingly gives his son the space to make his own mistake, or not. We don’t know what he chooses, as the parable’s ending is left open. The father invites his older son into relationship, but only the older son can decide what he will choose.
And this is the paradox of love. If you truly love someone, you can’t seek to control their choices. You have to give them space to make their own mistakes. And true love involves forgiveness when mistakes are made. And this is how God loves us. God could have created a world in which free will played no part, but a world without free will is a world without love. In order to love you have to be able to choose not to love. God could also have created a world in which we were unable to make mistakes, but that would also have been a world in which we were unable to make our own choices, a world in which we never changed or grew or learned anything new. God loves us enough to allow us the freedom to make our own choices and make our own mistakes. And God loves us enough to be there when we pick ourselves up from our mistakes, come to ourselves and return to God for help and forgiveness.
There are times in our lives when we are the younger son, squandering what has been given us. Thank God there are people who value their relationships with us more than being right and who greet us with love and open arms when we return to them with humility and repentance. Thank God that God is also there with us when we return to God as well. There are times in our lives when we are the older son, convinced that we have been treated unfairly, full of righteous indignation about what someone else has been given that we feel we have not received. We too will have to decide if we want to be right or if want to have a relationship. And there are times when we will be the father, asked to show the merciful and healing love of God to those who have messed up and come back asking for forgiveness.
I don’t know about you but understanding that I am all three figures in the parable makes all the difference in the world. Each and everyone of us is a crazy mixed-up mess of rightness and wrongness and thank you God for loving us all in spite of this. Amen.