Central Baptist Church, Georgetown, Guyana
Today is Fathers’ Day. The passage that was read earlier, Luke 15: 11-32, is widely known. It is titled the”Parable of the Prodigal Son” in several modern versions of the Bible. Some preachers have pluralized the word son, so that the title becomes the “Parable of the Prodigal Sons”. This is probably one of the best known and most loved parables that Jesus taught. It gives rise to the question: Why are we focusing on sons on Father’s Day? The answer is simple. Sons have fathers. Our focus today is on the godly father portrayed by Jesus in this parable. Indeed, much of what Jesus taught in this parable is about the father. Whether we focus on sons or the father is a matter of perspective and interest.
Before pursuing our perspective, it is appropriate to note briefly that Luke Chapter 15 records three parables of Jesus: The Parable of the Lost Sheep; the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sons. Jesus taught these parables because publicans and sinners, tax collectors and unbelievers, had come to hear him and He received them cordially and affectionately. The Pharisees and Scribes, however, muttered objection. If Jesus was righteous, how could He fraternize with the unrighteous?
In response, Jesus taught these three parables. The first is about a shepherd who had 100 sheep, lost one, and then went in search of that one lost sheep. The second is about a woman who had ten coins, lost one and then searched diligently for the one lost coin. The third is about a father who had two sons, lost both, but did not search for them. Notice the increasing proportion of the lost: 1%, 10% and 100%. Notice also that the shepherd seeks, the woman searches, but the father waits patiently and pleads. Today, I would like us all, but especially fathers, to focus on and follow this parable from the perspective of the father. Although the focus is on the father, all can learn from it.
The Permissive Will of the Father
In the Jewish society where Jesus spoke this parable, there were rules governing the provision for sons. Sons had rights of inheritance which they could demand during the lifetime of their fathers. Fathers were obliged to divide their resources at the time of demand of a son or sons. If a father had two sons, then two-thirds went to the older son and one-third to the younger son.
Fathers also had rights. If a son or sons demanded that their father divide his resources between them during his lifetime, the father could take them to the Magistrate to show that he was good father and that the demand to divide his resources while he was alive was unreasonable and unfounded. The son or sons could be fined by the Magistrate for making unreasonable and unfounded demands. If the father did as his son or sons demanded, and divided his possessions as requested, then any wealth gained after the division belonged to him. He could do with that wealth as he chose. The sons had already got what belonged to them by law.
To understand this situation, we need to bear in mind that in most ancient societies, property, possessions, and wealth belonged to lineages and families. In most ancient societies, lineage and family inheritance was passed on through sons. Dowries were paid for daughters who were given in marriage. Marriages were arrangements between lineages and families and married daughters belonged to the lineages in which they were married. There is no time and scope here to discuss these practices in full. Suffice it to say that there were different times with different laws.
The points to note in order to understand the parable is that sons had rights, fathers had obligations, and neither were at the complete mercy of the other. The younger of the two sons demanded that his father grant him the one-third that was due to him during his father’s life. The father could have contested this demand, but he did not. He gave the younger son his one-third and the older son his two-thirds. Property, possessions, and wealth gained after that division belonged to the father. The sons could not make any further legal demands. The father was at liberty to do with his property whatever he chose.
What is clearly demonstrated in the parable is the impulsive and impatient choice of the younger son and the permissive will of the father. This is contrary to the common stereotype — fathers being strict, stern, and steadfast in denying children their impulsive and wayward fancies. Real problems arise when children, particularly boys, become young adults. It is felt that rebellious young adults should be put out of the home to make their own way with their own resources. Not in my house, is the refrain associated with this stereotype of fatherhood. Fathers who permit their grown children to have their own way are generally viewed with disapproval. Permissive fathers are usually blamed for the misdeeds of their rebellious children. Jesus, in this parable, presents a contrary scenario of fatherhood.
The Posture of the Father Toward the Prodigal Son who Left
The posture of the father is marked by three distinct elements. First, the father respected the choices of his sons. One left and the other stayed. The freedom to choose is the most quintessential endowment of human beings. Choice is the essence of being human. To choose means to accept something and reject something else. In creating humankind in His own image with freedom of choice, God declared His creation to be very good. God allowed human beings the right to reject Him, and to go their own way if they so choose. In this parable Jesus presents a father who did not trample on the choices of his sons.
The father allowed his rebellious son to go his way but did not run after him. He had received his inheritance, gone his own way, and his father left him alone to have his own experiences and to live as he chose. Note also that the father did not kick out the son who chose to remain even though he too had received his inheritance. This father showed no anger to either son. He did not harass the son that remained with him just because his brother had left.
The father hoped for the repentance of his rebellious son and looked out for his daily return. What is revealed in this element of the father’s posture is his caring, loving, patiently hopeful heart. Despite the son’s rejection, the father maintained goodwill toward him. He loved, cared, hoped, and routinely looked for him to return. This is by far the most difficult element of fatherhood — respecting the choices of your children. Refraining from running after them as you allow them latitude to live their own lives is even more difficult. But patiently remaining hopeful is the most difficult of all. This entails refusing to reject the child who has rejected you. Rejection is one of the most painful experiences in life — it usually causes suffering by the person rejected. Godly and good fathers rejected by their children suffer even more. Some responses to rejection are disappointment, despair, and dejection, especially when it comes to children. But refusing to reject those who have rejected you requires love. Continuing to care and to believe that one day they will reject their folly is the daily test of love, which produces patience. You could almost read the father’s thought each day as he looked and hoped that such a day would come. Jesus in this parable reveals the heart of God, our Father, as He patiently looks and hopes for the return of His wayward children.
The Pleasure of the Father
That day of return did come. Words were superfluous. It was the direction of the walk that truly spoke. When the rebellious son was a long way off, the father saw him coming. The last time the father saw his son he was leaving home. Now he was coming home. The difference in the angle was one hundred and eighty degrees. This is repentance — a change of mind that shows in the direction of the walk. It involves humility, beginning with eating one’s words. Exposure to rejection is a possibility. He who is rejected could also be subject to rejection. The path of repentance requires courage from those who tread on it. Whatever it took, the rebellious son was now walking in the opposite direction — demonstrating that he had changed his mind concerning his father’s house and his rebellious ways. He had returned to his father’s house with a recited speech prepared in advance.
The patient father was impatient of listening to the speech. What he had seen was enough. Pleasure replaced the father’s patient wait. He was ecstatic. The father did not engage in any rebuke. There was no scolding. No lecturing. The father’s response to the son’s return was immediate restoration followed by rejoicing. This took the form of kisses, putting on the best robe on the son, placing a ring on the son’s finger, sandals on his feet, killing the fatted calf and, in Caribbean terms, having a fete. Food, music, and dancing marked the rejoicing. Unlike a Caribbean fete, there was no drinking of the stuff that leaves hangovers. Everyone was sober in their joy. Almost the entire household was involved.
The Pain of the Father Caused by the Prodigal Elder Son Who Stayed
The pleasure and rejoicing of the father because his prodigal younger son had returned was soon shattered by the pain caused by the discovery of the prodigal elder son who had remained at home. The elder son was out in the fields and was therefore unaware of what was taking place at home. Luke 15:25 states when he was near he heard music. This means that he had gone far enough from his father’s house that the sound of music could not be heard. His first reaction was not to go into the house to find out for himself what had the cause of the festivities. Verse 26 shows that his first reaction was to inquire of one of the servants, quite likely a servant with whom he enjoyed fellowship. On learning that his younger brother had returned, his second reaction was anger, followed by refusal to join in the celebrations (Verse 28). This elder adult son was throwing a temper tantrum which lasted long enough to be observed by others, at least one of whom became concerned enough to bring it to the attention of the father. You can hear the whisper to the father. “Your elder son is outside, and he is very vexed”.
Perplexed, the father went out to find out why his elder son had not come in to share in the joy. He had not followed his younger son when he left because he knew exactly why. His younger son had been explicit, transparent, and honest in his youthful rebellion. Clearly, his elder son had not explained why he remained. His silence continued. Nothing in his interaction and fellowship with his father over the ensuing years could readily explain his vexation in this moment of joy. What is revealed is that the elder son had remained but the relationship with his father was superficial and cordial but estranged. He was closer to at least one servant than to his father.
When the father went out, the bile and the bitterness that had built up in the elder son vomited out. Verses 29 and 30 record falsehoods against this father, holier than thou resentment of his younger brother, and the real reason why he had stayed and not left his father’s house. He had not slaved for this father. He continued to live off his father by remaining in his home. He had received his two-thirds of his father’s possessions when his younger brother left. He did not care much about his younger brother’s riotous lifestyle and the fact that he had wasted his inheritance. If he cared he would have gone in search of his brother. His father could not be blamed for the rebellious behavior of his younger brother, nor for the life of debauchery that he had lived in wasting his inheritance. These concoctions of the vomit were the products of his antipathy towards his father and brother. He no longer shared the heart or the values of his father. He was living with his father but was estranged from him.
The key to understanding this vitriol from the elder son is that the reason he was angry that his brother had returned was directly related to the reason he had stayed in his father’s house. He had stayed for what he could get, in addition to his inheritance by right. Now that his brother had returned he feared that his father would share the wealth that was his father’s right to give as he chose. This was the wealth that his father had accumulated after dividing his inheritance between his two sons.
This often happens in families and households. Husbands and wives remain in a home or in a relationship not because of love or care but for material benefits as prescribed by law. This loveless, joyless situation is always painful. However, it must be most painful to find that the son or daughter who remains, stays only because of what they expect to get.
The Plea of the Father
Sometimes charges made by children are so incredulous that they arrest thinking and rational argument. What is said is so unbelievable that the mind goes on autopilot. Stunned and shocked by the pain inflicted by his elder son, the father made a spontaneous plea. This was not a plea of guilt. It was not a plea of defense. It was an immediate plea from the heart for truth. It was a plea lovingly made to counter act the venomous falsehoods expressed. It was a plea to lay bare the wrong assumptions and unfounded fears that plagued the elder son. It was a plea in two parts.
First, all that I have is thine. It is all yours. I am going to give to you anyway, even after all that you have just said. You need not fear your brother’s return. You may have stayed for what you could get, but I intended to give it to you because I was comforted by your presence. All this venom, resentment, and ill will is totally unnecessary. There are times when children say all kinds of unfounded and hurtful things to their fathers. The godly father needs to look past them and still love them. They speak impulsively out of the narrow understanding of life, with limited experience, and even less wisdom. Godly fathers need to respond with grace and in love, even if in tears.
Second, it was a plea for unity in the family. Yes, he is my son, but he is also your brother. You need to treat him as such while I am still alive and even after I am gone. Moreover, you are the elder brother. Your brother was lost but now he is found. He was dead but is now alive. What is there not to forgive? He has come home in penitence, embrace him.
Jesus ends the parable there. He does not tell us how the elder son chose to respond to the plea of his father or what he did. In the circumstances it would be folly to attempt to speculate.
The Power of Children’s Choice and the Obligations of Godly Fathers
One of the most difficult truths for fathers to fully grasp and act upon appropriately is that they do not own their children. Children are not property. Children are people. They belong to themselves alone. They are the responsibilities of guardianships given by God to parents until they come to maturity. Parents and children are individually, independently, and equally accountable to God. When we say “my child or my children” this must be said and understood with caveats. However, scripture gives guidance with respect to the bringing up and the guardianship of children.
Proverbs 22:6 states: “Train up the child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”. The word translated as “train” is chanak which means to give to be tasted; to put something in the mouth. That is to initiate the child in the way that they should live; to instruct the child to love God, to pray, to be truthful, to be honest, to show mercy, be humble, be peaceful, be kind, exercise faith, to hope, and to be just in their dealings.
Ephesians 6:4 states: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord”. That is to say, do not humiliate them or brutalize them — instead set standards and boundaries for which fathers should be exemplars. This is not meant to exclude mothers but simply to highlight fathers.
Finally, the outcome is not automatic. Children are human beings, made in the image of God, they have the power of choice. This is at the core of the Parable of the Prodigal Sons.
The Prayer of Godly Fathers to Father God
One of the most sobering experiences of my life occurred when my two sons were about four and two years old respectively. They were with me on the front porch of our house. I was standing there looking out on the road. They stood beside me. I became aware that they were standing in the same posture as I was. To make sure of what I was seeing, I changed the position of my legs. Casting my eyes down and not saying anything, I saw that they had changed the positions of their legs to match mine. I changed again. They did the same. Then it struck me like a thunderbolt. These two little boys were watching me and doing what I did. The impact of that realization was profound and humbling. That day began my conscious journey of what it means to be a father.
Every father needs to rely on our Father God to be godly. This is best captured by Lina Sandell in her Hymn:
Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find, to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He Whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best —
Lovingly, it’s part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
Every day, the Lord Himself is near me
With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear, and cheer me,
He Whose Name is Counselor and Pow’r.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”
This the pledge to me He made.
Help me then in every tribulation
So to trust Thy promises, O Lord,
That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation
Offered me within Thy holy Word.
Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,
E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,
One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,
Till I reach the Promised Land.