By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dick Van Dyke tells the stories of how children act toward their father when they are angry. In his book Faith, Hope and Hilarity he tells of a boy who had been spanked by his father for making too much noise. The boy climbed into his mother's lap and said, "Mama I wish you had married Jesus. He loves little children." Another little boy who had been punished for misbehaving carefully left his father out of the lineup when he said his prayers. When he finished he said to his dad, "I suppose you noticed you wasn't in it."
It is not easy to be a good father, for even when you do the right thing you are not necessarily rewarded for it. This is so clearly portrayed by Jesus in the story of the Prodigal Son. The poor father could not seem to win. He had two boys each of which was worse than the other in different ways. The younger son was a liberal rascal who cared only for his own pleasure. He went off and wasted his inheritance on wine, women, and song. He brought disgrace to the family name, and he was an embarrassment to dad. His older son was a self-centered conservative. He was a workaholic who devoted his life to the farm, but never learned how to enjoy life, and have some fun once in a while. He resisted those who did, and so he was also an embarrassment to his father.
Two boys from the same father, and we can assume from the same mother, and they are as opposite as day and night. They are both extremists at opposite ends. You have the open minded liberal and the narrow minded conservative. Poor dad has to cope with this pathetic pair of sorry siblings. This parable, and the whole of the Bible, and life in general make our first point clear.
I. IT IS A HARD JOB TO BE A FATHER.
If you have any doubts about it, just ask God. He has had the hardest time of any father on record trying to raise a decent family. His chosen people were often more rotten than the pagan kids next door. A major portion of the Old Testament deals with God's grief, and His judgment on His own children because of their folly and rebellion. Many a father as a child who is just like the kids he doesn't want them to play with. God had this very problem, and this confirms the message that Dr. Dobson is continuing proclaiming to Christian parents. You can do everything right to the best of your ability, and pray, and teach wisely, and still have a child grow up and be a rebel. He is constantly dealing with godly Christians who have an ungodly child. They are devastated by it, and they are filled with guilt because they wonder where they failed.
Dobson says this is nonsense. You just as well blame God for all the rotten things His children do, as to blame yourself for what your children choose to do. God does what a father ought to do. He gives love, guidance, and instruction for life through His Word, and still those with all of His provision choose to go after idols, and follow the path of sinful folly.
The father of the Prodigal and the elder brother is portrayed by Jesus as an ideal loving father. Yet neither of his boys took after him. They were defective specimens of humanity. If you think there is a magic formula that will always produce and ideal child, you are blind to reality, for neither God nor man has ever found such a formula. The Bible reveals children who have an awful background and home life grow up to be impressive godly people. Then there are those who have the ideal environment who grow up to be scoundrels. This is not to lead us to conclude that it does not matter what you do, for it does. The majority of good and godly people had fathers who were good and godly. The majority of bad kids had bad fathers. It matters very much the kind of dad you are, for this will impact your kids for life.
My point is that every child has freedom of choice, and the best parents can have children who choose to be prodigals. The best of parents can have the worse of kids, just like the father of these two boys in our text. Chuck Swindoll in his book Simple Faith tells the true story of Robert Robinson. As a young boy he heard the great evangelist George Whitefield in London. He was converted and felt a powerful call to the ministry. At age 25 he became the pastor of the Baptist Church in Cambridge. He was so successful that it went to his head, and he became a carnal child of God. He published several volumes of his sermons, and a couple of hymns. One of them many of us have sung often: "Come, thou fount of every blessing, turn my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise." His song lived on even though he faded from the scene because of his bad choices.
Swindoll tells of an incident in his life that others doubt ever really happened, but has become a part of his history. Robinson was on a stagecoach, and he was sitting by a woman reading a book. She was so blessed by her reading that she had to share it. She pointed to this hymn that he had written, and asked him what he thought of it. He was overcome with emotion and burst into tears and said, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then." Here was a prodigal child of God who made choices that lead him to be an embarrassment to his heavenly Father. History is loaded with children of God who are rebels in the family of God.
Why is it so hard to succeed, even for a perfect and ideal father? Because it is a hard job to be a father. The mother has all the advantages. She has carried the child for 9 months, and then she gives birth to the child. There is a built in intimacy of mother and child that a father can never have. He has one strike against him before the game of parenting even begins. The second strike is that men are more self-centered by nature just because they do not have the gift of intimacy that mothers have. This leads them to have a tendency to give their children a self-centered perspective.
Randy Lindsey tells of the little boy who was late for Sunday School. The teacher asked him why he was late and he said, "I was going to go fishing but my daddy wouldn't let me." "Good for him," she said, "And did he tell you why you couldn't go fishing on Sunday?" He responded, "Yes he did. He said there wasn't enough bait for both of us." This may be an extreme case, but the fact is, fathers struggle with intimacy. Four year old daughter demanded that her father read her the story of baby Moses night after night, and finally he decided to tape record the story. When she asked to hear it he just switched on the recorder. That was fine for two nights, but then she came to dad again and pushed the book at him. "Now honey," he said, "You know how to turn on the recorder." "Yes," she replied, "But I can't sit on its lap."
Children crave intimacy, and fathers seek to escape it. It is easy to do what you like, and dads tend to watch TV, putter in the garage, or play sports. These are fun and easy, and they call for no intimacy. Men do not enjoy intimacy like women do. They can't get enough of it, and men cannot escape it enough. What wives and kids most want from a father is what is least wanting to give, and that is why it is so hard to be a father.
Lewis Smedes in his book caring and commitment says his studies reveal most fathers have a feeling of failure about raising their children. They know they lose their temper more than they ought to, and they know they avoid intimacy and getting close, and they know they try buy things to take the place of this closeness. It is just plain hard to be a dad, and there is no escape like there is for other relationships. You can just walk away from a friend. You can cease to be a husband or wife. But you cannot stop being a parent. Even if you abandon your child you cannot make them a non-child. Once you have a child you don't have to say that you will be their parent until death parts you. There is no other option. They are your children till death. It is one of the most permanent relationships of life.
You can be a wonderful parent, a poor parent, or a mediocre parent, but you cannot be a non-parent once you are one. There is no place to go to resign. Once a parent always a parent. We don't know the rest of the story of the Prodigal Son. For all we know he became a burden to dad and did not do his share of the work on the farm. He may have started to stay in bed until noon. We cannot assume that he became an ideal man. The point of the parable is that he was forgiven and restored to the family. What fights this led to between the two brothers we do not know. We can guess, however, that dad's job was far from done, and that after the party he still had a hard job of keeping the peace, and of helping his boys become mature citizens of the land, and of the kingdom of God.
Being a father is hard job, and one welcome home party does not mean he can retire and take it easy. Good and positive events in life are important, but they are only steps on which we climb to greater heights. They do not end the difficulty of being a father. They just give you a breather so you are ready for the next round.
The Gospels reveal three fathers who came to Jesus on behalf of their children. The nobleman whose son was sick unto death, and Jesus said, "Go thy way, thy son lives." Then there was the father with the demon possessed boy that the disciples could not help. Jesus delivered the boy from bondage. Third was Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter died before Jesus got there, but when He did He raised her up. These three fathers had come to the end of their resources. They faced a problem so hard they could not solve it, but they had the wisdom to go to Jesus, and because of that wise choice they were able to do a heavy work in their child's life. This leads to our second point, for it is a hard job to be a father, but there is also this:
II. IT IS A HEAVENLY JOB TO BE A FATHER.
It is Godlike to be a father, for the authority, control, and power to punish is awesome. But what is most heavenly about being a father is the ability to find the grace, not just to endure bad behavior, but to forgive it, and restore rebel children to your favor.
It is the essence of this parable. The hero is not the Prodigal Son. He did have the good sense to come home when he hit the bottom, and he did have the character to humble himself and admit he had sinned. He is made a hero because he shines along side his older brother, who was also a sinner, but who refused to admit he was an equally displeasing personality. But just because one dirty shirt is not as dirty as another does not make it a thing of beauty. The sons are not the heroes in any way. The father is the hero of the parable. It he had failed to respond in forgiveness to both of his sons, who deserved to be punished, there would be no story to tell.
The bottom line of this parable is a forgiving father. He even forgives the elder brother for being such a self-righteous and spoiled brat. The elder son represents the Jewish leaders who hated the idea of the Gentile dogs being welcomed back into the fold and family of God. The Prodigal was that Gentile rebel who wasted God's riches on the gods of this world that left them bankrupt. Both are forgiven by God and reconciled to Him and one another in Christ. The most heavenly job on earth is being a forgiving father like God is.
Mothers tend to be more forgiving than fathers. Most kids who get booted out of the house and rejected do so by fathers. A father is more likely to reach his limit and breaking point faster than a mother. It takes the grace of God to be able to forgive a rebel child who has wasted your resources and disgraced your name, and in general has been a major pain. It is superficial to assume that every prodigal returning home would be greeted like this one was. The father ran and kissed him, and he ordered a welcome home party all in minutes. Most dads would want a few days or weeks of good clean living before they shelled out any more hard cash for this loser. Let him prove himself, and then maybe we will celebrate. Most fathers would have taken him up on the offer to be just one of the hired men until he demonstrated he had his head on straight.
A small child who was ready to say his prayers said to his father, "You can go now so I can talk to God." The father said, "You can talk to me about it." The boy responded, "No, you'll just scold and scold, but God will forgive and forget about it." It is hard to be heavenly minded and be a forgiving father when you also feel obligated to correct and discipline bad behavior. It takes a Godlike spirit to get this job done. It is heavenly work, and fathers don't always have the spirit it takes to do it. Fathers tend to be preoccupied with the business of life, and they forget that it is their business to develop a relationship with their children. This is hard for the smartest fathers to catch on to.
Harvey Firestone made 5 million dollars in the rubber business when all his competitors lost money. He was a business genius, but the neglect of his sons led one of them, Bud by name, to become a severe alcoholic. Everyone in the company knew about it, and Firestone was torn up, but he didn't know what to do. His son had been through one program after another, and just went right back to the bottle. He finally came into contact with Sam Shoemaker, the famous pastor in Pittsburgh. He led Bud to make a commitment to Jesus Christ. His life was radically changed, and his wife decided to save the marriage that was on the rocks.
Bud's reputation was reversed, and the word was spreading that he was no longer the alcoholic, but a hard working family man. At a dinner at the New York Ritz-Carlton, Henry Ford came up to him and said, "I've been hearing some interesting things about you, young fellow." Bud responded without hesitation. After describing his decision and his new lease on life, he said, "Each day's a fresh start, Mr. Ford. I wasn't much of a Bible reader, but now I find its a great help to read it every morning. I use the Weymouth translation." Ford said he was familiar with that, only the King James version. "I'd be glad to send you a copy." Ford thanked him and added, "Congratulations, Bud. Keep at it."
He did keep at it, and became part of the group who with Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson started the movement called Alcoholics Anonymous. All this took place back in the 1930's. The point is, Firestone had given up on Bud as hopeless, but just like the father of the Prodigal, he forgave him when he changed, and he gave him a major responsibility of building the company in Spain, and he did a great job. This true story ended happily because of a father who was will to do his heavenly job of forgiving and restoring a son who had gone astray.
It is a fathers job to discipline, and dads are usually able to do this well, but dads often lack the compassion to kiss, restore, and celebrate as did the Prodigal's father. Again it is the issue of intimacy. Men find it hard to show compassion and affection. It is an ideal that is hard to attain, for it seems so inconsistent with the role of the master of the law-the one who lays down and enforces the laws of the family. How can he also play the role of the sensitive loving parent who will hug, kiss, and weep as the rebel child repents? This is the kind of role God has to play every time a sinner comes to Him. They have defied His will, and wiped their dirty feet on the pure white holiness of His name, and yet, He has pledged to forgive and welcome with open arms every rebel who will come to Him seeking His grace.
God is able to pull this dual role off well, but men fear being soft and forgiving, for they feel it will damage their reputation as a disciplinarian. Man says, I will stick to the law and let God be the dispenser of grace. But passing the buck just won't do. If dad does not become a channel of grace, he misses out on doing his most heavenly job. Earthly fathers are to reflect the spirit of the heavenly Father. If your child does not see the soft side, the compassion, and love that will forgive and restore to fellowship, they will not see in you the image of God that is expected of fathers.
The father that Jesus exalts in this parable is the very image of God. He relates to both his boys just like God relates to both the Jews and Gentiles. He puts grace above the law every time, and He makes forgiveness and reconciliation His number one priority. It is so easy to fall into the trap of the natural mind which says the real issue is, who is going to pay for the damage of stupid and sinful decisions? Somebody has to pay, and no child of mine, who is a rebel, and who disgraces my name, is going to get a party just for saying they are sorry. He is going to get a taste of the hell that he put me through. This is the legalism of the natural mind. The elder brother, who represents the Jewish view of the Pharisees said that this is the right way to think. Follow the way of the law, and make the scoundrel suffer for his sin.
Jesus says by this story that the goal of God is not to punish, or get even with sinners, but to restore them to fellowship and usefulness in the family. This is to be the attitude of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and every member of the family who want to be a force for God in this world. The goal is always restored relationships. That is what heaven's plan is all about, and that is what every father's plan is to be about. Fathers are God's agents of the law, but they are also God's agents of grace. To be the first, and not the second, is to be one testament shy of a Bible, or shy of God's full revelation. A half of a Bible is not the Bible, and half of a father is not a father. No child has the father he needs unless he has a father who does his heavenly job of forgiving and restoring.
In the final scene of the tragic drama King Oedipus, Sophocles has Polyneices pleading with his father for forgiveness. Like Absolom, the son of David, he rebelled against his father the king, and sought his throne. Now the tables have turned, and his father is again back on the throne, and he is at his mercy. Listen as he pleads,
Compassion limits even the power of God;
So may there be a limit for you, Father!
For all that has gone wrong may still be healed..
Why are you silent? Speak to me father!
Don't turn away from me!
For your own soul's sake, we all implore
And beg you to give up your heavy wrath.
But the anger of Oedipus is to violent, and he cannot escape the bitterness, and so he spits out these last words:
Justice still has a place in the laws of God.
Now go! For I abominate and disown you!
This son goes away condemned by his father's curse, and father and son both die unreconciled. The Bible says this is terrible tragedy and ought never to happen in a world where Christ died for all sin, and so where every sin can be forgiven. To reject it is to reject the cross, and make life a tragedy rather than the comedy it is meant to be, with a happy ending for all who love the Lord of life.
God is patient and long suffering, and seldom is in a hurry. There is only one time when God is anxious to move fast, and that is when a repentant child is coming for forgiveness. We notice that the father ran to his son. He did not walk, or merely wait for his son to come to him. He ran, and this represents the heavenly job of God's quick response to forgive his erring child. It is a hard job, but also a heavenly job to be a father. To be a defender of the law, and also a dispenser of love takes the grace of God. Nobody needs to be more of a growing Christian than a father.