THE PRODIGAL'S FATHER
By Pastor Glenn Pease
We live in the age of the marvelous machine. In Washington D. C. the traffic for a half mile around the White House is controlled by a computer system. The system is constantly telling the lights when to change to move the traffic according to the need. 450 buses have a transmitter which is linked to the master computer, and if the driver needs to set up a serious of green lights to keep moving on schedule he can tell the computer what he needs. If the computer decides it is a justified request, he will get his green lights. If the request will only create problems for others he will be denied.
The machine makes the decisions and this is great, for no man can know enough to know what the best decision is. The machine is taking over more and more of man's life. A machine wakes us up in the morning; a machine makes our breakfast; a machine takes us to work where we spend the day working on or with a machine, after which we reverse the process to get back home where we spend the evening being entertained by a machine. We live in a mechanical monarchy where the machine is king. This is certainly not all bad, and we cannot be anti-machine, for God is the creator of the most marvelous machine of all-the entire physical universe. The problem comes when we get so enamored with the machine that we forget our Father in heaven, and begin to worship the creation rather than the Creator.
Dr. Ron Doly, a family life specialist, asked 50 thousand children to choose between their TV set and their father. Fully half of them chose the machine rather than the person. Fathers play second fiddle, not only to mother, but to machines. This role of second fiddle is not new. The Prodigal Son chose living with dad as the last choice. His first preference was for the far country, and the pigpen was his second choice. Only in desperation did he go home to dad. The elder brother didn't mind living with dad, but he sure didn't want to cooperate with his father's value system by welcoming his brother home. Here is one of the best fathers in the Bible, and he can't get first place in the hearts of his children even without the competition of machines.
Fathers need encouragement for their egos, but there are not a lot of resources devoted to this goal. Even Paul says in Eph. 6:4, "Fathers do not provoke your children to anger." In Col. 3:21 he writes, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children that they may not lose heart." But who is telling the children not to provoke their fathers to anger, and exasperating them so they lose heart? Most of the literature is either degrading, or else it puts such a burden of responsibility on fathers that it leads to despair.
Sam Levenson is saying it as a joke, but the only reason its funny is because it is so often true. He said, "When I was a boy I had to do what my father wanted. Now I have a boy and I have to do what he wants. My problem is when do I ever get to do what I want?" Fathers react in frustration and go to one extreme or another. They escape by just letting their children do as the please and give very little guidance, or they try to demand total conformity to their will regardless of how unfair and unreasonable it is. Both extremes lead to the same reaction. Children come to feel that their fathers do not care. They don't care and so they let us do anything, or they don't care so they won't let us do anything. In the book of children's letters to God one little girl wrote, "Dear God, my father said kids is the best time in life. Please tell him what good is it if we never get to stay up and watch anything."
Society blames fathers for not being strict enough, and the kids blame fathers for being too strict. One boy said, "When my dad says he wants me to have everything he didn't have when he was a kid-he means A's in school." Fathers are the scapegoat of our cultural desire to find blame for the mess the world is in. Fathers need some encouragement. There are two things I see in the parable of the Prodigal that can be an encouragement to fathers, for these two things make it clear that fatherhood is hard, but that there is hope. The two things I see here are the intricacy and the intimacy of fatherhood. Let's look first at-
I. THE INTRICACY OF FATHERHOOD.
By intricacy I mean what Webster's Dictionary defines it to be, "The entangled, the involved, the complicated and difficult." Other words used are disordered and chaotic. It is the opposite of orderly, easy, and regulated. The complexity of fatherhood is all too real, and that is why most fathers would rather just give up then try to figure out how to do it right. It is easy to father children, but it is so hard to be a father to the children you so easily father. Alvin Schwartz said, "..paternity is a career imposed on you one fine morning without any inquiry as to your fitness for it. That is why there are so many fathers who have children, but so few children who have fathers."
The Bible does not make this intricate and complex role easier by examples of perfect fatherhood, or by any foolproof guidelines for success. The New Testament is almost void of examples. None of the Apostles are revealed as being wonderful fathers. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus died when he was young, and we get no clues as to what kind of a father he was. The father of the Prodigal is probably the best father on record in the New Testament. But he had both hands full with his two boys. If you are looking for hints on problem free fathering, you can skip him. He represents God, and yet he cannot get his two sons to love each other and follow the values that he taught them from childhood. The one he thought was the best of the lot turns out to be a real snot in the end. And he wouldn't even come into the house and join him in celebrating his joy over the Prodigal's return.
The lack of ideal fathers and families in the Bible just adds to the complexity of the task. We can certainly identify with the frustration of Virginia Owens who wrote, "This is the year my first child will leave home. Over the past 18 years I have often had cause to lament the fact that Jesus never had any children. The area where I have needed the most guidance and the clearest pattern of behavior has been a great gray mist through which move the bewildering and sometimes contradictory figures of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, David and Absalom. My own mother's favorites were Hannah and Samuel, but then he left home at the relatively uncomplicated age of 3, not 18."
She was right, and almost everyone who had children who grew to adulthood were not able to make them follow the path they desired them to follow. Abraham could not make his two boys Isaac and Ishmael get along. Isaac could not make Jacob and Esau get along. Jacob could not make his sons respect his favorite Joseph, and they sold him into slavery. David could not make his children get along, or to keep his son Absalom from rebelling against him. Judges 18:30-31 tells us that the grandson of Moses became a leader of a cult that practiced idolatry. The fathers of the Bible had all the same problems fathers have today. The loving godly father of the Prodigal could not bring harmony into his home, but had two boy who were both a pain.
His youngest son was not merely going off to college, or to some profession, or to settle down. He was going off to live an irresponsible life wasting his substance in riotous living. What is a father to do with such a rebel? There is no guidance in this parable, for he has to let him go and just hope for the best. Some fathers in this circumstance say, "If you go out that door it will be the last time you ever come back in it." That was a choice the Prodigal's father had, but we get no such words from him. He just let him go. There is no easy answer for fathers in such a situation. It is always wise not to close any door permanently, however. That is not the way God operates, for anyone can turn to God at anytime, and if they repent they are welcome back. This father was a winner in the long run, not because of what he did, but because of what he did not do.
1. He did not disown his son.
2. He did not blame himself and let his business go to seed. He kept his own life running while his son was ruining his.
3. He did not go chasing after the son pleading with him to stay home.
4. He did not try to control his son by withholding his inheritance. He gave him the freedom to learn the hard way.
5. He never gave up hope that his son would return.
6. He did not throw his sons mistakes and folly in his face when he did return home. He did not say, "I told you so."
This is not only hard, it is godlike, and it calls for an intricate weaving of love and patience, understanding and control that can only be possessed by the grace of God. It is extremely hard to be an ideal father. Success in this complex task calls for the best tools. The key tool in this father's success is what we want to focus on as we look at the second point, which is-
II. THE INTIMACY OF FATHERHOOD.
God does not hold back his emotions as a father. He is represented by the prophets as pleading with his children to come back into fellowship with him. He is represented by the Prodigal's father as running after the returning son, falling on his neck, and kissing him. God is a father who is intimate. He is not standoffish and remote, and unable to share his feelings.
Paul Moody, the son of the famous evangelist D. L. Moody, tells of the time he was about ten years old and his father told him to go to bed. He thought he meant after he finished visiting with his friend who was there, and so he remained talking to him. His father came back after awhile and seeing he had not obeyed spoke with harshness that he was to get to bed at once. Paul says he retreated to his room in tears for his father's tone of voice was frightening. But before he fell asleep his father was at his bedside kneeling and asking for forgiveness for the harsh way he had spoken. Tears were falling down over his rugged bearded face. Paul said it happened over half a century ago, but he would not trade if for any memory of his life, for that laid in him the consciousness of the Fatherhood of God, and the love of God. The memory of his father asking for his forgiveness influenced his life profoundly.
Fathers often fear this kind of intimacy where there are tears and forgiveness involved. They think this is weakness, but in reality it is great strength. These are the things that communicate intimacy and bring warmth into relationships. Jesus said that those who have seen him have seen the Father, and what do we see in Jesus? We see him weeping over those who will not come to him, and over the sorrows of life that take loved ones from us. How often do we fathers have the courage to be weak and vulnerable? Not often enough. We take the way of the impersonal macho machine and fail to develop intimacy with our children.
The weaknesses and the idiosyncrasies that our children come to know about us are not the ones we share, but the ones we cannot hide. Like the little boy who was helping his mother serve the apple pie to dad and the dinner guests. He carried the first piece out of the kitchen and handed it to the father who passed it on to the guests. When the boy came in with the next piece, again the father passed it on. The boy said, "Its no use dad, the pieces are all the same size." There is a lot of family history revealed in that little remark. Mothers often defend the fathers right to the largest piece because they consider him the biggest kid in the family. This level of knowing dad has some value, but it is not like hearing him sharing his feelings.
The one thing that really stands out about the father of the Prodigal and the elder son was in his openness in expressing his feelings. He was a father who let his boys know where he was at emotionally. He was easy to read, so there was not a lot of guess work and misunderstanding. He was open and intimate. When the Prodigal came home there was no question about his love and forgiveness, for it was conspicuous. When the elder brother was offended by it all, the father came to him and explained his emotions toward him and his younger brother. There was no psychological game playing going on in that family. That does not mean it was a trouble free family. They had their hands full of problems, but they were not caused by the fathers lack of intimacy and open sharing with his children.
Jesus used one of His favorite words to describe this father. It was the word compassion. Jesus was governed by His compassion. He taught people because He had compassion on them for their ignorance. He healed people because He had compassion when He saw them suffering. He fed people because He had compassion for their hunger. Jesus entered into the feelings of others and their needs, and then He responded to meet those needs. That is what compassion is, and that is the very heart of the ideal father. Letting your children know how one you are with them, for you feel their feelings of hurt and disappointment. They are never alone in their feelings, for they are part of a family where there is intimacy, and their feelings are shared by the father. Someone wrote,
One little word, if softly spoken;
One little tear, if kindly shed-
Can heal the spirit bruised and broken,
And cure the heart that long has bled.
Jesus had no children of His own, but He still reveals the key to ideal fatherhood, and it is intimacy. Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not." Jesus was a busy man and so the disciples decided to protect Him from the children, but Jesus rejected this strategy. The only way to reach children is by means of intimacy, and so Jesus told them to let the children come to Him. He wanted them to be close to Him and feel His love for them. He spent time with children and did not consider it time wasted. He set the example for fathers by saying that time spent with you children is a priority. A survey in Better Homes And Gardens revealed that 86% of teenagers felt that fathers did not spend enough time with their children. It is not Christ-like to ignore intimacy with your children.
If Jesus could give up time in teaching, preaching, and healing to spend time with children then it is a form of idolatry for any father to say he is too busy to spend time with his children. That is exalting your goals and the value of your time above that of Jesus, and such pride can only be labeled as folly. There can be no intimacy without time, and without intimacy no father has done his best. Tim and Beverly LaHaye travel all over the U.S. putting on family life seminars, and what they find is that the average Christian father knows more about fixing his car and getting an underground sprinkler system in his yard then he knows about raising children. The great books on the subject are not read by fathers at all.
Fathers escape from the personal dimension of life into the mechanical, for they feel more comfortable with machines than with people. It is common knowledge that the friendships of males revolve around some object. Men have a great time with each other because of some kind of ball, racket, mallet, or club. They relate to each other by means of things. Women relate to each other more personally by their common interest in babies, children, and other people. The result is that the male has a hard time maintaining his masculine image if he gets too people oriented, and so he has a tendency to leave people to the women. Parenthood is meant to be a partnership, but it is dumped on the mother, and dad misses his chance to give his children his best by the power of intimacy.
The father of the Prodigal and his brother was not an ideal father because he had two of the best boys who ever were. They were both rotten in their own way. He was the ideal father because he practiced this Christ-like principle of intimacy. It is not a foolproof guarantee to produce wonderful children, but it is the best there is to be a good father. Back in the days when Calvin Coolidge was President, the idea of Father's Day was just catching on. He wrote to Harry Meek, the Chicago businessman who was promoting the day, and he said, "Observance of this occasion is calculated to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children, and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations."
What he said is that the purpose of Father's Day is to promote the best idea God has given us that man can discover for the strengthening of families, and that is the intimacy of fatherhood. The sacred and the secular world come together as one on this issue. This is why God became Immanuel-God with us. He became one with us to develop intimacy. He died for us that we might be saved and become His children. The intimacy of fatherhood is a vital part of God's plan, and it must be a part of any father's plan if he hopes to be an ideal father like the father of the Prodigal.