Though sceptical of his teenage son’s newfound determination to build muscles, one father followed his teenager to the store’s weight–lifting department, where they admired a set of weights.
“Please, Dad,” pleaded the teen, “I promise I’ll use ’em every day.”
“I don’t know, son. It’s really a commitment on your part,” the father said.
“They’re not cheap,” the father said.
“I’ll use ’em, Dad, I promise. You’ll see.”
Finally won over, the father paid for the equipment and headed for the door. After a few steps, he heard his son behind him say, “What! You mean I have to carry them to the car?”
Whenever we hear a story about a father and their child, we can see ourselves in it in different ways. All of us have fathers, though they may have been absent to a greater or lesser extent. Some of us still live with our fathers, some of our fathers have died. Some of us are fathers of various vintages. All of these life circumstances affect the way that we hear a story about fatherhood.
I think that this is true when we read about fathers in the Bible as well. This afternoon we’ve heard one of the more famous stories Jesus told, one about two sons and a father. We often look at this story from the perspective of the sons, but today I’d like to encourage us to think about what the father does in the story. It seems to me that the father’s actions in this story might show us something about God, and by comparing them to our own experience of fatherhood we might see some things that we might need to do in response.
So what is the first thing that the father did in the story?
His younger son had come up to him and asked him for his inheritance early, effectively telling his Dad that he wished he were dead. The father would have been well within his rights to give the boy a clip round the ear and tell him that it wasn’t happening. But that is not what he does.
Despite the pain and the dishonour and the wisdom that knew that this might very well be disastrous for his son, the father gave his son what he asked for. He allowed him to make his own mistakes and to make his own adult decisions. The father gives the son freedom and the space to make a mess of things.
And what happens – he makes a mess of things. All the money goes, wasted, and the son ends up working on a farm, feeding pigs. When he’s finally got to rock bottom, he remembers what his father is like and decides to head home.
What does the father do?
His father saw him
For all that the father allowed his son to go his own way, he didn’t give up on him. He didn’t forget him, he didn’t disown him. On the contrary he kept looking out for him. And when he saw him, what did he do? Did he get on his high horse, and wait for the wretched child to come crawling back and then make him wait and beg for forgiveness? No – he went running to him, threw his arms around him, brushed off the carefully prepared speech the poor lad had been practising all the way home, and ordered a party.
While the shell shocked younger son is enjoying his regained place in the family home, the older son returns from a hard day’s work in the field. He is not impressed and he is angry.
What does the father do now?
His father came out and pleaded with him.
Here we see a different side to the father, here we see him pleading with the older son to come in and join the celebration. It strikes me that this provides a contrast to how he treated the younger son earlier. He didn’t plead with him not to go – he allowed him to make his own mistakes. Here, he doesn’t let the older son just do what he wants, he tries to change his mind.
It doesn’t seem to me that there is much difference in the wrongs that the two boys are doing. They are both being selfish, both threatening the harmony of family life, both disrespecting their father. But somehow, the father knows that one of them needed to be let go and the other needs to be brought up short.
In this story we see the father letting go, welcoming home, and correcting. What does this show us about what God is like as a Father?
It seems to me that the first and last things go together.
From the first thing that we see the father in the story doing, we are shown that sometimes God as our Father, gives us freedom to make decisions that might not turn out well for us. God knows that sometimes the only way for us to learn is to get things wrong and discover the consequences for ourselves.
On the other hand, sometimes God brings us up short, corrects us, challenges us. Elsewhere in the Bible, in the book of Hebrews, it says,
‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.’
One of the things I find most difficult about being a father is getting the balance between freedom and discipline right. When is the right time to allow my kids to make their own mistakes, to discover things by failing, to risk being hurt. When is the right time to exert discipline and correct them, to try and head off their intentions. I wonder what your father was like on this one. If you’re a father, how do you make judgements about this.
What I do know is that God is the perfect Father. He always makes the decision that is best for us. He knows when to let us go and when to hold us. As God does this, he also models it for us so that we can make good decisions as well. When we need wisdom he invites us to ask for it, and promises to give it to us.
Because this is how God treats us it means that if our lives are in a mess, or we are going through a painful time there are a couple of questions that it is worth asking ourselves. Firstly, is this the consequence of a decision that we made that has taken us away from home, that God has allowed us to take? Secondly, is this God disciplining us and preventing us from doing something that would be wrong? There are other options as well, not all of our difficulties and painful times are due to things we have done wrong, or are about to do wrong, but these are options that we need to be open to.
The great news is that if either of those things are true, then the second thing that the father did gives us hope and a future.
What was it? The father welcomed the son home and threw a party.
This father is open handed, forgiving and generous. This is what God our Father is like, always more ready to welcome and to party than we are ready to return home and join the celebration. God created us, and is our Father. It breaks his heart when we decide not to live as part of the family, but waste the good things he has given us. He wants us home, to enjoy the blessings of living as one of the family, and the invitation is there for each one of us. It may be that you have never said to God that you’re sorry for leaving him, and that you want to be part of his family, to be his son or daughter. If that is you, and you want to be part of the family, then do not leave here today without telling him so. You might want to ask someone to pray with you as you make that decision.
I am really grateful to God for an earthly father who loves me and brought me up to know my heavenly Father. Any other inheritance I receive from him will fade in time, but the faith he has passed on to me will never fail, and will have an eternal impact. I know that many people do not have that positive relationship with their earthly father, so I am also thankful that we all have a heavenly Father who does not let us down, who watches for us, so that he can run to welcome us, heal us, and throw a party that will last for ever.