“The younger [son] said to the Father, ‘Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.’ So his father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country…” – Luke 15:12-13
I know that this parable is about the love and mercy of God, but could it also be a lesson about God’s parenting style? Now that I have adult children living at home, I look to the father in this parable in hopes of gleaning some insights as to how my fatherhood can reflect the Fatherhood of God.
Yet when I turn to the parable, I must admit finding the father excessively permissive and somewhat naive. It seems as if he allows himself to be taken advantage of by his younger son. The father here reminds me of the tree in the story The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I always had a problem with that book. The tree was foolish, the boy spoiled and entitled. The tree goes so far as to practically annihilate itself – giving its fruit, its limbs, its trunk, and even its stump to this boy as he grows up – and the boy never once seems grateful or to give a thought to the well-being of the tree. The boy is all wrapped up in himself and what he wants, and just takes and takes and takes. And when he keeps coming back for more, the tree keeps letting him come back and, without condition, keeps giving. A story that was supposed to be about love appeared to me to encourage injustice and to promote a warped idea of love: “Love means letting yourself be used.”
And so, I understand the protests of the older son. He may have been resentful and wrapped up in himself as well, but he was powerfully struck by the injustice of it all. You can almost detect in his tone a stroke of contempt for his father’s foolishness and for his spoiled younger brother’s disrespect. (Incidentally, to Jesus’ audience the father’s “prodigality” and seeming foolishness would have been the disorienting and surprising component of this parable, especially given that, in any historical context let alone in ancient Israel, what the younger son’s request indicates is the extreme disrespect of wishing his father dead and would have typically been returned with corporal punishment and disinheritance.)
But could it be that both I and the older son have it wrong? Might we have misjudged the method to what seems like the sheer madness of the father? Perhaps the first mercy of the father was letting his son leave home. Perhaps loving means letting go. Continue reading