[Preached at Waverley Christian Fellowship, Melbourne, Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd September, 2000].
Bible reading: Luke 15:11-32
Happy Father’s Day. Which Dads have brought something to church which you received for Father’s Day – something you’re wearing, a new Bible, a toy :-)???
For many of you Fathers’ Day is not easy. Some of you had bad relationships with your fathers. A few of you may not have known your Dad – even if you lived with him. I didn’t know my father, even though we lived in the same home for 20 years. For some of you this is a good day, with warm memories. If this is a _statistically_ average group, only 2-3 men out of a hundred, when teenagers, spent more quality time with your fathers than with your mothers. We are a generation of under-fathered sons.
And for those who had abusive or violent fathers, God-as-father is a problematical concept. When I was in New York a Presbyterian pastor told me they had to change the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the fathers were cruel or absent, and the person who reminded them most of a loving God was their grandmothers. So the prayer said: God in heaven, who is loving like a grandmother…’
Being a Dad isn’t easy these days. But being a Mum isn’t easy either. Being a kid isn’t easy – or a teenager, or married, or single, or being middle-aged, or a senior… Life _is_ difficult!
We have had four children, all now adult. They were great kids. I rarely had to tell any of them twice to do or not do something. But two of them (the younger two) are ‘in the faith’. I don’t know about the older two. [We’ll talk more about that next Saturday at the Parenting Seminar].
Are Dads necessary? Some in the context of the current IVF debate don’t think so.
But the facts are in: there’s a wall-full of books from researchers and the Men’s Movement about ‘Absent Fathers Lost Sons/Daughters’. Where fathers are emotionally disengaged from their kids those children feel a deep emptiness within. And where Dads are cruel or abusive, the damage in the victim’s lives is awful!
One of the offerings we at John Mark Ministries make is a ‘whole of life review’ over one or two days. I remember a model coming for a retreat: she was well-off financially, athletic, with healthy kids, and everything you would think would be needed for a satisfying life. But she was unhappy. ‘Why are you here?’ I asked her. ‘To rent a Dad,’ she replied through her tears. Another woman – a pastor’s wife – felt her Dad didn’t really love her. Following her retreat we decided to get them together. I listened, I hope sensitively, to his story, while she sat in another room. Then I brought them together, and ‘chaired a discussion’ between the two of them. It was frank, and loving: very special. Suddenly he got up and put his arms around his grown-up daughter… at that point I left the room so that they could be together.
The story of the Prodigal Son (or, as the real hero is the Dad, probably it should be called the Parable of the Waiting Father, as Helmut Thielicke suggests; perhaps even better: The Parable of the Two Sons) is the ‘greatest short story ever told’ (and re-told).
Every person on this planet has to come to terms with four relationships – self, things, others, and God. This story is about all four. A kid comes to his father, and says, in effect, ‘I wish you were dead, and this was the day after your funeral. Give me the one-third of your property that’s coming to me anyway! Sell a piece of the promised land that you’ve inherited from our forefathers. I want it. I can’t find happiness relating to the people around here. Only money will make me happy.’
Now that father sold the land, which you weren’t supposed to do for a reason like this. In that part of the world you could be ostracised or even stoned for that.
I don’t know what you think about the father’s decision: was it wise? We had to face a similarly agonizing decision with our seventeen-year-old son. He wanted to rent a place and live with his mates: would we go guarantor for him? What would you do? We remembered that we left home about that age to go away and study… so we said yes. It was a growing experience for him. But recently, over 20 years later he said to us: ‘Why did you let me do that?’ Who said parenting was simple?. Anyway, this father decided his son could learn some useful lessons out of this so he sold off part of his farm or whatever, and gave him the money.
And later, I can imagine the neighbour to whom he sold the land leaning on the stone fence dividing their two properties: ‘I heard about that kid of yours. Partying every night in the city’s redlight district. Everyone’s talking about it, old fella. You must be feeling pretty ashamed of that no-hoper you’ve brought into the world’ And the old man would walk away sadly and wonder where he’d gone wrong…
The boy learned some hard lessons in the far country. When you’ve got some money don’t trust those who call you ‘friend’. Jewish law prohibited contact with pigs, let alone being a keeper of pigs. The husks he felt like eating were the fruit of the carob tree, used for animal fodder – an awful taste, but sometimes eaten by the very poor (something like the stories you hear of destitute people in our country eating from cans of pet food). Carob is now an alternative to chocolate isn’t it? (I think I tasted it once! 🙂
But in the pigpen the young man ‘came to himself’ (it’s the term in Greek for emerging from a coma). He put a speech together, offering to become a ‘hired servant’. All over the developing world today you can see these people along the sides of the road waiting for someone to hire them and give them work. In Jesus’ day they earned a denarius for a day’s work – just enough to feed a small family for one day. It was a precarious existence (still is).
But the father was out there looking for him. In an ancient middle eastern community the houses are in the centre, the market place and other buildings around them, then a wall, then the open fields. Every day the father would go out into the fields to look for his boy, maybe to escort him past the jeering mob to the safety of his home. The day he saw him, he ran towards him. (Old men in that culture did not run: it was beneath their dignity.)
The boy had his speech ready, but the father wasn’t listening. Before the boy could say anything the father threw his arms around him, and kissed him. The father wasn’t so much interested in _why_ he came back but _that_ he came back.
One of the key teachings of Jesus was that acceptance precedes repentance. Acceptance in this case came before confession. As the old saying has it: ‘Those who are seeking God have already been found by him.’ One of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian gospel is that God loves you before you change, as you change, or whether you change or not. Do you believe that?
By the way, I’m glad the boy met the father before he met his older brother, eh?
Dad called for the ring, the robe – perhaps the one the boy once wore – the fatted calf and the shoes. Shoes are for sons (servants or slaves often did not wear shoes).
THE CLUES TO THE STORY
are at the beginning of the chapter – and the beginning of the parable. Jesus was hanging around with the riff-raff, the winos and the druggies; and the self-righteous Pharisees and religious people didn’t like it. There are two groups of people in the world: those who are sinners and who know it, and those who are sinners and don’t know it, or don’t want to know it. So Jesus told a story about certain man who had _two_ sons. Actually, they were both lost: the main difference was that the younger one externalized his alienation and figured geography would fix his identity crisis. The elder one was also alienated, but internalized his rage and stayed at home, and would have been a pretty miserable character to live with. Whenever his father gave him a hug he’d stiffen up and be unresponsive. We learn about the kid brother’s sins only from the elder brother: he describes him as ‘your son’, not ‘my brother’.
These two brothers are like us: sometimes we blame others, like the elder brother, but then sometimes we take responsibility for our actions, as the younger brother did. These are the two basic attitudes to life: blaming and repenting. When Dads blame they might say ‘Oh, the kids these days…’ As I said, blaming is the opposite of repenting. When you blame, you offload responsibility to others, or the situation, or the kids’ friends, or their teachers, or school, or TV, or the church… Now our society is on a downward spiral morally. Anything you can imagine is on the Internet, for example. I’m reviewing a so-called ‘Christian’ website at the moment that says sex with anyone, anytime, with multiple partners, is O.K. so long as you’re not abusing anyone and they’re all consenting. Yes, there are big pressures on our kids to wander from the straight and narrow path. But Dad, you are nevertheless invited to accept responsibility for the outcomes of your fathering…
Now I know it’s not kosher to criticize the father in our story, but I’ve wondered sometimes why he hadn’t thrown a party for the eldest son? Didn’t that boy have birthdays? And was his preoccupation with building up the business to the detriment of the quality time he should have spent with these boys?
When you take responsibility for failing as a Dad there are some things you’ve got to remember:  You can’t change the past, but you ask forgiveness for the past, and move on;  you don’t have to carry destructive guilt about the past: that will kill you; but you’d better know the difference between good guilt and bad guilt;  you can do what you can to heal relationships in the present.
SO WHY ARE DADS IMPORTANT?
[Next Saturday at the Parenting Seminar here we’ll expand on all this]. For one thing they fill young teenagers’ emotional tanks – both boys and girls. I remember reading the splendid book by Ross Campbell, ‘How to Really Love Your Teenager’ (it’s still in print). I read that between the two sets of children we had. It helped to change a lot of my perceptions of the importance of fathering. And it made a significant difference.
I remember my father once taking us three boys for a walk through the National Park south of Sydney. I looked at him and thought, as a ten-or-eleven-year-old, that he was about the most handsome man I knew. But we only went for one of those walks. When I had a ten-year-old son I took him to the same park to camp overnight. But we only did that once! You’d think I’d have learned! Was it a Chinese sage who said ‘The wise person learns from others’ mistakes before they make their own’? In Korea, in 1978, I spent a lonely night praying in a chapel and with deep grief confessing my failures as a father: particularly with our two eldest children. That was 22 years ago, and the work is still being done to try to heal the hurts in those relationships.
When I was in the Philippines, in 1970 (conducting an evangelistic week in the area where hostages are currently being held) I heard a story about a boy who left his family farm to ‘get rich’ in Manila. It didn’t happen, of course, so he sent a message to his folks that even though he’d let them down (they really needed his help on the farm) and he’d understand if they didn’t want him back, he’d like to come home. If they wanted him, put something white in the tree at the front of their home. When his jeepney rounded the last corner there he saw the whole tree covered in white – white underwear, sheets – anything they could find or borrow that was white! Of course there was a party: the Filipinos know how to throw a party!
Today, there might be a party in heaven over prodigal sons and daughters and fathers and mothers coming come – to be forgiven, and restored to the family. Well…?
CONCLUSION: Dads, Grandfathers, Dads-to-be: would you like to stand and I’d like to pray for us.
Lord, bless these men: some of them delight in their fathering; for others it’s hard, perhaps very hard, and they’re wounded. Hear our confession of sin, of failure, of ignorance. Help us – all of us – to forgive our own fathers for their faults and failings. But Lord, we are not responsible for them, but for ourselves. Help these Dads to love their children’s mother. May they be good priests in their homes, leading their children to a living faith in the living God. And when the Great Day comes and we stand before you, our king and our judge, may we hear you say, ‘Well done, good and faithful father. Your children have delighted in you and you are eternally blessed.’ Amen.