by Rev Jonathan Gale
7th September, 2014
Luke 15: 11 – 32
The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Well, it’s Father’s Day. I have often asked myself what it is that makes for a good father. I’ve come up with the usual good things and there are many of them. But I do believe there is one critical characteristic of good fatherhood: and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it is so or not as we go along.
If you’ve been attending the Wed night services in the hall you might remember the story of the young boy who grew up on a farm and who just loathed having to use the dunny or long-drop outdoor toilet. It was cold in winter, hot in summer and stank all year round.
This particular long-drop was perched precariously on the bank of a stream and he longed to push it into the water below.
One day he found a large stick and wedged it up against the outhouse door, and giving a mighty shove, toppled the whole structure into the river.
That evening his father told him he wanted to see him in the barn. He knew this normally meant a hiding and of course he guessed what it would be about, so he hatched a plan.
As his father walked into the barn he said, “Dad, you know the story of George Washington? Well he chopped down a cherry tree and because he told the truth and admitted it was him, he wasn’t punished.”
“The difference,” said his father, “Was that George Washington’s father was not sitting in the tree when he chopped it down!”
Father-son, and for that matter, father-daughter relationships are not perfect.
When Charmaine asked me to speak about myself as a father I could tell right off that she assumed I had been a good father. I’m not sure that’s always true so I thought I’d speak about being a son instead – hence the picture of me, my father and grandfather. In fact it would be easy to talk about my father as I did so in June at his funeral. He was on my mind a lot.
But then I realised that the Gospel reading for today, the story of the Prodigal Son, actually better suited a talk about being a father mainly because when you look carefully at the passage, the father in the story has a few faults of his own. I could associate with that.
I was far from being a perfect father when the children were younger. My son’s earliest memory is of me reversing over his little plastic bike. I’m just glad I didn’t reverse overhim but of course that’s not what was on his mind. I had no idea it had happened and I just drove off to work in a hurry to his 3 year old sorrow at the state of his precious toy.
I also spent a lot of time away from home as a subject advisor until he was 3 and a bit and soon after discovered mountain biking and spent many a weekend away from home, but thankfully that didn’t seem to bother him.
When he was 4 or 5 I nearly got both of us killed in a cliff-face adventure. Our survival says more about him than me. When you’re both clinging to the edge of a precipice and your boy starts shaking, his nose bleeding and he says, “Daddy, I’m going to die” you know you’ve been stupid!
But I think – in line with the Prodigal Son’s father – I had one redeeming feature. I txted my son on Wednesday and asked him whether he thought I’d been a good father and these were some of his reasons why he thought so: “Spending time playing games with me when Lu was born. Ridiculously long, death-defying walks [we all know what he’s referring to there!]; encouragement; teaching me to body surf; but probably the main one though was letting me know I had your unconditional love and that you were proud of me.”
In that little phrase “unconditional love” lies an entire lifestyle. Praying together, reading bible stories together, going to church together regularly, championing God in conversation, loving my wife – in short – being a Christian and trusting God!
I think the Prodigal Son and his grumpy older brother had two things going for them: a father that loved God and a father that loved them. My son mentioned a few things we’d done together, but undergirding it all is unconditional love – and here’s the thing – I don’t believe that is possible without a love for God.
You see I don’t think I’ve been an excellent father, but I have loved God. I’ve loved God passionately and that has probably enabled me to communicate unconditional love to both my son and daughter. And I’m not talking here about being a religious nut. We’ve all come across those and wanted to run a mile. I’m talking about a genuine love for God.
The father in our Gospel story would not have been able to deal so compassionately with both his very different sons if he had not been a man of faith.
But here’s the secret. Any genuine love can only come into existence and remain in force in response to the knowledge that we in turn are loved. This is the secret to loving God: knowing and meditating upon the fact that God is a loving God who profoundly loves us.
A passionate love where God is not in the picture will be vulnerable to becoming misshapen, to quickly reaching the end of its resourcefulness; to selfishness, in a word.
My daughter’s response to the question “Was I good a father and if so how?” seems completely to have left out those difficult teenage years which is a relief!
I want to end with an incident in our relationship that goes to show that making an effort as a father is not all hard work and no reward, and that praying together with your children is probably the most important and rewarding thing you can do.
When my daughter was 2 years old I used to read her a story, say prayers and put her to bed each night of the week as Faith ran a night school for adult learners and so was away at work in the evenings. I don’t remember what the issue was but I was going through a tough time of sorts, probably to do with work. Of course I’d not said anything to my daughter but somehow the knowing little soul knew I needed comfort and she popped out with a little song for me one evening and it went like this:
The stars in the bright sky flash like a little brave fish
In the dark world, in the dark world
Go like a little brave fish.
The song stopped suddenly, she looked at me and gave me a hug. Somehow she knew I needed courage to face whatever it was I was going through at the time and to go like a little brave fish in the dark world.
That little song that spontaneously came to the surface was more than evidence of a bond of father-daughter love; it was, I believe, evidence of an early awareness of the way God loves: unconditionally and compassionately. When we’re open to God, we’re open to other people’s needs.
The father of the Prodigal Son showed just this kind of sensitivity. Vs 20 tells us But while he [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Something told this man his son was in need and on the way home. While he was still far off, his father saw him.
Praying with my daughter had sensitised her to my needs. She was able to love me with a selfless compassion beyond her years because she had experience of God’s love in prayer. The Prodigal son’s father has a similar sensitivity. It is the one critical characteristic of fatherhood: unconditional love.
And it is so because that’s how God loves us
God bless you!