I love stories, and one of my favorites is the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke Chapter 15 of the Bible. I’ve read this story dozens of times, but recently, I reread it for the first time since becoming a father myself. If you’re not familiar with it, give it a quick read:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[b] 22 But the father said to his servants,[c] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Typically, this story is known for the first two thirds: a man has two sons; the younger, immature son takes his inheritance, squanders it, comes crawling back to dad, and is forgiven. But if we keep reading, I think the last third of the story is as important as the first two:
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
I lied. I actually think the last third is more important, at least from a father’s perspective. Here’s why: the father’s interaction with his older son seems to contradict our innate desire as parents to raise morally “good” kids.
I can’t speak much to this yet in that I only have an 8 month old at home right now that I essentially just have to keep alive, but all this has got me thinking: “Do I desire to raise ‘good’ kids?” More specifically, “If I had to choose, would I rather my kids turn out more like the older son than the younger son?
If I’m honest, until recently I’d have answered that question with an emphatic “YES.” Of course I’d rather my son spend his whole life safely by my side. Contributing to the household. Earning a living. Respecting me. Of course I never want him to wish I was dead (which is what the younger son meant when he asked for his inheritance early) or to run off with all my possessions only to lose them all and to end up eating out of a pig trough. Does any parent truly want that for their kids?
Yet, I think this story demonstrates the danger of striving to raise “good” kids. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to say, “parents should abandon all rules and hope for the best.” I think that would have its own set of consequences. I just wonder what it’d be like if more parents committed to raising their kids to be individuals, not the “not bad” kids.
Now, this story doesn’t portray either the younger, rebellious son nor the older, obedient son in a good light; and I think that’s the point. The father doesn’t scold the younger son when he returns home because it’s not necessary. The younger son has already learned his lesson. But when the father reprimands the older son and tells him “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” we learn that even a life of following all the rules hasn’t gotten the older son any closer to his father than his little brother is. He’s missed the point of his father’s parenting just as much.
I absolutely want my son to grow up delighting in , obeying, and respecting me, but not because he thinks I’ll love him more if he does. It’s so easy to look to the future and to think, “If I can raise him to stay out of trouble for 18 years, I’ll have done a good job.” And although, keeping him out of jail is something I’d also very much like to do, I want, more than anything, for him to grow up knowing that I love him for who he is. I want him to remember me asking him questions, giving him grace, and getting to know his interests and dislikes. I want him to remember that his father loved him through every bedtime story, tee-ball game, time-out, and every less-than-stellar report card. I want my relationship with my son to be characterized by unconditional love.