This blog post is an edited version of my Sunday morning sermon. I hope it is a help to whoever reads it.
Brenda and Mike were beside themselves. Their son Brian had just told them that he was moving in with his pregnant girlfriend from the youth group. The news hit them like a ton of bricks. They were embarrassed to face people in church – what if someone found out? They were angry at the youth pastor – did he know about this? They were upset with the church and mad at the school their son attended. Their rage at others soon turned to guilt. They believed that they had done something to cause this. Bewildered, confused and alone, Brenda and Mike cried together often but felt unsure of what to do or where to turn. After all, what do you do with a rebellious child?
Some would advocate for a tough love approach. Send the child packing. Kick them out of the house for failing to follow the rules.
Still others would vote in favor of the gentle love approach. They argue that you should keep your child at home in the hopes of influencing them to do right.
Some argue for a combination of these approaches. But, in the story of the prodigal son, how does the father respond to his rebellious child?
The father in our story responds to his son by letting him go. He allows his child to experience the bitter fruit of his difficult choices. Remember, in the story of the prodigal we see the son ask for something truly shocking. It is popular today to divide inheritance into equal portions, but in bible times it was expected that the older son would get a double portion. So, if you had two sons, as this man did, he would divide his estate into thirds, and give his older son two thirds with his younger son receiving a third. This inheritance was received only when the father died. So when the younger son comes to his dad and asks for his portion of his inheritance ahead of time, it was like saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” Maybe you’ve actually heard those words. They cut deeply.
But the father doesn’t respond in ways typical of that time period. Normally, such disrespect to a father would normally be met by physical blows. The father would send the son out of the house, with nothing except a bloody nose and a sore backside. But notice that the father here does as the child has asked. He doesn’t lose it. He doesn’t lecture. He simply proceeds to liquidate his assets. In order to give his son his portion, he would have had to turn property assets into cash. Because the property needed to be sold sooner, rather than later, the father would probably have gotten much less for it than it was worth – like pawing a diamond ring to get some quick cash.
Sometimes parents must allow their children to taste the bitterness of their sinful choices – and they must realize they are not the cause of them (Ezek.18). I am not telling you to abandon your kids, I am not telling you that your kids should be allowed to do whatever they choose (Eli argues against that). But understand your role. You are to train (Prov.22:6). You cannot control. Understand that your child has a mind of his own. Your child is going to make their own choices. You must train them about choices and consequences, but you cannot try to shield them from every bad consequence. You cannot save your child, you cannot stop him from making poor choices and suffering bad consequences.
How does a parent respond through this rebellion? Well, in our story the father waits expectantly for his sons return. Never stop believing that your child will come back. Don’t lose hope. Be ready to welcome them back. Some kids don’t return because they are unsure of their reception. But the father of the prodigal was expecting his son to return. The father, simply believed the day would come when his son returned home. And indeed, he did. When he did the father was ready to meet him. He wasn’t sitting inside in the easy chair, listening for the door knob to turn so he could cut loose with a lecture. As soon as he saw his son, the father grabbed his robe, hiked it up and took off in a sprint towards his boy. The father grabs his son around the neck and hugs him, and kisses him. His son is home and for him, that is enough.
Incidentally, fathers didn’t act this way in the ancient near east. The people to whom Jesus spoke would have been scandalized by a father who acted this way. Fathers – Are you ready to act this way when your child returns? Mothers – have you lost hope? Trust in God, cry out to him, and be always on the lookout for the returning rebel (Isa.30). Remember, God knows what it is like to parent rebellious kids!
Consider yourself as a rebellious child for a moment. You may have grown up the picture of self-control and discipline, but consider what the Bible says about your rebellion against God. You have run from God, You have desired things above God, and you have lived as though you were God. With rebels, it takes one to know one. And you see where rebellion leaves you: with nothing. When you attempt to live your life without God you end up with nothing of real satisfaction. There is hope for the rebel – hope found in humility. If he will humble himself under the hand of God – he will be exalted in due time. This humility is required of all of us. There are no perfect parents, there are no flawless kids. There is only a righteous and holy heavenly father who says that he will dwell with those of a meek and contrite heart (Ps.34:18; 51:17). Don’t let your haughtiness be a hindrance to the rebel.
Parents, we all need a word of caution here. Sometimes it is easy to sit and be smug when we see people struggling with rebellious kids. Although we might never say it, we leave the impression that we have it all figured out, because our kids are doing what is right and what is expected, we seem to think we have the upper hand here. But consider something. In this story, the open, defiant rebel was the least of the father’s problems. It is possible to raise a compliant child who is in a worse condition than the rebel. You see, the elder son in this story is a Pharisee. They were the ones who could not abide rebels. They cringed when Jesus hung out with people who were of a poor reputation. They wanted Jesus to hang out with them, but not with sinners! And so Jesus tells this story about two brothers to contrast the Pharisees and the sinners. The rebel responds in repentance, but in this story, the Pharisee responds with bitterness, hatred and jealousy.
It is possible to have a child that appears obedient and compliant, that makes your life a joy, but whose heart is far from God. Our goal in parenting is not raising kids who make us proud. Our goal in parenting isn’t raising children who go to church like they should, who do everything we tell them and who never talk back. Our goal is to raise people who fear God. Our goals is to raise kids who respond to God’s authority and direction, to raise kids who hear the voice of their heavenly father and respond in love and adoration to him. Remember this parents: rebellion takes many forms. Just because your child doesn’t have tattoos, rainbow colored hair, enough piercings to make them look like a pin cushion, just because your child seems willing to go to youth group, comes to church regularly and respects his elders doesn’t mean all is well with his heart. Don’t fall into the trap of judging by externals. This is how man sees, but not God!
Sometimes I think parents with prodigals look at those parents around them who seem to have it altogether and get depressed. We need to cease the comparison and start with crying out to God to help us in our parenting.
What can you do about a rebellious child? You can pray; you can plead; you can hopefully wait, but there is nothing you can do to make a rebellious child come back. God must do that. And when he does, the work will be glorious! After all, the message of this parable is that the father waits for the prodigal and the elder son to respond to his grace and mercy. Both sons receive the same loving treatment. The father loves both sons, but one refuses to respond to his grace and mercy. The gospel of Jesus speaks to rebels of all kinds. And so remember, the gospel is what your child needs. Even if they are the most compliant child you have ever seen – they need Jesus. Even if they are they are so rebellious you wonder if they are possessed – they still need Jesus. Conformity is not transformation. Rebels need Jesus!!