Here’s a story you all know.
A certain man had two sons. And the younger one said, “Father, I’m bored. Give me my portion and let me go.”
The father did it, not because he had to, but because he loved him. It was not an easy thing for him to do. It hurt him to see his son squander a fortune on riotous living. It cost him countless nights’ sleep.
But he did it, and it worked. After his son blew through his fortune, he turned and said, “I will arise and go to my father.” His son returned, bruised and bloody and thin and pale. But he came back, and that’s what was important.
His father was looking for him every day. Then one day he saw him. He smelled him before he saw him. This raggedy boy, reeking of pig slop and failure, must have smelled to high heaven. But the old man knew his son’s smell, even under all that dirt and grime. He ran to him, pulling up his skirts and running in a most undignified manner. He took him in his arms and held him close and cried. He called out to his servant, “Slay the fatted calf. Put rings on his fingers and a coat on his back. Let there be wine and feasting and music. My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and now found.” He threw a party and everyone came. Everyone, that is, but one.
His older brother was in the field. He found out from a servant that his younger brother returned, and that the old man had thrown a party for him, and he couldn’t stand it. The younger son didn’t deserve it. He complained, “I’ve worked all my life for you, and you never slew a calf for me!”
“No my son,” the old man answered. “You’ve had me all the time. Every day you’ve feasted in my house. But your brother was dead, and now he is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found. Today I rejoice--and so should you.”
That’s the story as you’ve learned it. But it is not the end of the story. The sins of the father are visited on the children. The blessings of the father are to the children as well.
This led me to imagine what it might be like when these two sons were grown and had children of their own. What would their families be? How would they treat their boys?
Here’s the way I think the story might have gone.
Twenty years have passed since the boy returned to his father, and the brothers still live on their father’s farm. The old man doesn’t run things any more. He’s retired and lives in the house alone. The two boys are married, and each has his own family.
Each boy married women like themselves. The prodigal son married a prodigal daughter who rebelled from her family, but came back in the end. The older brother married a proper lady from a fine family. They live on opposite corners on their father’s farm.
Each son has a son who is the spitting image of his father.
Younger son was still prodigal. “Prodigal” means irresponsible, wasteful and undisciplined. Though he experienced the forgiveness of his Father, he still had not learned to bear the yoke of discipline. At his house, the shutters were never painted and the grass was always long and there were holes in the fence where slats should be. They didn’t much care whether the house was clean or dirty.
Their son was a wild child with a dirty face--about as disciplined as an ape. But his parents loved him, as all parents love their children—even disobedient ones.
When the wild child misbehaved, they never punished. When the boy wanted something he got it, no matter what it cost. When he came home with poor grades in school or was caught swinging on the neighbor’s gate or setting fire to a barn, they let it pass. The prodigal son had learned forgiveness from his father and was determined to show the same forgiveness to his boy. But he never learned what has to come after forgiveness.
The older brother hadn’t changed, either. He was still being responsible and dutiful. He lived in a nice home on the bottom land where the shutters were always painted and the grass was always mowed, and there were no holes in his fence. His wife kept the house neat as a pin.
Their son was a good son—a well-behaved boy. His parents were strict and believed in discipline. When they broke a dish or split a drink, or left a garment on the floor, his father got out the belt. They believed in that proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This boy learned to respect and fear his father.
Once a week on Sunday, the whole family got together at Grandfather’s house. There was lots of feasting, but not much talk. The older brother still didn’t like the younger son, or his family.
The younger son didn’t like his brother, either. The younger brother’s wife thought the older brother’s wife was a snob. The older brother’s wife thought her sister-in-law was a slob. But they buried their differences for the sake of the old man, whom they all loved. So the years rolled by and the family survived in chilly silence.
The grandchildren grew. The prodigal son’s son grew wilder. His antics broke the silence of the Sunday meals at the grandfather’s house. At first, it was just running in the halls, talking loudly, and breaking things. Then the breaking went to stealing and the loud talk led to swearing, even on Sunday.
Now, the younger son didn’t approve of this, but he had a problem with discipline. He saw too much of himself in the boy. How could he punish him without confronting his own irresponsibility? So every day, his son grew more and more restless, and his parents grew more troubled, but did nothing.
The older brother complained to grandfather about his nephew, “Tell them to discipline that boy. If he goes on like this, he’ll corrupt the morals of my boy. Banish that boy from your house. While you’re at it, why don’t you send them all away? They’re all a bunch of good-for-nothings.” But Grandfather would never do it.
The older brother and his wife shook their heads disapprovingly, but inside they had a kind of grim satisfaction. They had been proved right. Maybe if Grandfather had been tougher on that prodigal son he would not have such a bratty kid. “Like father, like son,” they said. “An acorn never falls far from the tree.”
Then one day the wild child went to his parents and said, “Father give me my portion now. I want to experience the world, like you did.” It broke his father’s heart. He had experienced the world—and barely survived! He did not want his son to have to go through what he did.
“Son,” the younger brother said, “I have given you everything already. I can’t give you a portion of what I do not own. I live on my father’s charity.” But he felt for his son so he went to the Grandfather, and asked on behalf of the boy.
But Grandfather said, “Son, I gave you half of all I owned, and you squandered it. More than that I gave you freedom and forgiveness. Along with those gifts come responsibility. He’s your responsibility, not mine. I can’t help you.”
The boy ran away the next day.
“Hooray!” said the older brother and his wife. “Hooray! The Old Man has finally come to his senses. He’s finally practicing tough love!”
The Grandfather heard what they had said. He replied, “Son, you’ll never understand. Tough love was what I gave first. Which is easier--to hold your child or to let them go? How do you measure the price of all those sleepless nights of worry, of knowing your son was out in the dark, without a place to stay? I could have forbidden him to go--it was my right. But if he had not failed, he would never have learned. Letting him go was the hardest decision of my life. I let him go for his own redemption.”
Now the older brother was happy that the wild child was gone. His good boy would no longer be exposed to his awful influence. Things were quieter now. Much more orderly. His own good son got all the attention.
Then one day at home, the older son and his family sat at their table. Suddenly, their good son spilled his drink. His father did not hesitate for a moment. He drew back his hand to give the boy a walloping. But before he could connect with his son’s backside, his son whirled and caught his hand in mid-air.
“Enough!” said the boy. “All my life you have beat me for the smallest things. You have never loved me. You never touch me, but in anger. You’re a judge, not a father. You’re a jailor, not a parent. I won’t take it anymore. I am out of here!”
He walked out of his parent’s house, never to return.
The older brother never looked again at that empty seat without realizing his awful mistake. Every night before he went to bed they prayed to hear his footsteps at the door.
Two sons. Two fathers. One tender, but too ashamed to be tough. One tough, but too proud to be tender. And a grandfather, who loved them all.
God our Father loves us all. He is both tough and tender. He is never stern when He should be loving. He is never loving when He should be stern. He knows the value of holding children close, and the value of letting children go.
He was so tough on Adam and Eve when they ate forbidden fruit. Yet He was tender, descended from His throne to look for them in the garden.
He was so tough that he could say, “The wages of sin is death.” Yet He personally paid for us on the Cross, rather than let us die without hope.
Fathers, be tough and tender. Punish, but not until you know how to hug. Set boundaries for your children, as you set boundaries for yourselves. But a good father will listen to his children, comforting them, praying for them and hugging them. A good father will never ask anything of his child that he will not do himself.
Paul says, “Children, obey your parents, for this is right.” Then he says to parents, “Don’t provoke your children”--love them instead. A wild spirit may be tamed. But a broken spirit is not so easy to repair. Let your love for a child be like God’s love for us.