I’ve been thinking a lot this week (maybe because my baby turned 22 this week) about parenting, and about what we learn about God from our own experiences with and around parent/child relationships.
Martin Luther, in his explanation of the 1st article of the Creed in the Small Catechism writes about how he understands the nature of God’s fatherhood. You can find that on page 1162 in ELW. I invite you to turn to it and let’s read it together (read it). That’s what Godly fatherhood, parenthood, looks like. That’s what Luther learned when he became a parent for the first time, around the time that he wrote his Small Catechism. Fatherhood is about divine goodness and mercy without any merit of mine at all! That’s what we, as earthly parents, strive after as we raise our children – a relationship based on provision and protection.
Only, in this day and age, many have begun to worry that, in our desire to provide well for the needs and protection of our children, we’ve maybe gone a bit too far. I participated this week in a strategic planning meeting with leaders from Cross Roads Camp, other pastors, and a consultant Cross Roads has hired to lead the development of the plan. During the conversation we started to discuss why kids go, or don’t go to camp, and the topic of “Helicopter Parenting” came up. You’ve heard that term before, right? That’s the situation wherein parents hover constantly around their children, never letting the children out of reach, orchestrating every little bit of their lives. And I was shocked to hear from another participant in the meeting that this phenomenon is now being seen, not only in youth, but also in colleges, including graduate programs, where parents are calling professors and deans of schools on behalf of their adult children…
Another thing that got me thinking about parenting this week was a performance of a song called Piece By Piece, by Kelly Clarkson, on last week’s American Idol program on TV. It’s a powerful song in which Clarkson describes having been abandoned by her father when she was six years old. (If you’re interested, you can find it here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FHYBQxURQo ) The song’s a powerful reminder of the importance of parenting in shaping the people we become as we grow.
Now, for me, these two extremes, abandonment on one hand and helicopter parenting on the other, are helpful in thinking about the nature of God as our heavenly Father.
Look at our reading from Joshua 5. God has led the people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, all along the way miraculously providing food for them in the wilderness – manna in the morning and quail at night for 40 years – until the day when they eat the produce of the land for the first time. And on that very day, the manna ceases. Does this mean God stopped providing for them? Is God was no longer interested in being their father? No, of course not. Consider again what we just read from the catechism. God is the one who, as our Father, provides all that we need. But, at this stage of development in the lives of God’s people, the nature of God’s provision changes. God, in the wilderness, provided manna and quail, and even brought water from the rock when they were thirsty, much as we as parents provide everything for our children when they’re young. But now, God will provide through the produce of the land, which seems so ordinary in a way, doesn’t it?
But isn’t Luther suggesting that God cares for us in similarly ordinary, even mundane ways? I mean, notice that things like houses and shoes are included in his list of the ways God provides for us as God’s children. Sometimes we discover God’s provision in and through such ordinary, mundane, daily things. And then, sometimes, we miss it, kind of like the older son in the parable in our Gospel reading today, to whom the father says: You’ve been with me all along, and everything I have has always been yours for the asking. How often do we either take for granted, or simply fail to recognize altogether, the ways that God provides for us in our everyday lives? How often do we forget to give thanks to God for simple everyday blessings, like jobs, good health, food and shelter, supportive friends and neighbors, loving spouses and families? Everything we have is a gift from God, but how often are we blinded by what we think we don’t have?
Thanks be to God that God is the kind of Father God is. As Luther says: we receive all these blessings, apart from any merit or deserving on our part. Thank God for that, because if it were up to me to have to earn God’s blessings, well, let’s just say: I’m really glad it’s not, and leave it at that…
Now, thinking about the parable in today’s Gospel, we need to remember, again, something I pointed out last week about how we read parables. A parable is meant to teach a single central lesson, and in the case of the parable we read today, from Luke 15, I think there’s a major interpretive key given to us right there in the first line of the story, as Jesus says: There was a man who had two sons. It seems pretty clear that the central lesson of the story is found in the character of the father then, right?
The lesson isn’t that we should avoid doing what the younger son does, going off and wasting his inheritance on riotous living, though, that’s probably not a bad lesson. And the lesson isn’t that we shouldn’t be so self-righteous as to be offended when the father decides to bless someone that we think is completely unworthy of God’s blessing, though, again, that’s probably not a bad lesson. The central lesson of the parable is found in the character of the Father.
But before I say a bit more about that, let’s look at the context for a second. Jesus has been offending the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, by welcoming tax collectors and sinners and even eating with them, a close enough contact with them that he could be made religiously unclean by it. And so they start to grumble about it, and against him. I mean, tax collectors were Roman sympathizers who got rich off of ripping off their own people in support of the occupying army and government of Rome. And sinners, well, you can just imagine the sorts of people we’re talking about – certainly not the sorts of people anyone would expect a holy man to associate with. But rather than getting into an argument, or a direct confrontation with them, Jesus tells three parables – One about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go after one that wanders off, and another about a woman who searches for and finds a lost coin, and then he tells the one we read today about a father who has two sons. And the point seems obvious from the context.
That Jesus is trying to get these generally good religious folks, the Scribes and Pharisees, to lighten up a bit, and to get beyond their own self-righteousness on the one hand, and to get beyond only looking at the bad behavior of people like the tax collectors and sinners, and to focus instead on the grace and mercy and forgiveness and provision of the father
- Who, like a shepherd who lost a sheep, rejoices when that sheep is found
- And who, like a woman who lost a coin, rejoices when she finds the coin
- And who, like a father whose sons just don’t get it, on both sides, rejoices when one repents and returns, and provides for both, no matter what they deserve, even as God provides for us, apart from any merit or deserving on our part…