9 – The Folly of a Father?
“So he divided his property between them.”
We are right in considering that this story is a parable. It is a work of fiction. The father is simply a human father in this story. He is not God the Father in the reading of the surface story. So when someone criticizes the father in this parable, I know I should not take offence. The father is a normal father who may share the strengths and weaknesses of all who are fathers. But I must confess that I do not welcome these criticisms. I have no difficulty whatever in hearing prolonged criticism of the two sons, but feel a bit queasy when the father is taken to task .
Parables are not allegories, where each character, event, or thing stands symbolically for another thing, though sometimes they do share this feature in its major images. (See the story of the sower and the soils to see a parable that is much more like an allegory than the other parables tend to be.)
Here are a couple of criticisms of the father by well-known practical theologians of another day. The first one is from the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody.[i]
“The father is to be censured; we cannot help but blame the father. When the son said, ‘Father, divide and give me my portion,’ the father should have said, ‘you show a bad spirit, I will let you go without your portion.’ A great many fathers make that mistake now. I do not think that this father could have done a greater unkindness to the boy than to give him his goods and money and let him go…. That indulgent father gratified his wish, and divided his goods with him. I have two sons, and if either should ask me for a portion I’d say: ‘Go and earn it by the sweat of your brow….’ Rich men’s sons are spoilt. Their fathers do everything, even their thinking for them. They are subject to all kinds of temptations which poor men’s sons never know.”
The second criticism comes from W. Hay Aitken,[ii] a contemporary and co-author with D. L. Moody.
“It was his father’s way not to make him a regular allowance with which he might do as he liked, but to keep him constantly dependent upon him, from day to day, as his wants arose. He stinted him in nothing, but then it would have been much pleasanter if the (young) man had been allowed to take those means… and use them himself as he liked. It was so humiliating to be dependent upon his father for everything. That this was the way in which the father treated the son is evident from the statement of the older brother. He says, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve you, and yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends.’
Over the years there has grown a tendency to blame the Father. It may come from a recent tendency to blame all of our difficulties on our dysfunctional homes.
The criticism of the father has several edges to it.
- Why would the son want to leave his father’s home? There must have been a good reason.
- Why would the father pay the freight for the son to be stupid? Surely he knew his son well enough to guess the consequences of his actions? He enabled the son’s slide into folly!
- Why would the father not have treated the older son to a party once in a while? Was he so repressive that one son had to flee to find freedom and the other one learned to stay home and nurse his bitterness?
- Perhaps the father treated the older son as his first born and favourite son, and that was enough motivation for the younger to run away to seek his fortune.
- C. H. Spurgeon insists that the father knew the state of his wandering son, and the condition that he had descended to. Why then did the father not go seeking the son, as the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost?
Was the father to blame? The younger son might have felt so, as he needed to justify to himself his decision to leave home. The elder son might have blamed him, resenting the decision of his father, who gave away so much, that he felt that he had had to “work like a slave for all those years.” The neighbours may have blamed the father for treating the rascal far too kindly in his leaving and then in his returning! The boy needed tough-love! And there is no doubt that the Pharisees and Scribes who heard this story had no respect for a father who acted this way. The father is to blame for not controlling his wayward son!
Are these criticisms on target? I do not think so. Jesus is not holding up the father for criticism in this story, but he is clearly holding up the older brother and his younger sibling for criticism due to their respective journeys into license and legalism. In Jesus’ mind, the father in this story is the “spitting image” of his heavenly Father. We all know that to be true in the ending of the story, when the father comes running to receive the returned wanderer with open arms. But the image of the Divine Father may also be intended in our first photographs of this father of two boys.
God Stepped Back
The Scriptural saga begins with Adam and Eve in the garden. They have been given the resources of an entire planet. In answer to the question, “What was the first thing that God did upon creating humanity?” The answer is, “He stepped back!”
This means that God gave us the ability to make choices without his interference or over-ruling. He gave humanity sufficient autonomy and adequate resources so that we could wield power to do good or evil. He wanted to give us space to become ourselves. He did not want to be in our face making it difficult for us to become free creatures. So He withdrew the dominance of His presence, so that we could in part develop our own future. If we always felt him hovering over our shoulder, we would be more prone to view him as the eternal snoopervisor and the ultimate Big Brother, and that would be a perversion of the true relationship that God intends to operate between him and ourselves. So God steps back.
When the father hands over his resources to his two sons, he gives them freedom to become mean spirited misers like the elder or spendthrifts like the younger. But his gift did not create an inevitability of sinning in either of these two young men. His divided gift did give them the possibility of making profound decisions with power to implement them in good and fruitful ways, or otherwise. The story of the householder who divides his wealth among three servants makes this point. (Matthew 5:14-30) An opportunity is given to three people to access wealth according to their ability to handle it, and two did well and one failed. No inevitability was operating here, anymore than with the two sons of a trusting father.
I suspect that God acts this same way with all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Opportunities are offered. Powers are granted. Freedom is granted. To be critical of God for such generosity is out of line, if you ask me.
Two very different views of the creation of humanity have been held in the two major halves of Christendom. The Western Church said that Adam and Eve were created “perfect.” They were created physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually perfect and flawless in every way. When they sinned, they became totally depraved, and so did all of their offspring.
In the Eastern sector of the Church, however, they said that when humanity was created, we were not created perfect, but “perfectible.” We were not perfect, yet. We had been given the resources to enable us to move in that direction. We were not righteous yet: we were simply innocent and untested. We had been granted, however, the capacity for both sinning and righteous response. As a consequence of the Fall, we were “deprived” of the strengthening enablement of the Holy Spirit, and thereby weakened, with the result that wickedness comes naturally. The gracious God has never, however, withdrawn the offer of sufficient freedom and adequate resources for those who will choose to work with God in the power of the offered Holy Spirit.
The “Openness of God” theologians[iii] speak about “the God who risks.” They insist that God was a risk-taker when he granted freedom to his creature. But this gift of freedom made us response-able and therefore responsible. He continues to share His empowerment with us, even when we abuse that gift. The God and Father revealed in his “weakness” in giving his two sons everything, is the true picture of a God who risks but knows that “it will be well, and all will be well.”[iv]
[i] Moody, D. L., “The Prodigal Son” The Story of the Prodigal, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute,1896), p. 13-14.
[ii] Aitken W. Hay, ”He came to Himself” The Story of the Prodigal, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute,1896), p. 59.
[iii] Sanders, John, The God Who Risk: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998)
[iv] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, ed, Dom Roger Hudleston (London: Burns & Oates, 1952)