On Becoming a Prodigal Parent

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On Becoming a Prodigal Parent

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 1

    Called to Prodigal Parenthood: Reflections for Parents on the Parable of the Lost Son by Karen and Ron Flowers

    The following may be used as a resource in developing a seminar for parents or a parent discussion group. It may also be distributed to parents for personal and couple reflection.

    The reflections are based on Jesus‘ familiar story of the lost son recorded in the

    Gospel of Luke. Henri J. M. Nouwen‘s personal thoughts on this story, written in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday, 1992)*, stimulated many of the questions posed in this seminar. Nouwen‘s book has been translated into a number of languages and is

    widely available internationally in Christian bookstores and from Internet book distributors. We highly recommend it as a supplementary resource. The seven reflections are:

     ? ―A Tale of Two Prodigals‖

     ? ―Leaving Home‖

     ? ―Letting Go‖

     ? ―Return of a Prodigal‖

     ? ―The Welcoming Father‖

     ? ―The Elder Son‖

     ? ―The Party: A Hallmark of Grace‖

    Each reflection includes a number of activities for personal and group consideration.

    As a visual aid, you may also wish to obtain a print of Rembrandt‘s famous painting

    ―The Return of the Prodigal Son.‖ You can order a print of this masterpiece from an online Internet source such as Public libraries may have books of paintings by Rembrandt available for loan. The painting may also be downloaded from, the GC Department of Family Ministries website. Because this work of art is now in the public domain, there will be no infringement on copyright law if you wish to make a copy for each participant.

    A Tale of Two Prodigals

    The parable of the prodigal son contains all one ever needs to know about God and His love affair with humankind. After gazing long at Rembrandt‘s portrayal of the parable in

    oils, Henri Nouwen reflected in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son:

    *Quotations from Henri Neuwen are from THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON by Henri Neuwen, copyright ? 1992 by Henri J. M. Neuwen. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 2

    I came to see [the painting] as . . . not only the heart of the story that God wants to

    tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God‘s people. All

    of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends is [sic] there.

    The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the

    Kingdom of God (Nouwen, 1992, p. 15).

Reflection Activities

     Dramatize the story recorded in Luke 15:1-3, 11b-31 by enacting it as a drama or by reading it aloud with readers taking the parts of the narrator and the various characters. You may wish to use a modern version to pick up the dialogue in the language of today.

     Reflect on the context and setting of the story as carefully recorded by Luke.

    Large crowds followed Jesus wherever He went (14:25). On this particular occasion, Luke specifically mentions that tax collectors and other ―sinners‖ pressed in close to hear Him

    (15:1). Seeing how Jesus received these outcasts, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to mutter again about Jesus‘ persistent and unbecoming habit of welcoming

    sinners, even eating with them (15:2)!

     ? What connection do you see between the immediate setting and the story

    Jesus told?

     ? How does the parable of the lost son provide an arresting response to the

    Pharisees accusations?

     ? What good news do you think Jesus was trying to get through to the


     ? Why do Pharisee-types especially need the good news of the Father‘s

    unconditional love, abundant forgiveness, spontaneous joy and exuberant

    celebration at the return home of one lost child?

     Study the word “prodigal.” Although the Bible does not use this term, it has become common to refer to Jesus‘ parable as ―the prodigal son.‖ Look up ―prodigal‖ in the


     ? How does this word that connotes ―profuse expenditure‖ appropriately

    describe the lost son?

     ? How does this same word also describe the compassionate father?

     ? How does this word describe Heavenly Father?

     ? In what sense is the parable Jesus told a ―tale of two prodigals‖—a prodigal

    son and a prodigal father/Heavenly Father?

     Ponder the painting. If you have a print of Rembrandt‘s painting, look carefully at

    each character in the artist‘s portrayal of the parable.

     ? Do you see yourself mirrored in any of these portraits?

     ? Whether or not you have the painting to look at, ask yourself, Do I see

    myself as a modern-day participant in the story, or am I just an observer [like the two

    women and the seated man in Rembrandt‘s painting]?

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 3

     ? Why do you think some people choose to remain observers rather than

    entering into the story as modern-day participants?

     ? Can a person fully experience the good news of Jesus‘ story as a mere


     ? With which character in the story do you most closely identify? The

    bedraggled, returning son? The indignant older brother? The compassionate father?

    Are there ways in which you have at different times identified with all three? What is

    the good news in this story for each of these participants?

    Leaving Home

    Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I

    come to a true understanding of the return (Nouwen, 1992, pp. 34, 35).

Reflection Activities

    • Re-enact scenes from the parable. You may wish to bring the actors from your

    drama back on stage to call further attention to significant lines as part of the reflection activities suggested in this resource. You might reenact the scene (with perhaps the entire family as witnesses) around the son‘s shattering one-liner: ―Father, give me my share of the

    estate, and the narrator‘s matter-of-fact report: ―So he divided his property between them‖

    (15:2). It might be very effective to have the various actors ―freeze‖ the action on stage at

    this point in the drama, allowing for a minute or two of silent reflection before opening discussion.

    • Reflect on the phrase “my share.” Luke‘s terse report of the younger son‘s

    demand which sets this drama in motion—―Father, give me my share of the estate‖

    (15:12a)may need more explanation for modern hearers than it did for the crowd listening to Jesus. This was not the request of an impetuous youth, eager to see the world and find his place in it. Eugene Peterson‘s language from The Message Bible brings us closer to

    understanding what was really happening here: ―Father, I want right now what‘s coming to

    me.‖ In the cultural milieu of the time, parents had the unequivocal right to live off the income from their estate until death. The son‘s request was tantamount to saying to his

    father, ―I wish you were dead.‖

    At this point you may wish to call actors into action again, reenacting the same scene from the drama, but this time highlighting the real meaning of the scene by adapting the son‘s lines in a monologue like the following to convey the full measure of his disrespect and rejection:

    ―Father, I wish you were dead! But I can‘t wait around for you to keel over. Stop right

    there. I don‘t even want to hear a word about how you‘ve worked all your life to

    provide for us and for yourselves in retirement. How you take care of yourself and

    the old woman is your problem. Maybe you can talk my brother here into pushing the

    two of you around and cleaning up your messes since you think he‘s so perfect. He‘ll

    never have the wit to leave this hole and make anything of himself anyway. But as

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 4

    for me, I am the rightful heir to half of this estate, and I want what is coming to me

    right now!‖

    Henri Nouwen (1992) reflects on this scene in these words:

    The son‘s ―leaving‖ is . . . a much more offensive act than it seems at first reading. It

    is a heartless rejection of the home in which the son was born and nurtured and a

    break with the most precious tradition carefully upheld by the larger community of

    which he was a part. . . . [It is] a drastic cutting loose from the way of living, thinking,

    and acting that has been handed down to him from generation to generation as a

    sacred legacy. More than disrespect, it is a betrayal of the treasured values of family

    and community. The ―distant country‖ is the world in which everything considered

    holy at home is disregarded (p. 36).

    • Reflect on the “leaving” scene.

     ? What are the feelings that grip a parent when a child ―leaves for a far


     ? What is the natural human response?

     ? How do you think the response of the prodigal father begins to pave the way

    for his son‘s return from the very beginning?

     ? In what sense have all human beings, even professed Christians, ―left


     ? How do you react to Nouwen‘s insight: I leave home every time I lose faith

    in that voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety

    of ways to win the love I so much desire (p. 40).

    • Contemplate the Father who has embraced humanity and who waits to embrace us personally. On the night Jesus was born, the heavens were ablaze with angels announcing the good news of His birth: ―Glory to God in the highest, and on earth

    peace to humankind on whom his favor rests‖ (Luke 2:14). In the person of the Babe born in

    Bethlehem, ―shalom‖—wholenesshas been restored to the universe; heaven and earth are reconciled; God‘s favor rests on humankind.

    Because Jesus is our Representative, God again embraced humanity in His declaration at the Jordan: ―You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.‖ On that day, God

    announced to every human being who ever lived, with all the pride of a Father and in the hearing of the universe, ―You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love; delight of my life‖ (Matthew 2:17, The Message; cf. E. G. White, The Desire of Ages. p. 113).

     ? Why is it so hard sometimes to hear God‘s voice calling us Beloved?

     ? What draws us so easily into a frenzy of competition and striving to prove

    we are worthy of the love and acceptance our hearts crave?

     ? How does the world‘s criteria for determining human worthusing

    measures such as beauty, intelligence, wealth and performancework against our

    acceptance of God‘s declaration of our worth by virtue of the value He has bestowed

    on us as our Creator and Redeemer (cf. Isaiah 43:1-7)?

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 5

     ? How can we better convey the good news to our children that all the love,

    acceptance and freedom to become that they are looking for is waiting for them at


    Letting Go

    There are two lasting gifts we can give to our childrenroots and wings.

     - Anonymous

Reflection Activities

     Share your satisfaction as a parent. In what sense is it the task of parenthood to ―work ourselves out of a job‖ as our children grow toward to maturity? Share some of the

    great moments of satisfaction you have experienced as a parenttimes when you know you

    have done a good job at giving your child a secure sense of belonging. Times when you feel good about the way you have encouraged them to try new things, affirmed their abilities or allowed them to develop their own preferences and explore new pathways different from your own. What makes giving your child ―wings‖ both wonderfully rewarding and scary at the same time?

     • “The Hardest Part of Love.” In the musical Children of Eden, Steven Schwartz‘s

    song ―The Hardest Part of Love‖* is sung as a poignant duet between God and Adam who have both lost sons to a ―far country.‖ Reflect on these words from Schwartz‘s song from the

    vantage point of Heavenly Father, Adam and yourself as parents sharing a common experience:

    Oh, this son of mine I love so well, and oh, the toll it takes.

    I would give to him a garden and keep it clear of snakes.

    But the one thing he most treasures is to make his own mistakes.

    Oh . . .

    He goes charging up the cliffs of life, a reckless mountaineer.

    I could help him not to stumble, I could warn him what to fear.

    I could shout until I‘m breathless, and he‘d still refuse to hear.

    Oh . . .

    But you cannot close the acorn once the oak begins to grow,

    And you cannot close your heart to what it fears and needs to know:

    That the hardest part of love is letting go. . . .

    And the rarest part of love . . . and the truest part of love . . . is letting go.

    *Lyrics from ‗The Hardest Part of Love‘ from the musical play Children of Eden,

    written by Stephen Schwartz, ?1991 by Grey Dog Music, reprinted with permission.

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 6

     • Read the following quotation and reflect on the parental task of “letting go”:

     Especially in need of the divine Shepherd‘s care are parents who have invested

    heavily in their children, only to have them reject the values they hold dear. Our

    heavenly Parent knows all about this experience. As He looked across the valley at

    the city that personified children dear to His heart, He wept. He experienced all the

    emotions parents feel when children ignore counsel, behave in disappointing ways,

    and turn their backs on home. . . . But God places such a high value on human

    freedom that even when children‘s choices set them on a path away from Him, He

    respects their decision. Meanwhile, He sustains parents whose tears and heartache

    intermingle with His own as they reluctantly respect their children‘s decisions too. He

    will guide those parents in knowing whether or how to seek after a wayward son or

    daughterwhen to go like the shepherd in search of a lost sheep, and when to wait

    patiently at the gate with the father of the prodigal (Flowers, 2005, p. 45).

     ? Why is human freedom so important to God?

     ? Why is ―letting go‖ so necessary in the development of children, yet so hard

    for parents?

     ? What evidence do we have in Scripture that letting go is hard for God too?

    (See Hosea 11; Matt. 23:37 for starters.)

    • Ponder Rembrandt’s painting again. Giving your child ―wings‖ always carries with

    it an element of risk. There are no guarantees in Christian parenting.

     ? How does the father‘s face in Rembrandt‘s painting reflect the effects of the

    anxiety and pain a parent feels when a youthat least for a seasonappears to

    reject parental values and heads off on a risky path that leads away from home?

     ? How can parents help each other to manage the natural anxiety that arises

    during these seasons, making it possible for us to maintain connections with our

    children and give them appropriate space to develop as persons with an identity

    apart from ourselves?

     ? How can it be that allowing our children to become their own persons, and

    even to make mistakes, may in the end be part of creating the best likelihood that

    they will return home to family and faith?

    Return of a Prodigal

    Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy

    to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.

     The Prodigal Son in Luke 15

     • Meaning in a missing clause. With the publication of Robert Alter‘s book The Art

    of Biblical Narrative, biblical scholars developed a new interest in the stories of the Bible as a primary means of conveying important theological truth. Alter brought a new awareness of

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 7

    various literary techniques that had been carefully developed by the Bible writers for their unique purpose of conveying the story of God‘s love to humankind.

    Dialogue is the primary means through which the Bible writers tell stories. They put words in the mouths of the characters to reveal their character traits, to unfold their interactions with others, to expose the motives behind their actions and to highlight the spiritual lessons the particular narrative is meant to convey. For example, the repetition of detail by a Bible writer is now understood to be purposeful rather than a mark of primitive writing skills. Such repetition signals the reader that this detail is important to understanding the message that the writer is trying to communicate, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    Another literary technique used by Bible writers is a deliberate variation or change in the way a character‘s lines are repeated by the narrator or reported by another character.

    Sometimes the speaker will leave out something or change what he has said when repeating himself on another occasion. Any change in dialogue, however slight, is also a

    signal to the reader to pay close attention. It is not likely, Alter contends, that these are

    mistakes or indicators of poor storytelling. These shifts in language and detail are deliberate on the part of the Bible writer. Readers can be quite sure that a significant piece of the

    intended message is likely to be lurking in and around this change.

    One such shift in dialogue occurs in the story of the prodigal son. The change occurs between the speech that the prodigal practices for delivery when he meets his father and the speech he actually delivers when he arrives home. In Luke 15:17, the gospel writer records the practiced speech:

    When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have

    food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father

    and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no

    longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”

    In vs. 21, we find the actual speech delivered:

    The son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no

    longer worthy to be called your son.”

    The omission is obvious. The son never delivers the part of his speech about his father making him like one of the hired help. If, as Alter suggests, this omission is not a mistake on the part of the writer, what message is it that Jesus and Luke want to make sure we readers do not miss? What is the essential spiritual truth that is highlighted by this omission?

    When the prodigal practiced his speech, he knew what he had done. He knew what he deserved. But he believed his father would listen to him only if he duly repented and offered to work for him like a slave for the rest of his days. He knew an apology and a willingness to submit to hard labor was not enough to restore him to sonship, but it was the best he could offer in repayment for all that he had done. Perhaps his father would take pity on him and spare his life.

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 8

    Rejoice in the good news. If we miss the omission, we may conclude that the

    prodigal was right in his reasoning. The father is indeed benevolent, but there is a price to be paid. However, there is good newsincredible good newsin this story that this

    omission is deliberately meant to underscore. The good news is introduced in vs. 20:

    But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with

    compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

    In this moment, the good news of the father‘s grace soaked through to the core of

    the prodigal‘s being. You don‘t have to clean yourself up or make yourself respectable to come home! The omission in vs. 21 is the writer‘s way of putting this good news in large print, to bring the message home for all who have eyes to see.

    Robert Capon in his book Parables of Grace puts it simply:

    We are not forgiven . . . because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we

    had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver. . . . We may be as

    unable, as the prodigal was, to believe it until we finally see it; but the God who does

    it, like the father who forgave the prodigal, never once had anything else in mind‖

    (Capon, 1988, pp. 140, 141).

    The missing piece in the prodigal‘s speech stands as a timeless reminder that with Heavenly Father, there are no intermediate steps between forgiveness and celebration. Luke repeated Jesus story just the way he did to make sure this news gets through. Ask yourself: What difference has this good news made in my life? In my relationship with my spouse and children?

    • Reflect on the prodigal’s journey home. Henri Nouwen knows the difficulty of the

    prodigal‘s journey, a journey common to all who turn their hearts toward home:

    Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to

    whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as

    conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of. While walking home,

    I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there. As

    I look at my spiritual journey, my long and fatiguing trip home, I see how full it is of

    guilt about the past and worries about the future. I realize my failures and know that I

    have lost the dignity of my sonship, but I am not yet able to fully believe that where

    my failings are great, ―grace is always greater‖. . . . One of the greatest challenges of

    the spiritual life is to receive God‘s forgiveness (pp. 52, 53).

     ? What makes it so hard to receive God‘s gift of grace, to allow Him to cast all

    our sins into the depths of the sea and give us a new beginning?

     ? How would you describe the feelings of the lost son as it breaks over him

    that the scenarios he has devised to make himself acceptable are pure craziness

    and as he gives himself over completely to the father‘s compassion and forgiveness?

     ? Imagine yourself falling into Heavenly Father‘s arms. Feel his strong arms

    holding you tight, even as He calls for the party to begin. Imagine yourself resting so

Parenting Seminar Called to Prodigal Parenthood 9

    fully in God‘s love and grace that the new creature God has declared you to be in

    Christ could actually emerge?

     ? Why is it necessary to become the returning lost son, and to give yourself

    over completely to the embrace of Heavenly Father, before it is possible to become

    the welcoming parent yourself?

    The Welcoming Father

    The son started his speech . . . . But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, ―Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is heregiven up for dead and now alive! Given up

    for lost and now found!‖ Luke 15, The Message

     • Small group Bible study. Drawing from the following Bible passages and others

    like them that come to your mind, work in small groups to create your own psalm to or about Heavenly Father.

     Gen. 17:7-8 (cf. Ps. 105:8-10); Ps. 9:7-9, 12; Ps. 23 (cf. John 10:11-16); Ps. 34:18;

    Ps. 51:1; Ps. 91:1-4; Ps. 94:14; Ps. 103:1-18; Prov. 3:12; Is. 49:15-16, 25b; Eze.

    33:11; Hos. 11:1-4, 8-9; Micah 7:18-19; Zeph. 3:14-17; Matt. 7:9-11; Matt. 23:37;

    John 3:16-17; John 16:23-27; Rom. 1:18-32; Rom. 5:1-11; Rom. 8:31-35, 38-39; 1

    Cor. 5:18-19; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 2:4; Heb. 13:5b-6; James 1:17-18; 1 Peter 5:7; 1 John

    4:7-10, 19; Rev. 15:3-4.

     ? Print the verses of your psalm on cards or pieces of paper.

     ? Rearrange them to create a meaningful tribute of praise and gratitude.

     ? Use a refrain such as ―His love endures forever‖ as it is used in Ps. 136 to

    bind your psalm together.

     ? Number your cards and give each group member one or more to read in

    turn, and reading your refrain all together like a congregational response.

     ? Read your psalm responsively in your small group in praise of Heavenly


     ? Present your psalm to the large group as time allows.

     • A living portrait. If you were to draw a living portrait of Heavenly Father from the stories of the Bible and from your own experience as God‘s child, what would He look like?

     ? How does the story of the prodigal Father contribute to your portrait?

     ? How would you describe His hands? His embrace? His presence? His tone

    of voice? His care? His encouragement? His correction? His love?

     ? How does your portrait reflect the words of Jesus, ―Anyone who has seen

    me, has seen the Father‖ (John 14:9; cf. Heb. 1:3)?

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     • Drawn by the hands. Nouwen notes that ―the true center of Rembrandt‘s painting is the hands of the father‖ (p. 96)—hands that seek only to heal and to bless.

     Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation,

    has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but

    always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that

    his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired

    arms rest on their shoulders (pp. 95, 96).

     ? What draws you to these hands?

     ? Do you agree with Nouwen that ultimately, the call of the parable of the

    prodigal is for us to become the Father and extend our arms to our own lost children,

    family members, and the world (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-21)?

     ? What will you say and do today to reach out to heal and bless your children

    and those closest to you in the name of Christ?

    The Elder Son

Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father‘s joy at the

    return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface.

    Henri Nouwen

     Re-enact the scene recorded in Luke 15:25-30.

     ? Why do you think Luke devotes a full one-third of his rendition of Jesus‘

    story to the reaction of the older brother?

     ? What evidence is there that despite the fact that eldest son has never left

    home, he is also a lost son?

     ? How does his reaction to the party thrown for his brother betray his heart?

     ? How do you know that his obedience and service have not been so much

    out of love as out of duty?

     ? From your own experience and that of others whom you know, in what ways

    can you attest to the truth of Nouwen‘s observation about the elder son:

     The lostness of the elder son . . . is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the

    right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People

    respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son.

    Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father‘s joy at the

    return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface.

    Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person,

    one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and

    more powerful over the years (Nouwen, 1992, p. 71).

    The elder son bore witness to the same event as did the fatherthe return of a son

    that was as good as dead. In the father, the homecoming generated spontaneous joy and celebration. The other cannot receive this joy, because ―joy and resentment cannot coexist‖

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