In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 there are many lessons to learn. We have often heard this parable used in preaching the gospel, with its lessons of repentance and forgiveness. However, in this article I would like to look at lessons for family life that can be gleaned from the behavior of the son and the father.
I have titled the article “Just Say No,” and patterned it after a program that former First Lady Nancy Regan started in the 1980s for drug education. Indeed there are several occasions in the story of the prodigal when, as a parent, you would be tempted to respond this way, but it may prove wrong. There are other occasions, however, where “no” is just the right response.
The whole story begins with poor decisions by a younger son (Lk 15:12-13). We all long for wise children but recognize that “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child” (Prov 22:15). The rest of the verse speaks about the rod of correction, but there comes a time when you just have to say “no.” Children come of age when you no longer can correct them with the rod. Sometimes a child needs to learn life’s lessons the hard way. Of course it does not always turn out well, but in some cases, as with this parable, the education process in the far country proved valuable. There were painful but important lessons learned that lead to repentance and restoration. Imagine what may have happened if the father just said “no.” What may have been the consequences of “No you can’t go!” or, “No you can’t have your inheritance”? The wayward son probably would have left anyway and perhaps there would have been no fondness left in his heart to want to return after all.
It is also easy to criticize the father in his hasty decision to comply with the son’s demands of “give me” (Lk 15:12). Surely, “a wise son heareth his father’s instruction” (Prov 13:1). However, who better than the father to realize that he no longer had a wise son.
As a parent it is hard, indeed impossible, to keep a grown child against his will. This son’s heart was set on leaving and there was nothing the father could do. There would be no rest (Prov 29:9) in this house until the son had left. Did this make the father happy? Not likely. Undoubtedly he felt sadness as in Proverbs 17:25, “A foolish son is a grief to his father.”
As Christians, what is our role? We can stand back and criticize or just say “no” to critical thinking and try to be compassionate and caring (Eph 4:32; Col 3:12). The Psalmist knew what it was like to be alone with no one to take pity and these same words are prophetic of the Lord Jesus Christ’s sufferings (Ps 69:19). We need to break the cycle of comfortlessness and just say “no.” The father and this family had grief enough; they don’t need us to be miserable comforters (Job 16:2).
There is additional thinking that requires Christians to just say “no.” This is perhaps the most difficult part because it touches on the psychological trauma of the parents. The son went into a far country where he wasted his living and ultimately was in want. No doubt the father was thinking, “What did I do wrong? Where did I go wrong?” It is normal to feel grief and bitterness (Prov 17:25), heaviness (Prov 10:1), and shame (Prov 28:7). Then the question arises, “Am I to blame?” “Is it I?” (Mat 26:22).
The first response of a parent is “it must be my fault. I didn’t train the child well” (Prov 22:6). Remember, however, that even the writer of Proverbs noted that when the child is old he will not depart. Some children take a long time at getting old and wise which is not at all the parent’s fault. The idea that the failure of the child is somehow the failure of the parent requires us to just say “no.” This faulty idea was also dealt with by the Lord Jesus. He reminded the disciples that a child’s blindness was not the result of parental sin (Jn 9:3.) Disobedience to parents (2 Tim 3:2) is due to the sin of the son, not the parents.
Finally, one more occasion requires us to just say “no.” The son comes home, not reluctantly, but repentantly, and is welcomed with open arms (Lk 15:22-4). The father could have launched into a tirade of “I told you so,” but rather, he warmly receives the wayward son with open arms. It is necessary and Christ-like to be forbearing and forgiving (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32). Remember, rejoicing (Lk 15:6, 9, 24, 32) is much better than recrimination.