Any one of these acts would have been shocking in a patriarchal, first century community, and the fact that the father did all of these things tells us that his foremost concern was for his son’s growth and maturity.  He was willing to risk everything – his money, standing in the community, and reputation – to ensure his son became the man he was designed to be.  When you understand that the father in the story represents our Heavenly Father, the implications are staggering!  Our Father’s concern, first and foremost, is for our redemption.  He is willing to endure humiliation, scorn, pain and even death on a cross to win us back to Him.  What a Dad!

What else can we learn about parenting from the Prodigal’s Father?  First, let me suggest the dad in the story knew that personal experience would be the best teacher for his younger son, as opposed to lectures, orders or nagging.  He was willing to sacrifice his personal wealth and comfort to let the son make significant (and poor) choices with his life.  Why would the father allow this?  Because he knew his words were not reaching this son effectively and that authentic heart change would only come from the boy’s personal experience.

Second, the father let the consequences of the son’s experience teach important life lessons.  These consequences were serious – loss of friends and status, poverty and starvation, to name a few.  Yet, dad did not ride to the rescue.  And, even when the boy came to his senses, repented and returned, the father never said, “I told you so!”  That had to be hard, but the father didn’t need to reinforce the lesson.  The experience and consequences were enough.

Third, the father let the son know that no matter how foolish, rebellious and angry he had been, he would always be welcomed back to the family.  No matter how difficult the situation became, his desire was always for heart change and a restored relationship with the son.  That meant the father couldn’t rescue him from the consequences because the lesson would have been lost.  But it also meant the father was committed to loving the son wherever he ended up.  You can almost hear him saying, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5), even if it meant loving a son working on a pig farm or some other place of ill repute.

Finally, the father’s conversation with the older brother tells us a parent’s love must be unconditional, whether the children rebel or comply. Isn’t it fascinating that, despite the outward appearance, the older brother didn’t seem to love the father any more than the younger one?  He didn’t protest when the property was divvied up at the beginning of the story.  He described his labor on behalf of the father as “slavery”.   He demonstrated the ultimate sign of a compliant legalist – entitlement.  His behavior towards the father was designed to force the father to reward him with his inheritance, rather than being a grateful response to the father’s loving provision.  He was running away from the father’s love just as much as his brother, but in a socially acceptable, self-righteous kind of way.  Of course, the father gives the older son the same response as the younger – he gently lets this son know that compliance didn’t earn him anything.  He already has everything the father has just by being his son.  Working for the father should have been his response, rather than a condition, to his love.

The story of the prodigal “son” challenges parents to value real heart change and authenticity over superficial compliance.  James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”  Although it’s tough, sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our kids is to allow the transforming power of personal experience. 

Parenting by Design ( was created by Chris & Michelle Groff with Lee Long, MA, LPC to help parents understand the Biblical model for parenting their children. It is a faith-based parenting series that compares current parenting paradigms to the ageless parenting principles in the Bible.

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