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Ministering to the Prodigal Son (or Daughter)

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Mom and young adult daughter sitting, holding hands, and having heart-to-heart talk
How do you parent in the face of some interesting (and possibly foolish) decisions on the part of your child?

During the early years, you changed a lot of dirty diapers, picked up a lot of messes and sacrificially stomached mashed peas in an attempt to set a good example. Seemingly overnight, job duties evolved from potty training and bandaging boo-boo’s, to helping with homework, baking cupcakes for the class party and giving driving lessons. While you certainly struggled with how to parent in some situations, at least your child was nearby while the task was at hand.

Now, she’s left home, and the term “parenting” may seem more abstract. How do you parent a child who’s largely grown? How do you parent from afar? And most dauntingly, how do you parent in the face of some interesting (and possibly foolish) decisions on the part of your child?

In Luke 15, we find a father facing the same dilemma. He had two sons, both old enough to go-it on their own, or at least old enough to believe they could. The younger demanded his inheritance pre-mortem (talk about a slap in the face!) and, soon after, “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13).

Maybe this is a story you can relate to, at least in part. While you might not have given your child his inheritance, considering the college bills you’re footing, you may feel like you have. Maybe you preferred that your child attend an in-state college, only to have him announce at dinner that he will be attending the furthest institution away from home. Or maybe you were pleased with your child’s choice of educational institutions, but later disappointed to learn that he had squandered your wealth, his wealth or the borrowed-wealth of a major credit card company. Maybe this story is your worst fears put to paper.

Most of us know the ending to Christ’s parable. The son realizes the error of his ways, returns home expecting slavery but is greeted by an elated, gracious, generous father who welcomes him home with favor and open arms.

What did this father do right, and how can you continue to parent your almost-grown kid who has ventured out on his own?

  • Accept the fact that your ministry to your child has changed. For you, this is a difficult time of transition from teacher to advisor. We don’t know exactly what conversation ensued after the younger son prematurely (and senselessly) demanded his inheritance. But the father realized that some lessons can only truly be learned by experience. He let his son make a mistake, then sat back and waited. I’m sure he did a lot of praying as well.
  • Welcome your child back with open arms. After going broke, selling himself into slavery and even longing to fill his stomach with pig grub, it dawned on the son that even his dad’s hired men had more than enough to survive on. It would have been a knee-jerk reaction for the father to yell, “Duh! I’ve been telling you this all along! And it took you all this time, and all this money, to figure it out?”

    But verse 20 tells us that, “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.”

    Whether or not your child has made a grave mistake (or a whole heap of them!), welcome him back with grace. Applaud the wise decisions he made, even if the only one was asking for help.

  • Acknowledge your own status as a “prodigal son.” It may be easy to become so wrapped up in this story (and how strikingly familiar it sounds to our children’s stories) that we forget each of us has also been a prodigal son – all figuratively, and some literally.

    “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8b). He didn’t cease to love us, or prepare good things for us, until we had come to our senses. Rather, He anticipated our homecoming and made preparations so that, like the father in the parable, He could welcome us home with all the best.

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