Prodigal Parents

by Elouise

Every now and then something simple changes everything.  Not reality itself, but the way I view it.  Usually it’s already sitting right in front of me, waiting for me to get it.   When I do, it’s exciting, exhilarating, sometimes painful, yet always liberating.

I felt that way years ago when I first realized my parents were prodigals.  But that wasn’t all.  As a young person and as a parent, I was also a prodigal.  Not because of riotous living, but thanks to a theme in Scripture that was staring at me all along.

In 1996 I wrote it up as an advent meditation for the alumni magazine of the seminary at which I taught.  The following meditation is a version of that original piece.

Is There Room in Your Heart? | A Meditation 

In Luke 1, 16-17 (NRSV), the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah what his coming son, John, will accomplish during his lifetime:

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous,
to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

The same theme has already been announced in the closing verses of Hebrew Scriptures, Malachi 4:5-6 (NRSV):

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
He will turn the hearts of parents to their children
and the hearts of children to their parents,
so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

It seems that John, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s coming son, is going to act as God’s messenger to “turn” people in a certain direction.  In Scripture, turning is connected to repenting.  Here, it’s connected to turning back toward something or someone left behind.

So what’s been left behind?  It seems two things have been lost.  It seems that the story of the people of Israel turning away from God is also the story of parents turning their hearts away from their children.  From the beginning, the story of the nation’s birth includes stories about parents who turned their hearts away from their children.

  • Lot’s daughters, betrayed by their father
  • Esau and Jacob, favored by one parent or the other
  • Leah and Rachel, used by their father Laban to his own advantage
  • Dinah, neglected and abandoned by her father Jacob
  • Dinah’s brothers, whose father Jacob loved them less than their brother Joseph
  • Tamar, whose father-in-law Judah failed to fulfill his obligation to care for her after she was widowed

It would be comforting if these were isolated, unfortunate behaviors of a misguided parent here and there.  But they aren’t.  In fact, I see reflections of my family’s story in bits and pieces of Israel’s family stories.

It would be convenient, if not easy, to argue that the real problem is our children.  They’re the real prodigals!  Just look at them!  After all we’ve done they’ve turned their hearts against us!  We get no respect!  Don’t they know we always had their best interests at heart?  Just look at them!  It’s all their fault!

In other words, we parents wouldn’t be so lost if our children hadn’t rebelled against us!  Don’t look at us!  We didn’t start it!  Just look at them!

I wonder.  Exactly what does it mean for parents to turn their hearts toward their children?  What would that look like?

Fortunately, Zechariah shows and tells us how it’s done.  He does this when he greets and blesses John, his and Elizabeth’s new son.  It’s simple, yet profoundly difficult.

Turning our hearts toward our children means at least this:

  • Opening our mouths and freeing our frozen tongues to bless God and, in the same breath, to bless our children
  • Speaking to our children directly from our hearts about God’s tender mercy toward us and toward them
  • Passing on to each of them how fully God knew and cared for them before they were born
  • Expecting, welcoming and celebrating them as human beings created in God’s image, called to be God’s beloved daughters and sons

This means that turning our hearts to our children isn’t about romanticizing them or showering them with material goods.  It isn’t even about bonds of human affection—as wonderful as they are.

Rather, it’s about doing what we see Zechariah doing:

  • Preparing for the appearance of the Lord by turning and facing in the right direction
  • Giving up preoccupation with ourselves, with what we think we can’t do, and what we think can’t possibly happen
  • Accepting a new way of seeing the world and our children in it
  • Coming to realize that loss of hope for our children is a sign we’ve lost hope in God
  • Acknowledging by our changed behavior that God’s work in this world may well belong more to our children and to their children than to us

We abandon our children when our mouths no longer communicate God’s blessing to them, speak of God’s tender mercy, or confirm God’s calling of them.

We become estranged when we fail to confess how we’ve turned away from them,  and to ask for their forgiveness.

We endanger them when we try to figure things out by ourselves and operate out of lonely, even proud isolation from the rest of God’s people.

We use them when we take things into our own hands in attempts to control outcomes noble and ignoble, to cover over our failures, or to advance and promote our own welfare.

We betray them when we become silent and passive instead of speaking and acting on their behalf regardless of the outcome.

In fact, it seems the way we treat the children among us is connected to the way we treat God.  Insofar as our parent-hearts aren’t turned toward our children, to that extent our hearts aren’t turned toward God.

Making room for children isn’t optional.  Neither is making room for repentance.

The children of Israel and all the children of this world wait expectantly.  Is there room in our adult hearts for repentance?  Is there room for our children?

If there’s room in our hearts for our children of any age, perhaps it might be easier to make room in our hearts for our parents of any age.  What do you think?

Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 September 2014