The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/16/96
Text: Luke 15:11-24
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Kids are fun. A little girl came home from Sunday School. "What did you learn today?" her father asked. She responded, "All I heard was that the children of Israel did this and the children of Israel did that. Didn't the grown ups do anything?"

Another one. The new baby came home from the hospital. The three-year-old met her new brother at the door and tagged along like a shadow as he was carried in and placed in the basinet. Big sister stood and watched in fascination and noticed that the new arrival was still wearing his ID bracelet. She asked, "Mommy, when are you going to take off his price tag?"

Another Sunday School story. Two very modern little girls were solemnly discussing the lesson while coming home after church one day. One asked, "Do you believe in the Devil?" The other promptly responded, "No, of course not. It's just like Santa Claus - he's your father." Hmm. Happy Fathers Day.

I can picture something else like that. Think of a four-year-old coming home one Sunday after a lesson that taught about God as our Heavenly Father. Sound theology would quickly note that God is neither male nor female, but youngsters do not concern themselves with theological niceties. A four-year-old hears "Father;" the only father he knows anything about is the one that lives with him and says, "Pass the biscuits, please;" so he asks..."Is God like Daddy?" Wow! What a heavy load! But a good load to consider on Fathers' Day...and a good one to consider when we realize that what Daddy is can become a role model for our children's concept of God.

Is God like Daddy? Quite a question. It would be beautiful if all the children here could say an absolute YES to that, but we know that is not true. "Family responsibility was a major theme of the Million Man March in Washington last year, as it is of the revival-style meetings of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical group that has been filling stadiums all over the country."(1) It was years before Martin Luther was able to call God "Father" because of the awful memories of his own father while growing up. One would hope that is not a problem for you.

That story we read in our scripture lesson a moment ago we all know as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," but somehow, the father has always been much more fascinating to me than his children, and a good man to consider on this Fathers' Day. Neither one of the sons were particularly special, but Dad was quite a man.

He was obviously understanding. His boy comes to him and says, "Listen, I am tired of living in this fish bowl. You are one of the big shots in this town, everybody knows who I am because of you. I cannot do anything around here without somebody asking `Does your father approve?' I am tired of it and want to get out. Give me what I figure to inherit and let me be done with this lousy place."

I wonder what would have gone through Dad's mind. I am sure he would not have been happy about the request, but I wonder whether or not he might have remembered feeling the same way when he was that age. At any rate, he decided to go along and accede to the boy's wishes.

I wonder what went through my own father's mind about thirty-five years ago when I came to him and said I was leaving. As you may know, he was a minister, and everybody knows about preachers' kids. I did not ask for my portion of the inheritance, because everybody also knows about preachers' salaries. It would have amounted to about twenty bucks. At any rate, I wanted out. I was tired of church, tired of the people, tired of taking orders, tired of everything. I wanted to get as far away from Baltimore as I could, so I took a bus to...Seattle, 3,000 miles. I know now that it hurt my folks terribly that I would feel that way. It disappointed them that I would not go off to college like the rest of those my age. But they let me go...and I stayed away for almost a year. We kept in contact. There were letters and phone calls...collect of course. Then finally, after tiring of only being able to get little odd jobs, living in a ten-dollar-a-week room, and never really being sure I would have any money for something to eat, I wised up and decided I had better come home and go back to school. I called the folks, told them I wanted to return and asked if they would send the bus fare. I am not sure where they got the money, but Dad sent it and I came home. He was a very generous man with whatever he had.

The Prodigal's father was most generous too. When the boy asked for his portion of the inheritance, it was given to him. In that part of the world, the second son was given one-half of what the first son was given, if anything. In this case, we are probably talking about one-third of the estate of a man who was fairly well off, because during the course of the account, there are references to well-fed servants, robes, rings, shoes and banquets. It is safe to assume that Junior rode off from the old homestead with quite a haul.

I am not sure how many modern fathers would consider such a thing. Or for that matter, COULD consider such a thing. If my son came to me with a request like that today, I would probably fall over in a dead faint...first of all, because even though he is not quite sixteen years old, he does know about preachers' salaries, but secondly, because there is no way that I or most of us, could liquidate that many assets without going bankrupt. But still, the picture of a loving and generous father is what Jesus' story paints.

But along with the understanding and generosity, there was a deep, deep concern. If the story were set today, I could envision Dad coming to Mother and asking, "Anything in the mail today?" "Just two bills, a letter from my sister and a reminder from the church that pledge Sunday is coming up." "Nothing from Junior?" "No...still nothing." His concern grew to such an extent that each afternoon he would go out to the end of his long, winding driveway and peer off in the distance...hoping, hoping that by some miracle, he would see his boy coming back to him. And then finally, one day it happened.

That lone figure way off down the road...almost unrecognizable as the son who had left this home. He was dressed in rags instead of a fine robe. The shoes he had worn were long since gone. The rings and jewels that were part of his inheritance had long ago been sold to buy food. Then when those ran out, he had taken a job slopping hogs. It did not pay him enough even to keep body and soul together. He would have been happy to have been able to eat what the pigs had. But, of course, that is what drove him back home...a shadow of the young man who had left not all that long ago.

I can see the face of that father...eyes getting as wide as dinner plates, the jaw dropping and suddenly being completely enveloped in the biggest smile anyone could imagine. Then the run down the road, as fast as those aging legs could carry him. The weary son just standing and staring at the sight approaching him, then when Dad finally arrived, throwing his arms about the boy, smothering him with kisses and saying, "My son!" Then just hugging and hugging and hugging some more.

When the boy could finally get a few words out, he tried to apologize and ask forgiveness for having sinned against God and his Dad and then ask to be able to come home and live as one of the servants, but Pop would have none of it. There was no question of forgiveness. All Junior had to do was turn his young face toward home, and forgiveness was his just for wanting to return to the family. It is a beautiful picture of what God expects a father to be and what we can expect of God as our Heavenly, understanding, generosity, concern, forgiveness, and so much more. If God is like Daddy, Daddy had to be all of them.

But there is one more note for earthly fathers in this parable. When Junior finally came to his senses, when he realized how much he was missing, he intuitively knew the cause...sin. The words of the scripture are "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you." Perhaps "intuitively" is not the proper word, because I suspect that more than intuition was involved. This was the kind of home in which the concept of sin and its consequences would have been taught to that boy from his childhood. His father was not like so many today who shy away from any sort of religious education for their children. They say they do not want to force anything down their kids' throats. "Wait till they get older, then let them make up their own minds." Well, bunk! If the Prodigal's father had felt that way, the boy might still be in the pig sty without any idea of what put him there.

But he was not. He would have been the kind of Dad who would have taken his boys to Sunday School and Church, not just sent them. He would have helped out with the church Youth Group. He would never have indicated that he valued secular education more highly than that received at church. Just because it rained on a Monday, that would be no excuse for skipping school; and by the same token, a rainy Sunday would be no excuse for missing Sunday School. His system of values would have been obvious.

Of course, I do not know all this. After all, this is a parable - these are fictional characters. But I think we can reasonably assume those things because that is the kind of man the father is presented to be.

There is one other thing that I do not know, but that I like to assume anyway. I think the Prodigal Son would have turned out to be a pretty fine fellow. Over and over again through history we hear stories of wayward sons coming to their senses because of the influence of their fathers during their early life. There are others who were never particularly wayward, but still say they became what they did because of their fathers.

Reinhold Niebuhr was the son of a minister. One afternoon, while walking home with his father from a local celebration, his father asked, "Have you thought, Reinhold, about what you want to be?" "Yes." "What?" "A minister." "Why?" "Because you are the most interesting man in town."(2) Niebuhr became one of the most thoughtful and articulate theologians of this century.

Billy Graham became the man he is today because of the influence of his Christian home. People who knew his father used to say that they would rather have Frank Graham pray for them than anyone.(3)

D. T. Niles of Ceylon, who at the time of his death, was probably the best known preacher in all of Asia, was sent to live with his grandfather when he was only a year old. His mother had died and his father was unable to care for him. Niles wrote, "I went to live with my grandfather until I went to school. After that, I spent all my holidays with him." Niles first considered the ministry as a vocation under the influence of the one who had become the father-figure in his life, his grandfather.(4) As that old saying has it, "No matter how you teach a child, he insists on behaving like his parents."

His little arms crept round my neck,
And then I heard him say,
Four simple words I can't forget,
Four words that made me pray.
They turned a mirror on my soul,
On secrets no one knew,
They startled me, I hear them yet,
He said, "I'll be like you."(5)

What an awesome responsibility! Fatherhood. We present our children in baptism and promise to raise them in the knowledge and love of God, then too often we forget that as our sons and daughters grow and learn, they come to that question, "Is God like Daddy?" Are you sure you would like to hear the response to that one, Dad? If you are not certain, then this Father's Day can be the day, by the power of the Spirit of a loving Heavenly Father, to make a new start.


1.Jerry Adler, "Building a Better Dad," Newsweek, 6/17/96, p. 60
2.June Bingham, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, (New York: Scribners, 1961), p. 58
3.Clyde Fant & William Pinson, eds, Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Vil. XII, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971), p. 282
4.ibid., p. 168
5.Herbert Parker quoted by Ben Strohbehn, "Like Father, Like Son," Faith for the Family, May/June 1975, p. 6

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