Two Portraits of Parenting – God and Us

Genesis 20:1-18

Luke 15:11-32

When Kate and I found out she was pregnant, I was anxious. I had just finished my doctoral dissertation and the position I had at the time would be ending the month our child was to be born. But, more than that, I pondered what kind of father I would be. We hadn’t expected a baby, then. We had hoped to have our lives together professionally and financially, and we had been married less than a year.

To prepare, I read books, prayed, and vowed to be the best father I could be – a man my son could look up to, fallible, yet trustworthy, faithful, and loving; someone he could count on through hell and high water. The kind of man who could affirm, in the words of Tom Petty, “they can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

For me, parenting and grandparenting is a vocation. It is at the heart of what it means for me to follow Jesus, be spiritual leader of a church, and be a husband. I love my family because I love God , and I love God by loving my family.

Today’s scriptures present two portraits of parenting – Abraham and his relationship to Isaac and Jesus’ story of a father whose son ran away to live a life of self-destruction. In looking at these stories, we also see two portraits of God, and two images around which to shape our lives. You see, we become like the gods we affirm and not all images of God lead to loving and godly behaviors.

What I am going to say may be a little controversial, especially my reading of the relationship of God, Abraham and Isaac, but hear me out. As the story goes, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. We don’t know what initially Abraham thought, or how he felt, but he obeyed the God he worshipped, even placing his son on an altar, even willing to kill his son to satisfy the desires of God. Fortunately, a male goat comes along at the right time, and Isaac is spared.

What would you have done if God asked you to kill your child or grandchild? Would you have obeyed?

This story is often cited as an example of obedience and reward. Abraham is blessed because he is willing to make the ultimate parental sacrifice, kill his only son for God’s sake.

Now, I’m not so sure about this. As a matter of fact, and I have pondered this story a good deal, a more faithful response would have been to say “no” to God, or to have bartered with God, “take me, let me die, kill me in his place.”

I wonder how Isaac felt. I know that children who have been abused feel trauma their whole life long. Was Isaac ever able to trust his father again? Was he ever able to trust God again? Yes, God saved him, but God was prepared to kill him, and the worst kind of parenting – and image of God – is one that rotates between abuse and love, and threat and reprieve.

I honestly think this story should be struck from scripture unless it is used to portray a negative and unacceptable image of God. God may ask sacrifice in the course of our lives, but God will not ask us to sacrifice our most beloved relationships, our children, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

Some people excuse God for behaviors that would lead to arrest if one of us did it – destroying communities, sending plagues, flooding the planet, sending hurricanes and earthquakes, AIDS, and massacres at night clubs to punish a nation for its acceptance of homosexuality. The God who sends tornado and cancer, heart attack and building collapse or terrorist attacks, to punish or teach a lesson is more a demon than a deity.

Then there is the much loved story of the prodigal father, whose son wants his freedom so much he turns his back on his parents, takes his inheritance, gets hooked on drugs and alcohol, and finds himself homeless and in the gutter. I am sure the father and the mother – yes, there is a mother behind the scenes in this story, and mother love can be pretty fierce – were heartbroken and distressed. I am sure if God came to Abraham’s wife Sarah, rather than Abraham, she would have told God a thing or two and told God where to go with his child sacrifice!

I suspect the father – and mother – kept tabs on their son. I know my friends with addicted children keep tabs on theirs, interceding to keep him out of jail, hiring detectives to make sure they’re not dead. The parents of this wayward son can’t control him, don’t like what he’s doing, but they still love him, and when they see him coming down the street they welcome him with open arms, throw a party, and embrace him as their child, with no guarantees that he won’t fall off the wagon again. Love, unconditional love, doesn’t require guarantees: while the behavior of others shapes how we love, it does not our nullify love, or God’s. Just ask any parent of an opioid or heroin addict; just ask a mother or father whose child is on death row. And, if we, as imperfect as we are, love that much, won’t God love all the more?

The story is told of a man who had a beloved dog. They traveled the world over, went through good times and bad, side by side, loving each other. When the man died, his companion animal also died, and yet they remained joined as he began the journey to heaven with his dog by his side. When he came to the gates of the heaven, St. Peter stopped him. “Your dog can’t come in,” Peter cautioned. “Well, if my dog can’t come in, I won’t either. I won’t betray my companion even if there’s hell to pay.” At that moment, the gates of heaven opened and angels sang out, and God spoke, “Your love has saved you. Your love of your companion mirrors my love for you. Welcome home, you and your beloved dog.”

Yes, love never ends. Love is stronger than death. And, let me add a little theology: I believe that coming to know Jesus as your companion is one of the most important things in life. Coming to know Jesus gives us assurance that our sins are forgiven, we can begin anew, and that in life and death, we are in God’s hands. It gives us a reason to live and love, and fight for justice even if the odds are against us. But, as I’ve said before, there are only two kinds of people: those who are in God’s hands and know it, and those who are in God’s hands and don’t.

Some of us have good friends and children who don’t believe in God, who haven’t met Jesus, who call themselves atheists or agnostics, but let me assure you that love is stronger than death – love is eternal –and that while we should share good news with them, they are in God’s hands. God will welcome them, perhaps surprising them, with the words “welcome home, there’s a feast waiting, you belong.”

Let it be so. For God is the all-loving parent, who inspires us to love, especially when the going gets rough and the future is uncertain for us and those we love.