It is easy to read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and come away with a very bad parenting strategy for rebellious children. Some might read the parable and think, “If God the Father gives his child everything he asked for (Luke 15:12), then I should to.”
That may sound far-fetched at first, but throw in a little parental guilt, child persuasiveness, and life too busy to think things through, and it is easier to fall into than you might think. “It’s just this one time… What good is my stuff, if my children don’t like me… It’s going to be theirs anyway… It is easier than listening to them whine… I want my children to be happy.” Sound or feel familiar?
However, I think there is a more dangerous parenting strategy that is often extracted from this passage. More dangerous for two reasons: first, because most parents (at least those who want to) can see through the first error. But second, because the second error happens at the point of return. The second error sabotages repentance and, therefore, leaves the child trapped in their folly even when the alarms of reality have awakened them (15:17).
The second error sees God the Father running to the prodigal (15:20) and mistakes this for rescuing the prodigal from his sin. The misguided parent sees the compassion of God and thinks they are mirroring His grace when they rescue their child from the consequences of their sin. They hear the Father not allowing the prodigal to even finish his repentance (15:21-22) and do not require repentance before they begin going the extra mile to make things “normal” again.
Let’s consider the parable to understand why it does not teach us to respond this way. First, the parable is a parable. A parable exists to teach a single point. It is not an allegory which teaches many points. This parable is not about parenting. It is confrontation of self-righteousness that does not allow us to rejoice when those “beneath us” are embraced by God.
Second, (admittedly, violating the previous point) the Father does not chase after the prodigal. In the previous two parables the God-character does seek after the lost coin and lost sheep. But these are inanimate or witless things. The son is willfully lost and the Father knows that as long as the prodigal sees sin as beautiful, seeking to make things “normal” is futile. The Father’s running is not rescue, but merely a demonstration of joy at repentance (the point of the parable).
Third, the prodigal does come to a full repentance. The Father’s interrupting is not omitting this vital component of change. Rather, it demonstrates that it is not the son’s eloquence, emotion, or manipulation that wooed the Father, but repentance itself that released His forgiveness.
If we learn any parenting principles from this passage, it would be the following. (1) A parent should be willing to receive back a repentant child regardless of their sin. (2) A parent should pray diligently and longingly for a wayward child to wake up to the damage of their sin. (3) Waiting for this waking can be a painfully long wait that allows the child to experience great need (15:14).
These same principles apply to most relationships where love would compel us to try to rescue someone from their sin before they release their sin. These comments should not be taken to advise restraint in speaking the truth in love or to show general forms of expression. They are merely meant to be a warning not to take this example of God’s grace as a precedent for thinking that love which compromises truth will lead to lasting change.