For the past two weeks at NewCity we've been exploring the question of "What Is the Gospel" by reflecting on the well-known parable of Luke 15:11-32, often dubbed "The Prodigal Son." A closer look at this parable, however, makes clear that it's really more about the older brother than the younger brother.
The two brothers really aren't that different from each other. Both are rebellious: the younger brother rebels by running away to sleep with prostitutes and live in debauchery; the older brother rebels by refusing to join the festivities the father throws on behalf of the younger brother. Both are greedy in that neither is at all satisfied by the father himself but rather long for what he has to offer. Both are full of pride, supposing that they're in a position to tell the father what he can and cannot do. Both are ultimately seeking control over their lives. In short, both are alienated from the father; the only difference is that the younger accomplishes this by being really bad, the older by being really "good." At the end of the day, both have exalted the self and wealth over their relationship with the father. (The father, of course, represents God in the parable.)
What Jesus teaches us--in his usual winsome manner--is that sin is a matter of the heart; that is, being bad goes beyond breaking divine rules much in the way being good is more than keeping them. Sin, therefore, happens in both the "good" and the "bad" whenever someone/something becomes more ultimate than God by taking the seat of our hearts.
How does this deeper understanding of sin invite us to think about parenting differently? More than a few parents tend to categorize their children as "he's the good one" and "he . . . well, we don't know where he came from." We know this either because we as parents have done this or because we as children have experienced this (I was the "black sheep" in my family)--or both. Such labels simply demonstrate our naive understanding of sin; we fail to see that the "good" kid is just as lost as the "bad" kid. Perhaps even more, as the parable suggests, because being good often blinds us from realizing how far we are from God.
I've spent some years tutoring. I've tutored "bad" students, students who never graduated high school. Then I've tutored "good" students whose main goal was to break the 99% on the SAT to get a perfect score and go on to MIT. Both, I've come to see, are equally lost; but the "good" ones seem more dangerous because--like the older brother in the parable--they tend to lack compassion, saying things like, "God helps those who help themselves" or "They had it coming"; their naked ambition goes unchecked, as was the case for many high profile CEOs engaged in notorious scandals (e.g., Jeffrey Skilling/Enron); and they become incredibly resentful when life doesn't play out the way they thought it should. The "bad" students at least know they're bad and therefore are "dispositioned" to better understand--and give--grace.
Good parenting requires a deeper understanding of sin that encourages parents to ask both their "good" kids and their "bad" kids the probing-heart question of why. Why is it that you absolutely must get into an Ivy League? Why is it so important to you to get in with that crowd? Why are you so angry about winning second place? Why don't you care about school and your studies? All these questions aim at helping children understand sin, idolatry, repentance, and new life in Jesus, which really is what our primary calling as parents involves.
Of course we can only this do well if we, as parents, are regularly asking ourselves the question of who/what is ruling our own hearts.