All in the Family

Mar 06 2016


Some of you may remember the TV series, “All in the Family.” The lead character, Archie Bunker, is a loudmouthed, uneducated bigot who believes in every stereotype he has ever heard. His wife, Edith, is sweet but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. They and their daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike, all live in a working-class home. Unfortunately for Archie, he can't avoid the people he disdains: His son-in-law -- whom Archie calls "Meathead" -- is an unemployed student and of Polish descent; the Jeffersons next door are black; Edith's cousin Maude is a feminist; and, later, his partners in a local tavern are Jewish. The interplay between Archie’s comments, Edith’s lack of understanding, and Meathead and Gloria’s retorts were quite humorous. That show would not make it on TV today, but it did show the interplay and emotions among family members.

What we have today in the parable that Jesus related to the people was a different kind of family, but a family with problems nonetheless. Two sons, both set to inherit their father’s fortune. One son whom some would call “no-good” wanted his inheritance early so he could live a good life – or what he thought was a good life. The father finally relented, gave him his portion, and the son left. Needless to say, the other son was resentful and the father felt he had lost one of his sons.

When Jesus told a parable, he was trying to relate a lesson or idea to people using stories and terms that they would understand. One of the most well-known parables is the Parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son. Probably every parent has, at one time or another, felt some of the emotions we find in the father of the two sons in this parable. In fact, the range of emotions which I am certain encompassed this father can be found in many parents today and in many situations which take parents from the heights of joy to the depths of despair.

To illustrate, let me use an example from one of the expulsion hearings I chaired. A single mother came with her son to the hearing. Her son, currently a ninth grader, had been found with marijuana in school. He didn’t have a lot, but he had enough to take him to expulsion. During the expulsion hearing, the son took the stand. At one point he was asked, “Did you ever smoke it at home?”

He hesitated, then answered, ‘yes.’ It was obvious from the mom’s reaction that she had not known this. The mom took the stand and explained that she was raising five children as a single parent, that she set strict rules for them, and that his older siblings were all doing fine.

She expressed her disappointment in his behavior then turned to him and said, “I cannot make decisions for you. I have taught you the difference between right and wrong and you know it. If you want to make decisions that will land you in jail, do not expect me to visit you. They are your decisions, and if you want to go down that path, I will not be there. For that reason I let you sit in detention for two weeks, and I hope you learned a lesson.”

Another mother came with her son and testified, “I have tried. There is nothing more that I can do with this boy. You need to do what you need to do and he will have to deal with it.”

Joy and despair. Choices and consequences.

Did the father of the Prodigal Son love his sons? Of course. Did he love the one who strayed more than the one who stayed? I doubt it. For he said to the one who stayed, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; was lost and has been found.”

Did he love the one who strayed less than the one who stayed? I don’t think so. When the younger son went to the father and asked for his share of the property, the father divided it and gave it to the son, who promptly left, went to a foreign country, and squandered all his wealth on what we would call today, wine, women and song.

One can only imagine what the behavior of the son must have been prior to leaving. The father might even have thought that having the son gone would make life easier for the family, but we do not know that. We are left to imagine what must have been going on and what the final straw might have been that precipitated the action of the son’s wanting to leave.

But the story revolves around the prodigal son’s return. Is he remorseful? Yes. He is willing to be treated as a ‘hired hand’ by his father and resolves to tell his father how sorry he is. Needless to say, the father was overjoyed to see the prodigal son return and threw a big party for him.

But sibling rivalry reared its ugly head and the obedient son was so angry that he did not want to go into the party to celebrate. He believed that he had been wronged.

There is a saying in education that 10% of the kids create 90% of the problems. I suppose that could be true in families where there is one sibling that always seems to get in trouble, and the poor parents have no idea why because all of the other children have turned out just fine.

But wasn’t the reaction of the father justified? Shouldn’t he have been happy that a son whom he thought was lost was now back home? Shouldn’t he have thrown a party?

There are many lost children. For some, I wonder if there will ever come a time when they will realize what their actions are doing to themselves and one another. I wonder if some, in their tender ages, even realize what they are doing. But their actions leave other families childless; their actions render others, some minor children, addicted; their actions create a huge drain on the judicial system and our medical facilities. So how should we treat them?

If Jesus is trying to tell us that there will be some who will repent, then we need to be there for them. If Jesus is trying to tell us that there will be some who need our help, then we need to be there for them. If there are families who need our help because those who have gone astray have wreaked havoc in someone else’s family, then we need to be there for both families. If there are cold, heartless people who refuse to see the impact that their actions are having on their employees and mess up their businesses so badly that the employees are jobless and homeless, then we need to be there for the employers and the employees. And as babies are born to teenage mothers, then we need to be there to make hats for their heads and quilts to cover their shivering, little bodies.

We may not like the decisions that others make. In fact, we may downright hate the decisions that others make that put us and our fellow human beings at risk, subject them and us to being injured or even being killed, but there will always be those who need our help, our forgiveness, our love, and our acceptance.

There will be times when those whom we have helped will have used us and manipulated us. There will be times when those whom we help are masters at deception and manipulation. But there will also be times when those whom we help have genuine gratitude and love in their hearts because someone finally helped.

It is easy to be cynical when someone who has lived a life of disrepute and crime appears to want to turn his or her life around, but the father of the prodigal son made the right decision – he rejoiced. We ought to rejoice, too. And we ought to continue to help in whatever ways we can, until we are proven wrong. Amen.