Parenting with the Parables – The Automatic Kingdom

“And Jesus was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows – how, he himself does not know.  The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.  But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come’ ” (Mk 4:26-29).

Lest we become discouraged by the two kingdoms – the wheat and the weeds of our last parable – growing together, Jesus gives us a message of hope in the parable of the automatic kingdom.  And the message of hope is that the good kingdom will not be choked out by evil, but will grow, flourish, and prosper in the present age.  How do we know this?

There is an interesting Greek word buried in the middle of this parable.  Notice in verse 28 that the seed – the kingdom of God – is growing “by itself”.  “The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head” (Mk 4:28).  By itself is translated from the Greek word automatos; the Greek root of our English word, automatic.  We are all familiar with the word “automatic” used to describe things that seem to run “by itself”, like an automatic transmission or an automatic dishwasher.

The point is that the kingdom of God is so unstoppable that it appears to be growing automatically.  And we know from the rest of Scripture that God is causing the growth that appears to be automatic.  As Jesus proclaimed, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it” (Mt 1:18).

This message of hope is a message for us and our children to not be downcast by the evil in our world.  When it does not appear to us that things are happening fast enough, when evidence of God’s growing kingdom is blurry, rest assured that God is at work.  Our role is not to fret, but to get involved and find where we can join the effort to grow the kingdom.

I recently returned from visiting some churches in a limited access country.  An elderly pastor shared with me that twenty years ago he thought the message of Christ was close to being extinguished in his country.  But his prayers never ceased, and the flame never went out.  And now he is thanking and praising the Lord as an incredible gospel wind is blowing through his country.  We cannot predict where the wind will blow or where a new outpost of the kingdom of God will sprout in full bloom.  But we have the assurance of Jesus, that the fire will never go out.

Parenting with the Parables – The Wheat and the Weeds

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the story of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:24-30) begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  What is coming next is a word picture describing some aspect of the kingdom of God.  In this parable, the farmer planted wheat (“the good seed”) in his field.  At night, his enemy came and sowed weeds.  At first no one realized the sabotage.  But as the wheat and the weeds began to grow together, it was obvious something was wrong.  The confused workers quizzed the farmer, “Did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have weeds?” (Mt 13:27).  The farmer recognizes this as the work of an enemy.  The workers respond with a willingness to immediately yank out the weeds.  But the farmer replies, “No, lest while you are gathering up the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.  Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “ (Mt 13:29-30).

At the disciples’ request, Jesus gives the interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:37-43.  “And He answered and said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.  Therefore just as the weeds are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  He who has ears, let him hear.’ “

The point of this parable is that good and evil – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil – are growing alongside each other in the present age.  And this understanding leads to important lessons for us and our children.

When our children are discouraged by the evil in the world, this parable is a great starting point for a discussion of Satan and his current role in the world.  God does have an arch-enemy.  And for reasons I can’t explain but are taught in this parable and throughout the New Testament, God has given some level of reign over this world to Satan.  “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19) is just one of many references to Satan’s current rule in this world.

We don’t like this “growing alongside” and would like to see the Old Testament method for dealing with evil put to use today.  The Old Testament model was God’s blessing for righteousness and punishment for evil were generally immediate, physical, and temporal.  Evil was not allowed to grow alongside righteousness.  That is what the workers had in mind in the parable.  “Should we use the Old Testament method and yank out these weeds on sight?  God replied, “Allow both to grow until the judgment at the end of the age.”  The banishment of evil and evildoers is coming, but not yet.  We would like to see evil destroyed in the here and now.

So when you see evil flourish, when you see the wicked prosper, do not despair.  God’s kingdom is growing and at work and will ultimately triumph.  This parable is meant to be an encouragement when we are discouraged by the power of evil in the world, including its presence in our own experience and our families and our community of believers.  God has ordained that the two kingdoms not only co-exist but grow alongside each other in the present age.  But God’s kingdom will not only triumph in the end, it will continue to grow and bloom in the church age.  And this growing kingdom for good is the topic of our next post.

Parenting with the Parables – The Humble Servant

Parenting is the ultimate and varied balancing act.  Balancing love and control.  Balancing grace and truth.  Balancing positive self-esteem and humility.  Balancing giving an allowance and children earning their money.  The list can be as general or specific as we choose.  Today, we are balancing generosity with duty.

“Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’?  But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’?  He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?  So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves, we have only done our duty’ ” (Lk 17:7-10).

In this short story, the landowner probably had only one slave who worked in the field and in the house.  When the slave was finished in the field, he was expected to prepare and serve dinner to the landowner before having time to himself.  There is no evidence that the landowner is harsh or callous, it is just the work that is expected of a slave in this culture.  In doing what was required, the slave did not do anything outstanding.

This parable portrays God as the master and we as the servant.  Following the servant’s example, when we have done our duty – “all the things which are commanded us” – we have merely done what is required; nothing more, nothing less.

Duty is obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or a function that arises from one’s position.  Our position is both slave and son of Christ.  We have a spiritual duty in both cases to do all that which is commanded.

Adults and kids alike do not generally like the word “duty”.  We want to be free to work or serve as we like.  We don’t like routine or obligatory jobs.  We don’t like things expected of us.  We want to treat each day as an open book.  But each day has responsibilities, chores, and expectations.  And this parable is a good foundation for teaching our children the value and importance of duty.  Learning to work, carrying out their duty, is a quality that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Now let’s be careful not to oversell the application of any one parable.  Our interpretation must fit the whole of Scripture.  A dad must not interpret this story as “I never need to thank or reward my child for doing their duty.”  That would exasperate our kids; something we are commanded not to do.  We need to balance the duty expectation with the practice of generosity; the way that Christ treats us.  Our attitude is not to always be looking for the reward, but it is great to give the reward for a job well done.

Parenting with the Parables – The Workers in the Vineyard

Today’s parable found in Matthew 20:1-16 starts with, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire laborers…”  Let me summarize the story.

A landowner has a lot of work that needs done in his vineyard.  Most likely, he needs workers to gather the harvest.  He goes out at six in the morning to the place where the day laborers congregate.  He hires a group of them and agrees to pay them one denarius, the going daily wage, for a day’s work in his vineyard.

The landowner goes back to the gathering place at three-hour intervals; i.e. at 9 am, noon, and 3 pm.  Notice the agreement he makes with the later workers, “You go to the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give to you.”  The “denarius for a day’s work” agreement is only with the first workers.  Finally, at 5 pm, with only an hour left in the working day, he goes back to the gathering place to find some unemployed workers still standing around.  Assuming they have been without work all day, they may have been the most unpromising workers.  At any rate, he hires them also; probably more out of compassion than for what they can accomplish in only one hour.

Now it is paycheck time.  Beginning with the last (one hour) workers, the master gives each laborer a denarius, no matter how long they worked.  Of course, this looks quite generous regarding the later workers so those first hired are expecting even more.  However, the first workers also receive a denarius and immediately grumble about it.  The master explains that they are getting a fair wage, exactly the wage they agreed to.  They protest that it is not fair, but the landowner kindly reminds them that, in fact, it is exactly fair.

Verse 15 and 16 is the climax of the story, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious because I am generous?  So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:15-16).  In other words, the landowner said, “Do I have a right to do what I want with my money?  Or are you envious because I am being generous?

This parable is focused on the incredible generosity of God’s grace.  God’s generosity has surprising upside-down effects even extending to “the last shall be first, and the first last.”  The coming of God’s kingdom was good news to the outcast, and bad news to the rich and powerful.  God’s grace is extremely generous.  And sometimes when we are already in the “in crowd”, we think it is too generous.

As you read the gospels, are you surprised by Jesus’ response to the prodigal son or the sinful woman who anointed His feet?  In these and many other instances, there was no thought of a probationary period to see if their repentance was real before Jesus extended His forgiveness.  Shouldn’t we wait and see if they prove their sincerity by their actions?  No, God’s grace is beautifully unfair in its generosity.

What about a lesson here for kids?

If you have more than one child in your family, you will run into the fairness issue about a million times in your child training years.  As parents, it is easy to get caught up in the fairness trap.  But it is a time, emotion, and energy drain.  It is not the way God treats us.  God has no commitment to our idea of fairness.

How does this work in practice?  I call it parenting with generosity, not fairness.  First, let me tell you what it is not.  Parenting with generosity is not parenting with favoritism or partiality.  We tried to make things as fair as possible in giving Christmas gifts, assigning jobs, in giving an allowance.  And we made every effort to celebrate the value of each child and build a relationship with each one, just as God does with us.

What parenting with generosity is is saying yes to individual opportunities without excessive worry over fairness repercussions.  If fairness in our number one goal, it is easy to say “no” to things over a worry that if I say yes to this, it will only force me to do this for the others as well.  Generosity frees us up to say “yes, we can do that” in a variety of situations.  And since saying “Yes!” as often as possible was one of the core values of our family, a generous spirit plays right into that.

In our family, it looked like this.  One of our children, who shall remain nameless, had a habit of complaining if we went out to lunch while they were occupied at class or at someone else’s house.  They viewed it as unfair that Mom and the other kids had a lunch out without them.  If the complaint made it to me, I kindly asked if they were envious of my generosity to the others.

Or how about this egregious unfairness.  We had a weekly schedule that included two hours of house cleaning on Friday or Saturday morning that all the kids participated in.  They loved to make a chart – in which they tried to take up half the two-hour time in preparing it – of who was going to clean where.  Somehow it seemed that Elizabeth, the fastest worker, would end up with the whole upstairs while the remaining kids divided up the down.

On paper it appeared unfair, but it accomplished the task that was fastest for all.  We honored Elizabeth for using her gift for the benefit of her siblings.  If she had insisted on fairness in dividing up the square feet, it would have taken longer for all.  She demonstrated a commitment to generosity over fairness.

This concept played itself out over and over in our family.  Our kids did not get their driver’s license at all the same age.  We focused on what was right for each child.  They did not all take the same classes in school.  They did not participate in the same extra-curricular activities.  They did not all go to the same college, and we were not bound to spend exactly the same amount for each child on their college expenses.  Some contributed more of their own money commensurate with very different job opportunities.  The important part wasn’t the amount, it was the principle that they contributed what they could.

I hope this gives  you a taste of the freedom that parenting with generosity gives you.  Not only is it a blessing to your children, but it is following God’s example of how He treats us.  And it gives your children a better chance of going through life without a chip on their shoulder about getting what they deserve.  They learn the wonderful balance of being thankful for what they receive while at the same time being a generous friend to others.