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.

Parenting with the Parables – The Persistent Widow

“Now Jesus was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man.  There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.”  For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” ‘  And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge said; likewise, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?  I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly.  However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’ ” (Lk 18:1-8).

Jesus lays out the point of this story in the first verse.  Jesus is teaching His followers to pray at all times and to not lose heart; to not give up.  The widow in this parable is honored for her persistence.  And Jesus connects her persistence to our own persistence in prayer with His promise that “likewise” God will bring justice to His children who call upon Him.

If we focus too strongly on seeing God as represented by the unrighteous judge, we may conclude that our prayers “bother” God to the point of forcing an answer out of Him.  But that is not the point at all.  Jesus is not comparing God to the judge.  He is contrasting God with the judge.  And the key to understanding this is the little “likewise” comparison is verse 7.  A better translation of that connection would be “how much more” (see Matthew 7:11) rather than “likewise”.  God is not like the judge – answering our requests out of an attitude of annoyance – but is much more in favor of answering our prayers out of our relationship – we being the elect or chosen ones.

In short, our prayers do not “bother” God; they “honor” God.

Let’s turn now to the words “will He delay long” and “quickly” since quick is not always our experience.  We know from the rest of Scripture that God’s “delays” are for our good, not out of obstinance like the unrighteous judge.  They are rather designed to teach us two lessons which this parable highlights.

First, we need to be persistent in our prayers.  As Dave Gibson has shared many times, “When it comes to prayer, it is never too late to start and it is always too soon to quit.”

Second, we need to pray in faith.  This requirement is given in the end of verse 8.  Regarding our prayers, Jesus asks, “Will I find this kind of faith on the earth.”  Will He find those who pray persistently and expectantly?  Will He find those whose prayers are infused with faith?  We have written many times in these pages about the importance of faith in living the Christian life.  And here, Jesus highlights it as invaluable to this aspect of living the life; our prayers.

So what lessons does this parable have for our children?

  1. We honor God with our prayers.
  2. We need to be persistent in our prayers.
  3. We need to pray in faith.

As our lives and schedules get busy and overbooked, it is easy to send family prayers to the back burner.  Please fight that inclination.  Teaching our children to pray and teaching them Jesus’ lessons on prayer will stay with them the rest of their lives.

Parenting with the Parables – The Two Sons

“Jesus said to the chief priests and elders, ‘What do you think?  A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go work today in the vineyard.”  And the son answered, “I will not”; but afterward regretted it and went.  The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, “I will, sir”; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?’  They said, ‘The first.’  Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him’ ” (Mt 21:28-32).

The second son in this story represents the religious establishment of Jesus’ day.  They loudly proclaimed their commitment to God and in theory were looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God.  But when John the Baptist announced the coming of the kingdom, they rejected him.

The first son represents the tax collectors and prostitutes, a class of citizens often referred to as “sinners”.  They had been rejecting God’s call on their life.  However, when John appeared, they responded enthusiastically to the announcement of the kingdom of God.  They ultimately were the ones who “did the will of the father”.

How does this apply to our parenting?  We are all familiar with the smooth talking kid; the polite child who sounds obedient but never seems to follow through.  They are like the second son, saying “yes” to obedience but going their own way.

This parable teaches our children that the right choice is obedience like the first son.  Even if they are not excited about it, they are to follow through on their commitments.  We want action, not just talk.  We want doers of the word, not just hearers – or talkers.

We want obedience even if that action is not accompanied by a good attitude.  In our early child training years, we concentrated more on obedience than attitude.  Even begrudging obedience was better than a cheerful attitude that never quite got around to finishing the job.  Does this mean that attitude is not important?  No, and in fact we will get to some parables that teach a godly attitude while doing our jobs.  I am just saying that attitude is more of a long-term project while obedience is easily measured in each situation.

I will also add, on a personal note, the value of modeling the lessons of the parables that we are trying to teach.  My wife, Rhonda, is a stellar “doer of the word”.  There is not a person I know who takes this charge more to heart.  Her compassionate “doing” rather than “talking about it” was a great example for our children.  And I say as humbly as I can, they caught the message.

Teach and model for your children the obedience of the first son.  Even if the attitude still needs some work, reward the obedience.

Parenting with the Parables – Introduction

As parents, we have a mandate to instruct our children in the ways of the Lord.  “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).  The backbone for accomplishing this training program is through the pages of Scripture.  And one of the themes that Rhonda and I found particularly appealing in teaching our children were the parables of Jesus.

When Jesus was here in the flesh, He primarily taught His followers in three ways: through direct instruction (the Sermon on the Mount), by His example (washing His disciples feet), and by storytelling (the parables).  Each of these methods has an appropriate time and place in how we teach our children.

In this upcoming series of posts, we will focus on what we learn from His storytelling; what we learn in the parables of Jesus.  The parables are a description of what living in God’s kingdom looks like.  Many of the parables begin with, “The kingdom of God is like…” or its synonym, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”.  And the wide range of stories that Jesus told give us insight both into the theology of the kingdom as well as its everyday application.

I like to think of our families as little outposts of God’s kingdom here on earth; a place where God’s reign is evident.  With that picture in mind, I propose we launch off into our series with an eye toward what we and our children can learn about kingdom living from the parables of Jesus.