Parents and Prodigals
This article was originally published in the June 23, 1978 issue of Christianity Today.
This is the year my first child will leave home: Over the past 18 years I have often had cause to lament the fact that Jesus never had any children. The area where I have needed the most guidance and the clearest pattern of behavior has been a great grey mist through which move the bewildering and sometimes contradictory figures of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, David and Absalom. My own mother's favorites were Hannah and Samuel, but then he left home at the relatively uncomplicated age of 3, not 18. From the very first, however, something had gone awry in human families. Cain was a prodigal who went off to a far country but never returned.
If the Old Testament is full of the all-too-human failings of families, the New Testament supplies the opposite problem. We see few families and scarcely any children. We know Peter had a mother-in-law, so he must have been married. Several of the disciples were close kin and at least two had a pushy mother. Philip had three daughters whose spinsterhood was presumably alleviated by their gifts of prophecy. Timothy's mother and grandmother were obviously virtuous women, but where was his father?
It is only Mary who provides any kind of fully developed pattern of parenthood in the New Testament. We see her energy, her youthful exuberance, and defiant idealism evident in the Magnificat and the subsequent cross-country hike to her cousin Elizabeth's. We watch her being transformed and tempered as she participates in the mystery of the Incarnation, is rebuked by her 12-year-old son in the temple, shows him off at the Cana wedding, and attempts unsuccessfully to deprogram him at the beginning of his itinerant ministry. Yet she is still there, grieving at the cross (when the disciples have fled) and rejoicing at Pentecost.
But what kind of model is Mary? True, the same conflicts that were hers have also been mine. First, there is the sense of floundering in depths over one's head, of participating in a drama one cannot possibly comprehend nor foresee the outcome of. And second, there is the vertigo produced by the constant vacillation between asserting parental authority and allowing the child autonomy. The blessed mother herself must have sometimes regretted that her son did not see fit to marry and bring forth a brood of offspring like the other boys. Yet the very fact that I can so easily identify with Mary's pain and failure merely proves the need for a more satisfactory manual of child rearing.
The lack of a proper example for parenthood is sorely felt by our entire culture. It seems we know how to do almost everything else in this country today except how to make lasting marriages and raise children. The advances in social justice and economic equity of the past two centuries have been in almost directly inverse proportion to the steadiness and reliability of familial relationships. Governments take human rights with a seriousness never before seen in history. But the family, the basic human experience, lives in an atmosphere of disaster.
Provided with the world's most luxurious accommodations, our families live an interior life of poorer quality than refugees among rubble. Their existence has that impermanent, hand-to-mouth nature usually associated with poverty — only now it grows out of wealth. Convenience food, easy access to entertainment, disposable dishes and diapers, the quick call, the fast getaway. Yet half of all marriages end in divorce. We are at war with one another on the home front. And the heart is ripped open as surely as by shrapnel and left to heal as best it can. The only balm seems to be a friendly pat on the back from the secular media: "There, there. It happens to everyone these days. Buck up. It's only a trend."