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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 ...1