Summary: Jesus’ parable helps parents distinguish between the needs and the wants of their children, and teaches us how to invest attention in them.
Several years ago a mother wrote to “Dear Abby”: “Dear Abby, My son is in jail for running his mouth at a cop. They’ve given him one phone call a day, and he’s calling home to ask us to bring him things. His dad has gone over there with whatever he has wanted: two Big Macs on Monday, a pizza on Tuesday, today an apple pie. Personally, I think it’s disgraceful that we have to feed this boy, because that’s what our taxes go for. I have been telling my husband not to waste his time and our money jumping to take our son all this junk food. All I intend to do is just to send him two packs of cigarettes each day. Dear Abby, what do you think?”
I’m not going to tell you just yet what Dear Abby said. But I am going to suggest that we need to learn from God, specifically from God’s Holy Spirit, how to give real gifts to our children. I’m going to suggest that what people say they want often disguises what they really need. And so, if we are instructed by the example of the Holy Spirit, we can learn how to live in families and give something precious and priceless, though it has no price tag.
The other day while I was standing in line at the grocery store, I watched a little drama acted out. Mom and two little children, a boy about five, a girl about three. Admittedly a handful. I know all about that. As somebody said to me this week, been there, done that, and got a T-shirt to prove it! But I learned something there!
The little girl whimpered: “Mom, I want this candy.” Mom, with her face stuck in a tabloid cover: “Hmm, no.” Girl again, “Mom, Mom, I WANT this candy.” Mom, still entranced by stories about aliens and murder: “I said no. PUT IT BACK!” Little girl one more time, “Mom, waaaah, Mom” And into the cart went the candy, PLOP! That got Mom’s attention: “No, no, no.” Grab. Slap. I do not need to quote the little girl at that point. But her older brother, wise beyond his years, looked up and said, “Mom, I think we NEED that candy.”
You may not think he needed the candy itself, for food, nor did his little sister. But I tell you, he was on to something. He did know there was a difference between “I want” and “I need”. And he may have figured out that “I want a candy bar” really meant “I need attention.”
When Jesus wanted to teach us about needing and wanting and asking, He posed some questions about what parents do in order to get us to see what God does. He asked us a couple of what seem to be no-brainers about how parents treat children, so that we could discover how God treats us. But, you know, maybe Jesus’ questions about what parents do could stand closer examination today.
For example, Jesus asked, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?” Is there anybody out there who is so hard-hearted and so stingy, so callous and so cold, that when your child is hungry and asks for a simple piece of fish, you would offer him an inedible, unpalatable, worthless, slimy old snake?
Surely not. Certainly not. Or are we so sure? Let’s take Jesus’ images and expand them a bit. Jesus spoke of a child asking for a fish. Fish were the staple meat in ancient Israel. A child who asked for a fish would have been asking for nothing more than ordinary, everyday nourishment. Of course the child should have it, of course any parent would give it.
But a snake!? You know the Biblical imagery around snakes! You know the story of the Garden of Eden, where the tempter is represented as a snake! You know the revulsion that surrounds the very thought of a snake. Some of you remember that the only thing that snakes were good for when you were a kid was that if you brought one anywhere close to your mother or your sister, she screamed like bloody murder! The snake is the very embodiment of everything loathsome and degrading.
I see Jesus asking about much more than diet. I see Jesus asking: will we see to it that our children are given wholesome, nourishing things, and not worthless, trashy, harmful things? Will we see to it that our children are fed in mind and spirit as well as body, and are fed things that truly nourish rather than things that pollute and sicken? Will we see to it that what is available to young people is strengthening and healthy and empowering? Or will we sit back and do nothing while the purveyors of garbage fill children’s minds with worthless junk?