Summary: This sermon on prayer points to the character of God the Father as an encouragement to pray.
The Storyteller: The Parable of the Giving Father
Before you read this sermon, allow me to make two points. First, not all parables are long like the story of the Prodigal Son; some are only a sentence or two. Second, I have long found prayer to be something of a mystery. To quote my former teacher Larry Hurtado, “I believe in prayer and I’ve been known to pray at times,” yet there are many questions I have about prayer. Perhaps that is why I am sensitive to foolish things said about prayer, remarks like the one Ruby makes in my introduction.
Years ago I when I served another church, there was a couple named Carl and Ruby. They’ve both passed on so I feel I can tell these stories about Ruby without fear of her hearing about it.
Ruby was known for saying odd things. In particular, she said things without thinking about the implications of what she was saying.
Local storytellers used to tell about an incident that happened when Ruby was much younger and Carl was still farming. It was wheat harvest and, like many other farm wives, Ruby was driving a grain truck to the elevator. Wives drove and sat in the long lines waiting for the trucks to be weighed and then emptied. That way their husbands could stay in the fields working.
Anyway, when Ruby finally drove her truck onto the scale, she said to the operator, “My brakes are squeaking, do you think we need to put some grease on them?”
On another occasion, I was talking with her about the need for the church to do outreach and evangelism. She said, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea; if you get a lot of new people into a church, pretty soon they’ll want to start doing things differently.” I suspect there are not a few Baptists who think that but they just won’t say it.
Then, every time we discussed prayer during Sunday night Bible study, Ruby would make a point to say, “You have to be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.”
I always thought what a frightening God that would be. It would show a streak of meanness, at worst or plain foolishness, at best. We wouldn’t want a God like that. We want the God who answers our prayers to be always wise and always good in answering them. Jesus says that’s what the Father who gives is like.
Ruby had apparently forgotten what Jesus said in the passage we just read.
Jesus invites the fathers among his listeners to think about how they would respond to a child’s request. Note this: Jesus does not have in mind the mentally ill father, the sadistic father, the psychotic father. He’s thinking of the ordinary, imperfect human father who just wants to do the best for his child. (The reference to “being evil” doesn’t mean their scoundrels, it just means they are sinners, imperfect, unlike the Heavenly Father.) Jesus has great trust that those imperfect fathers will try to do the right thing.
If a child asked that imperfect father for bread, he would not be given a stone. Most commentators suggest that the small loaves of brown bread used in Palestine resembled stones in shape and color. No father would do that and not just because he didn’t want to pay for the dental work. He would respond to his child’s hunger as quickly as possible.
If a child asked that imperfect father for a fish, a staple of the diet in Jesus’ day, he would not be given a snake. Some water snakes resemble fish. Even if it were not a deadly snake, the shock and disappointment might easily erode the child’s trust for the father.
In Luke’s slightly different version of the story, Jesus asks, “Who among you, if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” The thought seems to be that a scorpion curled up on itself can resemble an egg. This trick is the deadliest for a scorpion’s sting is extremely painful and can be deadly. Again, no parent, male or female, would do such a thing. In fact, many would take the scorpion’s sting rather than let their child be hurt.
Let me digress a moment. Jesus grew up in a family. He watched as Joseph and Mary worked together to make their humble home safe and comfortable. Each parent worked in their own sphere to make their house in Nazareth a place where Jesus and his brothers could learn the meaning of family.
Back to the parable. At this point, Jesus says, “Look, if you imperfect fathers would never do anything so hurtful, do you honestly believe your heavenly Father would?”
Earthly parents, being imperfect, will make mistakes. They might be too harsh. They might be over indulgent, giving their children too much, thinking they were doing the loving thing. They might give into pressure when they should stand firm in the face of whining and begging.