Which of you fathers, Jesus asked, if your son asks for a fish, or an egg, or bread, will give him instead a snake, or a scorpion, or a stone? And then he added: You, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children.
I know how to give good gifts to my children. I do. If they ask my help with something— a chore, homework, a problem with a relationship—I know that telling them I’m too busy is a bad response. If they spill milk or break a vase, I know that yelling at them won’t help. If they get in trouble, I know that saying, “I told you so”, solves nothing. Giving long windy lectures about “when I was a boy” neither inspire nor enlighten nor motivate them.
I know all that. They need fish, bread, eggs—things that nourish, help them grow. I know.
It’s just that sometimes, for some reason, I don’t always act on what I know. Knowing all I do, I give them a snake, a stone, a scorpion anyway: poison them with words, constrict them with my way, bruise them with criticism, sting them with sarcasm.
I know better. I know enough.
I just don’t always act on what I know.
Because—well, Jesus says it: I’m evil.
Porènos, in the Greek. Wicked, depraved, demonic. A little Satan. The good I want to do I don’t do, and the evil I don’t want to do, I do.
My children are now teenagers (well, the youngest is on the cusp of teenage-hood), and mostly I’m amazed. At their age, I was nothing like them. I was a mediocre student with a wide streak of defiance. I was on no one’s most-likely-to-succeed list, and on a few people’s enemy-of-the-state list. In school, I put in the minimum effort required for a passing grade. I tested some of my teachers to the limits of their endurance, and a few beyond. Outside school, my parents rarely knew where I was, and would rarely have approved if they did.
These days, I expend much of my energy as a parent trying to keep my children from being like me back then. Mostly, I think, I’m succeeding. But it takes vigilance, patience, a life of repentance, a lot of prayer.
And sometimes, despite my best efforts, the evil in me, the porenos, bleeds through. My son recently said to me, “Dad, why are you always so angry?” That stopped me cold. My own father, in my memory, was always angry. Or worse: he was unpredictably angry, angry in the way crazy god-kings could be angry, on a whim, at their pleasure, according to their moods. So I never knew when my father would be charming and generous, or vicious and stingy.
Am I that? I soul-searched, repented, made heartfelt apology. I resolved to act more often, and more openly, on what I knew: my son needs fish, bread, eggs. He doesn’t need snakes, stones, scorpions. That never nourished me. It will never nourish him.
I have found two words—well, phrases— indispensable in all this: “I love you,” and “I’m sorry.” I never let a day go by without saying the first to my children. I never let a sin against them go by without saying the second to them.
All good, but there’s more.
The point of Jesus’ statement to fathers was theological. He was not dispensing practical advice on parenting: he was revealing truth about God. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…,” and now here it comes: “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
This is one of Jesus’ famous rhetorical devices, comparing the lesser to the greater. How much more. If wrecks and wretches like us know, at least in principle, how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our Father give the best gift of all, his abiding presence, the Holy Spirit, simply for the asking.
So maybe Jesus is dispensing practical advice on parenting after all. The only way, deep down and lastingly, I can conquer the evil in me and act on the good I know is not by more strenuous moral effort.
It’s only by the very presence of God.
To that request, God never refuses, and never gives stones.