The fourth question of Belonging to God: A First Catechism Children’s Version reads, “Don’t you have to be good for God to love you?” The reply states, “No. God loves me in spite of all I do wrong.” This conversation is one that plays out over and over between children and the adults who walk alongside them on their faith journeys. Grace, God’s free gift of love, acceptance, and forgiveness, forms the foundation of our faith. We accept and are grateful for God’s grace and yet we often struggle to extend it to one another. In this lesson, children will explore the idea of God’s unconditional grace through the parable of the prodigal son and will examine the challenges of offering that same grace to those around us.
Begin your time with the children by asking them a series of “what if” questions. Begin with some low-stakes goofy questions like, “What would you do if you woke up and discovered your house was made of Jell-O?” Create questions you think will resonate with your group. Conclude by asking, “Imagine someone gave you and your sibling or best friend $1,000 each. Your sibling/best friend uses all of the money right away to buy a bunch of trivial things. You save your money. What would you do if the friend/sibling came to you and asked you to share your money because she needed to buy something important?” Encourage the children to freely share their thoughts. Accept each answer without comment.
Prepare to read aloud Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Tell the children that they will be hearing another of Jesus’ parables. Remind them what a parable is and share that Jesus often used these stories to teach people ideas that are important to God. In the story the children will hear today, there are three main characters: two brothers and their father. Note that it was common in the time when Jesus lived for a father to leave all that he had to his sons when he died. The primary items the sons would receive were livestock and land, with land being the most important and valuable. The oldest son would get half of what the father owned. The other half of his estate would be divided amongst the other sons. All children knew this. However, they would never ask for any of the father’s wealth while he was alive.
Exploring the passage
Read aloud Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. If you’re working with younger children, you may want to read a child-friendly retelling from a children’s Bible. Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible has a lovely, accessible version for young children. After reading the text aloud, ask the children to describe the younger son. What did he ask his father for? How did his father react? Note that the father provides the younger son with his inheritance before the father’s death. This was virtually unheard of. Even more, it was considered very disrespectful for the son to make this request because it implied that he wished his father was dead. Still, the father gives the younger son his portion of his land. Next, ask the children what the younger son does with the money he makes selling the land? What is their reaction to the younger son squandering the money? Encourage the children to be honest about their reactions and to share them freely.
After exploring the younger son’s character, turn to the older son. Ask the children to recount the older son’s reaction to his brother’s return to the family land. What does the older son think of what his brother has done? How does he respond to his brother? Note that the older brother denounces the younger brother’s wastefulness. He believes he has done the right thing by behaving exactly as was expected of him. Ask the children if they agree or disagree with the older brother’s reaction. Again, encourage them to freely share their thoughts without judgment.
Then move on to the father. Ask the children to describe what the father does when the younger son returns. How does he react? Note that the father runs to his son and embraces him. This was uncharacteristic of fathers at that time. Most fathers would have greeted their children with less emotion and in a case like this, they would not have been happy to see a son who had been so wasteful. Next, discuss the father’s reaction to the older brother. What does he say to the older brother when he criticizes his father? Share that he reminds the older brother that everything the father has belongs to the other brother as he distributed the estate earlier. He spends each day loving and working alongside the older brother. Have the children react to the father’s responses. Do they agree or disagree with his actions? Why? What would they do if they were in the same situation?
Finally, move the discussion beyond the “facts” of the story. Remind the children that this text is a parable. Jesus is using it to teach the people hearing it an important idea about God. Have the children wonder which character from the story represents God. Note that many believe the father is the most like God. Ask the children to wonder what the story is telling us about the way God interacts with humans. How does God respond to us when we make mistakes? What does God think when we “mess” up? How does God feel when we aren’t generous with one another and instead focus on who was “good” and who was “bad”?
Relating the passage to our lives
End your time with the children by helping them extend the ideas in this parable to their own lives. Tell the children that God indeed loves, accepts, and forgives us no matter what. Because we are God’s hands and feet on earth, we try to offer the same love to those around us. This can be difficult, though.
Together with the children, brainstorm a list of situations where it would be challenging to accept and forgive someone. Encourage the children to pull ideas from their own lives and from what they know of the larger world. After creating this list, select a few of the items on the list to role play. Ask children to play the characters in each scenario. Also, ask one child to play the role of God. Have them act out the scene with God responding as the father in the parable does. After each role-play, debrief as a group. Discuss what it was like to play each role. How did it feel to hear God’s acceptance and forgiveness? What was it like to play the role of God, offering unconditional love? Conclude your time together by saying a prayer asking God to help us love and accept one another as God loves and accepts us.