On Deconstruction: The Tale of Two Brothers
Jesus was an amazing story teller. He could turn something as simple as a fig tree into an pointed parable with layers of complexity, offering healing to some and rebuke to others. But none of his stories hit me with more force than the tale of two brothers in Luke’s gospel.
The fifteenth chapter of Luke contains three lost stories of Jesus. It begins with a story of a man who loses a sheep. The second is about a woman who loses a coin. The third is about son who wanders far from home.
The first two stories set the scene, leading the audience to pick up on what is emphasized in the third. The sheep story and the coin story follow the same pattern. The third deviates.
We often miss this subtle punch because we are poor story listeners. Jesus’s audience was far more attuned to good stories. Their minds weren’t numbed by hours of binge watching mindless sitcoms. They didn’t have the benefit of shiny distractions constantly buzzing and vibrating and demanding their divided attention. They could pick up on the plot twist of the final story in a way we easily miss.
With the sheep and the coin, the people who lost these items went on a diligent search. When they found what they lost they celebrated. The story of the son is radically different in this regard: there is no search. The father of the prodigal doesn’t go looking for him. When his son runs out of money—having spent it all on prostitutes and parties in a far off city—the father is waiting for him at the end of his long walk home. He receives him with open arms. They feast together.
The lack of a search is highlighted by the fact the man had another son, an older son. In that day, it wouldn’t be the father who would go on a search for what was lost. His eldest son should have done that. And he didn’t, did he? Herein lies the point.
Jesus told these stories to religious leaders who were angry that Jesus was receiving sinners and eating with them. In response, Jesus told them a story of a man whose son made a mess of things. When the son came home, the father put a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet, a robe on his back, fired up the band, slaughtered some beef, and invited all the neighbors to a barbeque. The father received his sinner son and ate with him.
What does all this have to do with deconstruction, per the title of the post?
Jesus told these stories in response to religious people, who, for all their religion, missed out on what mattered most. Like the older brother in the last story, they wanted everyone to conform to their expectations. The younger brother is like those sinners who came to Jesus without pretense.
The younger brother was a mess and he knew it. The older brother was a mess and had no idea. The younger brother deconstructed the obstacles that kept him from a relationship with the father. He did it the hard way. The older brother didn’t do it at all.
The younger brother deconstructed a whole lot on his journey there and back again. He left a lot behind. Sadly, he left a lot of innocence behind. He couldn’t change that. But he could come home. That he could change. And he did. He came back with a simple hope that his father would receive him. And like Jesus, the father received him and ate with him.
This story models the very best kind of deconstruction. It’s a deconstruction that leaves everything behind except for Jesus. Sometimes when I hear of people deconstructing, I wonder if they might not be on a journey like this younger son. I certainly hope they don’t live as wild as he did. That kind of living leaves a mark. It leaves scars that last a lifetime. My hope for prodigals today is maybe—just maybe—they aren’t leaving forever all that matters. Maybe they are coming to realize the one thing that matters most and bidding farewell to everything else.
There are all kinds of ways we can be like the older brother. We can be judgmental of those who don’t live as cleanly as we do. We can resent the prodigal who gets equal status with us. We can be jealous of the attention they receive by merely walking back decisions we were never dumb enough to make ourselves.
There are powerful and beautiful ways we are all like the younger brother in our relationship to the father. We’ve messed up our lives beyond our ability to hold it all together or fix it on our own. We desperately need grace. We aren’t entitled to a place at the feast. Why would anyone throw a party for us?
If you’re in a period of searching and questioning, here’s my advice. First, don’t be stupid. Like the younger son, you can make a lot of dumb decisions when you’re living in doubt. Second, don’t leave Jesus behind. He’s the hero of the story of the prodigal because Jesus is the big brother who is willing to search for us. Face your questions with trust. Like the younger son, let your walk back be filled with trust in the father’s character and love.
If your deconstruction means leaving behind all the baggage of American Evangelicalism, then great. It needs to be left behind. Deconstruct cultural Christianity all day long. Just don’t deconstruct Christ. He’s a friend of sinners. He’s saving you a seat at the table. And, If we’re good older siblings, we’ll be out and about helping you find your way home.