Deconstruction: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

I’ve been reading deconstructions for years, and a discussion on a message board has inspired me to try my hand at deconstruction.  And for various reasons I was reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son and realised how much was missed from the normal descriptions.  The bible being long out of copyright, I can comment scene by scene.  (The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32 – and I use the KJV because I like the prose)

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:

12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

What can we see from this?  We see a pair of sons who so dislike their father that the Prodigal declares him dead to him and leaves.  It makes me wonder what was so bad that it led to the relationship being that disastrous?

15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,

19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

So the falling out was so great that the Prodigal Son literally only went home because it was that or starve.  To quote Lois McMaster Bujold “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.

26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.

27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

And there we see why the Prodigal Son left.  The Father was delighted to see the Prodigal Son return and laid out the welcome mat.  And never once in this whole time did he think to send someone to tell the older brother ‘Hey.  Your brother’s home.  I think this calls for a celebration.

27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.

29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:

30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

So the elder son is angry.  Angry that his father blatantly ignored him and didn’t even bother to have someone tell him that his brother had turned up.  He’s hurt and left out because his father blatantly takes him for granted.  And the ‘thou never gavest me a kid’ to me has the feel of a long running argument

31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

So what does the father do?  He doesn’t think to apologise for his behaviour.  Instead he simply lies to the elder son’s face.  He says that ‘all that I have is thine’.  No.  No it isn’t.  If all he had was the elder son’s, and he actually believed that, then he would at least have spoken to the elder son before throwing a lavish party at the cost of something valuable.  All that he has belongs to him.  He has exclusive control over it, not letting the elder son have a party and feed his friends.  And not even bothering to think of the elder amidst the party preparations when the younger comes home.

And to add insult to injury he follows this up with a passive-aggressive guilt trip.

So there you have it.  An unlikeable father who takes his sons for granted, lies to them, and forgets them when the New Shiny comes along.  Is it any wonder the more dutiful son resents this and the less dutiful ran away?


3 thoughts on “Deconstruction: The Parable of the Prodigal Son

  1. Dear Francis,

    Oh, so “Deconstructionism” can have a useful pupose!!!!

    I am obliged to you for this critique, had not thought about it myself very much since childhood, having been taught to get the real point of parables without worrying about the trimmings.

    Oh yes,you are right, the family dynamics are truly atrocious! Jesus was nothing at all if He was not a realist; (and why do you think He bunked off at 13? I think it may have had something to do with being told by his loving parents that Joseph was not his biological father, so he went to look for his Father in His House …..13 is just an educated guess,probably He was taken up to Jerusalem to celebrate His bar-mitzvah).

    He had the classic prophet’s task of getting His hearers to grasp something of the nature of God, in this context, specifically, (as in the verses which precede the parable), that there is “more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over 99 just persons who need no repentance” Lk. 15.v7 (In Koine the word translated as “repent” means quite literally “turn back” or,occasionally “turn round, and change direction radically” it does not mean a lot of tearful breastbeating, even if anyone who makes a mistake is occasionally inclined to kick themselves – it is not the grief but the changing course which matters most in repentance).

    It is only at the point of his unquestionably, utterly overwhelming, delight in his lost son’s
    reappearance that the father in the parable shows ANY sign of God-like qualities whatsoeve. As you point out, not only does he take elder son for granted, but he possiblly even lies to his
    face . A much less fundamentalist reading than yours of the “all that I have is yours” is that he is, in a rather overblown Semitic kind of style,* not as literal fact, simply reassuring elder son that younger son, having had his inheritance prematurely, cannot expect to eventually inherit half the remainder,as would be likely elder son would be fearing in the circumstances. That is basic justice: but it takes a lot of Faith (more than I have, I confess) to see basic justice as an attribute of the nature of God. One can only hope….or fear …that it may be so eventually. (Fear, in my case, I have had so much good in my life that to balance it with the dreadful lives of some of the women in YW I can expect a very rough purgatorial experience indeed……consequently, as a Godfearer, I hugely prefer the view that His mercy overrides.)

    I have been looking unsuccessfully to source the quotation which indicates thata Jesus had, indeed, a fairly low opinion of human fathers. It goes like this;
    “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him astone? Or if he asks for an egg will give him a serpent? If you BAD AS YOU ARE, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good gifts to them that ask him?”

    *Apparently it was Jesus himself who declared the mustard seed to be “the smallest of all seeds”
    to the delight of all Christian-fundamentalist baiters. (Oh, look it up for yourself!).

    • Of course Deconstructionism has a useful purpose! The problems with it arise from the classic “When the tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.” And is often as not a thumb. When someone talks there are four things you want to know. Who’s talking? Why? What have they intended to say? What are they actually saying? And deconstruction is a tool to look beyond the superficial what they intended to say and try to figure out something about who is talking and the actual messages they are sending. Are they trying to make sure you are carefully taught? Or less malevolently just implicitly biassed? Not that anyone can fail to be but it’s good to examine our own assumptions and check we aren’t picking ones up from anyone else.

      And the pssages you’re looking for are Luke 11:11-13 (straight after The Lord’s Prayer) and Matthew 7:9-12.

      • Thanks. Is there a better Concordance than my faithful old Crudens, out on the net? If not, how did you find the refs?

        When I was Dept Sociology Dept. Univ. B’ham (as I must have told you), they were embroiled in the Great Atkinson Row; So much poisonous stuff went across my desk under the name of “Deconstructive Criticism” that I came to the view that that method was truly named, ‘Con, “Destructive Criticism” ‘. It lends itself all too readily to clever-clever academic spite. But I am glad you seem to be aware of the hazards. It is of course perfectly possble to look at your four questions effectively without using that particular dangerous tool.You just ask the questions; aloud sometimes, more often not.

        I have been having a THOUGHT (“you haven’t,? Murdoch”)
        I do not know why, but I had always assumed that the Prodigal Son was a
        fiction, illustrative, but with no basis in what we call “real life”.

        But suppose there truly was such a dysfunctional family, and, like yourself, the whole decent, joyously critical community in which they lived, was happily pointing out the shocking shortcomings of all three of them. (Village gossip is notorious, it is the reason for which some people flee to cities…..the main problem being that there is almost never any full escape for the victim, often for life).

        Okay, so Jesus comes to this village, finds out what has been going on, and
        talks to the village, perhaps even from the pulpit on Sabbath

        He mentions no names, everyone knows the family…….

        So His message to that village is; “Spiritual and emotional low-lifes though they are, the father most of all – he can behave in a way which is truly God-like”- [and if that man can – anyone may!] Everyone in the village, dysfunctional family included, would have to re-evaluate the whole sorry story completely.

        Typical Rabbinical ju-jitsu.!

        The Lord of Space and Time will have had a private grin, I think, that the
        lesson will live on long long after all the names, even the village, is lost.
        (cf. the woman with the box of precious ointment)

        The other, much more conventional devotional view, which I did not bring out, was that, on the allegorical level, it carries the message to every individual, way down in the dark,secret, private places where each one of us, indvidually, knows ourselves to be hopelessly lost, and largely crap anyway……”all you have to do is to repent” (See previous note on that word) So it does not matter one bit if the dutiful elder son is ignored, because at this level he is just a wistful
        fiction. ALL OF US are sinners – i.e prodigals.

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