Writings by Cole Huffman


The Third Brother

I sometimes imagine a third brother in Jesus’ prodigal story. The prodigal brother is the heavyweight sinner, yes? So we think. The elder brother is the lightweight sinner—so he thinks. What if there was another brother?

As I imagine it (humor me): After helping the older brother in the fields all day this third brother goes to the homecoming party the father throws for the prodigal brother. He’s happy to see his wayward brother home but also empathizes with his older brother’s contempt for him. He doesn’t quite know what to think of his dad’s actions. He doesn’t give his father any trouble but nor has he given him his heart fully.

This third brother makes cameos in other biblical scenes, like the “some” who doubted: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:16-17). Third brothers, these are—and among the disciples after a three-year long intensive with Jesus. Their still being present to discipleship makes them our brothers. Their still having doubts makes them third brothers.

The father in Luke 15 looks an awful lot like Jesus; his two sons look an awful lot like you and me. My imagined third brother looks like someone who comes to know God and wants to know Him better but has questions. Third brothers may ponder going to the far country themselves but usually stay with the household of faith. Between the two siblings they’re more like the older brother except third brothers don’t believe God owes them anything and don’t itch for confrontation with Him. That’s not to say they wouldn’t like explanations from God for His unconventional ways and means and will.

In my experience with third brothers they’re smart enough to figure out prodigal brothers go looking for validation and older brothers ache for vindication, and neither is him. The third brother is instead looking for meaning, for integrity in the family of God. He actually longs to own his faith as his own and love the church as he finds her not as he would make her. Often he’s grown up in a safe-for-the-whole-family evangelical borough attending Church of the Holy Tchotchke. He’s not yet been tested by the world but knows that will come if he takes up his commission (the rest of Matt. 28 after v. 17). He ponders this enough for older brothers to routinely mistake him for someone residing in ambivalence. The prodigal brothers think him antisocial, too into his own head.

Third brothers among us don’t have to crave pig slop after sabotaging themselves to know what they have with God. Nor are they inclined to give Jesus a dressing-down like Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor, the über-Pharisee of parabolic literature. More often they just want someone to take up their questions, observations, and doubts considerately with patience and intellectual verve. They need that for their faith to become faithfulness.

Years ago Gary Parker wrote in a book called The Gift of Doubt: “If faith never encounters doubt, if truth never struggles with error, if good never battles with evil, how can faith know its own power? In my own pilgrimage, if I have to choose between a faith that has stared doubt in the eye and made it blink, or a naïve faith that has never known the firing line of doubt, I will choose the former every time.”

Third brothers will simply not have a naïve faith. This is why we should thank God for them. Some of our best theological thinkers and apologists in the church today were third brothers at one time. They turned a few Sunday school teachers’ and youth leaders’ hair gray with their questions and comments, never satisfied with pat answers. Their parents wondered about them and prayed for them anxiously. Peers were confused by them sometimes. Like an indie band, they defied certain labels.

It’s good for us to have third brothers in the family. Their disquietude with easygoing belief is a call to the rest of us to think, not just about what we believe but why we believe it too, and how we hold and convey our beliefs. In relating to third brothers we gauge how well we love God with our minds, whether our faith is thoughtful or merely going with the flow. They’re particularly good at exposing unexamined assumptions and uncharitable attitudes alike.

For those of us who are older brothers, third brothers can humanize our prodigal brothers. Speaking for myself as an older brother, I’m apt to establish quick cutoff points with those who don’t measure up to my piety. For this prodigal brothers often demonize older brothers and close themselves off to us. And yet prodigals can find in a third brother someone willing to walk with them and listen to them, processing with them why they chase futility. It’s a tempering influence, tinged with the grace every kind of brother in this family of God struggles to acclimate ourselves to, because our father is unlike anyone else we know.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 8:50 AM
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