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s156g10 Fourth Sunday in Lent 14/3/2010

'a man had two sons' Luke 15.1

This is a terribly human story. I recall my first Rector saying that you always treat the first born the hardest. As parents become more accustomed to children and more relaxed, they treat the younger siblings less harshly. I would not want to suggest that I've been able to escape this in bringing up my sons. Inevitably there will be rivalry.

Yet throughout history humanity has considered the first pre-eminent, and so perhaps it is for this reason that God seems to have a preference for the younger. It is precisely this perception of preference that causes Cain to kill his younger brother, Abel.

I have been thinking recently that the doctrine of original sin has less to do with sexuality and the passing on of perpetual depravity, but a recognition, in old age, that some of the things we have done in our teen years, all enthusiastically and well meaning, have been hurtful, and not at all what God would want. No doubt St Paul, in his maturity after his conversion, realised that his youthful enthusiasm in persecuting those who did not believe, in his (orthodox) terms, was not what God wanted. There are certainly things I have done 'for God' for which I would now blush.

Yet I wonder if we are meant to take this story personally all the time. Of course it is also a parable about old religion and new religion, and the new religion of acceptance wanting the old religion of compliance to enjoy the party put on by God, and often its refusal to do so.

And I also wonder if we can take some parallels between this and the Old and New Testaments? Often the Old Testament is miss-characterised as portraying a harsh God, and the New as a forgiving God. But it is the same God. In human terms the parents always treat the elder the more strictly and the younger more freely. And while the love is the same for each the preference is for the freedom.

Often we can look at the bible as a rulebook on how to live our lives, and the words of Jesus as similarly prescriptive. But for me today the message of this parable is the tenderness of the Parent. He neither berates the younger son for his misdemeanours nor compels the elder son to join in the celebration. The parent waits anxiously for the younger to return and leaves the party to seek out the elder.

Shit happens in this life, to rich and to poor, to the elder and to the younger, and our heavenly parent knows all about it. Sibling rivalry happens, and for all its sharpness, neither is this the unforgivable sin.

And the words of the bible are inevitably our human perception of the Almighty. God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit. (Amos 8.1). Even God's plans are couched in human terms. We should not be surprised that we see God in human terms.

Therefore our perceptions of God are intrinsically limited by ourselves and our own perceptions. God has now shown us the universe through microscope and telescope and our perception of God is correspondingly enlarged. God has shown us fossils from millions of years ago and suddenly our perception of God in time has become so much greater.

This is not to say that there is no value in the past perceptions of God, for the fact that there was and continues to be different perceptions of God, assures us of three things. The first is that God is, and the second is that our own perception of God is unique and valuable and thirdly that there is always more to learn and more at which to wonder. The perception of the 'christian' (if one could actually distil the totality of 'christian' perception into one) is no more and no less valid than the perception of Judaism (if one could actually distil the totality of Jews' perception into one), and no more and no less valid than the perception of Islam (if one could actually distil the totality of Moslem perception into one), and no more and no less valid than the perception of Hinduism (if one could actually distil the totality of Hindu's perception into one), and no more and no less valid than the perception of Buddhism (if one could actually distil the totality of Buddhists' perception into one), and no more and no less valid than the perception of atheism (if one could actually distil the totality of atheists' perception into one), and one could go on, and on.

And I should say that one also needs to be careful proclaiming to be monotheistic, for as we have seen, God has a multitude of faces for a multitude of people and it is therefore not unreasonable to view God as multifaceted.

God is found neither in keeping the law or in licentiousness. For me, the one God is found in tenderness and the acceptance of all, exemplified for me in the parent welcoming the returning younger son, then leaving the party to support the elder son in his chagrin.

God doesn't want us to get stuck in the past. We as individuals and we as humanity need to move forward. The younger son, given the freedom will likely be the more adventurous. God blesses both the elder son for his obedience and the younger for his restlessness. We need both, and we can't be both, so we need one another.

I also reflect on two other sons, both evangelists, Matthew and Luke. Here we see a difference in emphasis, as they each think about whom this Jesus was. Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, the new lawgiver. Luke's perception of Jesus is rather different. His perception of Jesus is the healer, the person who prayed and the one who associated with women in particular. Perhaps the difference between the two sons can be encapsulated in the different ways Jesus speaks about the Father. In Matthew 5.48, he remembers Jesus saying: 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' But Luke, when he remembers these words of Jesus, remembers them as: 'Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.' (Luke 6.36) We read and accept that Luke's perception of Jesus is different to that of Matthew, so why do we expect that everyone else's perception of Jesus must be the same as mine?

God is tender with the younger son and tender with the elder, for it is in tenderness that God is open to all. Those who read the bible without perceiving this tenderness might come to simple conclusions, but conclusions that exclude others.

And finally I note that everyone doesn't 'live happily ever after'. The story ends without telling us what the elder son does, whether he remains outside, eternally sulking, or whether he joins in the party for his brother. And I suppose that 'realised eschatology' is a bit like this. Everything has been achieved on the Cross, yet it is not a fait accompli. There is the Father pleading with those who believe others shouldn't be at the party, let alone the honoured guest and reason for the party and want to remain on their own sulking. Other parables talk about 'weeping and gnashing of teeth'. This is not that they are excluded, but they don't want others included, and don't want to be a part of it if others are.

And the same question faces each and every one of us today. Do we rejoice that others are included or do we exclude ourselves because others are?

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