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Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)

A Tale of Two Brothers

Jesus got into trouble. Now, people get into trouble either because of what they do or because of what they say. Or both. With Jesus it was mainly because of what he said; but in today's Gospel what he said sprang out of what he did: he kept company with the wrong sort of people.

A religious teacher is supposed, so many people think, to uphold the conventional view of life, to uphold standards. The critics of Jesus were shocked that he mixed with people whose standards were not very high; the 'sinners' in question were not necessarily criminals or particularly vicious people: just people who were a bit careless in their way of talking, in their hygiene, in what they ate. Not Our Type.

If Jesus was already in trouble for his behaviour, he was determined to get into a lot more trouble by his explanation of it. The story he told was about God. All his stories were about God, or what happens when God is in charge. He showed what God was like by telling about two brothers: one of them was hard-working, disciplined, thrifty, obedient, a worthy heir to his father's fortune; the other was careless, lived for the moment, indulged every appetite, was disloyal, broke his father's heart. One was Our Type and one was not.

But in Jesus' story a lot more attention is paid to the baddie, both by the story-teller and by the father. The elder brother, the goodie, gets a not very complimentary walk-on-and-walk-off-in-a-huff part at the end. It's a shocking story. It challenges normal standards; and if it really is about God, it paints a strange picture of the one who gave us the ten commandments.

The father loves both his sons, equally; but because the younger one is more of a problem he seems to pay more attention to him. He is obviously broken-hearted at his behaviour, and is watching out for him to come back. When he does come back it's as though he'd been missing, feared dead, and is now discovered to be alive. This calls for a party. He is treated not on the basis of what he's done or not done, but on the basis of his family membership. And the same is true of the elder brother - 'All that I have is yours' - only he can't see it. He describes his years of disciplined living as 'slaving', and there is no way he is going to recognise his dissolute younger brother as an equal member of the family. So we have the strange situation in which the younger, dishonourable brother is ensconced at home enjoying the party in his honour, while the honourable elder brother who has never strayed from home feels excluded from that home.

Jesus goes behind the question of deserving to the fact of belonging. It is God who decides that we belong. Jesus' critics would have acknowledged that God took their forebears out of slavery and gave them a land which they had not earned; but they, like we, found it hard to remember that what started as gift continues as gift. The elder son, like so many religious people, had moved from the privilege of belonging to a situation of slavery. It was as a slave that he felt he had a claim on his father; he did have a claim, but it was not because of all his good behaviour; he had the claim anyway. What he found galling was that his father acknowledged that the younger son had the same claim. What does that say about standards, for goodness sake?

Jesus' portrait of God was subversive of his critics' portrait; it is subversive of the 'deserving' ideology of much of our political life. Jesus was not about blessing the present order or improving it; he was about announcing a new order altogether, something which St Paul calls a new creation; this new creation was bound to upset those who were comfortable and in command in the old order. No wonder he got into trouble.

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