September 11, 2016 – 17 Pentecost C, Proper 19
Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
There’s an entire theory of personality types based on where we fall in our family’s birth order. It’s not always completely accurate but it’s often helpful in finding out what our basic tendencies in life may be. For instance, it is usually true that first born children are responsible. They tend to be rule-followers and seek approval from authority figures like parents and teachers. They usually are conformers and work hard to fit in. There certainly are exceptions to this rule but first-borns typically try to earn approval by doing what is expected of them.
The youngest in the family is often very different. Typically the youngest child is more playful, maybe rebellious, and seems to take a lighter view of things in general. They may be more creative, more imaginative, more spontaneous. Often it is the youngest who is the comedian. Youngest children often test authority just to see how far they can go in getting away with something.
If there is a middle child, they often are more of a loner. Middle children may disappear at times in the family. They often become peacemakers, seeing themselves as in the middle of things and not liking conflict. They may go back and forth between the parents or the siblings if there is conflict present.
Only children are pretty hard to tag since they don’t have siblings to bounce off of and use to define themselves. They may combine all the characteristics, they may require more space in life than others, they may crave human relationships and be needy in them, they may be impatient and abandon relationships more quickly. Only children are kind of like Texans: you can always tell one, but you can’t tell them much.
In family systems, love and approval are the payoffs. We come into life needing to be loved and affirmed and we handle that need differently. First-borns may try to earn it. Youngest children may try to test it. Middle children may try to negotiate it. Only children may push against it or not see it at all. One thing is held in common, however. It’s a real struggle for children to see and receive love easily. It seems to be a lifelong journey to find that there is plenty of love around and that we are valuable just because we are here. The secret of the Christian life is not really in giving; it is in receiving the love that is offered to us.
Children seem to have to go through that struggle of learning that there is plenty of love around and that struggle continues through adulthood. One reason it is a struggle is that we live with other human beings who are going through the same struggle. We cannot give each other all the love that is needed. But the struggle reveals that God gives that love to us even when people cannot. While some are trying to earn it, some are trying to prove it couldn’t be there, some are trying to make sure it is there, and some have a hard time seeing anything that doesn’t emanate from themselves, God gives each of us his eternal love. That love is best expressed to us in the Trinity of God’s being: he creates us, he sustains us, and he redeems things gone wrong, all because he wants to be with us in this love. Christ Jesus, as he dies on the cross and is raised, shows us God’s perfect love and all we have to do to be with God forever is say YES to his love. But that’s hard for any one of us to accept.
Look at the gospel lesson we just read. The youngest children, the tax collectors and sinners – those who have rebelled against the love of God and tested the extent of that love, those that have basically taken up a lifestyle of trying to prove the love they want can’t really be there – those youngest and wilder children are drawing near to hear Jesus.
The eldest children, the Pharisees and the scribes – those who have so carefully followed all the rules, those who have tried to fit in and conform, those who devoted their lives to earning the love they want – those eldest and so responsible children see the irresponsible tax collectors and sinners with Jesus and they do what eldest children do when they see their little brothers and sisters getting a break, they murmur. Hey, that’s not fair. You never treated me like that. You never let me get away with anything. You’re too easy on him. I couldn’t stay out that late when I was that age. I didn’t get to do that. I didn’t have a car until I went to college. He’s such a slob; look at his room. Why don’t you do something about him?
So basically Jesus now has in front of him two different kinds of people, both of which are going through a struggle with the love that life is offering them: he’s got those who have tested and rebelled against it instead of just receiving it; and he’s got those who have tried so hard to earn it that they haven’t just received it. Neither side can really trust that this love truly abides and is enough for them. Both sides are basically doing the best they can but neither side has said YES, neither side has let that love into their hearts and trusted.
So Jesus tells them all this parable. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? I imagine a long pause after that question. And then maybe one of the responsible ones mutters, Well nobody would do that. It doesn’t make sense. You don’t leave ninety-nine alone and go looking for one. Something might happen to the other ninety-nine. You cut your losses and stay with what you’ve got.
And Jesus says: But that’s the kind of love I’m telling you about. If those were children and not sheep, you’d search as long as it took. And imagine how happy you would be when you found that one lost child. That’s the kind of love that holds the world together and that’s the kind of love all of you have to say YES to, that’s the love you have to receive. You’ve got to see God’s love as huge and abundant and that God will not rest until he brings all his children to himself. You can’t earn it. You can’t behave in such a way as to defeat it. Your whole struggle in life is to receive that kind of love.
We are gathered here as tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes, eldest and youngest, middle and only children. And Christ Jesus is God searching for each of us. God will find us as many times as we are lost.