12 September 2016
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Various studies have shown that there is a general trend about the personality of a child based upon their birth order. Of course, I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but, speaking for myself, I have found most of the attributes to be true. Parents.com says the following (and it’s on the internet so it must be true!): “As the leader of the pack, firstborns often tend to be: reliable; conscientious; structured; cautious; controlling; achievers. Firstborns bask in their parents’ presence, which may explain why they sometimes act like mini-adults. Firstborns are diligent and want to be the best at everything they do.” As a firstborn, I would say most of those are true, though I would use the word administrative rather than controlling. I think firstborns, but also others, certainly want to be the best at everything we do. We, as with others, can tend to be perfectionists.
The challenge for any perfectionist, whether firstborn or not, is that when we mess up, we can take it very personally. Perfectionists are certainly tough on others, but are, more often than not, tough on themselves. And so, in our spiritual lives, when we sin, as all people do (even the firstborn, perfect child), it can be hard to accept the Lord’s mercy. Pope Francis once said that the Lord is sometimes more willing to forgive us than we are ourselves, and that can certainly be true. We fall, like the Israelites in the first reading, and we can feel like God should start over with someone else. In those moments, we need to trust in the Lord, and remember that He does want to have mercy on us. He does not want to destroy us. In the first reading, God was seeing how Moses would respond to God’s justice (for turning away from God the Israelites did deserve death), and God was pleased that Moses was becoming more like God and asking for mercy for the Chosen People. We, too, should be like Moses when it comes to others and even to ourselves. We should not beat ourselves up, but acknowledge our sin (pretending we didn’t sin does not solve anything), and then ask God for his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance.
The other challenge with firstborns and other, as we heard in our Gospel today, is to hold others’ faults over their heads. The firstborn, and others, strive to please God, and work hard to stay on the straight and narrow. But without a sense of God’s mercy, that desire for perfection can become hardhearted and lead to looking down on others who don’t succeed. It can, as in the Gospel, lead to disdain when others are merciful to them. We don’t want Jesus to go after the lost sheep; we don’t want Him to find the lost coin; and we certainly don’t want Him to throw a feast for those who wasted their spiritual inheritance on the fleeting pleasures of life. We want justice. Being merciful will only show others that it’s ok to do all those bad things; they need to be held accountable!
God, instead, invites us to be like Him, and show mercy to others. Certainly, God cannot be fooled by fake contrition. If we are not truly sorry, God will not forgive us. When God gives His mercy, it is meant to lead to a change of heart, a conversion. The Prodigal Son truly was going to change, and that change was made possible by the father’s love. Even the worst people can change, and our mercy to them can help them experience God the Father’s love.
Who knows if the birth order/personality traits correlation is right. But this week the Lord invites us to know ourselves, and see how ready we are to be like Him, to be merciful to those we meet. Knowing ourselves is not always easy. It is often easier to concentrate on someone else’s faults than our own, because we don’t have to deal with the pain and sorrow when we’re not focusing on our own failings. As St. Basil the Great says, “In truth, to know oneself seems to be the hardest of all things. Not only our eye, which observes external objects, does not use the sense of sight upon itself, but even our mind, which contemplates intently another’s sin, is slow in the recognition of its own defects.”
But knowledge of our own failings is not for the sake of beating ourselves up. Rather, it is meant to push us towards God, the all-merciful, who gives us the grace to change our lives. No matter what our birth order, the Lord invites us to receive His mercy so that we can be more like Him, we can be divinized. And, if we strive with all our hearts to accept God’s transforming and divinizing grace, then at the end of our life, we can hope for God the Father to run out to meet us, clothe us in the white garment of the saints, and welcome us into the great celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb of God.