You can choose your friends but not your family, so the old adage goes. Whether we choose our family or not, it shapes who we become. Even something as apparently simple as birth order can make a huge difference. If we learn to know ourselves better we can work to modify some of our seemingly built-in responses to situations and people. This may allow us to get on better with others, even with members of our family!
Jesus used the example of a family to help the Pharisees to understand how God views those who turn to him in faith, the great joy and welcome that awaits such a person. In the sermon that follows I concentrated more on the response of the elder son in the family. The readings were Psalm 74 and Luke 15:11-end.
Some of you may know that last Saturday there was a wedding in my family. Our only daughter married in a wonderful ceremony followed by a great reception and evening barn dance. As we prepared for the day, there were the normal anxieties about it. Had we forgotten anything? Would the rings fit ok? What would the weather be like? Lots of practical things as you can imagine.
Even more worrying were questions about family. Who would sit where? Would they like the people they were sitting with? Are there any known tensions between any family members that would tell us not to put them together? How can we fairly involve both families in the day? Who should do readings, prayers, be witnesses, be best man?
Fortunately there are official ways suggested to deal with some of this but for some there is no guide as each family is unique. All we could do was discuss it together and do our best. The proof of how well we had done would come on the day. As it turned out, everything seemed to go really well, everyone had a good time, and there were smiles and laughter (and a few tears of happiness) all round.
There is an old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family and families can certainly cause difficulties for us at times. The Bible certainly didn’t make any attempt to whitewash the family issues of the people it tells about. Right at the beginning, Adam and Eve had an argument about who was to blame for the forbidden fruit being eaten. Each pointed the finger at another and the snake seemed to come off worst. As an old joke says: Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the snake; and the snake didn’t have a leg to stand on.
The difficulties in Adam’s family continued with jealousy between their sons which led to Cain murdering Able. A little further on through history and we find Abraham pretending that Sarah is not his wife but his sister and nearly ending up with her being taken as a concubine by the local king. When Lot was living in Sodom he offered his daughters to be raped by the men of the city. Later the daughters became pregnant by their father.
Jealousy and favouritism blighted Isaac’s family, with Isaac loving Esau more and Rebekah loving Jacob more. Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and in the end had to flee his anger. Jacob himself was tricked by his uncle into working 7 years for a woman he didn’t love and then working another 7 for the woman he did love. Within his own family, Jacob favoured Joseph over his other 11 sons, resulting in them throwing Joseph down a well and pretending he was dead.
Move further on to the great hero King David. Despite being a man after God’s own heart, he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then committed murder to cover his tracks. Later his son Amnon also wanted a woman he was not entitled to, his half-sister Tamar, and he raped her. The family was so riddled with problems that nothing was done to defend her honour. (You can read a piece of Biblical narrative on this story on our blog. It’s called ‘Where is my voice?’)
Families make us what we are to a certain extent. We learn to relate according to what we experience. One of our experiences is our position in the family. In the family in the gospel story there are two children as far as we know. Some observations about the first born by Alfred Adler and others are that they are subject to high expectations from parents and are often given a lot of responsibility and expected to set a good example with their every move under scrutiny. They often become authoritarian and strict, and feel that power is their right. Once dethroned by the next child they may spend a lot of time trying to demonstrate how superior they are to the next and subsequent children. They tend to be reliable, co-operative and conscientious and crave approval. They may turn to the father for attention once a second child is born.
On the other hand, the last child can be very different. They are often competitive, wanting to overtake the older child. They may become rebels in order to do this and their competitive nature can become rivalry. They often have big plans and are willing to take risks. They are often immature as the parents may spoil them and keep them as the baby of the family. They are very sociable and outgoing, but also self-centred. They do not like to be tied down to commitments. Often they will choose to be the opposite of the older child. It is not unusual for the second child to be the black sheep of the family.
I think you can see that much of this makes sense in the family we have described here. The elder son is really struggling when he sees all the affection lavished on the younger one. I think it’s easy to understand his anger when you think of how irresponsible the younger son was. Maybe part of what the elder son is asking of his father by his behaviour is ‘Do you love me?’ For many of us that is very important indeed, both within human relationships and in our relationship with God. If we see others favoured over us in some way we can become bitter as a result. I suppose what we need to remember is that God’s love is there for everyone and it’s without limit. Unlike a human parent who can only give his or her time and attention to one child at once, God can love us all equally at the same time.
I suppose we all know that we should rejoice when others have success and so on. It’s part of being a Christian, but it’s not easy to do so. It’s often far easier to be jealous of the good things that seem to be happening to someone else. I remember an exercise we did in one of my counselling lectures. We were looking at how we relate to people of the opposite sex and of the same sex as ourselves and talking about this in pairs. I had always known that I related better to men than to women but I didn’t really know why. As we talked together I suddenly realised that I didn’t like a lot of women as I was so competitive towards them and I needed to be better than them. I saw them as rivals. It was quite a shock but good to learn more about myself. I understood why I felt like this. I am a second child with just the one much older sister. I know that as a child I continually tried to catch up with her. I also know I was stubborn and uncooperative whereas she was ‘good’. I am the black sheep of the family. I now know that I’ve taken that problem into a lot of relationships with women. Now that I recognise it I can compensate for it. Perhaps had the elder son had this insight he would have been happier but he would probably have needed someone to explore this with, someone outside the situation.
It’s not just me who suffers this way, and probably makes others suffer as a result! I was reading about a curate who struggled with the vicar she was working with. He always seemed to be putting her down and she was very despondent. After reflecting for a while with another person she realised that the vicar reminded her of her father who had been very demanding and never pleased with her. Once she saw this she was able to work at separating the two images and so improved her relationship with the vicar.
Maybe one thing we can learn from this Gospel story is that we need to know ourselves better if we are to get on better with members of our families and also with members of our Christian family. When we become Christians we become related to people we would not normally choose to associate with. We’re back to the old adage about not being able to choose our family. If we can’t choose who they are, we need to choose to learn more about ourselves so that we can get on with other members of the Christian family we are in. One thing we know about every single one of them is that God loves them all equally, and his loving of even those of whom we disapprove should not be a problem for us. His love is no less for us because of this. He will always love us as if each of us were the only person he ever created. What a wonderful thought!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor