Mercy Moments: Parable of the Lost Son (4th Sunday of Lent) Mercy is the Cure for a Hardened Heart

Four Sunday of Lent / March 5-6, 2016:  Parable of the Lost Son  (LK 15:1-3, 11-32)

In my family, the men have a history of heart conditions.  So awhile back, when my brother and I were talking about that, I had made a mental note to get a heart check up.  Then I forgot about it.  But this week I was reminded again when I heard that Pope Francis, in his weekday homily, was also talking about heart disease.  However, Pope Francis wasn’t talking about blocked arteries.  He was talking about a spiritual condition where the heart gets hardened.   A condition where the fleshy human heart that we are born with begins to turn to stone.  But not to worry though, he says, it’s curable.  The medicine is mercy.

Here’s a quick heart check up for you to see if you’re suffering from this hardened heart condition.  When you looked at the news this week, what was your reaction:  did you feel indifferent or unmoved and quickly switch to something else?  Or did you let yourself get disturbed, touched at a deep level that compelled you to respond?   What about when you saw a homeless person on the street?  Did you turn and look the other way or did you smile and greet the person?  Then there’s that annoying person at work or school?  Avoid or engage?

It’s easy to end up with hardened hearts.  But that’s not our real and true nature.  We weren’t created to be unfeeling robots.  No.  We were created by love, in the image of love, to be love.

But we forget that.  And some of us were raised to not think of God that way.   Here’s another quick exercise.  Think for a moment of your very first image of God.   I did this at a retreat last weekend with deacons in Buffalo.  A good number of the men said that  their earliest images of God were of an old man with the  flowing white beard,  in the clouds, sitting with the book where he keeps track and judges us.  But is that the image of God that Jesus shared with us?

In the Gospel today, Jesus is hanging out with public sinners, which is upsetting the righteous folks.  Jesus questions their image of God.  They think that God is as judgmental as they are.  So he tells them a story that really upsets their image of God.   

Let’s look at this parable.  What does this story tell us about ourselves and God?  I think most of us related to one or both of the sons.

Let’s start with the younger one.  What a selfish brat. He essentially wishes his dad dead so that he can get his hands on some money.  His heart is hardened with selfishness.  We don’t know why, but this keeps him from seeing the love that’s right under his nose.  Rather, he thinks that he can find joy through pleasure and material things.   And, how does that work for him?   Pretty good...for awhile.  But when disaster hits and the money is gone, he has a crisis.  Out of desperation and lack of other options he heads home, not so much to find love but to get a full stomach.  

Then there’s the older son.  His heart is hardened with anger and resentment.  And for good reason.  His crazy father sold half the estate.  Who does that?  His younger brother has been out having fun, wasting the money.  And where has he been all this time?   Working his tail off.   Doing what he was suppose to do.  And what did that get him for all his effort?  Now the younger brother is home.  No consequences.  No judgment.  Rather, a party for him?  Give me a break.  How is that fair?   He believed that love is something you earn.  The reward for good behavior.  He deserved love, not the younger brother.

But this is not a story about justice, at least as we define it.  It’s all about mercy.

The father in the story shocks our sensibilities in many ways about what mercy really looks like:  
  1. He gives his love away freely, without strings,  giving both of them a lot of freedom to accept and reject it.  He allows them to make mistakes.  But that’s how love really works, right?  You can only offer it.  You can’t force someone to accept it.
  2. He never gives up on his sons.  He believes in them, even when they are at their worst.  He’s out there everyday making a fool of himself waiting for the younger son to return.  Imagine what the other villagers were saying about him.  Spare the rod, spoil the child.
  3. He doesn’t judge, but rather welcomes back and forgives.   The younger son can barely get his rehearsed speech out of his mouth before the father has embraced him and welcomed him back fully into the family.  Not even a lecture or an “I told  you so.”
  4. He goes out.  With both the younger son and the older son, the father goes out to them.  He doesn’t wait from them to come to him. Even as the story ends, he’s outside with the older son, begging him to come back in.
  5. He’s all inclusive, like a Jamaican beach resort.  There’s no coincidence that the story ends with a banquet, a party.   This is the primary symbol for Jesus of what God’s kingdom looks like:  a table where all are welcome to feast on mercy.  Public sinners like the younger son.  Private sinners like the older son.

In this story Jesus is clear.  God is love.  And God is in love with us.  Always.  No matter what.  That can be hard to accept.  I know that I struggle with that at times.  Now this may sound like blasphemy, but do you know who helps remind me of how much God loves us?  My dog, Penny.  Everyday when I come home, she is so excited to see me.  She jumps and yelps.  It doesn’t matter what kind of day I had.  Or if I even did something bad. I could have robbed a bank.  Nor does it matter whether I was busy all day and totally ignored her.  She still jumps all over me and goes out of mind with joy when she sees me.   I think that’s how God is with us.

I propose two takeaways for us from this story to reflect upon:
  1. God’s unconditional love is pouring down all around us, all the time.  Our sin doesn’t affect God’s attitude toward us.   He always loves us the same.  Sin is our choosing something other than God’s love, so it affects us.  It hardens our hearts.  Keeps us from experiencing God’s love. The question is whether our hearts are so hardened that God’s love isn’t penetrating as well as it could.  
    1. Are we like the younger son?  Have we settled for pleasure and materials things instead of real love?  Focused our concern only on getting our own needs met?
    2. Are we like the older son? Resentful and angry. Judgmental.  Clinging to notion that love can only be earned.  And wanting God to be just as stingy as we are.
  2. The second takeaway is even harder.  In the story, we may relate to being like one or both the sons.  But Jesus challenges for us is move beyond them.  The character he hopes that we will be, the one he needs us to be, is the merciful father.
    1. Sure, at times in our lives, we’ve been the younger son and the older son.  But now our hardened hearts have been softened by God’s love.  He’s embraced us in our failure and stinginess.  We now know that God loves us no matter what.  And that has produced great joy in our lives.  
    2. It is the very nature of love that we cannot keep that joy to ourselves.  We are compelled to share it with others.  If we don’t it will die within us.
    3. We are called to be the away love freely without price or condition, not judging but welcoming, always going out from places of comfort to those who don’t believe that they deserve it.  
    4. And always ready to throw a banquet and make sure everyone has a seat at table: regardless of their past mistakes or successes, whether they are poor or rich, without regard to  race, sexual orientation, immigration status or religious beliefs.   A table of brothers and sisters where everyone freely feasts on mercy and shares mercy with each other.

Let us continue our Lenten journey to let go of our hardened hearts.  Let us continue to soak in God’s mercy.  And, let’s share that mercy with others.

Deacon Matt Dulka is Maryknoll Mission Promoter who lives in the San Francisco area.