Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Hard Heartedness – the Church of St. Michael and St. George

“But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you.’”
During the storms early last week, Jordan and I found ourselves in the Schnuck’s parking lot.  In the driving rain, I had turned the wrong way down one of the lanes, accidentally.  Unfortunately, it was not one of those mistakes that was going to go unnoticed.  A minivan raced up the lane, going the correct direction, and as I stopped my car, having just completed the wrong turn, the driver of the other vehicle began gesturing, flailing her arms, glaring at me.  I was stuck—she hadn’t left enough space for me to inch past her, there was significant cross traffic behind me, and she desperately desired the parking space I was inadvertently blocking with my car.
The logistics might be confusing, but the heart of the matter is this: in poor driving conditions, I’d made a traffic mistake, and as driving blunders go, it was a very small one; but this woman in the minivan was not going to let it slide.  She seemly jumped at the chance to ream me out from the safety of her car, reveling in my vulnerable position.
This, I turned and told my husband, is why I do not understand your mother.
No, no, not like that.  Really, the reason I thought of her is that she has developed a different knee-jerk reaction to strangers than the one that I have.  I tend to assume that people are always out to get me.  I generally expect to be berated in a grocery store parking lot, yelled by a passerby if I forget a plastic bag when I take my dog outside to go to the bathroom at 6 a.m., and raked over the coals for not being ready to order the moment I reach the front of a queue at a café.
Unlike me, my mother in law operates out of the assumption that everyone around her has a soft, generous, fleshy heart.  Though sometimes she may be wrong and someone with a hard heart may snap at her, her experience of life is much more like what God had in mind for us humans and for our relationships when he created the world—people walking around, forgiving, and being generous, being gentle with each other and being open with one another.  Jesus appeals to God’s original plan for human relationships in the Gospel text today as he responds to questions about the distance between the ideal what the law requires.
By pointing to the very beginning of time, Jesus is drawing attention to the norm that God established, which is human relationships that cultivate character and grow love and provide support for the weak.  This passage is about much more than divorce; it is about understanding the way that God sees the world and learning what God desires for each of us.
Jesus explains that though there are allowances that holy men, like Moses, have made for people throughout the ages, God never meant for our relationships to be bogged down with selfishness and violence.  Humans naturally carry around hard hearts—we’re prone to selfishness and to following the easiest, least invasive course of action.
For example, in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, a wayward son returns as his father, a Presbyterian minister, nears death.  Instead of mirroring the famous parable, however, this story focuses on the father’s struggle to forgive his child.  Though the Reverend tries to welcome his son home with joy and a feast, it soon becomes clear that his acceptance was a veneer, all is not quite yet forgiven.  In the course of the novel, as the two try to reach out to each other in their sincere but imperfect ways, the relationship continues to deteriorate; their last conversation as the son packs up to leave again ends with a refused handshake and a father’s gruff words, “Tired of it!”  At different points in the story, each man was hard-hearted, but in the end, the father refused to forgive before he understood why his son had become what he was, and that hard-heartedness remained until his death.
God’s soft heart continually has mercy for us as we continually sin against him.  A soft heart is one that loves so deeply and fully that it does not hold a grudge and it gives generously to anyone who is in need.  This is why Jesus takes children into his arms near the end of the passage—he says, “the kingdom of God belongs to people like these children.”  Jesus holds up the kids and says, “be dependent on God like these ones are dependent.”  Allowing control of your life, its direction and its provision, to be handed over to someone else— that kind of openness is a soft heart.  God makes himself open to us because he knows in his infinite wisdom that openness is the only way to deep love and true relationship.
Jesus jumps at the change that the Pharisees gave him, using divorce as an example of how we humans harden our hearts with each other and with God.  As fallen people, sometimes we do damage to each other that cannot be repaired in this world, but we know that God can heal the hard parts of our hearts at any time, if we make ourselves open to him.
Walking around our in our society with a soft heart is a recipe for scandal.  People who are willing to be open with another are the exception, and so they look strange and do strange things.  Jesus isn’t new to this—people in his time and place thought he was doing strange things, too.  To be Christian is to align ourselves with something against the grain of our culture, to stick out like a sore thumb among the people who snap at each other, yell in parking lots, and avert their gaze on the street.  We are people who forgive because we know that we are greatly loved.  We are people who give freely of our time—helping the neighbor who can’t rake her yard because she’s sick; we give freely of our money—knowing that we have more than enough and that God’s presence in this place is something to affirm with our whole selves; we give freely of our resources, our talents—singing and teaching and cooking and visiting others, because God has gifted each of us uniquely to join in his work of building the kingdom.
God sent Jesus to live a softhearted life, to show us that it is possible to respond with generosity and forgiveness even when you are surrounded by stony hearts.  Our own hearts can only be made soft by God himself—we depend on God to transform us, and he sent Jesus to lead us back to him, that we could be made open to God and to each other.
This week, I read a story that captures the difference between a hard heart and a soft heart: At the end of his trial, a serial killer sat with his legal counsel in a courtroom.  After being sentenced to life in prison without parole, the families of his 50-some female victims were lined up at a microphone and invited to address him.  Spouses, parents, and siblings of the victims hurled at him the worst words they could think of; they told him he would end up in hell, they said that he was an animal, they wished on him a “long, suffering, cruel death.”  Finally, the father of a victim took the podium, and haltingly, he said, “Mr. Ridgeway, um… there are people here that hate you…  I’m not one of ‘em.  You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do.  And that’s to forgive.  You are forgiven, Sir.”
Amen.

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