On Not Shutting Down

by | Oct 4, 2017 | Formation, Reflections | 1 comment

I know two young men who were given a set of CD’s of the greats in classical music. Neither of them ever listened to nor had any appreciation for this kind of track. The one said, “This stuff is boring and even hard on my ears. I’ll humor my uncle who gave them to me, but I’m putting them away in a box. It isn’t music.” The other thought, “This is tough to listen to — it’s so stiff and dull. But let me give it a chance, maybe there’s something to it.” And though every piece seemed strange and even hard on his ears, he started to listen. In time he came not only to appreciate the great composers but even to prefer them. Years later he told me he felt sorry for people who couldn’t hear the beauty in this music. (On Matthew 20:1-16)


The point: even though the sounds ran against his grain and even irritated him, he stayed with that distaste and let himself listen — and after a while was pulled into a whole new zone of appreciation. Rather than reject what he couldn’t understand, he worked to embrace it.

The Scriptures have their own images for these mindsets. On the receptivity side, there’s the wide open heart, the supple reed waiting to be bent in the direction God wants. On the shut-down side, there’s the hardened heart — or better the stiff neck, the one that can only look straight ahead and never to the left or right, up or down to take in anything outside that single line of vision. Open versus resistant.

Often enough Jesus is up against this second tendency, the hardened and defensive heart. And in little ways it even happens within himself.

There’s the time the Gentile woman approaches him and begs him to heal her child. His first response is to tell her he’s here only for his own People. But faced with her insistence (‘Couldn’t you at least give us the crumbs from your table?’), he lets her plight break through the walls around his Jewish upbringing. Working from this more porous heart, he allows his up-til-then view of how God operates in the world to be stretched – and so can extend his Father’s healing hand to a wider flock.

But then there are his opponents who with their closed off outlooks rebuff him repeatedly. “He’s the carpenter’s son from our hometown; where does he get off telling us all this? We, the leaders with the recognized credentials, know how things are arranged between God and us.”

Finally, those who give Jesus a chance. They don’t shut him down, at least at first bounce, but show some flex in their listening. These would be his followers, the disciples through the ages including people like ourselves in the Vincentian Family. As Christian believers, we would see ourselves generally disposed to listen.

But of course, there’s the rub – even his followers find it hard to stay open, to keep necks elastic and hearts soft. Time and again, his meaning bounces off. When encountering The Lord in the course of the everyday (or as the saying goes, “when meeting Jesus again for the first time”), it’s not always easy to stay receptive, to maintain that supple first-bounce willingness to be stretched beyond the familiar. And this is doubly the case the case when coming up against his view of his dear Father, God – who God really is and how God operates here in our world.

That’s what is going on in Matthew’s 20th chapter when Jesus tries to tell people about this Father, a thing he characteristically does by spinning parables about the Kingdom of God and how it shows up in life. Here his Father is the prodigal land owner who unpopularly pays bonus wages to the last chance workers who showed up at the end of the day. And as you can hear from the crowds’ reaction, this portrayal is a real stretcher.

The grousing: “We should all get what’s fair. And it’s not fair that someone who did so much less work than we did should get the same. Equal work, equal pay. That’s the rules in this system.”
Jesus’ comeback: “Whose rules? You’re working inside one system (‘if you didn’t earn it, you don’t get it’) and I’m operating from a whole other one (‘God gives superabundantly.’). When in the world of my Father, I’m not in the confines of your common sense fairness. This is an overflowing fairness I’m announcing, one that travels way beyond, a spilling-over generosity. It’s not your idea of what’s generous but is my expansive generosity, much more far-reaching than what you can grasp right now.”
Their comeback: “But that’s not fair. That’s not the rules.”
Jesus’ response: “Your idea of what’s fair is way too small. Your rules are not my rules.”

And so the question for Jesus’ hearers today: how does one take that in? How take in other things like an overjoyed Father who wraps his arms around his runaway dissolute son, when playing by the rules the Father should have sent him away in disgrace. It doesn’t make sense — at least the usual sense!
How to take in the claim, “everybody is a child of God, equally loveable in God’s eyes,” when in the push and pull of everyday life it so often doesn’t feel that way? How to take in a forgiveness that never runs out — or as one writer has it, how to comprehend “the no-matter-whatness” of God?

And so again, these how to resist letting these heart stretching depictions of God bounce off as pious religion-talk on a Sunday morning?

Might some wisdom come from that second young man with the classical CD’s? “Even though I don’t understand, can hardly hear any music in it and even am repulsed by it, can I give it a try anyhow?” Transposed to our situation, when trying to take in the reality of God, can I more often take the stance that there’s a whole lot more I don’t know than I do know? Can I keep open, even a little bit, to these mind and heart blowing assertions of Jesus about his Father: God is boundless compassion, God’s goodness is always greater than I could ever give God credit for, God’s forgiveness is way more encompassing than I would ever allow, the circle of God’s mercy extends out much further out than I can imagine.

In sum, when I come before the God of Jesus can I do my best not just to listen but to embrace what I’m being told, to actively take in what Jesus is testifying to with his whole life? Can I stand before these hard sayings, (like ‘Love everyone, even your enemies’) with that more spacious willingness to hear even though a voice inside me is saying “this can’t be right?” Can I loosen up that stiff neck and soften that protected heart which left to their own would stay with what they already know?

Centuries before, Isaiah echoed this sentiment, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways.” (Is. 55:7) In the face of the always present gap between the world of Jesus Kingdom and the world as it seems to be, can I stand open before Jesus’ insistence that his Father’s God’s goodness runs deeper and farther than I can now fathom or ever imagine?

1 Comment

  1. Sr. Marjory Ann

    Thank you very much!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This