March 6: A Habit of the Heart (Lent 4C)

“Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-21.


The word “lent” means the lengthening of days. Next weekend begins “daylight savings time,” and the first day of spring occurs on Palm Sunday, March 20th, and, of course, we celebrate Easter the following week on March 27th. This is a lengthening of days and the increasing of grace in our own lives.

Last week we heard from Luke’s gospel about a barren fig tree and the role of the gardener who argued to the owner of the orchard that with great patience and proper cultivation, the fig tree with its delicious fruit might just come around. Give it time.

Today, we listen to one of the most well-known parables in the New Testament, namely the story of the “prodigal son,” that wastefully extravagant son who comes back to his father and brother.

Of course, this follows along the line of two other stories in Luke’s gospel, that of the “lost coin” and the “lost sheep.” All of which teaches us how God’s grace and mercy provide restoration, and forgiveness, and at last, the joy at finding a new life.

Does this stuff from the bible happen in real life?

Well yes! While I’m repeating a newspaper account, so you should be forwarded, I cannot attest to its complete accuracy. Two-week ago, I happened to read an obituary for Peter Mondavi, the Napa Valley winemaker and businessman who died at 101 years of age.

According to the New York Times, Peter and his brother Robert Mondavi inherited their father’s vineyard. They became all-important figures in advance of California wines in this country and around the world. Robert was the marketing genius, and Peter knew the details of the science of wine and viticulture. And here’s where this family feud reads like it comes from the bible or a great work of literature.

After their father Caesare died, the brothers became partners, but somehow the partnership fell apart. Robert would go on to create his own label, where Peter directed the Charles Krug Winery.

The obituary mentioned that the brothers did not speak to one another from 1965 to 2005 when they finally reconciled at a Napa Valley charity event. Of course, this was a good thing since Robert died just a few years later.

Take their lives out of the narrative, and let’s think of ourselves for a moment. What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine the years of estrangement, pain, grief, and the burden on the extended family.

In Jesus, we are not estranged from God who offers his mercy and forgiveness, and we are to extend this mercy and forgiveness as signs of the divine presence in our own lives.

Lent is a time when we can grow as persons, fully alive with Christ at Easter, and not merely taking up space, but thoroughly nourishing the community of faith, in hope and in love.

Lent gives us a time to grow into a “big person,” not in size or stature, rather prominent in the spirit of generosity, mercy, and grace.

Here the “habit of the heart,” most clearly demonstrated by the loving father in Luke’s gospel, has less to do with moral prescriptions (a list of does and don’ts). Instead, his is an example of “generative moral authority” that leads to higher ground and becomes a moral compass for the community of faith, and a lasting example to his sons, and to us.

So we are witnessing a “family feud” or argument. In real life, it is never easy to parse the words and the emotions of such incidents in our own lives.

How do parents establish the need boundaries between freedom and control? How do we allow our young people the freedom to grow, at the same time, provide the much-needed guidance not to fall victim to big mistakes?

So it’s a problem of degree, and most of all providing good role models in parents, as well as the “village of good people” in the persons of teachers, or coaches — crucial to the growth of children.

Here’s the question: can throw our kids to the wind? Or do we wrap them up for safekeeping in Saran Wrap to prevent exposure to the real world, as it exists today? Neither strategies really work, to my mind.

Today’s gospel permits us to see inside a deeply religious argument about how tax collectors and sinners gathered around Jesus, who offers mercy to even these people.

At the time, we are told that the Pharisees and scribes had a misguided sense of religion, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Here Jesus is teaching a great lesson about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Again reinforcing this lesson in stories like the “lost sheep,” and shepherd, who goes out to find those lost in his flock, the woman who rejoiced over her treasured “lost coin.”

Most of all, the father’s embrace of his lost son, and the potential “change of heart” in a resentful and reluctant brother, make for a compelling narrative, and over centuries finds resonance in art, drama, music, and our very lives.

In this “Year of Mercy,” are we willing to forgive with a “father’s embrace,” and most of all, like the brother, are we ready at this Eastertime to join the festivities at the welcoming party of life?

Otherwise, we may never understand Easter’s power to restore to life, what was lost, or is dead!

Saint Timothy’s, Morro Bay, CA.


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