I had a hard time finding window nine, an elusive little door hidden in the bushes outside of the cathedral. When I opened it, there was a picture of one of the most famous of Jesus' stories: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
It depicted a father with his arms embracing his kneeling son, the traditional pose for the parable in art. But what was striking-even in this miniature version-was the look of great tenderness on the father's face.
"Tenderness" is a word not often heard in our culture. Indeed, the Global Language Monitor just released its top-ten word list for 2008-mostly edgy, political, and trendy words. Tenderness did not appear. Yet Christmas is one of those rare times when tenderness shows up in public, often in sentimentalized forms, and when even toughened souls, like Dr. Seuss' Grinch, soften their hearts.
Tenderness is more than sentimental love. Indeed, the parable equates tenderness with mercy. Mercy is compassionate love. In Jesus' story, the father looks on his repentant son with tenderness and demonstrates mercy toward him. The father actively forgives his son for squandering his fortune, and he restores the son to the family through acceptance, hospitality, and forgiveness. Tenderness opens the door to mercy; these actions heal a broken family; an unexpected justice results.
Although North American Christians often interpret the story as a tale of personal salvation-that God will save all those who throw themselves on God's tender mercy-the global implications of the parable are more provocative. The son represents humanity who has squandered God's treasures of the divine image within, of creation, of God's shalom. Corporately, we need to throw ourselves at God's feet, asking forgiveness for all the ways in which we have wasted our inheritance. God will, the parable assures, embrace us, and seeing us with such tenderness, act mercifully.
This is the essence of justice. The parable illustrates the biblical hope that "mercy and justice embrace" (Psalm 85:10). Indeed, in an encyclical from 1980, Pope John Paul II used the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the primary analogy for God's justice as the "very mystery of mercy."
In this meditation, John Paul II asked the question, "Is Justice Enough?" No, he answered. "In the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights. The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions."
And the elusive message of Christianity is found: Tenderness is the root of justice. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).