A few weeks ago, I discovered a work of art online. I don’t remember the artist; it showed one of the most famous of Jesus’ stories, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11–32).
Briefly, the story goes something like this: there are two sons, the younger of which is tired of the farm, asks for his share of the inheritance, and leaves to go live it up in the big city. Finally, when he starts to live like a pig, he comes to his senses, comes home to his father who has been waiting for his son to come home, and joyfully throws a party for his son. It’s an amazing story of love and compassion, grace, and forgiveness. Everyone is happy, except for the elder son who has been so responsible, and now feels slighted.
In the painting, the son kneels at his father’s feet. It’s the traditional pose for this parable in almost every work of art. The striking thing in this painting was the look of exquisite tenderness on the father’s face.
“Tenderness” is a word not often heard in our culture. In fact, the spirit of meanness seems to be growing in our society. It happens in political discourse—just listen to the political dialogue in our country, in the USA, sometimes even in our cities.
But it’s not just in national or provincial politics. It’s happening to ordinary folks who are victims of mass shootings in schools and malls and on downtown streets. We hear of hate attacks on synagogues and mosques and Sikh temples. We see the effects of the hyper–partisan language of politicians as their minions take to the streets in protest marches and convoys, their spittle flying as reporters interview them.
Tenderness seems to have become an outmoded concept in today’s world.
You would almost expect the father to kick the returning son in the backside and send him packing. But the father’s tenderness in the parable is more than mere sentimentality. The father displays his compassionate love for his son in strong actions. He shows compassion and grace. He actively forgives his son, even though he had squandered his fortune, He restores the son to the family through acceptance, hospitality, and forgiveness. Tenderness opens the door to mercy; these actions heal a broken family; we discover an unexpected justice in this story, marked by healing and restoration.
Psalm 85:10 pictures the day when “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, when righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” This is the essence of justice—not to seek vengeance, or payback, but that in compassion and tenderness, we seek reconciliation above all else.
In 1980, Pope John Paul 2 asked, “Is Justice Enough?” His answer was no. “In the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbour 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
A just society is built on both compassion and justice. If we find it within ourselves to exercise that level of compassion, then we will be able to shine a light into the gloom, and not just escalate the heat of partisan passions.
This is part of the elusive message of Christianity: that tenderness is the root of justice. Jesus taught us that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) Cultivating this justice tempered by tenderness and compassion is part of the work of all who claim to be followers and disciples of Jesus.