But then as he matured and thought about what his father had said, he realised that what was lying within his father’s words was the most articulate expression of love that he knew: “Son, whatever you do in your life, know this. The door of my heart will always be open to you.” His father was offering unconditional love. No strings attached. That was beautiful and that sustained him as he continued through life.
As we look ahead to Easter, which is just around the corner, that surely is the message resonating for us as we reflect on this hugely important time in our Christian year. Christ moved on a long time ago but his heart remains open to us. It is a message of unconditional love practised by him but, just as importantly, one which he calls us to practise. It is not easy, in fact it is extremely difficult, but that is the challenge of following the Christian path. It is not always a walk in the park!
There is the story of seven monks several centuries ago who were in a cave in a jungle somewhere in Asia, meditating on unconditional love. There was the head monk, his brother, and his best friend. The fourth monk was the head monk’s enemy – they just could not get along. The fifth monk in the group was a very old monk, so advanced in years that he was expected to die at any time. The sixth monk was sick, so sick that he was not expected to live very long. And the last monk, well, he was the useless monk. He always snored when he was supposed to be meditating, couldn’t remember, his chanting, and if he did, he chanted off-key. But the others tolerated him and thanked him for teaching them patience.
One day a gang of bandits discovered the cave. They wanted to take it over as their own base, so they decided to kill all the monks. The head monk, fortunately, was a very persuasive speaker. He managed to persuade the bandits to let all the monks go, except one, who would be killed as a warning to the other monks not to let anyone know the location of the cave. That was the best deal the head monk could wrangle from the bandits.
The head monk was left alone for a few minutes to make the awful decision of who should be sacrificed so that the others could go free. So who do you think he chose? The useless monk? The old monk? The sick monk? His enemy? His best friend? His brother? All wrong, he was unable to choose. You see, his love for each and every one of them was exactly the same. He had perfected the meaning of unconditional love. He too was expressing to his fellow monks, “The door of my heart will always be open to you, whatever you do, whoever you are.”
Now, many of you were probably waiting for me to ask, “Who thought the monk would choose himself to die?” Let’s briefly refer back to our reading in which Jesus says, ”Love your neighbour as yourself.” Not more than yourself, but equal to yourself. It means to regard others as one would regard oneself, and oneself as one regards others.
Why is it that we are more demanding, more critical, and more punishing of ourselves than of anyone else? Very simply, we have not learned how to love ourselves. It’s called forgiveness. It is being at peace with yourself. If we find it difficult to say to another, “The door of my heart is always open to you, whatever you do,” then that is nothing compared with the difficulty we will face in saying to ourselves, “The door of my heart is open to me as well, to all of me no matter what I have done. Come in.” Only when we can love ourselves in such a way can we know what it means to really love another, no more and no less.
And please remember that we do not have to be perfect, without fault, to give ourselves such love. If we wait for perfection, it never arrives. We must open the door of our hearts to ourselves, whatever we have done. Once inside, then we are perfect.
Jesus didn’t tack on the words ‘as yourself’ when talking about love just to round it off, just because it made a more complete sentence. Like everything he said, he said it for a reason. He wants us to love everyone unconditionally, but he understands so well what a challenge this is and that we will only accomplish this when we come to terms with ourselves and are able to feel the same way about ourselves.
Before I finish, you are probably wanting to know how the story of the bandits finished. Did they kill anyone, and if so, who? Well, the story actually doesn’t relate but I believe that all the bandits were so inspired by the head monk that they all became monks themselves! And everyone lived happily ever after.