One of the marks of a Christian heart is the desire for inclusivity, the desire to ultimately be in communion with as many people as possible, to have everyone in heaven with you without demanding that they become just like you to get there. Sadly, we tend to harbor the opposite attitude, though we are slow to admit this.
We all like to think of ourselves as big-hearted, as having wide compassion, and as loving like Jesus did, but too much within both our attitudes and our actions belies this. Our own love, truth, and worship are often unconsciously predicated on making ourselves right by making others wrong. Too often we have an unconscious mantra which says: I can only be good, if someone else is bad. I can only be right, if someone else is wrong. My dogma can only be true, if someone else’s is false. My religion can only be right, if someone else’s is wrong. My Eucharist can only be valid, if someone else’s is invalid. And I can only be in heaven, if someone else is in hell.
We justify this attitude of separation and moral-religious superiority by appealing to various things: correct dogma, the need for justice, proper morality, right ecclesiology, and correct liturgical practice, among other things. And there’s some truth in this. To have your heaven include everyone does not mean that truth, morality, and church practice all become relative, that it’s of no ultimate consequence what one believes or how one acts and worships. Our Christian scriptures and our subsequent tradition warn clearly that there are certain rights and wrongs and that certain attitudes and actions can exclude us from the God’s Kingdom, heaven. But those same scriptures make it equally clear that God’s salvific will is universal and that God’s deep, constant, passionate longing is that everyone, absolutely everyone, regardless of their attitude and actions, be somehow brought into the house. God, it seems, does not want to rest until everyone is home, eating at the same table.
Jesus, uncompromisingly, teaches the same thing. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, he weaves together three stories to make this point: The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in order to search for the one stray; the woman who has ten coins, loses one, and cannot rest until she has found her lost coin; and the father who loses two sons, one to weakness and one to anger, and will not rest until he has both back in the house.
I particularly like the middle story, the one about the woman with the lost coins, because it is the most clear in making this point: A woman has ten coins (each worth about dime), she loses one, frantically searches for it, puts on extra lights and sweeps her house, and finally she finds it, is overjoyed, calls in her neighbors, and has a celebration that clearly costs more than what the coin itself was worth. Why her frantic pursuit of one small coin? And why her great joy in finding it?
What’s really at issue is not the value of the coin but the loss of wholeness: For a Hebrew at the time, 10 was a number of wholeness, 9 was not. Hence we might recast the story this way: A woman is the mother of ten children. Nine come to visit her regularly and share their lives with her, but one is alienated and refuses to come home or ever talk to her. The woman cannot rest and tries everything imaginable to try to reconcile with her daughter and eventually her daughter comes round. They reconcile. She is overjoyed, phones her friends, and throws a party. Her family is whole again!
The same dynamic holds true for the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the lost sheep. For a Hebrew at that time, the number 99 did not designate wholeness, but the number 100 did. The shepherd is like the mother with the alienated daughter, he cannot rest until his family is once again made whole. We see the same longing, passion, and sadness in the Father of the prodigal son and older brother. He cannot rest, nor be at peace, until both his sons are back in the house. He is overjoyed when his wayward son returns but the story ends with him still outside the house, trying to coax his other son, outside because of anger, to also come inside. His heaven includes both his sons.
Our heaven too must be a wide one. Like the woman who lost a coin, like the shepherd who has lost a sheep, and like the father of the prodigal son and older brother, we too shouldn’t rest easy when others are separated from us. The family is only happy when everyone is home.
What ultimately characterizes a genuine faith and a big heart is not how pure our churches, doctrines, and morals might be, but how wide is the embrace of our hearts.