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Matters of the Heart

I always have problems understanding why God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh in the story of the Exodus.

There are other times that God hardens hearts. In the Exodus story, it happens several times.

Why, if God was trying to lead his chosen people to freedom, would he harden the heart of the one person who had the power to do anything about it?

It turns out that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart after only four of the 10 plagues. Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the other six plagues.

Part of the reason I have problems understanding God's role in hardening Pharaoh's heart is that I have problems understanding what a hardened heart means.

I was recently reminded of what it means.

I've been serving on a grand jury panel. We spend the day listening to the evidence that police have uncovered, and saying yes or no, there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.

This week we had an abnormal number of cases involving child sexual abuse. The police officers either apologized for the details they had to give us or just gave us the details dispassionately. It was emotionally hard for some on the panel.

But it reminded me that a hardened heart creates someone who has no feelings or caring for someone. Someone who doesn't care about the consequences. Someone whose relationships are measured in terms of power.

One of my favorite movies is The Mission with Robert De Niro (Rodrigo) and Jeremy Irons. (Father Gabriel) It is the story of the battle for control of the indigenous people of South America in the 18th century. Father Gabriel is a Spanish Jesuit priest who leads a community creating missions among the indigenous people.

Rodrigo is a slave trader who hunts down indigenous people and sells them into slavery. His heart is hardened. He doesn't care about the people he captures. He doesn't care about the people he leaves behind. He has no friends. He can't even get along with his family.

He accidentally kills his brother in a fight. For once, he is devasted by the consequences of his actions. He becomes a hermit, convinced that he can never be forgiven. Father Gabriel persuades him to travel to his old slave-hunting grounds, which is also the home of one of the Jesuit missions.

Rodrigo agrees to go, but he insists on carrying his suit of armor with him. The priests try to dissuade him from carrying this burden, but he’s still hard-hearted enough to demand his way or no way.

Getting to the mission involves climbing a steep rock formation to get above the falls. Rodrigo narrowly escapes several falls with his heavy suit of armor hanging off his back. He is exhausted when he finally reaches the top.

Once they are above the falls, the indigenous people gather to greet their friends the Jesuits. Rodrigo and the tribal chief recognize each other. Rodrigo clearly expects to be beheaded by this man standing over him, knife in hand. Rodrigo is resigned to this payment for the wrong he has done. Instead, the chief takes his knife, cuts the suit of armor off Rodrigo's shoulder, and shoves the suit of armor over the waterfall.

Rodrigo's hardened heart melts. The weight of the worlds has been lifted off his shoulders. He realizes he has been forgiven by the people he has hurt the most. He can move forward and dedicate his life to helping these people he had spent years harming.

It's a scene that brings me to tears every time.

The Bible leaves us guessing as to the feelings of the Pharaoh after the Passover slaughter of the first-born sons of Egypt. Did his heart melt in repentance like Rodrigo's? The fact that he sent troops chasing after the Israelites lead one to believe that his heart remained hardened, and saving face was more important than freedom for the people he had held as slaves.

Those with hardened hearts are separated from God. There is no love. Survival happens through brute force.

Those who have had their hearts softened can enjoy the love of God, of family, and of friends. They know that they are not alone. They can feel. They may feel pain and sorrow and anger, but they feel. Feelings open us up to the love of others and accepting the love of Christ. Hardened hearts miss out on that.

“Dear friend, listen well to my words;

Tune your ears to my voice.

Keep my message in plain view at all times.

Concentrate! Learn it by heart!

Those who discover these words live, really live;

Body and soul, they’re bursting with health.

Keep vigilant watch over your heart;

That’s where life starts.

(Proverbs 4:20-23 The Message edition)

Ann Iona Warner


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