Parables are meant to change our perspective, and that is no small thing. But be clear about what changes and what does not. Nothing alters in the thing itself while everything changes in the way that we perceive it, how we encounter it, how it enters our lives and the role that it plays.
Jesus often told parables as a way of changing perspective. The story of Dives and Lazarus is a perfect example. This parable of Jesus—Lazarus going off to heaven to receive the reward the rich man lost—didn’t change the world. Did it? The rich still feed themselves; the poor still starve. A reasonable person can’t help but to ask, why tell such stories? They don’t change the world.
It’s true. They don’t transform the world, but, if they alter our perspective, they change our relationship to the world, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Pope Francis recently gave an interview; he didn’t tell a parable, but the two discourses have one thing in common: they’re both about changing perspective, and that is no small thing. Begin by noticing what’s left in place. The Holy Father said,
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
No Church teaching was changed, but every Church teaching was reordered, looked at from a different perspective. To begin with, the Pope reminded us to think of persons before we think of teachings.
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.
There’s an additional change of perspective, one that should chafe a bit in the United States. This Son of the South reminded us that our hot button issues aren’t necessarily those of the global Church. Not when eighty percent of humanity lives on less than ten dollars a day. Not when the poorest forty percent of the world’s population accounts for five percent of global income, and the richest twenty percent accounts for three-quarters of world income. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.” No one is saying that our cultural wars don’t matter, but someone is putting them in perspective. Lazarus still cries to heaven.
If the change is perspective isn’t clear, Pope Francis offers this image of the Church.
I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.
The world didn’t change because of the parable Jesus told but our relationship to the world might well change if we seriously consider what it means to be rich and poor from the vantage of the next life. Pope Francis didn’t alter Catholic teaching, but he did ask us to look again, “to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7 1 Timothy 6:11-16 Luke 16: 19-31