Parables are more than nice stories

After listening to last week’s gospel (the story of the dishonest steward - September 18), and being totally confused as to why Jesus would have someone corrupt and fraudulent as the hero of the story, we now listen to today’s gospel (Sunday, September 25) about the rich man and poor Lazarus and feel like we are finally back on familiar ground. In the end, the good guy (poor Lazarus) gets his reward and the bad guy (the rich man) is punished in the fiery flames of hell. We are comfortable with the parable because we clearly understand the point of the story: the stingy are punished and the poor are rewarded.

To say that we are more comfortable with certain parables than others, however, misses the whole point as to why Jesus preached in parables in the first place. The parables are not just some simple “once-upon-a-time” story to help catechize the unlearned crowds, nor are they simple fables with a moral point. No, parables were meant to disturb the soul and change the way we think about reality. In other words, it’s not so much about understanding the moral lesson (and feeling good because I can get the point) as it is about challenging our attitudes and behaviors (and feeling uneasy because I am not living up to the demands of the gospel).

So, how does today’s gospel make us feel uneasy? Here I can only point to my own heart. The rich man feasts without even noticing that there is a poor man at his table. He ignores Lazarus because obviously there is nothing that Lazarus can do for him. However, in the end, when the rich man is in torment enduring the flames of his punishment, he finally notices Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham. Lazarus now has importance to the rich man because Lazarus can do something for him. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Or, “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers about this place of torment.”

This parable stings me as I look into my own heart and wonder about the times I have ignored people because they were of little or no use to me. Then, that same person receives my attention because I become aware that there is something that they can do for me. How ugly it is to think that I would use someone for my own benefit. How ugly it is to think that I may be ignoring people because there is nothing they can do that will make my life better, easier or more comfortable.

Many times, at the end of a parable, Jesus would say, “The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Sometimes I don’t want to hear the parable especially if it is going to sting me. But listen, I must.

Our past is but a stepping stone

In today's gospel (Sunday, September 18), Jesus makes some very strange and confusing pronouncements: "Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." And again, "If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?" Furthermore, in the parable that precedes these statements, the hero of the parable is a man who defrauds his former boss with some creative accounting techniques. Is Jesus advocating fraud and dishonesty?

I think it is always important to know the audience to whom Jesus is speaking. The gospel today begins by saying he addresses these words to his disciples. We don't know too much about the lives of the disciples of before they met Jesus. With the exception of four fishermen (Andrew, Peter, James and John), and Matthew the tax collector, we have no biblical evidence of what these followers of Jesus did before they actually followed him. We know that they weren't all poor people with no portfolios -- after all, they themselves say "we left everything to follow you." One thing is known for certain; there was definitely a "before" and an "after" -- a former way of life that was abandoned for the sake of something far better.

So what I am about to say is purely speculative -- but here goes. I believe that there may well have been in the company of Jesus some people who, for whatever reason, were not very scrupulous in their business dealings. Like the hero in the parable, some of the listeners of Jesus may in fact have been people who were "dishonest stewards" who got fired from their jobs and had no place to go. Having found Jesus, perhaps they felt it was time to find a new way of life; after all, their former way of life led them to some dead ends and unhappiness. Jesus doesn't condemn them for the dishonest ways they lived their past lives. Maybe he even saw all of that as a stepping stone that brought them to want to discover a new way of living. Instead of going after illusory wealth, now they were ready to go after the real treasures of life itself.

So often in conversion stories, I hear the saintly ones talk with great disdain about their former way of life. Yet, Jesus I believe doesn't want us to hate our past as if it were something so shameful that we should go to great lengths to cover it up. Vice, after all, is just the twisted sister of virtue. What I mean to say is that when our character strengths become self-centered, those very same virtues now become vices. Jesus comes to untwist what Satan has twisted so that our deeper hungers and thirsts now will seek their perfect fulfillment -- in Him. So, the bottom line is this: the call to discipleship is a call to allow Jesus to untwist what Satan has twisted so that the zeal and drive in our hearts may now be directed to the very life of the Kingdom which God so desires to establish here on earth.

Going after the 1%

Imagine for a moment that there was a state of the union where the polls showed that 99% of the people in that state were solidly behind one of the candidates for president in our upcoming election. Would either Hillary or Donald spend much time in that particular state courting that 1%? Probably not. The outcome for that state is pretty much already decided. Rather, both candidates spend their time and resources gong after swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Wisconsin, etc. These are the states that will decide the election.

In a sense, the pragmatics of campaigning makes total sense. One only needs a majority of the electoral college to win the presidency. No president needs the consensus of the entire nation. A simple majority will do.

In light of these obvious facts, how can we possibly understand the mercy of God? God wants to win over every single one of his daughters and sons. In the gospel today, Jesus tells the parable of a shepherd who, having one hundred sheep and losing one of them, will leave the 99 in the wasteland and go after that one. In God's eyes, it is never a matter of winning over some or even a majority. He diligently goes after ALL.

As we come to this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I was privileged to meet the parents of one of the may 9/11 heroes. Jefferson and Alison Crowther told me the beautiful story of their son, Welles Crowther, a worker for Sandler O'Neill investment firm. On that fateful and tragic day, Welles kept going up and down seventeen flights of stairs in order to bring to a safer floor many of those trapped in the upper floors of the South Tower. For Welles, it was not good enough to rescue some or even many -- he desired to rescue all. Sadly, his driven desire could not be fulfilled as he was a victim of the fall of the South Tower at 9:59 that morning.

Welles story can be seen on Telecare this week (Wednesday at 9:30am and 10:30pm) on a program that I am so pleased to be a part of, Family Comes First. This particular episode is called "No Greater Love," an obvious reference to the words of Jesus who speaks about his own self-emptying love. I doubt that I will ever give myself as heroically as Welles did on 9/11; however, I can at least be somewhat heroic in my desire to go after that one who is lost, forgotten, deemed hopeless, beyond redemption. I can't be satisfied with partial results or even to believe that I am good "most of the time." To love with Jesus' heart means that I am not satisfied with such words as "some" or even "many." He died for all -- every last one of us. Such is the bar for every true disciple.