The headlines concerning the release of the new encyclical by Pope Francis on global economics and climate change led a friend to claim that the Pope is a liberal, and that Jesus himself must be considered a liberal. Until I get a better look at the contents of the encyclical, I will withhold judgment on Francis. However, I would like to consider whether Jesus could be pigeonholed as a liberal.
This spring a bible study group in my local parish completed a little course on the parables of Jesus. Although I’ve been a Catholic all my life and am still a regular churchgoer, I had never before understood how central the parables were to the teaching of Jesus. In fact, it is clear to me now that the essence of his teaching is in the parables even though they often seem mysterious or enigmatic.
So, I would like to consider three or four of the most famous parables in order to discover any latent liberalism or conservatism in the stories. I know that the main point of the parables is spiritual but I will examine the less than “spiritual” background in the stories.
I guess that the most famous parable is the one usually called the “Prodigal Son.” Not only is this the most famous parable, but also it is possibly the most well known story in all of human literature. The prodigal son, the younger of two brothers, has the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance even before his prosperous father’s death?
The father consents and the son leaves home for a foreign land where he goes through his fortune in no time. Soon, he is homeless and hungry and reduced to laboring on a farm where he has to care for the pigs, animals regarded as disgusting by Jews of the time.
Finally, in the words of the parable, he comes “to his senses,” and realizes that he has sinned against God and man. We notice that he doesn’t blame his father for his plight. Neither does he blame society or the social and economic structure of the day. He doesn’t even blame the farmer who treats him like a dog. The prodigal son admits his fault and takes responsibility for his own misery and poverty. Truly repentant, he decides to return to his father, beg for forgiveness, and ask for a job as one of his servants. He has no sense of entitlement.
We all know the rest of the story.
Almost as well known as the “Prodigal Son” is the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Jesus tells the story of a man traveling on a road who is beset by robbers. They beat him, strip him of all his possessions, and leave him for dead in the road. A Priest and a Levite, at that time government as well as religious officials, pass the poor man by. Finally, a Samaritan merchant or businessman sees the man, takes pity on him, and cares for him. He dresses his wounds and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to provide whatever is necessary for the man until he recovers. He also promises to make up any balance after he returns from his business trip.
Leaving aside the lesson that the man’s own people neglected him while it was a member of the despised people of Samaria who cared for him, we notice that the Samaritan takes it upon himself to care for the wounded man. He did not ask anyone else to do the job. He certainly did not demand or coerce others to do the job.
Moreover, Jesus did not say that the Samaritan should give up his business or all of his possessions to assist the wounded stranger. He understood the necessity for the man to complete his business trip. After all, his profits are what enabled him to support himself, his own family, as well as help the man beaten by robbers.
In the parable of the “Talents” Jesus told the story of a rich man who left three servants or stewards in charge of his business while he was away on a trip. The first was given five talents to invest, the second three, and the last only one. It is clear that although a ‘talent” was a large sum of money in those days, in the parable “talents” refer to the gifts or talents that we have all been given.
Jesus does not suggest that we are all equal or equally gifted. The moral is that we are all expected to work with what we have been given. The first two servants double the master’s money and are praised and rewarded. The last buried his talent in the ground out of fear. He produced nothing.
At this point some might say that I am putting my own spin on the parables or leaving out something. What about the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus and asked what he had to do to attain eternal life? Jesus told him to sell all he had, give to the poor, and come and follow him along with the other disciples. Does this command make Jesus a liberal?
Aside from the fact that most liberals don’t sell all they have and give to the poor, I will just point out that the first response of Jesus to the young man’s question was, “keep the commandments.” In other words: honor your father and mother, do not kill, commit adultery, lie, cheat or steal. Are liberals the only ones who keep these commandments?
It appears to me that Jesus transcended labels like liberal or conservative and his followers should also. Here is an example that I was reminded of on hearing last Sunday’s gospel about the parable of the “Mustard Seed.” Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds but that it would grow into a great bush that would provide shelter for the birds of the air.
That parable reminds me of Ted, a man I knew in my own parish who died three years ago. He was a small, unassuming, and quiet man who rarely talked about himself but he was one of the most giving men I have ever known. At his funeral I saw an old black and white marriage photo. Ted, who served in World War II, was in uniform next to his young Italian war bride who had sewn her beautiful white wedding gown out of his parachute. I never met his wife because she died shortly before I met him, but I know that Ted loved her until the day he died. They had four or five children and all were there at the funeral with a number of grandchildren. One of the grandchildren gave a brief eulogy in which he described all the things his grandfather had taught him.
Ted was an avid gardener and wine maker but by profession he was a master electrician who worked at his trade right until his final illness struck. My wife and I originally met him in an Italian language class but he subsequently became a friend as well as our electrician. I will never forget the night our electricity went out during a violent ice storm. Ted came to the house, climbed a ladder, and repaired a broken power line in the midst of the storm. The only problem we ever had with Ted was that he was always reluctant to accept payment from friends. There was a large crowd in the Church at his funeral and I’m sure that most had also been the recipients of Ted’s generosity. Ted will never be canonized but he was one of the multitude of ordinary men who loved their families, their church, and their country.
I don’t know if Ted was a liberal or a conservative but he was a good and faithful steward who gave all he had for others.