It is an accepted principle that the Scriptures speak to us in the setting of whatever is going on in our life when we hear or read them. This is especially true of Jesus’ Parables. Since they deal with Truth there is never only one way to understand them. What is going on in one person’s life may be completely intelligible to someone else, and so might someone’s understanding of a Parable.
Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As we have heard so many times, a man on the way to Jericho was robbed and left for dead. Two church officials, a priest and a levite, passed him by without helping. They both had legitimate institutional reasons for doing so – ritual impurity etc. Then a Samaritan, who was strongly rejected by the religious institution simply because of the race God had given him, stopped to help. This was unheard of. In the eyes of the religious institution Samaritans were not good and were to be avoided by the institution’s members in good standing.
There might be some parallels today. The religious institution rejects folks in certain lifestyles that, for its own reasons, it considers “intrinsically disordered”. The folks have no more control over how God creates them than did the Samaritan over his race. The institution justifies its attitude on its own self-developed moral principles. In some cases it goes so far as to forbid its members and functionaries from providing any religious or pastoral care to these folks. So, as in the Parable, when the institution and its functionaries pass on by with institutionally legitimate reasons, other folks not of the institution step in and provide the needed pastoral care. Management proclaims that it hates the sin but loves the sinner, and then in many cases actively discourages pastoral care for the folks until and unless they adopt a lifestyle approved by the institution.
What is especially disturbing, too many of our brothers and sisters, feeling cast off and betrayed by the institution where they looked for God’s help and comfort, have left religion altogether. Through no fault of their own they have ben told to believe they are not accepted by God, when, in fact, they reflect God’s love and mercy in a way that few others can. Many have known intense suffering and pain that that defies description: the pain of feeling unaccepted by God; the perception by some that they are in sin because of who they are; the desire to be accepted for who they love; the sense of struggle as they determine who they are; the desire to do what is right in the eyes of society, especially painful when it means they are denying who they know they are. And so, they are learning to live without the God who creates and ives them as they are. While the Jesus of the Gospels offers healing and love, some institutions claiming to act in his name, set up obstacles. A number of traditions, Christian and other, offer the pastoral care the folks need – good for the folks, bad for the institution. And the institution continues to proclaim its self-righteousness. While Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?, the institution says, “we’ll do the judging for you”.
Then there are our brothers and sisters whose marriages, for whatever reason and without assigning blame, have failed. They have moved along on their journey and entered into new marital relationships. Yet, since their journey and their new marriages do not fit the institution’s categories, these good folks are denied full participation in Eucharist, something that, according to the institution’s own teaching, everyone has a need for. They are told to go through the annulment process which can be painful, and does not always work. The reasons for an annulment process make sense according to the legal structure and system, but not in the sense of personal relations and feelings. Folks don’t always understand the legal nuances, but they feel their own pain and want it to stop. They look to the institution for help and support, and, unless they are in the approved categories, are told they cannot receive communion. As did the priest and levite in the Parable, the institution walks on by, and the folks remain in pain.
Law is black and white, real life is not. The good order of the institution and the safety and preservation of the “sacramental system” seem more important than pastoral care for the folks on their journey. Some folks feel their first marriage was good and valid originally, but somehow fell apart, and so taking part in an annulment process would be a violation of their conscience, as well as humiliating and painful. They feel they are being punished for a painful time in their life, and this would, in fact, seem to be so, in spite of the institutional explanations and justifications. As so many have put it, “no one has the right to tell me I cannot receive communion”, and so they choose of themselves to continue receiving Communion, which they need. Many others have found welcome and support in other traditions, and in no tradition. And the intuition proclaims its self-righteousness.
A legitimate question might be what the Parable says to the institution, and not just to individual folks. There are many in institutional management who care very much for their folks but often are limited by the system in what they can and cannot do.
Also, there are many wonderful pastoral ministers of all kinds, ordained and not ordained, authorized and not authorized, who are doing their best to provide pastoral care for all who need it. The institution does not always make this easy, and often does its best to prevent it. These ministers are very creative and often private about what they are doing. Any who, at any level in the institution, are trying to serve pastorally face some difficulties and challenges, especially from the “religious police”.
Pope Francis keeps saying that the institution has to get out beyond itself and its rules and walk with the folks on the periphery. Many are on the periphery because this is where the institution has put them. Each of us has to respond to the Parable in the setting of our own life, and not demand that others agree with us. As Francis has said, we need to be docile to the word of God as we hear it, and not require that others follow our understanding. We trust in the Spirit, and go where this takes us.
Just saying . . .