You are probably aware that, a little over two weeks ago, Pope Francis remarked that he thought it might be possible for atheists and agnostics to get into heaven. That would certainly make for interesting conversation at the heavenly banquet!
The pope’s statements were made in a letter that was published in an Italian newspaper. The pope wrote that, "God forgives those who obey their conscience." His comments were a response to a question by the atheist editor of the newspaper. He continued, "The question for those who do not believe in God is to follow their own conscience. Sin, even for a non-believer, is when one goes against one’s conscience."
Not all who heard about the Pope’s statements were pleased. We might well ask whether there is any point to having a religious faith and attending church. If all people will be saved, then is there any need to struggle in the life of faith? Today’s Gospel reading doesn’t seem to make salvation quite so easy an accomplishment.
In this passage from Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who lacked for nothing in life and a poor man who did not have even the basic necessities for survival. In Jesus’ time, just like our own, people assumed that the wealthy were especially blessed by God, and that the poor and suffering were being punished for their sins. It would have been shocking to Jesus’ disciples to hear him say that a rich man did not make it into heaven, and even more shocking to hear that a poor man did.
Jesus’ perspective on salvation was much more nuanced than that of his contemporaries. The background that he provides for the parable indicates that the rich man had excess wealth, but did not bother to give even a thought to the plight of the poor man who begged at his door. The rich man appeared to have no compassion at all. He had to pass by the poor man every time he entered or exited his house, but he did nothing to alleviate his sufferings. It wasn’t his wealth upon which he was judged, but his callousness. This is an example of what Pope Francis had in mind when he made those remarks a couple of weeks ago.
Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and is very familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. At one point in the Exercises Ignatius offers a meditation on what he called "The Two Standards." "Standard," in this usage, means "flag." Ignatius began his adult life as a professional soldier, and even though he ended his life in very different circumstances his military training had a lasting effect on his thoughts and actions. Every soldier follows a flag, the symbol of the leader and country he serves. Ignatius used this image to talk about the life of faith.
The Two Standards, or two flags, is a description of a fundamental choice that each person makes. Each person must decide for themselves, "Will I live a selfish life, focused only on my own happiness?" or "Will I live a life of love in which I make a sincere effort to love both myself and my neighbor?"
The rich man in the parable chose a life of selfishness and disregard for others. The Pope’s remarks were about those who choose otherwise: those who follow a sound conscience, and live in love. This ought to give us a sense of hope about the possibility of salvation and, at the same time, a sense of caution about our responsibility for our actions and choices.
The word “conscience” can refer to several different things. It can refer to the capacity that each person has for judging the morality of a situation; it can also refer to the accuracy of that judgment. Everyone makes moral judgments all of the time; we don’t always make accurate, or good, moral judgments.
When Pope Francis wrote about following one’s conscience, he used the word to refer to the act of making accurate moral judgments. He said, in effect, that God is pleased with those who struggle to make good moral judgments, and that sin is the choice to ignore good moral judgments.
Practicing the Christian faith is the surest way to live a life pleasing to God, but it is not necessarily the only way. At the same time, attending Church and doing religious things is no guarantee of pleasing God; it is possible to be very religious, but to have one’s religious practice focused entirely on oneself.
The same principle is illustrated in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. There was a good choice in the rich man’s life that was so obvious he literally tripped over it every time he entered or exited his house. As obvious a thing as it was to help the poor man, he managed to ignore this good judgment on a chronic basis. He had every advantage in life, but he didn’t benefit from any of those advantages. The good choice he tripped over every day became a stumbling block that led to his downfall.
A life of love, even if it is not consciously religious, can qualify as following the flag of those who please God. A life of selfishness, even if it is very religious, qualifies as following the flag of those who do not please God. Each of us creates our own destiny by the way we choose to live, and there are only two possible options. Jesus says that the good life that pleases God is so obvious we can trip over it every day; it is the life that loves others as well as self.
The Gospel offers both hope and a warning. Every person is given the opportunity to live a life pleasing to God, but each of us must be careful not to trip over the less fortunate. We live in a place, and at a time, that provides us with all the advantages and blessings that anyone could want. Our use of those blessings and advantages signals which flag we follow.