In Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddhist scripture presents the following parable as an illustration of this world. The Buddha explains that this world is like a burning house. While the enlightened parents stand on the outside and are aware of the situation, the ignorant children remain inside, oblivious of the danger and yet thoroughly entertained by their toys and pleasures. Within the world, the Buddha explains, the children inside represent those people who are still captivated and held captive by the allurements of a world that is ultimately an illusion.
The Buddha then explains that his introductory teaching was meant to inspire the children to leave the burning house so that the more important work of enlightenment could begin. Furthermore, he explains that he led the children outside of the house by proposing delights equal to the sense pleasures that they received inside the house, while in fact the new horizon of enlightenment is in fact quite distinct.
While Buddhism and Christianity have very different understandings of salvation, I think that this parable of the burning house can be a useful way of understanding the goals of evangelization. Often, in our contemporary approach, an emphasis is placed on helping those still captivated by the things of this world to understand their imminent peril. If I explain to people the danger of mortal sin, the thinking goes, they will naturally understand and seek the greater good of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. We think that the key is to make them understand that the building is on fire.
The opposite response to such approach is equally problematic. Some simply choose to ignore the possibility that many Catholics are in a state of mortal sin and they fail to grasp that such a situation poses both a pastoral challenge and a gaping wound in the Body of Christ. Instead of the boundless vision of unconditional love and true holiness, we settle for a kind of bland mediocrity in which the Christian vocation is to be a nice person. There is nothing wrong with being nice, but humans are made for such more than natural kindness.
We are called to a supernatural vocation in Christ, a very participation in God’s way of being and doing. Our actions are true, good, and beautiful to the extent in which they come to be actions grounded in, motivated by, and ultimately done with Jesus Christ. We are called not just to accomplish noble actions, but to discover God’s will so that our lives can converge with God’s life. Such a discovery is not the fruit of analysis and self-centered introspection, but is the result of intimacy with Jesus Christ, that concrete communion with the living dynamism of Divine love. As the saying goes, God became man so that man might become God.
But first things first. We must inspire people to leave the burning house. While there must be honesty and continuity between the means of evangelization and the ultimate goals, nonetheless our goal is not to inform but to inspire. We must become instruments of conversion, bridges of trust which help folks to let go of the apparent pleasures of a fallen world and embrace a new way of living in Christ. Today, let us dare to be such an instrument for our society.