The young man asks, “Teacher, what good deeds must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents, love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds like a pretty ambitious list. The student replies, “Done.” Done! Done? I would think this guy would leave well enough alone. It sounds like a great accomplishment to me, but no, like an honor student looking for extra credit, he asks, “what else?” Jesus says, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”
We are progressive theologians here. We take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Isn’t it convenient to look for metaphor when we read this? But you know, even our Christian friends who claim to be literalist, don’t really take this so literally. If we all go and sell all we have and give it to the poor, doesn’t that just make us poor too? How does that really help anyone? or is that the point?
There are a few who have followed this literally. We think they are insane, out of touch, foolish. We don’t know what to do with those who take following Jesus’ commandments literally, so what we do is make them a ‘saint’. Maybe, that helps to alleviate some of our discomfort. Sure a saint can do it, but us ordinary folk don’t have to, do we?
Francis was born to a merchant class. His father did well in the textile business. They resented the old money, the aristocratic class, but their hard-earned ‘new’ wealth was different. He has been described as, “a typical wealthy, spoiled and thrill-seeking adolescent who was indulged by his family.”1 He had a love of “extravagant clothing and expensive food, lewd songs, pranks and mindless vandalism.” The first twenty-five years of his life do not show Francis on the road to sainthood.
He went to war against a neighboring city more for the thrill and bravo of adventure, but he ended up captured. As a child of wealth, he was a fine bargaining chip in ransom negotiations, so he ended up a prisoner of war for nearly a year during which he fell gravely ill. After his rescue and recuperation, he resolved to take up arms as a knight, but something happened on his journey. After only one day in, his plans for military glory changed. Something in the prison, something on the sickbed, something about carrying a sword into battle, something changed him. Afterwards, he began to care for lepers.
Lepers, those with any skin diseases, lived in separate camps outside of city walls. They could not speak to children or use any well water for drinking or washing. They could not interact with others meaning they could not work. Their existence depended on the charity of others. Francis read of Jesus who broke all cultural rules against lepers. Jesus heals them, he touched them, he cared for them even when his society prescribed distance. Francis experienced the same dread and concern, the paradoxical mix of horror and compassion for those most severely ostracized.
Francis gave up knightly ambition, sold his father’s goods and gave to the poor when he realized that if Christ served the abandoned people, so should his followers. Francis came upon a dilapidated church, and heard Christ tell him to rebuild it. Francis took the message quite literally and began to do so. Literally, re-stacking bricks, re-roofing, with his own hands. In his society, persons of his class did not work with their hands.
First, Francis began giving away his father’s goods, then he began to disgrace the family with manual labor. His father would tolerate it no longer. He had is son brought before the the bishop of Assisi. The bishop was supposed to teach the boy a lesson, set him back on course, but it didn’t work out that way. The family quarrel ended up in the middle of the town square. The story goes his father demanded the son change his ways, and the encounter ended when Francis stripped naked and flung the fine clothes of his father’s wealth upon the ground declaring he would go to heaven naked and be accountable only to his father in heaven.
Francis of Assisi began his life of voluntary poverty, itineracy, preaching, simplicity, labor when possible, begging for provisions. Soon others joined him. They preached to the commoners inviting people to convert to Christ. In conversion, fruits would be evident. Love of neighbor, alms for the poor, charity to all, and a spirit of humility.
Francis understood that the gospel was not a book for meditation, but true marching orders for living. Franciscans were charged with living in poverty after the example of Christ -who owned nothing, and preaching the gospel, becoming makers of peace and missionaries of goodness. Francis understood that “preaching” is all communication. He taught that all of us, by the way we live, the way we interact with one another, our lives are the message we send into the world. As some of his brothers were about to enter a town, he gave them an instruction, “Preach, and if necessary, use words.”
We can’t say we are concerned about injustice if we continue to live in the benefits of the unjust. We can’t say we are concerned about the earth, if we continue to consume her. We can’t say the poor matter to us, if we are more concerned about storing up more for us while others have nothing.
Choosing to live poorly was a life of joy. By dispossessing himself of worldly good, he was clear to see the beauty of the world and those who inhabit it. He came to believe that “Property Isolates.” Possessions and money get in the way of union with God and all others. How can we have so much and KNOW the poor as brothers and sisters?
Selling all our possessions and giving to the poor would make us poor too. Maybe that’s the only way we can understand one another- strip off our pretenses – live in solidarity. That seems too radical for most of us. Debra and I spent some time- just a few hours one day this week- with a homeless woman. We gave her some food and a warm place to rest for a few hours, but in the end, she returned to the streets into the snow with thin shoes and bare skin. Giving up all we have, warm clothes, jobs that provide us shelter, food of our choice, Giving up all we have and giving it all to the poor- seems just too much to ask of us, Jesus.
On the other hand, maybe it would be easier. Sounds crazy, but if we don’t do that I see two alternatives.
One, give up nothing. Keep all we have and store up more for ourselves.
Ignore the poor altogether; fool ourselves into believing their poverty is something they deserve or something that doesn’t concern us. Continue to support a system of wealth and privilege that cares more for the 1%, while children are cold and hungry just down the street.
The other option is coming to believe that the plight of the poor is truly part of who we are and what our faith teaches. The other option is to see ourselves in solidarity with the poor and as managers of the abundance of God’s provision. Then we are left with the uncomfortable position of determining how much? How much of our goodies should we share with others? How much of our goodies can we keep for ourselves? How much privilege can we hold on to- by holding on to our possessions and monies?
Finding the line- how much to keep- how much to give — that might be more difficult than giving it all away.
St. Francis of Assisi honored the eucharist and put great emphasis upon the presence of Christ experienced in the mystery of bread and cup. He understood that the eucharist is similar to seeing Christ in the poor. Experiencing the presence of God in ordinary bread and cup is linked to our ability to understand deeply what only appears on the surface- like seeing the Christ in the poor and marginalized.
So we gather as one body, in unison with all others, in union with creation and all upon the earth, and we give and we honor and we remember. On his last night on earth, Jesus gathered his family and friends around the table. He took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread and said, “take eat, do this in remembrance of me.” And when the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his friends and said, “drink of it all of you. This is a symbol of the new covenant, do this in remembrance of me.”
And so in communion with all the saints, we proclaim the mystery of our faith……
1Lawrence S. Cunningham. Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life. p. 6