Part 2: “Francis: Child of God” – Paul Santmire honors St. Francis with a 3-Sunday commentary series.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Note: October 4th is the Festival of St. Francis. This series affords the preacher an opportunity to address the texts of the three successive Sundays with St. Francis in mind.
- Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. The 2015 papal encyclical on care for our common home.
- Eloi LeClerc, The Canticle of Creatures – Symbols of Union: An Analysis of St. Francis of Assisi, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970). A study of Francis, focusing on his famous Canticle.
- H. Paul Santmire, “The Life and Significance of Francis of Assisi,” in The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 106-120. A short review of the ecological meaning of St. Francis, in the context of classical Christian thought.
- Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Perhaps the best scholarly study of Francis’ life.
Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Francis: Child of God
Francis in many ways was childlike. He spoke with the birds. Like many children, he loved to sing. As he lay dying, he kept singing his Canticle of Creatures. He also invented the Christmas pageant! Toward the end of his life, on Christmas Eve, he brought animals to a makeshift altar near a mountain, where he sponsored an outdoors Eucharist, at which he sang the Gospel. He has been called “God’s Troubadour” (before his conversion to the life of poverty, as a rich young man he had learned to cherish and to sing the songs of courtly love). Above all, he loved animals, even worms, even wolves. Perhaps more than any other saint that we know, Francis embodied the words of Jesus: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10:14)
If Francis was a prophet of God, albeit outside of the camp (see discussion of the texts in Part 1 of the St. Francis series), he was all the more so a child of God. This is a theme, however, that is not always unambiguously attested in the Scriptures. On the contrary, it would appear that another image is more prominent in the Bible – lordship. God is King and Jesus is Lord. The man is “the head” of the woman. Humans are given lordship over nature. Where does the child fit in all this?
The texts for this Sunday apparently accent lordship in many ways. According to Genesis 2, the man names all the animals, as if he is the boss. The woman, made from the man’s rib, is brought to the man, as if he’s the one who’s really in charge. In Psalm 8, we are told that humans are but a little lower than angels and given “mastery” over the works of God’s hands, indeed that all things have been put under the human being’s feet, sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts. The Letter to the Hebrews cites this Psalm and says that all things are subjected to Jesus. Is there a suggestion here not only that Jesus is Lord, but that he “lords it over” all things?
The Gospel of Mark seems to present us with the teaching of Genesis about marriage all over again, although it does suggest a certain equality between the man and the woman, insofar as the state of being divorced is concerned. Still, where is the innocence and the joy and the singing of the child in all this? Marriage here seems to be more rules and regulations, than self-giving love and joy.
Nevertheless, the Gospel reading may hold the answer, not explicitly, but more in terms of its juxtaposition of texts. Mark seems to string together various teachings of Jesus. On the one hand, here is his teaching about divorce. On the other hand, here is his teaching about childlike faith. There is no logical or even narrative connection between the two accounts. They are just – strung together. Jesus taught this and Jesus taught that. If so, then this question: which theme is to be interpreted in terms of the other? Which is more important for the Gospel’s sake, lordship or child-like-ness?
The answer may seem foreclosed here, because the text about the children seems to stand alone. Apart from the Gospels, one reputable scholar has noted, “I cannot find that early Christian literature exhibits the slightest sympathy towards the young.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, centuries of Christian interpreters have opted to make lordship the primary image for interpreting the Scriptures, not child-like-ness. But what if Jesus meant what he said when he placed a child before them and said that to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God? Children, not lords are the point of it all. Could this thought possibly open our eyes to a different reading of our texts?
Interestingly, Genesis 2 tells us that “the man gave names” to all the animals. In the past, this has typically been interpreted as the man lording it over the animals. On the contrary, a more careful reading of this text shows that “giving a name” is an act of love, an act of bonding, even friendship. Think of Francis here. In the Hebrew Bible, when God calls you by name, it means that God loves you. So perhaps in this case, Adam naming the animals. Also, why was Adam put in the Garden in the first place? To “till it and keep it”? To exercise mastery over the garden? That is the received translation of Genesis 2:15. The Hebrew actually says, however, that the man was put in the Garden to “serve and protect it.” And the word “serve” here is from the same family as the word for “Servant of God” in II Isaiah. Doesn’t that sound like Francis relating to the animals by serving them?
When it comes to the text from Hebrews, which is essentially a lordship text, we are faced with a fundamental interpretive decision. Is this the primary text for interpreting the mission of Jesus or are we to look to another, Philippians 2:5-11, which envisions Jesus Christ primarily as the Servant of God and then “Lord” only as the “Servant of all” as the primary text?
All of which is an invitation to read the Scriptures with the eyes of Francis, that astounding child of God.
Originally written by Paul Santmire in 2015.