Part 3: “Francis: Man of Wealth” – Paul Santmire honors St. Francis of Assisi 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 9-15, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
St. Francis: Man of Wealth
Francis grew up the son of a rich cloth merchant. It was assumed that he would “sow some wild oats” as a youth, and then settle down into a plush career in his father’s business. Instead, Francis plunged into what we moderns sometimes call “an identity crisis.” He became profoundly troubled by his own riches and his own raucous lifestyle. Francis became a penitent and took to living in the woods or in an abandoned church. Things came to a head, when the local Bishop, Guido, who had befriended Francis, called Francis and Francis’ father, Pietro, to Guido’s church, to effect a reconciliation. At that meeting, as the historian Auguste Thompson tells us, “Francis withdrew into an adjoining room, removed the fine clothing typical of his family’s station, and stripped down to the penitent’s hair shirt he was wearing underneath. He came out and put his old garments at his father’s feet.” He then renounced his father, in the name of “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and began what was to become a lifelong ministry as a penitent, preacher, and servant of God’s little ones.
By most standards, Francis made himself poor. By his own standards, however, Francis considered himself to be a rich man. But of what do true riches consist? This was a tough question in Francis’ day. It is even more difficult for many Christians today, particularly those who have benefited so much by living in affluent circles in the U.S. Today’s texts help us to wrestle with this question. Of what do true riches consist?
The prophet Amos brings a harsh judgment against those who benefit unjustly from the kind of riches that Francis left behind: “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground…, you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate.” It is tempting to think here of the top one-percent in the U.S. today and what appears to be their unjust share of the world’s wealth. But from a global perspective, most Americans today are among the world’s affluent. Is there any hope for us, then? Amos seems to think so. This is what he calls us to do: “Seek good not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you….”
And who is this God? The God of grace, of course. So the Psalmist prays: “May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands….” And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to approach God’s “throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
The problem here, however, seems to be – Jesus. Surely, Jesus does affirm the unconditional grace of God, attested to by the Psalmist and by Hebrews. But Jesus apparently wants more, as we see in our Markan text. A man runs up to him (the man is eager; is he feeling guilty?) and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus checks him out. It turns out that the man has been numbered among “the good people,” those who keep God’s commandments and follow God’s ways, presumably like most worshippers in any American church on any given Sunday. Actually, the man seems to be perplexed that anyone would ask him about his own life, how he follows the ways of God.
Jesus understood the man. He loved the man, we’re told. And this was a great love, on Jesus’ part. The Greek word for love here, is agape, pointing to the self-giving love of God himself (the same word is used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world….”). Out of this boundless love, Jesus says to the man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man, we are told, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” One can wonder what preachers in affluent American congregations will make of this text, if they will deal with it at all.
Soon after this, Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Like those American preachers, we may imagine, the disciples were perplexed. But Jesus tightens his point even further. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Like many (most?) affluent American Christians who hear these words, and like many preachers, too, we may imagine, the disciples seem to throw up their hands. “Then who can be saved?,” they ask. Jesus responds with what must be regarded as one of the most frustratingly opaque, but ultimately hopeful promises he ever made: “…for God, all things are possible.”
All this grace around us given for us who are affluent and given with the promise that God will find a way for us to be wealthy toward God and not needful of the money we think is ours! What are we affluent Christians really to do? Francis wrestled with these questions and he took them literally. He gave away all his wealth and abandoned the social status that went with that wealth. Some affluent Christians today will surely think about doing the same. Some have. But what about the rest of us? What are we to do?
A couple of commonplaces of worldly wisdom come to mind. This is the first: don’t just sit there feeling guilty, do something. Second, a more congenial piece of advice: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What might that something, that single step, be? Here both Jesus and Francis can offer some counsel. Both of them focused their ministry on the little ones, those forgotten by the dominant wealthy society. Francis, more particularly, fleshed out Jesus’ concern for the little ones, by explicitly including the creatures of nature in his ministry. Francis self-consciously and publicly loved the creatures of nature, with the kind of agape love that he had learned from his Lord, Jesus.
One caveat: a close reading of both the lives of Jesus and Francis shows that, for them, the little ones who are suffering are so burdened, at least in some significant measure, because of the power of unjust human institutions, the kind railed against by the prophet Amos. For Amos, it was the banking system (as it were) that caught his attention. For us, it could be the banking system. It could also be global corporate powers, such as those that promote climate change. Think global energy production and the unending quest for profits, on the one hand, and rising ocean waters that threaten to engulf millions of poor people living on low-lying lands in Bangladesh, on the other.
But never mind the overwhelming challenge of such issues, for now. Just do something. Take that first – or next – step. Christian participants in the great climate change protest march of tens of thousands in New York City in the fall of 2014, even affluent ones who, like everyone else, had nothing to offer but their bodies and their songs, report experiencing a palpable joy, for them a joy born of the grace of God experienced at that moment. Perhaps that was the same joy that Francis experienced, only all the more so, because he was such a wealthy man. What steps does this situation mandate us to take?
Originally written by Paul Santmire in 2015.