Part 1: “Francis: Prophet of God.” – 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 September 25 – October 1, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Francis: Prophet of God
St. Francis is everyone’s hero. Most Americans know of him in the form of statues in gardens. There you see, often, Francis represented as preaching to the birds. Such images, however, only tell us part of the truth. Pope Francis, by his very name, by many of his actions, and by his encyclical Laudato Si’, has made the saint from Assisi even more a center of attention. The historical Francis, however, is an elusive figure, as the historical Jesus, in many ways, is an elusive figure. Much of what we know about Francis comes to us from differing sources: a very few writings of his own and biographical testimonials by his followers, some who were close to him, others who collected his teachings and stories about him, from a variety of sources, some of which are clearly legendary. But we know enough about the historical Francis to understand why he sometimes has been thought of as “a second Jesus.” He was an extraordinary follower of the man from Galilee.
The Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, “In the Wilderness,” reveals the major themes of this book. It is about the people of Israel journeying from Egypt toward the promised land, and some of their trials and tribulations. There is a generational theme, too, recounting how the first, rebellious, generation gives way to a new, and more promising generation. The book ends with that second generation about to enter the promised land. The final form of the book probably was shaped by the experience of exile in Babylon (586 BCE) and not too long after the people returned to Judah (539 BCE).
St. Francis (1181-1226) frequently claimed such wilderness themes as his own. He was not first and foremost a lover of nature, as he is sometimes portrayed. He was first and foremost, self-consciously a follower of Jesus. Francis exemplified, throughout his ministry, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our own time thought of as “The Cost of Discipleship.” Like Jesus, Francis gave up all his worldly goods so that he, Francis, could become a disciple of Jesus. Frequently, also like Jesus, Francis sought out wilderness areas. Indeed, so much did he identify with Jesus that Francis, toward the end of his life, in the wilderness of Mt. Laverna, experienced “the stigmata,” the marks of the crucified Christ, on hands, side, and feet.
But St. Francis was by no means just a wilderness ascetic. He was also a public preacher. Call him a prophet of God. He took his message of repentance and hope for the forgotten ones, like the lepers, to the centers of the cities of his time. In the era of the Crusades, moreover, when the political and religious establishment (above all, St. Bernard) where marshalling resources and rallying people to fight “the infidels,” Francis made a journey of his own to visit with the Sultan, in the name of peace. The purpose of his ministry was to be a prophet for peace, not for war.
In this respect, Francis was like Eldad and Medad who were “prophesying outside the camp.” He called upon all Christians of his time, indeed, to become prophets for peace, for the sake of the little ones of the earth, who had been excluded from the common good. The words of Moses about Eldad and Medad could easily have been Francis’ own: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (Numbers 11:29).
And Francis was controversial, as a matter of course. It began, early in his ministry, when he ventured outside the walls of his own home town, Assisi, to be with the lepers, who had been forced to live there, in isolation, vulnerable to the elements, and without easy access to food, water, and shelter that the people in the towns enjoyed.
As a prophetic figure in this sense, Francis was as a matter of course perceived as a threat to the established order, especially when people from all walks of life began to follow his example. He was joined by many followers and cheered by crowds in the cities, expectantly listening to him. But, of course, the established society of his day, like all established societies, did not want things to change. They did not want any Eldad or Medad prophesying among the common people, outside the walls of established power.
The story is told of a young Christian who went on a mission trip to work with some impoverished farmers in Nicaragua. There her life was transformed. She came back from her trip and began to tell members of the congregation which had sent her there to join with her in behalf of “the liberation of the oppressed.” Even her own Pastor seemed to shy away from her. But she persisted and eventually was marginalized in her own congregation. If only she had a Moses around, who could have celebrated her prophetic work, “outside the camp”!
If only, too, the members of her own congregation and her Pastor had understood the Gospel story from Mark 9, where we hear John saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38) But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him…” The young woman’s pastor could have said to his congregation, “Do not stop her…” And he might have cited the example of Francis who ministered to the lepers outside the walls and visited the Sultan in the name of peace.
Francis did all this in the name of Jesus. He took up his cross in the name of Jesus. He visited the lepers in the name of Jesus. He preached to the multitudes in the name of Jesus. His own body, indeed, was marked by the wounds of Jesus. For Francis, Jesus was the Lord of life and death. Francis’ celebrated love of nature can only be understood in light of that, the deepest love of his life, for Jesus. In this sense, the man who preached to the birds was first and foremost, a prophet of God.
Originally written by Paul Santmire in 2015.