October 10, 2021
Isn’t that Bernardone’s son?
What is he up to? What do you think he is doing?
You know I have heard some crazy stories about him coming from the countryside. People have seen him trying to have conversation with the animals. He even seems to think he can rebuild that old church that is nothing but rubble all by himself.
There seems to be an argument brewing between him and his father, and the bishop is involved. It is a trial where he is charged with stealing from his father. He appears to be paying him back, but he is not stopping there. I can’t believe it. Is he taking his clothes off? He is. He is stripping right here in the town square without a concern for what others may think. Did he just say that? He did. He said “he now has no father except for God.”
This was St. Francis of Assisi’s entrance into his new way of living and these may have been words heard on the sidelines of this event. Francis’ life of simplicity seems audacious today, and it was just as audacious eight hundred years ago. He seemed to be literally living out Jesus’ call in our gospel lesson this morning to sell all your possessions. For Francis, it was in discarding all he owned, so that he grew closer to Christ. In simplicity, Francis found Christ.
Our gospel lesson for this morning is titled, The Rich Man, in our NRSV translation. As we read the lesson, no where does it say the man was rich. He had many possessions, and thus in most people’s eyes at that time he would have been considered rich. If all it takes to be rich is to have many possessions, we would all be considered rich. We even rent storage lockers to house even more possessions. In all reality, if your family earns over $50,000/year, you are in the top 10% of income earners in the world. You are richer than ninety percent of the world’s population.
The opening dialog is interesting between the man and Jesus. He calls him “good,” and Jesus’ reply, “No one is good but God alone,” would resonate with people. This was the common understanding at the time as Rabbi’s would not be called good because it was God alone that was good. It is this goodness we are striving for. So, did the man see something in Jesus, or was he trying to just lay it on thick and sweet talk his way to salvation?
When it comes to eternal life, the man has done everything Jesus commands up to a certain point and has not broken any of the commandments. He believes he has followed all the rules and can place a check mark next to each one to complete the to-do list. Jesus then drops a bombshell. One that probably leaves many others within earshot questioning their own actions. Jesus tells him, “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.” Was this simply a test for the man? Was Jesus trying to see where his heart resided? Would he be willing to hand everything over to the poor?
In his response, we do not hear a clear answer. The man is shocked and grieving as he walks away. Is he grieving because he will not have eternal life, or is he grieving because he is going to sell all his possessions? Most people have assumed he is unable to part with the material things which are tying him down to his earthly life.
We could all be the rich man. It is hard to let go of those items which we cling to so tightly. They have meaning and can define us. It is not a surprise that the man seems reluctant and walks away grieving when he hears Jesus’ words. Humans can cling to more than just material possessions. We can also cling to ideas and concepts. When we get something stuck in our mind or something has become “tradition,” it is tough to let it go. However, sometimes we need to let things go, welcome change, and renew life. We can make it difficult when we cling to things. This can be troubling when we have intertwined our very being with those things we hold too tightly.
The man appears to have a hold on his possessions and does not want to let them go. When Jesus turns to the disciples, he tells them it will be hard for a rich man to enter eternal life. Why is this? I believe Frederick Buechner’s response speaks truth,
“Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they’re kept out of the place, but that they’re so out of touch with reality they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.”
While those witnessing the audacity of Francis stripping naked in the market square think he has lost his mind, he is probably the one closest to God in that moment. He understands how possessions in the material world can tie one down and he is eager to free himself of all those things which bond him to the earthly world.
One of the three vows which Franciscans take is poverty. Francis was the ultimate example of poverty as he left the square with nothing of his own. Coming from the vows of the Lutheran Franciscans:
“As the foundation of this Order’s life, poverty is the vow that strips our allegiance from material possessions. As a commitment to this vow of poverty, the siblings shall live lives of simplicity, not caught up in possession of valuables, except they shall cling to the Good News of Jesus Christ and the means of grace, that is the Word and sacraments.”
I will admit, my poverty is nowhere near Francis’ original concept. I will admit it is not always easy to keep this vow. However, I try to place value in my relationships and not worry about the material possessions. Yes, I have many possessions, like the man in the gospel lesson, but I pray I am willing to part with them.
As a Franciscan, I will admit it seems that Francis went to the extremes when it came to living a simple life. He lived in the suffering of Christ and trusted he would find him there. Francis’ faith was alive as he witnessed God all around him. From the birds of the sky to the fish in the seas, he knew God was present in the smallest to the largest parts of creation. When we let ourselves get caught up in material possessions, it is easy to look beyond the beauty of creation right outside our front door. Jesus calls us to a simplicity of life in Mark’s Gospel. A simplicity which asks us to disconnect from the things which distance us from God. Sometimes we are like the man who walked away grieving when our faith is put to the test. Francis took this to an extreme and gave it all away. May you find middle ground where you can stop and enjoy the simplicity. A place where all is stripped away, and you see nothing but God.