Thursday, July 7, 2011

Poverty - Literal or Literary?

I still stumble when I come to that passage in the New Testament where Jesus sends the apostles out to proclaim the kingdom and heal the sick.

He says to them, "Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic" (Luke 9:3).

Later, in Luke 10, he sends out 72 disciples as advance men, and gives them similar instructions.

I've been out on several journeys as a kind of missionary, preaching parish missions or retreats in California, Florida, New York, Louisiana --and I have never set out without flight reservations, a suitcase, money, credit cards, and more than one change of clothes.

Right from the start, I'm doing it wrong. My report card must have a check-mark next to "Does not follow directions."

Most Bible commentators explain (soften?) Jesus' directions as an indication of "the absolute detachment required of the disciple."

Once again I'm caught up in the tension between literal and literary. Is it necessary to take Jesus' words literally, or should I see them as an exaggeration for the sake of a lesson?

Obviously the pope doesn't take them literally when he goes on a trip. I doubt the Dalai Lama even in his simplicity travels without some provisions. And though Jesus had "nowhere to lay his head," his band of followers had a member who carried "the common purse."

What then am I to think of this instruction?

At this stage of my life I conclude that I must be willing to rely on God (not just for the material needs I have as a parish mission speaker, but also for the content of what I am to say when I preach.)

I do not mean that I do not have to prepare homilies or sermons or ferverinos. I cannot for all my reliance on God be passive or robotic. The human contribution is a necessary element in the mission process.

But I do mean that often God has me say things I never intended to say. God gives preachers a sense of direction and frequently points out the content. I have to allow God to have the final word.

There may be others who took Jesus' words literally, but I think Francis of Assisi must lead the pack.

That man, Il Poverello, remains an intriguing enigma centuries after his life and death.

In his loneliness he made friends with Lady Poverty, and he was willing to give up everything for her sake.

Forty years ago Franciscan priest Murray Bodo wrote a biography of St. Francis, and during the time of its writing discovered insights and answers to his depression and loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life.

This year St. Anthony Messenger Press has re-issued Francis: The Journey and the Dream in a 40th anniversary edition.

It's not a book to be read cover to cover in one sitting (though one could do so). It is a story to be thought through and absorbed in a slow and patient process.

When I put Jesus' words ("take nothing for the journey") in the context of Francis' life, I conclude that it is not a literal interpretation that Jesus wants (though Francis lived it that way). It is rather a literary device to underscore that poverty is necessary for anyone who would be Jesus' follower.

I am not rich, but I am richly blessed. I have far more "things" than I need, and for them I am grateful. The lesson for me and for anyone who responds to Jesus' call is the caution that we let nothing stand in the way of contributing to the building of the Kingdom.

The best-known message Francis heard from Jesus was "Go now and repair my church which, as you see, is falling down."

I'm willing to bet that message is as valid today as it was centuries ago. Jesus is now asking us to repair his Church, and one of the first steps in its rehabilitation will have something to do with "sell what you have and give it to the poor" and "then come follow me."

Reform, renewal, restoration of the Church will require that Lady Poverty be welcomed into the Vatican, into dioceses and parishes, into our individual lives.

We do not have to mirror Francis; he was the example. Rather it will be well if we take to heart his and Jesus' message: "Take nothing for the journey..." and be willing to lay aside whatever gets in the way of building that Kingdom.

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