Thoughts on Proper 24A: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Text of a Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matt. 22:15-46)
The Pharisees and the Herodians (a strange combination of opposites indeed,[i] but let’s not go there today)—the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The “taxes” to which they refer (as Matthew’s Greek, following Mark, makes quite clear) aren’t a matter of taxation in general, but tributum capitis, the poll- or head-tax, a form of levy that was particularly offensive to Jewish sensibilities because it involved “numbering” God’s people—something that, if you know your Bible, you may remember King David had tried to do, and got into very hot water over it (2 Samuel 24 cf. 1 Chron. 21). So—is it “lawful” (the Greek means “permitted”, that is, “permitted to a faithful Israelite”) to pay Caesar’s head tax or not? That’s the question, and in the politics of Our Lord’s day it was a hot button issue, a very hot potato. There were groups around him who took both sides of the question, and who, moreover, got pretty angry with those who didn’t agree with them. There certainly wasn’t much “dialogue across the aisle” going on here. More precisely:
- If Jesus’ says, “it is permitted”, then he aligns himself with the Sadducees, who were perfectly willing to co-operate with the pagan Roman Empire of which Israel was then a part, provided the empire left them free to worship as they chose. He’d also be aligning himself with biblical heroes like Joseph, who’d served the pharaoh of Egypt, with Daniel, who held a top job in pagan imperial civil service, with Esther, who was queen to a pagan emperor, with Ezra the Scribe, who among other things oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple with funds provided by the pagan emperor Cyrus (Ezra 3.7), and of course with the prophet Jeremiah, who told Jewish exiles in Babylon to “pray for the good” of the pagan city where they now found themselves (Jer. 29:7).
- If Jesus says, “it is not permitted,” then he aligns himself with the zealot rebels of his own day, which included many among the Pharisees. He also aligns himself with heroes like Judas Maccabeus and his family who rebelled against the pagan ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, and with freedom fighters like Judas the Galilean, who, according the historian Josephus, only decades before Our Lord’s lifetime had “incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters after having God for their lord” (War 2.118).
All of which is to say, Jesus’ questioners are putting him on the spot!
Our Lord responds with what is formally a request for clarification and information. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says, and then when they do so, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” But of course the request for information is really a rhetorical trap. “The emperor’s,” they say. Indeed, they can say nothing else. That, after all, was precisely what many of them disliked about the coin. What then? Disliked or not, the emperor’s head and inscription meant that it was the emperor’s coin, and according to ancient understanding a ruler’s coinage was his property. The trap springs. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”
Jesus’ words are in their context quite unequivocal. However much the inhabitants of Judaea may dislike it, if they are using Caesar’s coinage, as they clearly are, then they can’t escape Caesar’s authority and the obligations that entails.
Had Jesus ended his answer at this point, he would simply have been aligning himself with the examples of Queen Esther, with the prophet Jeremiah, with Daniel and with Ezra the Scribe—the examples to which I just referred. But Jesus doesn’t end his answer there. He adds, “and to God, the things that are God’s.”
The form of Our Lord’s expression evidently implies a degree of analogy. We are to pay Caesar what Caesar is owed, and we are also to pay God what God is owed. Unlike Judas the Galilean, Jesus does not, apparently, see a contradiction here, and that in itself is important. According to Jesus, it’s possible to be a good citizen of the pagan empire and a faithful servant of God.
But there is surely more. The basis on which Our Lord has said that “the coin used for the tax” is owed to Caesar is that it bears Caesar’s image. What then bears God’s image, so that it should be owed to God? No Jew who knew anything at all about his or her religion—certainly no Pharisee and surely even no Herodian—could possibly not know the answer to that question. As it said in Genesis, they themselves bore God’s “image” (1.26)—not, be it noted, by virtue of being Israelites, but by virtue of being human.
In other words, they owed tribute coin to Caesar, because the coinage belonged to Caesar. But they owed themselves to God, because they themselves belonged to God.
So—they have asked Jesus a question about their relation to the Roman Empire and are doubtless all set not only for an argument about that but also, and more importantly, to complain about him to whichever group his answer seems most likely to offend. And he has indeed answered their question. But in so doing so he has used its form to challenge them with an altogether deeper and more dangerous question of his own, a question about their relationship to God. No wonder, “when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away”!
Our Lord’s response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question has been subjected over the course of Christian history to various interpretations.
- The early church focused on the fact that our whole duty is owed to God, and that our duty to the state is an entirely proper though nonetheless subordinate part of that.
- Protestants at the time of the Reformation, however—and notably Martin Luther—saw it as conveying the message that God rules the world through two realms or kingdoms: the secular or political authority that is to rule over us as regards physical, external things, and the spiritual authority that is to rule over us in matters of the spirit and the heart.
- And most recently a number of biblical scholars have seen Jesus’ words as a thinly veiled invitation to rebellion, wherein he makes common cause with those who would throw off the yoke of imperial Rome. “Give to the emperor what you owe to the emperor!” means, “Fight him with fire and sword! That’s what you owe him! Home rule for the Judeans!”
Briefly, and by way of conclusion, let me say that I regard the ancient catholic view as right. Our Lord is very clearly saying that there is no part of our lives that is not owed to God, and that our proper duty to the state is a part, albeit a subordinate part, of that debt. We are, as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, to pay “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (13:7).
That does not, of course, mean that Our Lord or St Paul or the prophets of Israel in whose line they stand, have no critique of the power of the state, or place no limits on its right to be obeyed. Quite the contrary! They certainly have such a critique. Its basis is the prophetic claim, “the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa. 33.22), “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1.14). On that basis, they challenge all human power structures.
They do not, however, challenge them by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures (“Home rule for Judaea!”) but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose. Their origin is that God permits them. Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice. They must not therefore pretend to worship and serve the biblical God, the God of Israel, unless they are concerned about justice (including international justice) here and now. For so long as they attempt such concern, they may do well. As soon as they forget it, they stand condemned and their days are numbered, not because human wisdom or courage will put an end to them, but because God will do so. To put it another way, the prophetic tradition subverts the “powers that be” by insisting at every point that they do their job. This is its burden, and consistently emerges at every point where we examine it.
As for the Reformation view that there are “two realms” or “two kingdoms”, I think it simply mistaken. Our Lord is NOT saying that one part of me belongs to the State (that is, the material or cultural or external part of me that deals with the kingdoms of this world) and the other part to God (that is, my spiritual, personal, and inner life). Such a view is no doubt very convenient to states and governments that wish, in the affairs of the world, to be obeyed by their citizens without question. But it is hardly the view of Scripture.
As for those modern exegetes who claim that Our Lord is here advocating rebellion against Rome, “home rule for Judaea!”—those who see him invoking the very war that would in A.D. 70 lead to devastation for the Jewish people and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—they too, I believe, are quite wrong. To treat Our Lord’s words as a call to replace one human power structure with another human power structure is entirely to miss their point. Which means, more importantly, that it is also to miss the way in which, as critique, those words continue to challenge those who live under structures of government vastly different from anything that could have been envisaged or imagined by those who wrote the books of our New Testament. For if the Lord is truly king, then even twenty-first century presidents and prime ministers elected (at least in theory) by western processes of post-Enlightenment democracy still need to remember that they govern only by God’s will, and that the purpose of their governing is to promote God’s peace, God’s justice and God’s gifts of well-being and life for all their subjects. If they forget those things, then they too stand condemned and will fall, as surely as did any arrogant King or Caesar of antiquity. For God is not mocked.
[i] For discussion of these and other details about this narrative in the gospels, see further Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar (Oxford University Press, 2005) especially pages 43-46.
Out of Africa: Reflections on the Story of Christian Mission by the Right Reverend Dr James Tengatenga, for the Feast of St Philip the Deacon, 2017. Text of a sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles.
For the Epistle: Acts 8:26-40 For the Gospel: Matthew 28:18-20
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.
In 1996, Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, gave a poetic opening to his speech during the inauguration of South Africa’s new constitution. It is such a gem! It is Ubuntu, a mea culpa and an embrace of the gospel imperative all in one, such that I cannot help but share a heavily abridged but lengthy excerpt. I quote:
I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land. At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito. A human presence among all of these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say – I am an African!
I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape… I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.
I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom. My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as Ashanti of Ghana, as Berbers of the desert.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Vrouemonument, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins. I am the child of Nongqawuse. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which our stomachs yearn.
I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence. Being part of all of these people, and in the knowledge that none dares contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.
I have experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest. I have seen the corruption of minds and souls as a result of the pursuit of an ignoble effort to perpetrate a veritable crime against humanity. Among us prowl the products of our immoral and amoral past – killers who have no sense of the worth of human life, rapists who have absolute disdain for the women of our country, animals who would seek to benefit from the vulnerability of the children, the disabled, and the old, the rapacious who brook no obstacle in their quest for self-enrichment. All this I know and know to be true because I am an African! …Today it feels good to be an African!
Today, there are many who see Africa as the epicentre of Christianity. They point to the phenomenal growth and fervour of Christianity on that continent. There is a sense of novelty and even surprise about it. This surprise and sense of novelty stem largely from the fact that talk about African Christianity has tended tofocus on nineteenth-century missionary activity, its fruit in sub-Saharan Africa and still more recent movements. Little cognizance has been given to the fact that early North African Christianity was part of the wider history of Christianity. Thomas Oden begins his study of early Libyan Christianity by reminding us that
Libyan Christianity was founded in a nexus of cultures bordering on Egypt, Ethiopia and ancient Nubia, modern Sudan, ancient Darfur (part of Cush), Chad, and Roman Byzacena (southern Tunisia). Ancient Libyan Christianity had close affinities with Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia, and with the Meroe kingdom in Nubia (Sudan). They belonged intentionally to the community of worldwide believers who held to orthodox, apostolic, classical teaching.
The story of Christianity in Africa cannot properly be told or understood until we begin to appreciate that the first thousand years of Christianity in that continent are part of the story of the first thousand years of Christianity in the world. In the eleventh century, perhaps one-tenth of all Christians on the planet lived in Africa, a proportion not reached again until the 1960s. Africa’s relatively small contribution to today’s worldwide theological discourse belies the very significant contribution of African theologians to the early church. The story of theological education as we know it cannot be fully appreciated if one does not take into account the school at Alexandria and the fine theologians it produced. Christian spirituality in its monastic form has its roots in the African soil.
We hear of Africa and Africans from the very beginning. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene is made to carry his cross (Mark 20b-21; Matt. 27:31b-32; Luke 23:26-32). In Acts, people from Africa are among those present to hear the first preaching and be baptized on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Christian tradition credits Mark the Evangelist with introducing Christianity to Egypt and establishing Christian churches at Alexandria before his martyrdom there in A.D. 68 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II.16.1). The earliest extant records of Christianity in the region are documents describing persecutions in A.D. 180 (Passio Sanctorum Scillitanorum). This is the church of Clement of Alexandria (150-215), of Origen (185-254), Dionysius (d. 264), Athanasius (296-373), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Anthony the father of asceticism and monasticism (c. 251-356). The Egyptian church was a key player in the formulation of Christological and Trinitarian theology. It is the church of three African popes: Victor I (189-198), Melchiades (310/11-314), and Gelasius (492-496). It is the church of Tertullian (160-225), Cyprian (c. 200-258) and Augustine (354-430), whose influence on Christianity and Christian thinking is undoubtedly as great as that of any writer outside the New Testament itself. As Oden observes,
What was first firmly established in the Nile valley and the Maghreb became later widely confirmed as classic consensual Christian teaching. The seeds for the scriptural interpretations that became common Christian teaching were first woven on the African continent. The major movement of intellectual history in the second and third centuries was South to North, Africa to Europe, Africa to Asia. This is markedly counterintuitive to the modern mind…. African Christians today have an opportunity to see their present religion from the perspective of two thousand uninterrupted years of classic Christian teaching.
Echoing this sentiment, C. E. Lincoln says of St Philip the Deacon’s conversion of the Ethiopian official described in our reading today,
For persons of black African lineage, the eunuch’s conversion means the inclusion of black Africans among the charter members of the faith . . . all of which symbolizes from the beginning the African involvement in the new faith that spread throughout the world. (C. E. Lincoln  24)
In the wider scheme of things, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian might seem to be a very small account of an encounter between a faithful evangelist and an inquisitive man. Almost whimsical! A spur of the moment type of thing! But this is what the Holy Spirit in God’s economy does with seemingly insignificant encounters. I am sure that Philip himself, as part of the cloud of witnesses to the explosion of Christianity in Africa, can hardly believe what that encounter has produced. Certainly not all of the spread of Christianity in Africa can be attributed to this encounter, but I have no doubt that it is a significant part of the story.
The passage is not just describing a serendipitous encounter. In it, Luke the evangelist is linking that encounter to obedience to Jesus’ command at the beginning of Acts to “be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1.8). As you may notice, this looks and sounds like a version of the “Great Commission” that we heard in today’s gospel reading:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, … I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
No surprise here! As one commentator observes of the story of the Ethiopian’s conversion,
This scene is a fitting climax to the Grecian Jewish Christians’ mission thrust, for here they complete the geographical aspects of the Acts 1:8 commission: Jerusalem (6:8-8:3), Judea and Samaria (8:4-25) and the ends of the earth (8:26-40). Further, it is a harbinger of the full-fledged Gentile mission to come (Acts 13-28).
The early church historian Eusebius certainly saw Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian as the beginning of the Gentile mission. He wrote of the Ethiopian that,
this man, who was the first Gentile to partake of the sacred rites of the divine Word at the hands of Philip… thus becoming a first fruits of the faithful throughout the world, on returning to his native land was the first to preach the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Savior among men, so that by him was actually fulfilled the prophecy which says, Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand to God” (Ecclesiastical History II.1.13, citing Ps. 67:32).
For better or worse, however, Acts’ account of the spread of the gospel then goes on to focus on Asia Minor and its progress westward. Later telling of the history of Christianity also ignores the African story and talks about the spread east and northeast from Jerusalem. The African part of Christian history is not picked up again until the period of the so-called “Voyages of Discovery” from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries (i.e. the period during which European culture was powerfully affected by extensive overseas exploration). In critique of this narrative Cain H. Felder says that the story of the Ethiopian is a corrective, a “parallel and rival” to the Cornelius story in Acts 10. It is one more testimony to the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy, “Out of Egypt”—which is to say, out of Africa—“have I called my son” (Hos. 11:1, cited Matt. 2:15). This surely goes beyond the messianic message and should be heard as a proleptic reference to the future carriers of the Gospel. As Harvey Kwinyani, talking about Reverse Mission, says:
it is important to note that the continent of Africa has been evangelized by Africans. Any faithful writing of the history of Christianity in Africa will have to account for the agency of Africans in its growth. … Naturally, this fact will be of great importance to any understanding of African missionary work since it shapes the African understanding of missions.
Obviously, this begs the question “So what?” Or put differently, “Why does God send people to evangelize others? Once evangelized, what? Is it evangelization for its own sake?” I believe that the aim is to spread the Gospel even farther, so that those prophecies come to pass which say that God will write the Law in human hearts, and that knowledge of the Lord shall fill the world as the waters cover the sea (Jer. 31:33; Hab. 4:14). What that may look like may be what Anglican understanding of mission calls, “by everyone, from everywhere to everywhere”. I believe that this understanding dislodges the privilege of the West and calls for humility from the West to accept evangelization from others. As has been demonstrated, this won’t be the first time the Gospel has moved northward and westward. There was a purpose in the Lord’s choosing to sow the Gospel in Africa even at the very earliest of times.
Will the West stop its condescending attitude to listening and hearing the Gospel and heed the prophecy that says, “Out of Africa have I called my Son”? This is the word to which St Matthew’s infancy narrative points. The African missionary at your doorstep is not the peddler of some exotic and strange message but a bearer of the good news of Christ. Pay attention and receive the Gospel!
Likewise we must ask, will Africa for its part obey, and evangelize the world as it received the commission at the Eunuch’s baptism and in the early history of the Church? Can Africa tell the story of its encounter with the Gospel not merely as if it were a Johnny-come-lately but claiming its proper place in the history of the faith? As such, Africa exemplifies not just the example and heritage of the Ethiopian Eunuch but also the example of Philip the Evangelist, who obeyed the risen Lord’s call to go and encounter foreigners everywhere at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. There is yet more of the Gospel to share with the world! That which we all, African and Westerner, have received we must share. And we must do this not as those who linger to savour the success or fruit of our mission and to gloat, but as those who declare to you,
what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – this was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify to it, and we declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)
The fruit that comes from this will blow our minds. But alas!—this is also where the challenge will come, if we are so lax as to obey only the first part of the Great Commission (to preach the gospel) and forget the second (to teach what Jesus has commanded us). Here are three voices from across the Anglican Communion:
- The former Primate of the Anglican Church in Melanesia, Archbishop David Vunagi said, “We have no problem filling our churches with people, but they need to know what it means to be Christians, that is where we need help.”
- In his installation Charge, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of Kenya asked, “If Christians form 80% of Kenya’s population, why are our elections often violence-prone? Why is our society riddled with corruption, nepotism and a great level of social stratification? Why are environmental degradation, poverty and disease still ever-present realities?”
- Bishop Steven Croft of the Diocese of Sheffield in England has pointed out that “the Vatican Synod of Bishops (called by Pope Francis in 2014) revealed that the church throughout the world has same struggles to communicate faith, and it’s not just Europe and America (or the West) but even where the Church is growing [read Africa]. There is need to listen and learn from each other within the Body of Christ.”
All this calls our attention to the second part of the Great Commission, which enjoins us to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Evangelization does not end with preaching/witnessing and baptizing. The depth comes with teaching: and the history of Christianity in Africa has demonstrated that to us all.
Philip obeyed and went. His encounter with the stranger led to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion and baptism and beyond that to the spread of the gospel into Africa, so that from Africa the gospel, theology and spirituality then spread to the north. The example of both Philip and the Eunuch should teach us to obey the bidding of the Holy Spirit. Making disciples is about both proclamation and teaching and thus grounding in the faith “by everyone from everywhere to everywhere”. Jesus Christ, of whom the prophet said that he had been called by God “out of Africa”, still says to you and to me:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.
 Text and translation in Herbert Musurillo S.J., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).
 Cain H. Felder, “The Bible and Re-contextualization” in Gayraud S. Wilmore, ed. African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (1989) 164.
 Harvey Kwinyani, Go Forth, 51-52.
Saint Francis of Assisi: text of a Sermon preached in the Chapel of the Apostles by Mother Julia Gatta
“For I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Galatians 6:17)
I must confess I have long enjoyed a rather acerbic comment that goes all the way back to the earliest editions of Lesser Feasts and Fasts: “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to his total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ.” “Probably the least imitated”! Well, Francis wouldn’t have cared one bit. He wasn’t at all interested in having anybody imitate him. He just wanted to imitate Christ. And few of us would want—or even should—imitate Francis in every respect. But we can let ourselves be inspired by him—by his single-minded, passionate and joyful devotion to Christ. That devotion led him to embrace poverty, to embrace lepers, to embrace the cultural and religious enemy—he did, in fact, cross behind the battle lines of the Fifth Crusade to preach the gospel to the sultan of Egypt. But what Francis embraced above all was the cross of Christ because Christ had embraced him. Francis could have said with St Paul, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” But how did Francis become so configured to Christ? How did this son of a prosperous Assisi cloth merchant—a pampered young bon vivant—move beyond himself to see and love Jesus?
Francis’ conversion seems to have come by stages. In his autobiographical Testament he writes very briefly about how it began: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” It seems that Francis’ conversion begins when he confronts his most visceral revulsion and fear, and Francis says that the Lord led him to that—how, we do not know. And typically, Francis discovers that imitating Christ by touching lepers—“performing the gospel life,” as one recent biographer puts it—leads to joy. What was previously bitter turns to sweetness for soul and body.
The next turn comes when Francis is praying before the large painted crucifix in the Church of San Damiano (which I have seen). As he prayed, the crucifix seemed to speak to him: “Rebuild my church.” Francis obeys to the letter. So besides caring for lepers, he now starts to collect stones to repair the crumbling edifice of San Damiano and other churches in the vicinity. Francis’s family, already alarmed at his eccentric behaviour, feels disgraced. People of their social class simply did not work with their hands. His outraged father insists on a showdown in the public square before the bishop of Assisi. But Francis surprises everyone by stripping himself naked, including even his underclothes, and hands them back to his indignant father, while the bishop covers him with his mantle. Francis’ break with his family and its mercantile values could not have been more dramatically enacted. As he steps out of his clothes, Francis puts on the naked innocence of Eden, but even more, the nakedness of Christ on the cross.
Two years later, on the Feast of St. Matthias, Francis hears the priest read the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends the Twelve on a mission of preaching and healing, instructing them to take but a single tunic with no money, belt, sandals, or staff. Not having the benefit of higher criticism, Francis again takes the words literally and, we might observe, out of context. But it somehow was the word of the Lord that Francis was waiting for: it gave him the direction he needed. He removed his shoes, discarded his staff, took off his belt and replaced it with a cord with which he tied his rough tunic. He would never again accept money, not even from begging. He began to preach a message of repentance. His lifelong love affair with Lady Poverty had begun.
It is important to realize that Francis was not the first person of his day to embrace a life of gospel simplicity and evangelical zeal. There were many movements of reform then at work in the church, especially since the late eleventh century, and numerous ordinary Christians as well as scholars pondered what “gospel living” or the “apostolic life” really entailed. Yet Francis embarked upon what he saw as obedience to Christ with such unreserved passion and infectious joy that he quickly drew others to his way of life. At first there were a few companions, then dozens, then the women with St Clare at their head, then devout lay people, and finally thousands of friars minor or “little brothers” across the span of Europe. St Seraphim of Sarov, a nineteenth-century Russian saint often compared to St Francis, once said, “Be at peace and thousands will find salvation all around you.” Not a bad mission strategy, when you think about it. Francis embodied such ardent love for Christ and Him crucified, such tender, practical love for the least of Christ’s brethren, all the while radiating a peace such as this world cannot give, that thousands simply wanted to be in on it—no matter the cost. And it cost a lot.
That cost came home to Francis with dramatic force during a period of retreat on Mount LaVerna, a place of solitude to which he would withdraw for weeks or months at a time. On the Feast of the Holy Cross in 1224, two years before his death, Francis saw a vision of a man with six wings like a seraph, but unlike the seraph in the prophet Isaiah’s vision, this one was crucified. Francis found the apparition both frightening and consoling. Shortly after this strange vision, Francis developed growths on his hands and feet that resembled nails, both front and back, and a wound in his side that bled. His closest companions who tended him in his illness could not help but notice, and scores of people saw these marks on his body after his death. For this reason, most modern historians accept the “stigmata of St Francis” as true, whatever their ultimate cause. Francis meditated on the passion of Christ daily, and lived into that cross by a life of severe penance and sacrificial service. If he carried on his body the marks of Jesus, the wounds of Christ had first been branded into his soul.
Yet the joy never ceased. Racked with pain and close to dying, he composed his ecstatic “Canticle of Brother Sun” within the next year, the first great poem in Italian. Its scriptural models should be evident to us, since we sing the psalms in the daily office that call upon creation to praise God as well as the exuberant canticle, the “Song of Creation” (Benedicite, opera omnia Domini) with its cosmic sweep. Yet Francis’ poem is no pale imitation of these antecedents as he addresses the heavenly bodies and the four elements of classical antiquity—earth, air, fire, and water. But what is he asking them to do? Our translation renders the Italian word “per” as “by”—and that is a legitimate option. In that case, we rejoice that all these creatures give praise to God by their very existence. But “per” can also mean “for.” And with that, we would be thanking God for all these blessings. Finally, “per” can mean “through,” conveying the profound sacramental vision of a world shot through with the divine presence. Poet that he was, Francis probably intended all three layers of meaning. Such a capacity for mystical joy in creation—for which Francis is justly famous—is of a piece with his devotion to the cross and his radical poverty. For it is only by self-emptying, after all, that we can see the world truly as creation, and its elements as kindred creatures—as “brother” and “sister.” By contrast, the nascent capitalism of his day, epitomized by the business mentality of Francis’ own family, sees water, air, animals, and minerals merely as “stuff”—resources that are there solely for our taking.
My sisters and brothers, we cannot—and probably should not—imitate Francis in every respect. He wouldn’t want us to. Like him, however, we are committed by our baptism to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord. We have been baptized into his death and resurrection. And by baptism we also carry on our bodies the sign of cross (our own version of stigmata) when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever—marked with the sign of the cross invisibly and yet indelibly traced on our forehead with chrism. That cross marks us as Christ’s own, and it makes all the difference.