4 October [St Francis of Assisi]
As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
In Judaism students lived with a rabbi to learn Torah and to see it lived out in the flesh. But Jesus makes it clear that there is more than this to being a disciple of his. He offers no kind of security or stability at all. He himself has abandoned all security and has nowhere to lay his head; so anyone wanting to follow him will likewise have to live with insecurity.
He was neither the first nor the last to praise insecurity. Thales of Miletus (6th century BC), credited by Aristotle as having been the first philosopher, prescribed insecurity as the first requisite of the thinking person. The Greeks gave us other examples of wise men who had cut the ties of normal social life to live a life of wisdom – the most famous being Diogenes, who is said to have lived in a barrel. Alexander the Great saw him, took pity on him, and asked him if there was anything he could do for him. “You could stand out of my light,” said Diogenes. Every culture has produced wanderers – people who orbit their society in wide elliptical paths. Jesus was a wanderer, but there was an intensity about him that is not typical of wanderers. Today’s reading shows that intensity at its extreme.
It is truly amazing that so many of his disciples through the ages have valued security above all else, and that the highest praise for a religious teacher is that he or she is “safe”. Safe and sound. In general (and with all due qualifications, which you can supply yourself), security is an insipid thing, and our longing for it shows that we are more afraid of life than of death. Where would we be without the spur of insecurity of some kind? It is not the enemy; it brings out the best in us. It is a terrifying friend.
Two of the three people mentioned in today’s reading said, “I will follow you.” It was their own idea; they thought they might enjoy that kind of life. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444) commented: “Their wish was not simply to follow Christ…. What they wanted was to be self-called. The blessed Paul writes that no one takes the honour to himself unless he is called by God, as Aaron was (Heb 5:4)…. We find none of the apostles promoted himself to the office of apostle but rather received the honour from Christ.” The third person in today’s reading was called by Christ, but he would only follow at a time that suited himself. None of the three is heard of again. It seems that having their own agenda put them out of the running. To give up property is not much, but to give up your agenda is give yourself up.
A word about St Francis, whose feast is celebrated today. One of the most loved of all the saints, Francis showed a Gospel way of life to his contemporaries, a complete indifference to wealth and security – the very things by which we calibrate our life. When his father threatened to disinherit him because his generosity to the poor was eating into the family savings, Francis abandoned everything, and even kicked off his clothes – to show that he was a totally free man, a new kind of human being. Nothing could bind him. He became a kind of archetype, the poverello: poor, free and full of joy. He threw everything away and (in Thoreau’s words) lived life near the bone, where it is sweetest. He makes us look like thieves, grabbing and holding our possessions – and looking for more: the ‘little more’ that keeps beckoning us on. A simple man said to me once, “‘Enough’ is always just a little more than what we have.” Possessiveness is a bottomless pit, and nothing that we possess can ever fill it.
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