Let us now consider the response of the rich man/poor man from Assisi to the gospel call for relinquishment. Francis took the daring leap of faith from a position of privilege into the world of the poor. His renunciation of the world, though radical, was apparently not odious to him. We sense that for Francis the gospel promise was fulfilled, that what one receives in return is far more than what one has given up. Francis renounced the world only to have it given back with joy.
It was not long after his break with family and social life in Assisi that Francis was joined by others who formed with him a community among the poor. The story of Francis teaches us that the invitation and challenge to relinquishment is extended not just to individuals but to communities. We recall that the invitation to the rich man in the gospel was to join the discipleship community as they traveled along the way. The work of relinquishment is difficult for individuals to realize in isolation. In community we cultivate a common vision that facilitates relinquishment. Community gives us the support necessary to take those steps out of our comfort zones toward the margins of society.
Like that rich man in the gospel we are generous, we support the “right” causes, and we can list the laws that we have obeyed as “good, moral people.” If we adopt this posture, we will never really understand the gospel invitation before us. We can invoke rational arguments for moderation and good sense against the way of Jesus and the way of Francis. This understandable, for there is something foolish and risky, even senseless, about this path. It is even scandalous! How can a way that seems so negative promise the kind of delight, joy, and abundant life that Jesus promised and Francis found? Once again we find ourselves invited by Francis to be fools. Is it really possible that what is given up will be returned one hundredfold? Can we believe that as we lose ourselves, we will find ourselves? Francis, who renounces his claim on all things, is free to enjoy all things as gift. Utterly foolish. Impractical. Subversive. Even dangerous.
We can neutralize the challenge and promise of Jesus and of Francis by elevating Jesus and Francis into the realm of sainthood and perfection, a realm seemingly far beyond our reach. Or we can ponder their way of living in the world and attempt to follow them, fools though we be. It is probably impossible to extract from Francis a precise formula for achieving this kind of freedom. We tell the stories of Francis and of Jesus because we cannot do what we cannot imagine. By telling these stories, may we at least come to imagine that a different way is possible; that we can actually live the gospel; that we can be free of the tyranny of possessions; that we can experience joy in the simple gifts of life and of each day; that we can surrender our lives to a purpose larger than ourselves; and that we can dare to hope for the transformation of the world. In telling the story of Francis, we place ourselves in the presence of one who, in losing his life, found it; who is giving up the world received it back transformed; who discovered Christ mysteriously hidden and revealed in the life of the poor. We dialogue with one who believed along with Jesus that with God, “All things are possible”
Marie Dennis is associate for Latin America for the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office; Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is director of the Washington office of the Center for Global Education; Joseph Nangle, OFM is a Franciscan priest on the staff of Sojournors; and Stuart Taylor is a pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.
From St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, by Marie Dennis, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Joseph Nangle, and Stuart Taylor. Copyright © 1993 by Marie Dennis, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Joseph Nangle, and Stuart Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Orbis Books.