Success is not a name of God, Francis, and Luke 18

Luke 18

The world has watched in wonder this week as the Cardinals met in conclave to choose a new pope after Pope Benedict resigned, the first Pope to do so in 600 years. Newspapers announced the short list. Bets were placed in Las Vegas. Pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square to watch. The first ballot. Black Smoke. No new pope. The second ballot. Black Smoke. No new pope. And the Third and Fourth the same. But on Wednesday evening, as rain showered the pilgrims waiting for news, white smoke came from the Sistine Chapel. Habemus Papum: We have a pope.

Cheers erupted. Social Media exploded. Every trending topic on Twitter related to the new Pope: White Smoke, Conclave, Sistine Chapel, Pope…and when news leaked out about who it would be, Francis, Borgolio, and Argentina trended too.

It is good news for the Catholic church, who, with the church catholic has been struggling in this corner of time. The church has long searched for the meaning of life, and especially eternal life, and many people, especially young people, have found such searching meaningless, or, more truthfully, too short-sighted, too focused against science, or women, or issues of sexuality. The church has become known more by what it is against than what it is for.

And yet a breath of fresh air has swooped into the religious conversation. Many who have struggled with the faith feel they now have a leader who will give them space to believe, ask questions, and search for truth beyond tradition.

This was a big deal worldwide. The first Pope from the Americas. The first non European Pope since the 14th century. The first Jesuit, known for their emphasis on philosophy, education, learning, and intellectualism.

When we were told the name the new pope had chosen, even more were drawn to this Pope. Francis. The first pope to do so. It matched his personality as a man who is wise and simple, known to give up his archbishop’s mansion for a simple room in Buenos Aires.

The world watched in awe as this simple man came out from the papal balcony not in the famous red cape or with a new shiny cross on his chest, but in a white robe and a simple well-worn cross. He paused in silence asking those present to pray for him before offering his blessing. He even took the bus back to the apartment that night with his cardinals, refusing the Vatican car. The next day, we were told, he went himself to collect his belongings and pay his bill at the hotel he stayed at before the conclave. The world has found itself in awe at this most powerful person in the world of the Christian faith who is choosing simplicity over elegance, whose words echo God’s concern for the poor.

After being elected, Pope Francis was told by a fellow Latin American Cardinal not to forget the poor. Pope Francis has said, “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor.”

Many thought he took the name after Francis of Xavier, a historic Jesuit and intellectual. But it was revealed that he chose the name after St. Francis of Assisi, a man who was called by Jesus to rebuild his church, a man who has inspired the church these many hundred years, a man of sheer simplicity and faith, a man who gave up all that he had to follow Jesus. For many in the world, it seems this pope is a man who has taken a similar path.

St. Francis was born and lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. He was from Italy, a son of a wealthy father. It was certain that Francis would live a life of ease and comfort. He was well on his way, but one day he happened to catch the same gospel words of Jesus as was read today: go, sell everything you have, and give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.

He did. He sold his inheritance, gave the money to the poor, left his family, and began to follow Jesus.

Francis founded a new order of priests, and sisters. These orders gave up all property and devoted themselves to prayer and acts of charity. St. Francis saw property and ownership as slavery, and lived a life of freedom within poverty. He reformed the church, rebuilding it oddly enough by stripping away its extravagance. St. Francis is still remembered, 800 years later as a “saint of the poor, a man of goodness and peace, a man who loved and protected creation.”

There haven’t been too many like Francis, either the saint or the pope. And while the world watches in awe at the inspiration of simplicity, poverty, and charity, not too many of us are ready to follow in their footsteps, despite Jesus’ words.

I get the impression that Jesus’ program to sell everything you have and give all your money to the poor is not very successful, does not have a high rate of return, does not map on actuary scales. Jesus’ call is not attractive, does not have many members in the club.

I also get the impression that maybe that is the point.

The rich ruler was looking for a success. That’s what he had had in this world, that is what he was seeking in the next. Good teacher, he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Again this question. The first time Jesus heard it, he told a parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that the one who cares for his neighbor already is living an eternal life now. And one’s neighbor is anyone who is in need anywhere one might go. This time he reminds the rich ruler of the Ten Commandments, hinting that eternal life starts now, in our right relationships with God and with one another. While the rich ruler turned the commandments into a checklist, carefully mapping out his good deeds, Jesus suggests that they are a way of life, and never fully mastered, or, if they were, they would involve a selling of one’s possessions, and then, only after then, a following of Jesus. That is what it means to inherit eternal life.

Yet I wonder if the last thing Jesus was thinking about before he made his way to Jerusalem was life. Death was on his mind. He knew what was coming. Rejection was waiting for him. Crucifixion was waiting for him. He knew that success or winning in Jerusalem was out of the question. At least by traditional standards.

But then again, success is not a name of God (Martin Buber). Jesus would win his life by losing his life, and bids this man–and us–to do the same. To lose his life in the way he understood it, through his wealth, in order to gain eternal life. Many like the rich ruler have walked away sad from this word. Or, even many still have followed without hearing this word, believing themselves to be different than the rich ruler.

2011-2012 was the year of the 1% verses the 99%. The occupy movement has burned these numbers into our minds. Viral videos abound on Facebook about the unfair distribution of wealth. And it is unfair. For the 99%, the inequality gives us a banner of righteous indignation and judgement of the 1%. We know that the middle class is disappearing and the poverty line is claiming more and more people. We feel the pinch.

Worldwide, if you make more than $39,000 per year you are in the 1% — did you know that? Does that shift perspective?

“How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

No one can pass into the kingdom of God “without being unloaded” without losing one’s baggage. Robert Farrar Capon says that “Just as you can’t stuff a camel through an opening designed for a thread, so you can’t get someone who has a great, fat, successful life to volunteer to go through the narrow eye of lastness and death….[after all,] Jesus’ plan of salvation works only with the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead; […] the living, the great, the successful, the found and the first simply will not consent to the radical slimming down that Jesus, the Needle of God, calls for if he is to pull them through into the kingdom.”

What’s true for that rich ruler is true for us, in the end, we can’t take it with us. We’ll lose all that we have. And it may seem cruel, but only so far as our attachment to our wealth goes. Yet we might finally realize that all we have has been given to us, doesn’t belong to us, and is only temporary, and perhaps we have much more than we will ever need. Jesus invites us, once again, to loose the bounds of our slavery to possessions and free those who are enslaved by sever poverty, and in so doing, live into eternal life here, now, today. Lord knows we’re just not ready yet; Lord knows this isn’t a successful program. But our Lord will wait for us. One day we will let go, and he will be there to carry us through to the kingdom of God. When we lose, we win. When all seems lost, then there is success and victory and freedom.

“Jesus the Needle is willing to sew up the salvation of every last son of Adam and every last daughter of Eve by threading them into the eye of his death — into the spear-wound in his side…through the narrow slot of the failure on the cross.” (Capon, 388)

Nothing less will do. Amen.


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