Francis of Assisi appears to have been something of an embarrassment to the Church of his day when most church leadership of the time seemed focused on hierarchy and status. As stories of the deeds of Francis with his humility and compassion began to spread, the Church leadership found his witness hard to ignore, yet it was difficult for them to offer him support without demonstrating the difference between his example on one hand and the practice of the mainline Church leaders on the other. It was not so much the leaders were unaware of the concept of servant-hood. It was more that to them it was a concept better admired in theory than personally practiced.
As one of the traditional Francis stories has it, the contrast was strongly underlined when the Pope of the day decided to honour Francis of Assisi by having him as a guest of honour at an official banquet. The day of the banquet arrived and Francis arrived at the door of the castle in his tattered brown robe. The doorman, obviously mistaking him for a beggar and, anxious that he was well out of the way before the important guests arrived, directed him to the kitchen. Francis clearly at home in the company of kitchen hands and other beggars, not only welcomed the redirection but enjoyed their company and before long the motley crowd in the kitchen were sharing scraps of food and stories with Francis.
The absence of the guest of honour upstairs caused great consternation and servants were sent to locate Francis. Eventually word of his whereabouts got through to the great hall and an apologetic messenger arrived to usher Francis, still with his kitchen plate in hand, through to his place of honour at the head table. Francis appeared totally unperturbed by the apparent earlier lapse of manners by his hosts and was soon cheerfully chatting with the Pope, Cardinals and Bishops – and whether out of sheer devilment or perhaps simply a total lack of the need for pretension, was seen offering those around him at the top table a share of the scraps he had been given by his new friends in the kitchen.
With the safety of the centuries between the Francis incident and today we may feel we can scoff at that system that once relegated a great man of compassion to the kitchen while at the same time accepting the credentials of the professional Church leaders whose only qualification seemed to be the assumption of customary rights that went with their title. But are we really certain that conditions have really changed. One dimension which very obviously has never changed in the interim is that there is still a great deal of difference between Christianity admired and Christianity practiced.
For those of us obsessed with communication via sermons, and often there, sermons in Church settings, it is helpful to remember that Luke’s version of Jesus often focuses on meals rather than on worship. For someone who talked about the primacy of love for neighbours, the Greek word for hospitality philoxenia, seems particularly apposite. Philoxenia literally means “love of the stranger” and from Jesus’ other parables it is clear he usually saw the stranger as the one who was typically shunned and avoided. The doorman in the Francis anecdote, in directing Francis to the kitchen was clearly not offering Philoxenia, (any more than perhaps we are inclined to do in our age).
As an outside observer it seems to me that part of the mixture of delight and/or consternation in some parts of the Catholic Church today is figuring out what to do about the current Pope who is shunning the traditional pomp and ceremony which goes with the status of the position, and is apparently actually modelling the genuine humility and service to the poor and needy which is supposed to go with the title. It seems curiously appropriate that this Pope has chosen the name Francis to signify his ministry. But even with the current huge rates of approval it still remains to see if those impressed by Pope Francis’ down to earth humility and compassion are themselves intending to follow his lead.
Thinking of my own denomination, it also occurs to me that there is a kind of benign benevolence which pervades the meeting time of the customary cups of tea offered after many of our urban Church services. We readily admire humility (in our religious forbears) and find comfort in what is often presented as the quiet wisdom of Jesus. We enjoy meeting with fellow admirers in the family of Christ. Yet our feelings of hospitality sometimes wane a little when we do not feel those who share our hospitality are fellow admirers of Christ. Yet believing we have achieved hospitality without real contact with genuine strangers, may be only to hear one part of Christ’s message and even to miss why Jesus was crucified in the first place.
We would do well to remember that the word hospitality comes from the same root meaning as hospice and hospital. The strangers to be welcomed may need rather more than the briefest of polite contact. Some commentators suggest that Luke writing in part to second generation Christians was anxious for them to come to terms with the notion that Jews and Non Jews were going to have to find better ways of bringing their separate communities together, particularly as the Jews had a history of separate development. Our communities too have sectors of society deeply divided from the rest and the form of our hospitality needs particular attention as a consequence.
As with all realities, we are certain to find difficulties on the way. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is realising that we are not necessarily the people we would like others to think us to be.
Our ears are attuned to the part where Jesus says all those who humble themselves will be exalted and deaf to the part where he says all those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.
Dr Reza Aslan , scholar of religious history from UC Riverside, in recent book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” identifies the central issue that we often gloss over when it comes to thinking of Jesus: He was such a challenge to the Roman politics and the existing religious powers that he was crucified as an enemy of the state for standing with the oppressed and challenging the political and religious powers.
He finished a recent interview about his writing by putting it this way: “Remember, the (Be)attitudes aren’t just about the meek becoming strong and the hungry being fed, they’re also about the fed becoming hungry and the strong becoming powerless.”
In practice I have exactly the same problem with the anecdote about Francis of Assisi and for Jesus’ parable about the wedding guests assuming positions to which they were not entitled. In both cases I can see much to admire about the value of humility, yet to leave the stories at that point is to miss their challenge. I prefer not to notice the admonition for those who cheerfully accept offered privilege. My point of difficulty comes when I realise that the same degree of humility will be expected of me if I want to claim Jesus as my inspiration and guide, and I am far from convinced that I have made much progress on that dimension of faith.
We certainly can’t separate this parable from the rest of Jesus teaching. Remember this is the same Jesus who told his followers: The first will be last, and the last will be first.
and The one who saves their life will lose it and the one who loses their life will save it.
Similarly when I think of my own family guest lists I become somewhat uncomfortably aware that the group Jesus described as the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind are not commonly present. When I think more closely about this I would have to acknowledge that it is probably because I am rather more worried about the affect such an invitation might have on me and my personal family situation than the effect it might have on those being invited. In practice, the few times where my wife and I have summoned up enough courage to try to invite those who society categorises as less desirable to our table, our fears turned out to be totally groundless. In my recent Central city parish setting, our community meals to which the homeless or city small apartment dwellers were invited were so successful and warmly received, they have now become a regular feature of the annual programme.
This is not to say all strangers are angels to be welcomed so that they may be recognised as angels. Strangers have swiped handbags and coats. Strangers have messed up the toilet facilities, or taken more than their fair share of food, but hospitality does at least give us freedom to think of the newcomer as a person rather than as the other. I think it was Archbishop William Temple who put his finger on it when he said “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about your-self at all”. Mind you this does not necessarily help you see when you have achieved this state. Something that I found helpful in that respect was considering Frederick Buechner’s version of the same thought. “It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do”.
It is only a passing observation, yet when I see people who are particularly good with children it seems to me that Buechner’s way of identifying with others may not represent a standard view of humility yet when I watch others being genuinely sad for others who are sad, and exulting with the happy, as a way of getting communication, it really seems to work.
A few years ago the late David Clark, the progressive Christian leader of St Lukes congregation in Auckland recounted an anecdote of a rather staid congregation receiving communion Presbyterian style in the pews. The communion steward reached a blind lady and her seeing-eye dog. He handed the blind lady her morsel of bread, then reached down and handed the dog his own piece of bread. If communion is sharing at the deepest level, can we really question the theology of the steward’s act.