When Giovanni di Bernardone was born, his Italian father was in France making a killing in the silk trade. So when Dad got back home to Assisi, he called the boy Francesco: the Frenchman.
The nickname stuck. We still call Giovanni Francis of Assisi.
Young Francis enjoyed a life of privilege. His parents’ wealth and social position granted him an education and promised him future business connections far out of reach for the children of regular working stiffs.
From the moment he drew his first breath, Francis was miles ahead of the milkmaid’s son and the butcher’s daughter.
Initially, he took these advantages for granted. He was unaware that almost everyone else began life with far less to work with.
Still, he was moved by compassion for the poor. The connection between his privilege and the poverty around him had not yet dawned on him. But Jesus was about to give him a series of difficult lessons on the subject.
Francis was selling silk for his father. A beggar approached and then wandered away. Francis finished with his customer, chased down the beggar, and gave him everything in his pockets. When his father heard what Francis had done, he hit the roof. Dad perhaps sensed in Francis an impulse that could erode the privilege the family felt entitled to.
Some time later, Francis was praying in the ruined country chapel of San Damiano. In a vision Francis saw Jesus and heard him say, “Go and repair my house.”
Assuming that Jesus wanted him to renovate the little chapel, Francis took some silk from his father’s storehouse. After selling the cloth, Francis offered the profits to the chapel’s priest. The priest refused to accept the money.
The priest may have rejected the donation because Francis had come by it dishonestly. But it seems that Francis learned a deeper lesson. Jesus was calling him to do more than give money from a position of privilege.
The rest of the story drives the point home.
Francis’ father discovered the theft, locked his son in a closet, and demanded restitution. After a time, Francis renounced his inheritance and assumed the life of a beggar. Stone by stone, he begged the building materials needed to renovate the chapel. With his own hands, he helped rebuild the dilapidated structure.
In the process, Francis came to realize that Jesus was urging him to model how the followers of Jesus heal the world. We begin by recognizing and renouncing our own privilege. The privilege of wealth. The privilege of race. The privilege of gender. Every form of privilege.
Jesus once said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43b)
We’ve frequently interpreted Jesus’ words in a minimally challenging way. Do nice things for other people. Give your extra money or your extra stuff to the needy. In other words, we’re assuming that Jesus is telling us to be generous with what we have.
There’s no question that Jesus encourages generosity. But that’s not what he’s getting at here.
When Jesus tells us to be servants, he’s challenging us to join him in changing how the world works. The context for Jesus’ words is crucial.
His disciples James and John have just asked Jesus to sit on his right hand and on his left. They believe that Jesus is climbing to the top. So, they elbow for a spot in his inner circle. They’re angling for privilege in an Empire with Jesus instead of Caesar sitting in the corner office.
But Jesus isn’t interested in becoming a more benevolent Caesar. His mission is to dismantle all Empires and to inaugurate a new kind of Kingdom right here on planet earth: The Kingdom of Heaven.
In an Empire, an elite few accumulate power and possessions by exploiting most everybody else. The elite pass laws and establish economic practices that help them keep the power, the stuff, and the status they’ve accumulated. Empires are social pyramids with a narrow top and a broad bottom.
Privilege comes with occupying the top of the pyramid. When we exercise power from a position of privilege, we will condescend at best. At worst, we will exploit and oppress. Privilege, you see, tends to preserve itself.
So Jesus tells us to to be servants. Servants exercise power at the bottom.
The Caesars of the world exercise power from top to bottom, from powerful to powerless. By contrast, servants are equal in their lack of political influence, material wealth, and social standing. They serve their equals as equals.
Servant power is the power of healing instead of exploitation. The power of compassion instead of oppression. This is the power that will establish peace and justice. It’s what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.
The world we inhabit is not yet the Kingdom of Heaven. But when Jesus called Francis to rebuild his house, he was calling all of us to rebuild our world on the foundation of compassion, humility, and equality.
Francis surrendered his privilege in order to exercise power from below. Jesus urges us to unlearn and to relinquish the practices that come with privilege.
Unlearning and relinquishing privilege involves listening to and partnering with those most affected by the advantages we have received simply by the accidents of our family’s economic and social status, our race, and our gender.
This is the Gospel work of reconciliation. The work of repairing Jesus’ house. One stone at a time.