Journey thru John, Chapter 5: Obedience and Spiritual Poverty

For this chapter, it seemed to me that the best time to ask you to enter the scene was not at the beginning of my reflection, but at the end.  Hopefully that makes sense after you’re done reading.

If you already did your reflection based on your own, that’s great.  It’s what you are supposed to do.  Maybe you will decide to enter the scene again if my suggestion is different than your initial inspiration.

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John Chapter 5, Verse 30:

“I can do nothing on my own.  As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

When I think of Jesus conforming himself to the will of God, I generally think of Jesus at the end, in the garden, when He says to God, “take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.”  That scene appears in the three synoptic gospels, but not in the gospel of John.  Instead, in this gospel we hear about conforming to the will of God in the context of the theme of judgment which runs through this entire chapter. 

The chapter opens with “the Jews” judging Jesus.  They persecute Jesus because He is healing on the Sabbath and because He “was calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”  As Jesus responds, the table turns and by the end it is Jesus doing the judging.  The verse above is the pivot point, the foundation of Jesus’ argument.  Jesus is an able judge because He is executing the Will of God.  “The Jews,” on the other hand, make failed judgments about Jesus because their judgment is based not on the Will of God, but on their own human concerns.  What they want most is not what God wants, but to preserve what they want (their earthly power) from the threat that Jesus represents to it. 

This is the opposite of spiritual poverty.  They don’t accept Jesus for who He is, despite the clear signs He gives them, because to do so would require them to suppress the desire to act according to their own willfulness for their own comfort and gain. 

It is actually the first sentence of the verse that makes everything else possible.  In order for Jesus to do God’s will, he must first acknowledge the ineptness of His human side.  In the statement “I can do nothing on my own,” He is acknowledging the need for all humanity to rely on God instead of on itself.  Without acknowledging the need to set aside our own will and dwell in the desire of God, it is impossible for us to aspire to such lofty heights as just judgement.

The chapter is about the power of obedience.  Jesus is who He is because He is obedient to the Will of God at all times in all things.  That obedience is the essence of the perfection of Jesus.  His example informs us that obedience does not begin with an assent to the exterior Will of God, but rather by an embrace of poverty that manifests itself as a denial of our own often flawed human wills.  The declaration by Jesus that “He can do nothing on his own” is the font of His power.  As happens over and over again with God, it is the act of rejecting power that grants power.

The chapter is also about the power of spiritual poverty, a concept that is vital within the Franciscan charism.  The reality of human nature expressed by the words “I can do nothing on my own” makes spiritual poverty indispensable to a well ordered life.  Hubris is always in conflict with the reality that our weakness, ignorance and frailty define us.  Denial of our own will in favor of God’s Will and the rejection of the pretense of individual personal power is the essence of spiritual poverty. 

Obedience and spiritual poverty are intimately linked.  You cannot have one without the other.

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The SFO Rule grounds itself precisely in these two closely related ideals.  In article ten, we read this:

“United themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father’s hands,…………….”

And then in the very next paragraph, this:

“Thus, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.”

In other words, as a Franciscan I should act exactly the opposite of how “the Jews” acted in this chapter.  Instead of seeking to preserve my earthly desires by disputing with Jesus, I should instead embrace the example of poverty that Jesus gives not only in this verse, but throughout the gospels.  By setting aside “the tendency and yearning for possession and power,” I can do what the Jews refused to do, accept Jesus for who He really is and obey Him.

If I create space for God in my heart through that embrace of poverty, that acceptance of Jesus, this empowers my ability to obey.  I can imitate “the redemptive obedience” of Jesus by “placing my will into the Father’s hands” and thereby work my way toward becoming a better, more complete and truer disciple.  I am fully human, so my judgement will never be perfected as Jesus’ was, but if I am intentional about my pursuit of poverty and obedience, I can make steady progress.  That steady progress then fulfills a need and desire for conversion that is also crucial to the Franciscan charism.

Paragraph seven tell us that:

“Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.”

It is the Franciscan foundation of spiritual poverty and obedience as expressed by Jesus with the words “I can do nothing on my own” that makes this daily conversion possible.  If I embrace those words, I can reject earthly power and become powerful in the pursuit of conversion at the same time.

Such is the mystery, majesty, importance and force of a Franciscan immersion in the gospels. 

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Obedience was important enough to Francis that it has first priority in the Rules he wrote and had approved by the Pope for his brothers.  The Prologue for the Earlier Rule ends like this:

Brother Francis – and whoever is head of this religion – promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Innocent and his successors.  Let all the brothers be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.

Chapter One then begins:

The rule and life of these brothers is this, namely: ”to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own,” and to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, ………

 The Later Rule combines these two thoughts in its First Chapter:

The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this:  to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.

Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our Lord Pope Honorius and his successors canonically elected and to the Roman Church.  Let the brothers be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.

Note that the chain of obedience is extended.  Jesus follows the Will of God, the One who sent Him.  Francis now instructs his brothers to follow Jesus in turn, but not just Jesus.  He also pledges himself to follow the Popes and the Church, and that pledge extends to his brothers as well in that chain of obedience, and ultimately to us as his heirs. 

Note also the presence of poverty right alongside obedience.  Hear the echo from the gospel.  Jesus said “I can do nothing on my own.”  Francis wrote “without anything of their own.”  They are the same statement, the same starting point that allows a man or woman to acknowledge his or her true human condition and thereby embrace an obedience to God that makes us whole.

How important was obedience to Jesus to Francis?  Read these words from A Letter to the Entire Order, written most likely on the occasion of the Pope giving the brothers authority to celebrate the Eucharist in their churches, not long after the Later Rule was approved:

Listen, sons of the Lord and my brothers, pay attention to my words.  Incline the ear of your heart and obey the voice of the Son of God.  Observe His commands with your whole heart and fulfill His counsels with a perfect mind.  Give praise to Him because He is good; exalt Him by your deeds; for this reason He has sent you into the whole world: that you may bear witness to His voice in word and deed and bring everyone to know that there is no one who is all powerful except Him.  Persevere in discipline and holy obedience and, with a good and firm purpose, fulfill what you have promised Him.

Note the link between obligation and obedience.  Francis is encouraging his brothers to bear witness but he is telling them that they cannot do so unless they are obedient.  If you pause and think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense.  If I am to spread the Word and the Kingdom of God, how can I do so if my actions are not obedient to that Word and Kingdom?  Our success as disciples inherently requires us to be obedient.  There is no other way.

It’s not labeled an exhortation, but it surely is one.  That exhortation, that task laid on the brothers is directly relevant to us today.  If Francis walked into one of our meetings, he could say these exact same words to us without them losing an ounce of meaning.  The words are as significant today as they were in 1224.  We are persons who have or will soon profess to live according to the example of Francis.  Each one of us is bound by the words “bear witness to His voice in word and deed” as surely as if we were his brothers so long ago. 

Our rule, in paragraph six, supports this:

They have been made living members of the Church by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism; they have been united more intimately with the Church by profession.  Therefore, they should go forth as witnesses and instruments of her mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words.

We are called by our Rule to the exact same task that Francis called his brothers to in this letter.  It’s not something to be taken lightly.  It is a grave and wonderful and ominous and fantastic and scary and glorious responsibility that we have accepted.  I do not know about you, but I am grateful to have partners in the endeavor.  Partners in the fraternity, in the rest of the Franciscan family and in the entire Church.

It is not an accident that Francis called us to obedience to the Church at the same time he was told to rebuild the church directly by God.  The need to rebuild and be obedient at the same time might seem to be contradictory, but it is nothing of the sort.  This is because we need each other.  The church needs our obedient and faithful example to remind her of what she needs to be and encourage her to fulfill her destiny to the world.  We need the Church to support us in our poverty, to constantly remind us through the promulgation of the gospel and the beauty of the liturgy of who the poor, incarnate, crucified Jesus was and continues to be. 

Despite each being imperfect, we are meant to feed off each other, to support and uplift each other.  The best chance to battle those imperfections is to unite, not separate.  Do we think that we could, as individuals, without the assistance of the history and the present leadership of the Church, grasp and remember and witness to even the most basic things we need to know and teach about Jesus?  Would that be the position of a person who “can do nothing on his or her own?”  Francis knew his limitations, knew he would fail without the Church.  That is why he deliberately cast himself as minores, accentuating his dependence.  Obedience to the Church is a requirement of that minority. 

He knew we would need her as much as she would need us.  Francis knew that if we were to ignore the Church, to attempt to do this on our own, we would soon lose our way and become like “the Jews” in this Chapter of John.  Our hubris and our own willfulness would soon have us foundering.  We have to be both the renewers of the Church and obedient to the Church at the same time.  It is our unique role as Franciscans.   

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I would invite you to take on the role of “the Jews” as you read this chapter.  Place yourself in the scene as someone who stands in the way of Jesus, who disputes with Him, who judges Him, who thinks he knows better than Him.  Think about yourself as a person of power in the time of Jesus.  Think about the source of your power and why you desire so strongly to preserve it.  Why is Jesus a threat to you?  Why do you want to bring Him down and do Him harm?  See yourself as a person who wishes to preserve his own earthly desires in opposition to the will of God and the proclamation of the Kingdom.   

Is this who you want to be?

I would then invite you to leave the scene and come back to the present.  Acknowledge the present as a time when many act as those Jews did in the time of Jesus.  The world you live in does everything it can to distract you, to make you one of them.  Where is it succeeding?  Ask yourself, where in my life am I disputing with God, right now?  

Pay special attention to any differences you might have with the Church as you do your self-examination.  Recognize that as a Franciscan, you are pledged to obedience to the Church.  Take that pledge seriously.  Take the time to think the positions of the Church through clearly and completely.  Make sure you understand the reasoning behind the Church’s position.  Seek help understanding them from a spiritual advisor if you’re not sure.  Try and give the Church the benefit of the doubt.  It has thousands of years of experience to pit against your one lifetime.  Make sure that your difference with the Church is not an instance of you imposing your will over hers when hers is in line with the only Will that ultimately matters, the Will of God.

Somewhere in your life, you are holding onto something of your will that is not in accord with God’s Will for your life.  Identify it.  Whatever it is that needs attention, whether it be something to do with the Church or something else entirely, pray to God, to Jesus, to Mary, to Francis and Clare, to help you find the strength to let go of your willfulness and be converted.  Pray that they will help you embrace the spiritual poverty that goes along with letting go of your will.   Pray that they will help you embrace obedience.

Then ask Jesus, Mary, Francis and Clare to pray the Our Father with you. 

As you do so, link it to your Franciscan vocation. Note the word “Our” and the word “Us.”  It is a prayer meant to be said in community with your fraternity, your Franciscan family and your Church.  You support each other as you pray it.  Pledge yourself to be a full member of that community both in rebuilding and obedience.

Acknowledge that “on earth” means you have a personal role to play in bringing His Will forth.  Acknowledge that requests for daily bread and forgiveness are expressions of spiritual poverty.  Jesus could do nothing on his own.  Therefore you must need God to feed and forgive you both literally and spiritually.    

When you pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done,” allow this passage to remind you that this is not just a wide expression of hope for the world, but also a plea for your own personal conversion.  If you want to be led away from temptation, if you want to be delivered from evil, then embrace spiritual poverty and set aside your own will in favor of His. 

Resolve to obey His Will, and thereby keep daily conversion through spiritual poverty at the forefront of your personal awareness.      

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