Journey thru John, Chapter 7: Defining the Word “World”

St. Francis by Albert Chevallier Taylor (1898)

Placing yourself in the scene for this chapter is perhaps especially important.  The tension between Jesus and the Jews is building throughout the chapter.  If you were a critic reviewing a novel, you would be congratulating the author on how superbly he uses this chapter to develop the main conflict of the story.

“The Jews were waiting to take his life.” 

“……the Jews were watching for him……”

“At this they tried to seize him.”

“……the Pharisees sent temple guards to try and arrest him.”

“Some wanted to seize him,……”

“You mean he has deceived you also?”

As the chapter unfolds, try and occupy each location.  Observe the attitude of the people toward Jesus.  Observe Jesus himself.  There is confusion surrounding Jesus.  Some give Him the benefit of the doubt.  Some do not and are quick to condemn Him.  What are their motivations?  Why are so many so prone to assume the worst?

Try and let go of what you know as an observer looking back from the future.  Watch Jesus in the moment.  Which side do you fall on?  Is He a prophet?  Is He the Christ?  What is your criteria?  Is your mind open, or closed?  Are you arrogant, or humble?

The context indicates that Jesus does not seem to fulfill the prophecies correctly because he comes from Galilee.  Is that a conclusive argument or do His works and His teaching leave you wondering?  Is there something you don’t know, a piece of the puzzle that you must be missing? 

Are you one who has made up his mind, or are you one who is still discerning?

—————————-

John Chapter 7, Verse 7:

“The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Read the verse again.  Do you recognize something odd about it?  What does the word “world” mean in this verse?

As Franciscans, we view creation in an entirely positive light.  Article 18 of our Rule tells us to “strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship.”  We believe the Creator is present in every aspect of His Creation.  Creation speaks to us about the nature of the Creator, about His Goodness and the Love that motivated His decision to create.  Because the Creator is present in His Creation, it would be sinful to exploit that Creation for our own purposes.  Kinship means that as we move through Creation and take what we need from it, we do so with an attitude of respect.  The Will of the Creator informs us as we interact with His Creation.

The word “world” is often used as a synonym for Creation in this context.  In everyday discussion we would be more likely to say “we move through the world with an attitude of respect” than “we move through Creation with an attitude of respect.” 

But when Jesus uses the word “world” in this verse, the context is surely changed.  He has given the “world” human qualities.  The “world” hates.  The “world” takes actions that are evil.  The Creation of article 18 of the Rule would be incapable of doing this.  It is solely positive.  Hate and evil are negative, alien to its nature. 

Something different is happening here.  The word “world” means something else entirely as Jesus has used it here.   

—————————-

Article 11 of the Rule says this:

Trusting in the father, Christ chose for himself a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly.  Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs.  Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.  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.

First, note that a form of the word “Creation” appears here.  The response to Creation is consistent.  Jesus “values” and “loves” Creation.  

The word “world” does not appear, but a synonym for it does.  I had to read the Rule several times before it struck me.  If, like me, you did not catch it the first time through, I would invite you to read it again.

The word we are looking for is temporal.  Substitute the word “worldly” for the word “temporal” in the second sentence and we begin to get our first glimpse into the context in which Jesus used the word “world” in this verse. 

It’s a little unfortunate (at least for my purposes) that the word “temporal” is followed by the word “goods.”  I say that because, after reflecting on this verse, I think that the word “goods” unnecessarily limits our detachment.  But the good news is that our detachment is expanded by the end of the article.  I would suggest you insert the word “temporal” or “worldly” into that last sentence and read it like this:  “…… they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for worldly possession and power.”    

Now, perhaps, we begin to get a more complete understanding of where Jesus is coming from.  Goods still do not possess the ability to hate or be evil.  But men, when they yearn for possession and power, not only possess that ability but forcefully tend toward it.  The word “world,” as used by Jesus in this verse, has to be understood in reference to human beings and their sinfulness, particularly when that sinfulness is associated with the yearning for possession and power.

This article is actually a little odd on the surface.  There is the potential for contradiction in the instructions it gives us.  It asks us to value and love Creation.  We are expected to be attentive to it.  Clearly the impetus for a positive embrace of Creation as defined above is there.  But at the same time, we are also expected to move through Creation as pilgrims and strangers.  It is not our destination.  Our home is elsewhere, with the Father.  We are expected to keep a certain distance, a certain detachment.  Interaction with Creation in the wrong way can cause the need to purify our hearts.   

That potential for contradiction is resolved when a clear distinction between Creation and “world” is established.  Creation is understood in reference to God.  The “world,” as it is used by Jesus in this verse, is understood in reference to men and their capacity for sinfulness when respect for Creation is forgotten.

We are meant to embrace the goodness of God during our journey through Creation.  We are meant to reject the sin of the “world” during that same journey.

—————————-

This context for the word “world” is also apparent in the source materials on the life and history of St. Francis.  In fact, if you were to review Volume 4 of the Early Documents, the Index, you would find that nearly two full pages are devoted to the word “world” in the Index of Subjects.  Not all the references apply specifically to this context, but many do.

The opening paragraph of The Testament says this:

The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way:  for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them.  And when I left them, what seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.  And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.

When Francis says he “left the world,” does he mean that he left Creation?  Of course not.   His entire life from this point forward speaks to how much he valued and loved Creation. 

So, what does it mean then for him to say he “left the world?”  If he said instead that he “delayed a little and left behind all yearning for possession and power,” does that make more sense?  Of course it does, because that is exactly what he did. 

Note the overall Franciscan themes that are present.  As the prologue to the Rule says, we are called to be people who “produce worthy fruits of penance.”  Francis begins The Testament by using penance in the very first sentence.  As Seculars, we are asked to start our commitment with penance because that is exactly the starting point that Francis identified for his journey. 

Paragraph 7 of the Rule tells us to ”conform our thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls conversion.”  Francis relates his own profound experience of conversion as he tells us his “bitterness turned into sweetness.”    

This idea of leaving the “world” is distinctly tied to the greater Franciscan charism.  When we embrace penance, this leads to conversion, which leads to a leaving of the “world.”  The reason this is true is because leaving the “world” is an expression of the Spiritual Poverty that is at the very core of a Franciscan way of life.

In chapter one, I gave you the entire The Praise of Poverty, which is found in Celano’s The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, chapter 25.  Here is the beginning again, to the place where the word “world” occurs, which suits the needs of this chapter.

Placed in a vale of tears the blessed father scorned the usual riches of the children of men as no riches at all and, eager for higher status, with all his heart, he coveted poverty. Realizing that she was a close friend of the Son of God, but nowadays an outcast throughout the whole world, ……………..

Would it makes sense for Francis to be asserting that Poverty was an outcast throughout the entirety of Creation?  Again, of course not.  But it does make sense to say that Poverty is an outcast among men who have as their first concern a sinful “yearning for possession and power.”  Whenever the context endows the “world” with the ability to be hateful or evil, or whenever the context has to do with ‘leaving the world,” the words and ideas must be associated with the sinful acts of men who place “worldly concerns” before the Will of God (as revealed in part by His Creation) in their decision making process.

To let our will go in favor of God’s Will is the culmination of Franciscan Spiritual Poverty.  Remember that the goal of Francis (and thus our goal) is to draw as close to God as we can and to serve Him by doing his Will as ably as we can.  We do this first and foremost by setting our will aside while embracing His. 

There are multiple places where the documents put leaving the “world” exactly into this context.  Often, when the “world” is left behind it is associated with coming closer to God.

At the very end of Chapter 6 of The Anonymous of Perugia, we find this:

They were constantly rejoicing, for they had nothing that could disturb them.  The more they were separated from the world, the more they were united to God.  These men entered upon a narrow and rough trail.  They broke up the rocks, trampled down the thorns, and so have left us, their followers, a smooth path.

First there is Poverty, both in terms of goods and desires.  “They had nothing that could disturb them.”  This Poverty becomes synonymous with separation from the world.  Leaving the world is an embrace of Poverty which involves leaving behind the yearning for both power and possessions.  That separation from the world, that embrace of Poverty, then leads to unification with God.

The same theme occurs in chapter three of The Legend of the Three Companions

From that very hour he began to consider himself of little value and to despise those things which he had previously held in love.  Since he was not entirely detached from worldly vanities, this change was not yet perfect.  He retired for a short time from the tumult and business of the world and was anxious to keep Jesus Christ in his inmost self, and, after selling all he had, he desired to buy the pearl, concealing it from the eyes of mockers.

Francis is working on rejecting the things of the “world” he previously embraced.  He yearns to retire from the “world” to spend time with Jesus “in his inmost self.”  Note that Francis is in a state of transition here.  His imperfect detachment means imperfect conversion.  It’s heartening to me to know that his conversion took time.  I still have a chance. 

Do you see the equivalency between “selling all he had” and embracing poverty?  Do you recognize the pearl to be closeness to God?  Do you recognize the mockers as those sinful men of the world who yearn for power and possessions?

At the opening of chapter seven of The Legend of the Three Companions, directly after Francis strips himself naked in order to give even his clothes back to his earthly father (who expresses a certain yearning for worldly power and possessions in how he deals with his son), Francis is farther along.

Therefore, Francis, the servant of God, stripped of all that is of the world, is free for divine justice and, despising his own life, he gives himself to divine service in every way he can.

The embrace of poverty is complete.  “Stripped of all that is of the world,” he is therefore stripped of all yearning for power and possession.  The culmination of this path then is not just proximity to God, but the ability to love and serve God freely.  In an echo of the gospel call to give up one’s life in order to save it, “despising his own life” is understood to be the equivalent of a full embrace of Spiritual Poverty. 

Once again there is a bit of paradox.  We do not despise our creation.  Just as we value and love and respect Creation as a whole, we respect our own individual creation as the most astonishing act that a loving God could undertake.  We are grateful beyond measure for the life that God has graced us with.  What we despise is that part of our life that leads to separation from the loving God who created us.  We despise our tendency toward sin, our tendency to yearn for the power and possession that we now know as the definition of the word “world” as Jesus uses it in the verse we started with.

The trail through the Franciscan charism is a little clearer now.  Penance leads to conversion.  Conversion leads to leaving the “world.”  Leaving the “world” is an embrace of Poverty on both the material and Spiritual levels.  That Poverty leads to closeness with God.  That closeness empowers us in the battle to leave sin behind so that we might become more flawless servants of God.

But, of course, we are imperfect in fulfilling these steps.  We move back and forth, sometimes gaining, sometime losing, but hopefully always filled with a different kind of yearning, a yearning that is centered on becoming more like Jesus and more like Francis.  The yearning for worldly power and possession is replaced by a yearning for perfect and complete Poverty so that we might do His Will as completely as we possibly can.

—————————

Go back to the scene, but this time, instead of trying to forget the future and dwell in the past, do the opposite.  Bring the scene into the current culture that we live in.  Read the quotes again.  Can you hear them being spoken now?  Read the verse from Jesus again.  Can you hear Him speaking now?

Does the confusion about Jesus still exist today?  Are there still many people trying to decide if He is a prophet, or the Christ, or someone who should be arrested and put to death?

Are the Jews who wanted to reject and arrest Him still essentially present today in different guise?

Does “the world” still hate Jesus today?  Is Jesus still testifying today that “those who yearn for worldly power and possessions” are doing evil?  

I asked if your approach to answering the questions from the scene would be open or close minded, if you would be arrogant or humble.  I would guess that you knew the right answers to those questions when I asked them.  We have to be open minded and humble when we approach these kind of questions.  There is always more for us to know, more for us to discern. 

But did you understand that the questions were not hypothetical?  They weren’t being asked about a situation from ancient history.  That situation is present to us today and we have to decide how to react to it now, in our lives.

Just as those questions are current now, they were also current at the time of Francis.  Maybe he didn’t address them consciously, but he did address them in “the religion” that he established.  His way of life was a proper response for him then and it is a proper response for us now.

What are we to do?

To recap one final time in closing:

As Franciscans, our charism calls on us to reply to this never ending tension between “world” and Creation and the Will of God by following the example of our Father Francis, who in turn was following the example of Jesus.  We should:

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to proximity to Jesus and God.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

We cannot say when the tension might end.  That time is only known to God.  But if we succeed in following the example of Francis, we might at least hope to play some small role in making that end possible.

4 thoughts on “Journey thru John, Chapter 7: Defining the Word “World”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: