Journey thru John, Chapter 10: Laying Down One’s Life

When Jesus uses parables to teach, He is inviting his listeners, then and now, to enter a scene.  The opportunity such a gospel passage presents becomes double layered.  You have the ability to first enter and watch Jesus teach, and then you have the ability to enter the parable as well, to also be present in that setting. 

In this chapter, the initial scene includes a divided group of Jews, some of whom think Jesus is possessed by demons, others who argue the opposite.  Enter that scene and imagine the discussion between the Jews and use it to review the teaching of Jesus.

Can you empathize with why some would think him demon possessed, even if you don’t want to?  Is there something to be learned by being able to put yourself in those shoes, even if ultimately you disagree?  Can you also empathize with those who find wisdom in the teaching of Jesus?  Try and see both sides in order to experience the scene more fully.

After doing that, challenge yourself to enter deeper, to the second level, in order to experience the parable fully as well.

Do you know what a sheepfold from the time of Jesus looked like?  Check the picture at the top of the post. Note the typical layout of a sheepfold. The walls are built of stone and have a single opening.  Generally, the opening has neither a gate nor a door built in it.  It’s just an open passage.

Look closer.  Note the shepherd lying in the doorway, perhaps asleep.  In the time of Jesus, the pen openings were designed to be just large enough for a shepherd to lie across.  He would sleep in that space and would become the actual door.  The sheep would not be able to leave the pen without crossing over him and waking him up.  Nor would a predator be able to enter without him being aware.

Go back to the gospel and reread verse 9.  Jesus says “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

Take the image and pray over the parable and that verse in particular.  Do they lend added meaning to what Jesus is teaching?  Do you see how he could be “the gate” in a deeper way than you might have otherwise imagined?

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John Chapter 10, Verses 14-15:

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

In verses 11 through 18, Jesus says some version of the words “lay down my life” five times.  Five times in seven verses.  Do you think that might be important?

Do you think you already know what it means?  Does it have only one meaning, one layer?  Take time to ponder those questions for a moment while also thinking about the life of Francis. How might Francis have construed this phrase? 

The obvious interpretation centers on the Cross. 

At the beginning of the chapter, we clearly identify with being Jesus’ sheep.  We listen to His voice.  He calls us by name.  We follow Him out.  He gives us life in full.

We accept unflinchingly the assertion that He is the Good Shepherd.  When He shifts to speaking about laying down His life for the sheep, we understand that He is talking about laying down His life for us.  We understand implicitly that the sacrifice Jesus made by accepting and embracing the Cross “of His own accord” is a fulfillment of this section of the gospels.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life so that we might be saved.  The Good Shepherd calls every flock and invites them all to follow His voice.  No one is excluded from the salvific act of laying down His life.  All are eligible to be saved if they are willing to follow Him in and out of the gate that is also Him.

When, later in the chapter, Jesus says “the reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again,” we can fit that into the narrative of the Cross as well.  Taking His life back up is a clear reference to the Resurrection.  He takes His life back up and takes His seat at the right hand of the Father, and from there He continues to intercede for us in the hope that all of His sheep will be saved.

We know that one of the defining characteristics of Francis is his devotion to following the example of Jesus.  He sets out not only to follow the instructions of Jesus in the gospels, but to live his life on a day to day basis in the same earthly manner that Jesus did.  The desire to not just follow teaching, but to emulate lifestyle, is defining for Francis, and also for us as people who profess to live according to his charism.

The obvious question is this:

Did Francis “lay down his life” in some fashion in imitation of Christ? 

He didn’t suffer the Cross as Jesus did.  He did experience the stigmata.  Was that an act of laying down his life? 

Or did Francis accomplish this in some other fashion?  Did he, perhaps, make a fundamental choice that allowed him to live out this example of Jesus on a continual basis for his entire public life?

Think again.  Is there another way, an expanded way, to define “laying down one’s life” that Jesus accomplished and that Francis was able to emulate? 

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 At the end of the first volume of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, there is a work entitled The Sacred Exchange between Saint Francis and Lady Poverty.  The author is unknown and the date of its composition is debated by scholars. 

The work is an allegory based on an imagined encounter between St. Francis and Lady Poverty.  At the end of the prologue, the beginning of the journey of Francis in search of this encounter is described like this:

At the beginning of his conversion, therefore, blessed Francis, as the Savior’s true imitator and disciple, gave himself with all eagerness, all longing, all determination to searching for, finding, and embracing holy poverty.

I just asserted that one of the defining characteristics of Francis was his devotion to following the example of Jesus.  Here that assertion is confirmed as Francis is defined as the “true imitator and disciple” of Christ.

Take a moment to look into your own heart.  Have you accepted and begun to enact this principle in your own Franciscan journey?  Decide for yourself whether or not this part of your Franciscan vocation needs to broadened. Is this an area of your profession that could benefit from some conversion?

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Francis begins his search by asking anyone he encounters if they know where he can find “her whom his soul loved.”  The problem was, no one understood what he was talking about.  “That saying was hidden from them.”  No one wanted to talk about Poverty because “they hated it with a vengeance.”

Francis decides to go and ask the wisest men he can find about Poverty.  Unfortunately, he gets an even more harsh response from them.  They also would not talk with him about Poverty, instead preferring to “enjoy delights and to abound in riches for the duration of their lives.”

Francis prayed to God that he be preserved from their counsels.  He left the city and in a nearby field encountered “two old men wasted away from great sorrow.”  When he spoke to them and asked where Lady Poverty could be found, they told him “she has now gone up to a great and high mountain where God has placed her.”  Hearing this, Francis “chose some faithful companions for himself with whom he hurried to the mountain.”

Although most who tried to ascend the mountain had failed, Francis and his group succeed with an ease that astonishes Lady Poverty, who watches their assent from the top of the mountain.  They gain the encounter they are looking for and begin to speak with Lady Poverty. 

She asks them the reason for their coming.  Francis replies by saying “we wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts.”

And then he describes Jesus in these terms:

For He, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Creator of heaven and earth, desired your splendor and beauty.  Even though the king was reclining at table, rich and glorious in his kingdom, he left his house and gave up his inheritance: for there were glory and riches in his house.  And so, coming from his royal throne, he sought you with the greatest courtesy.

How great must be your dignity, then, and how beyond compare your stature! He left behind all the ranks of angels and the immense powers – of which there is a great abundance in heaven – when he came to look for you in the lowest regions of the earth — ……………….

I asked you to consider whether or not there was another potential interpretation of the phrase “laying down one’s life.”  Francis could not directly imitate Jesus on the Cross, but he still needed a way to imitate this part of Christ’s sojourn on earth.

Read again the words “he left his house and gave up his inheritance” and “he left behind all the ranks of angels and the immense powers.”  They describe Jesus’ decision to come to earth, not as God, but as a man, into a situation of Poverty, not wealth. 

But they also describe Francis.  Francis left behind his own inheritance and worldly power when he walked away from his father and embraced his own life’s version of Poverty.

Before Jesus ever laid down His life on the Cross for His sheep, He had to lay down His divinity in order to come among us in the first place.  That initial laying down by Jesus is what makes the ultimate laying down of His life on the Cross possible.  When He sets aside His divinity, He holds nothing back.  He rejects all of His divine power and embraces Poverty in its place.  Jesus comes into the world not as an earthly king, but as a carpenter’s son born of a poor virgin in a stable.  As we have seen in previous chapters, He rejects all “worldly” riches and glory.  Instead, he takes Lady Poverty as His companion for the full duration of His stay on earth.

Francis did not have divinity to lay down, but he did have earthly riches and glory to lay down.  By rejecting the life his father offered him, he “laid down his life,” choosing, just as Jesus did, a life with Lady Poverty as his spouse in determined imitation of his Lord.    

In the allegory, before Francis is done praising Poverty, he reinforces this theme again:

For before he came to earth from his radiant homeland, you prepared an appropriate place for him, a throne upon which he would sit and a dwelling place in which he would rest, that is, a very poor virgin from whom his birth would shine upon the world.  At his birth you certainly greeted him with faithfulness so that in you, not in luxuries, he would find a place that would please him.  He was placed in a manger, the Evangelist said, because there was no room for him in the inn.  Thus, always inseparable from him, you accompanied him so that throughout his life, when he was seen upon the earth and conversed with human beings, while the foxes have dens and the birds of the air nests, he nevertheless had nowhere to lay his head.  Then, when he opened his own mouth to teach — he who once had opened the mouths of prophets –among the many things he uttered, he first of all praised you, he first of all exalted you: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus leaves behind His “radiant homeland” and His ability to “open the mouths of prophets” in order to dwell within “a very poor virgin,” who “places him in a manger.”  In His public life, he “had nowhere to lay his head” and His very first act is to proclaim “blessings on the poor in spirit. “

God lays down all His heavenly power in order to dwell amongst men in a state of complete Poverty.  This is the example He gives us.

In the best imitation he can achieve, Francis lays down his life, which consists of all his desire for all “worldly” wealth and power, in order to also dwell amongst men in a state of complete Poverty. 

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It is tempting to think that we should embrace Poverty so that we won’t be distracted by the things of the world and thus lose focus on what really matters, our relationship with God.

Or perhaps we think we should embrace Poverty so that we can use our resources to lift up those who, for whatever reason, can’t lift up themselves and need our help.

These are valid reasons, but they aren’t the only reasons, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Paragraph 10 of the SFO Rule says this:

               Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ ………

As we read the Gospels, we want to pay attention to the teachings of Jesus.  We need to learn the lessons and apply them to our everyday lives.

But, as Franciscans, we also need to acknowledge the need Francis felt to imitate Christ in the way He actually lived His earthly life.  Francis chose a life of Poverty not so much because he wanted to avoid distraction or to help others, but because he looked at the Gospels and found in them the unavoidable conclusion that Jesus lived an earthly life devoted to Poverty.  Jesus told us “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but then He backed up those words completely by the way He chose to live while He abided here amongst us.  He Himself was truly “poor in spirit” just like He calls us to be.

When Jesus speaks about laying down His life for us, His sheep, it is not just about laying down His human life.  Jesus laid down everything He had, including His very divinity, in order to save us.  

Francis knew this.  He did not have divinity to lay down, but he still had the ability to imitate Jesus because he still could choose to lay down everything he had.  He chose Lady Poverty as his spouse and lived the ideal of Poverty so very strictly because that was how he interpreted what it meant to give all in imitation of Christ.

That is what constituted “laying down his life” for Francis. 

We are the sheep of Jesus, but we are also the sheep of Francis.  Francis also laid down his life so that we could be saved.  He set his own example so that we might follow it as we strive for the salvation that Jesus earned for us by laying down both His divinity and His life.

The greatest example that Francis set, the most sure thing we can do as sheep listening to his voice, is to follow him in his attempt to emulate and imitate Jesus. 

The rule does not say, “follow the poor Francis.”

It says, “follow the poor and crucified Christ.”

The reason it says that is because that is what Francis strove to do with his entire life.

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