Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way.
Into whatever house you enter, first say,
'Peace to this household.'
As he waited for God to give him further direction, Saint Francis attended a weekday mass and heard this or a similar gospel passage. Afterward, he asked the priest what it meant. The young man knew his Assisan dialect of Italian well enough but could only pick up snatches of the ancient Latin language. In the priest's proclamation, however, he heard something fascinating.
When it was translated he burst out with, "This is what I want, this is what I desire with all my heart." He immediately kicked off his sandals and exchanged his belt for a rope. He would never carry provisions as he travelled, relying always on the mercy of God and the kindness of strangers
To his delight and universal amazement Francis prospered in his poverty. He was never wealthy, of course; he consistently refused gifts or immediately gave them to others. When he worked at menial tasks he accepted only food for pay, and perhaps a shelter during the stormy nights.
But he found the abundance that Isaiah describes so graphically in our first reading:
Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts! For thus says the LORD: Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.God had chosen Saint Francis as an instrument to redirect the course of world history. The less the Poverello claimed for himself the more apparent would be God's guiding hand.
More than a thousand years before Saint Francis, Paul of Tarsus set out on the same road of poverty. Travelling from city to city with little more than a rucksack with tent-making tools, he could not be bothered with stuff. His only wealth would be the cross:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.In the Roman world there was no shortage of crosses to which he might point as he spoke of Jesus. The Romans used crucifixion to subjugate and terrorize cities and nations; there were dying men at the entrance of every major city.
Perhaps Paul's message was undermined by these horrible demonstrations. Would anyone honor a crucified criminal? But it was precisely that poverty of demonstration -- an absurdity to Greeks and a scandal to Jews -- that made his preaching effective. It was in the abasement of his Son that God raised a fallen world, as we hear in today's collect.
The Church will always be tempted to abandon the message of the cross for more palatable ways to attract men and women to Christ. But we will never find a more effective sign than this sign of contradiction.