St. Francis of Assisi, life and beliefs


Scripture: Matthew 21: 33-46 Nigel Bunce

Today we celebrate St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226).  But first, I want to speak briefly about today’s Gospel.


The wicked tenants

This parable is the third part of a trilogy about vineyards. Vineyards represent the Promised Land and the people of Israel. Each episode has become more and more pointed. As in last week’s parable of the two sons, God is the owner of the vineyard. God gave – or leased – the people of Israel the Promised Land. But the end of the parable reveals that the wicked tenants are chief priests and the Pharisees. Not the ordinary people of Israel.

The landowner sent slaves to collect the rent, but the tenants beat or killed them. In other words, God sent prophets, but the Jewish leadership ignored them and killed some of them. Finally, the landowner sends his son to collect the harvest. Surely, they will respect my son? But the wicked tenants arrange to kill the son as well. So, what will happen? Answer: the wicked tenants get thrown out and the landlord leases the vineyard to new and better tenants.

Christian tradition in a nutshell

God sends his Son to Israel. But the Temple leadership arranges to have him killed. So, what will happen? The Jewish leaders lose their authority, and Judaism gives way to Christianity (better tenants). My question is this. How much of this parable is Jesus’ original story, and how much is Matthew’s editorialising?

There must be a bit of both. We can understand that Jesus foresaw his likely crucifixion. But by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, the Romans had destroyed the Jewish temple. And with it, traditional Jewish worship. As well, the split between Judaism and emerging Christianity was under way. So Matthew saw that as a “victory” of Christianity over Judaism.

Whatever Jesus might have said fifty years earlier, Matthew would surely have updated the story. So we can’t know how much of it is Jesus’ words. But I note that, even fifty years on, Matthew still reported that Jesus died due to political intrigue, not the sins of the whole world.

St. Francis’ early life

Francis was the son of a wealthy family in the Italian city-state of Assisi. In his early life, he was a playboy, and later, a soldier. A serious illness around 1204 stopped the partying. He made a pilgrimage to Rome. When he returned home, he worked in a leper colony.

St. Francis’ call to follow Jesus

Later, while he was praying in a ruined chapel, he heard Jesus say, “Rebuild my church”. He took the vision literally. He sold almost everything he owned, and began repairing the walls of the little church. Somewhat later, Francis heard a sermon in which Jesus told his disciples to go out to villages and preach the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. They had to cure the sick and cleanse the lepers. But they must take no money or even extra sandals or clothes with them [Matthew Chapter 10].

Francis took a vow of extreme poverty, so as to and imitate Jesus’ instructions. Gradually, followers joined him. They went to Rome, where Francis petitioned the Pope to call them an order of friars – that is, travelling monks, not ordained priests.

As a group, the Franciscans took Jesus’ instructions to be impoverished and itinerant preachers very literally. But central to Francis’ life were his respect for the Eucharist, and for the priests who handled the sacred elements.

St. Francis the animal lover

St. Francis of Assisi, painted by an unknown artist, from

Popular imagination overlooks most of this. It remembers St Francis mainly for his love of animals. We recognize St Francis today as the patron saint of animals, and also of the environment. In one of the many legends about Francis and animals, Francis and his companions were sitting down in the countryside. Francis began to preach to the birds, using Jesus’ sayings “Do not worry” [Matthew 6: 25-34].

He said, “My sister birds, you owe so much to God. He gave you freedom to fly through the sky. God has clothed you. You do not sow or reap, yet he feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains to drink. You have mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. Therefore, you must always and everywhere sing your songs to praise him.”

St. Francis and creation theology

Two thousand years before St. Francis, psalms such as Psalm 19 and 148 had celebrated the glory of the created world and God’s role as the Creator. I imagine Francis reciting Psalm 148 as he went about his daily work – “Praise God, sun and moon; praise him, you shining stars; praise him fire and hail, snow and frost. Praise him, mountains and all trees, deep seas and all fish, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds; young men and women alike; young and old together!”

Francis’ own psalm is called the “Canticle of the Creatures”. It refers to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” the wind and water, and even “Sister Death.” But it also expressed his deep sense of brotherhood under God for his fellow men. “He considered someone to be no friend of Christ if they did not cherish those for whom Christ died.” 

St. Francis in church life today

In his love of the natural world, Francis recaptured some of the ideas of Celtic Christianity, which conventional Roman Catholicism had long since expunged. These ideas seem to resurface every few hundred years. We happen to be living in such a time right now. That’s why pet blessings are now traditional celebrations on St. Francis’ Day (but not this year, alas!).

Among our modern debts to St. Francis the Christmas nativity scene. Francis was the first person to have placed a nativity scene in church to re-enact the birth of Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. He set up the manger between a real ox and a real donkey, to let people imagine the scene directly. Our annual “On the way to Bethlehem” outdoor pageant that Milton’s churches present each year is a direct descendant of what St Francis did.

Modern Franciscans still take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. They wear brown robes, and a rope belt around the waist. Today, Franciscans use the phrase “alternative orthodoxy” to differentiate themselves from traditional church doctrine. Orthodoxy means “right belief”. Their “alternative orthodoxy” is called “orthopraxy”. That means “right actions” or “right living”. In other words, how you live your life is more important than what you say you believe.. I think that Francis would approve. I certainly do.