Monday, April 29, 2024

A popular misquote. . .

A very popular quote attributed to St. Francis is:  "Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words."  The only problem is that the quote cannot be found in his works or his rule.  It just might be the most often-quoted saying of folks within the church today. While intended to support the idea that words should not be alone but in cooperation with works, it has passed into our phrase book as a way of presuming that the Gospel can be preached without words. It is attributed to St Francis of Assisi and sounds like our stereotype of him because of his concern for love for creation and for the downtrodden.  The problem is that he did not say it.  Facts seldom get in the way of our positions or our arguments so that in and of itself will probably not deter those who quote this fake quote. 

Francis did write, in his Rule of 1221: "All the Friars... should preach by their deeds," but this is within the context of the problem of hypocrisy -- when words and deeds are not together or in conflict or only one of exists -- echoing the words of St. James. Faith without works is dead.  But it does not at all accord with what we know of Francis to suggest that one can or should preach the Gospel without words.  It is certainly an effective sound byte but, like all such phrases, is not merely ripe for overuse but wrongly used.  The Gospel, herein meaning the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen, can only happen with words.  Such preaching is not in competition with acts of mercy anymore than acts of mercy or love are in competition with the words of the Christian kerygma.

It is a fallacy of the modern age that words somehow interfere with or agitate against the practice of love for what God made and who God made.  The whole thing is right up there with the suspicion and dismissal of doctrine itself as opposed to love.  But most of all it exposes the confusion of what it meant by the Gospel.  While it is certainly true that the etymology of the word means good news, the Christian Gospel is not simply good news.  It is the specific good news of the incarnation of our Savior, His holy life that accords righteous for us sinners, His suffering and death that pays once for all sin's debt, and His resurrection from the dead that has the power to raise up all the dead who believe in Him.  You cannot preach this Gospel without words.  It is a foolish straw man to set up words and love in opposition anymore than faith and piety become enemies.  It is a lovely sentiment to those who want the Gospel to be generic good news but it is the antithesis of what the New Testament says.

Sure actions are important.  James is spot on.  Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.  Heart and hands are together.  Words and deeds are together.  Liturgically, ceremonies are not a substitute for the Word but the Word lived out.  When we bend the knee we do so remembering Him to whom every knee shall bow.  The goofiness of modern Christianity is that this old and apocryphal saying attributed to St. Francis epitomizes what is wrong with modern Christianity.  The love is not real love and the preaching is not real preaching.  There is no love in telling a sinner their sins are not real sins and there is no preaching without speaking of sin and redemption and the cross.  This meager blog will not stop the egregious use of this false quote nor will it give pause to those who love without Christ and preach without the cross.  But there is no reason for Christians to be tempted by this old canard.  It is a very catchy idea but it comes with a very dangerous risk.  It might seem to be very Christian not to have to talk out loud about what we believe and confess but it is clear from Scripture that God does not want our family and friends to feel the love alone.  The Lord wants them to know Jesus Christ and the power of His death and resurrection to bestow forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation upon them.  By the way, it is the same dead end to try and pit Word against Sacrament as if there was a competition there either.  What fools we are.  But if we are fools, at least let us be fools for Christ.

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