The Pope's Interview and the Bible
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me.”
In the magnificent interview Antonio Spadaro, S.J. conducted with Pope Francis for America Magazine many aspects of the Pope’s life and mind emerged. Particularly interesting to me was the ways in which Scripture lies as a foundation for his pattern of life and mind. Scripture was not often quoted in the interview, in some ways, I believe, because of how substantial it is as groundwork for who he is. All Popes are immersed in the Gospel and each of them focuses on particular aspects of the Gospel in how they live and in what they teach, which is not to say they ignore the rest, just that all of us have habits of mind. I want to focus on two passages of Scripture that did surface as bedrock for this Pope, one explicitly and one implicitly.
In the section "Who Is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?", Pope Francisspeaks of the call of St. Matthew from the Gospel of Matthew 9:9, the only Gospel which includes the call with the name of Matthew (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27 have the same scene but name the man as Levi). The actual calling is short, one verse:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. 10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Before examining the passage, listen to what the Pope says about it in the context of Caravaggio’s painting of the scene:
“I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. These include the Basilica of St. Mary Major; I always used to go there. I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s...but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
In placing himself in the role of sinner called by God, Pope Francis not only places himself in the role of the Apostle Matthew, but that of every person, all of whom are sinners and all of whom are called by God. In identifying, though, with the sinner he also identifies with Jesus’ mission to call all people to receive God’s mercy without exception. When Jesus ate with “many tax collectors and sinners,” identifying with these outcasts, the religious experts of the day, the Pharisees, and they were both expert and righteous in many respects, were upset: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus’ response is that “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
In identifying with the sinners Pope Francis classifies his primary identity as a person who has been saved by God’s mercy not as a religious expert. He also identifies the primary mission of the Church as reaching out to those who “are sick,” to offer healing to all those in need, modern day “tax collectors and sinners” who might not previously have found a place at the table. This is the act of extending mercy to all.
This leads to the implicit identification of another Gospel passage in the section Church as Field Hospital, though the imagery builds on Matthew 9:9-13 (and parallels) as well, and that is the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37:
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30 Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Again, before examining the passage, here is what Pope Francis said about the Church as field hospital:
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
The Good Samaritan stands as the most likely passage behind this section due to the emphasis on “heal the wounds, heal the wounds” of the “seriously injured person,” “we must heal their wounds” and “we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
The Samaritan comes across a man beaten on the road in Jesus’ parable and he does not ask, “how did you get yourself in this situation?” or “what did you do to deserve this?” or “who are you, a Samaritan or a Jew?” At personal risk to himself, since the robbers could still be present, the Samaritan helps the unknown man without any idea of the situation that lead to this event or the man’s identity. Note again, the religious experts do not stop and help, since they might have pressing responsibilities in the Temple, where Priests and Levites serve the sacrificial system. This is not an indictment, however, of the Jewish religious elite or the Temple service, it is an indictment of any religious elite that would place sacrifice over mercy. Remember Jesus’ command from Matthew 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” The Good Samaritan parable puts into practice Jesus’ command to learn what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means, for at the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer, a religious expert himself, which person had acted like a neighbor in this parable. The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In his words and in his actions, Pope Francis has identified with the sinners and the desire to “Go and do likewise.” He sees the Church’s primary purpose to show abundant mercy to those who are hurt, wounded and lost because that mercy and healing is what he has experienced – “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me” - and because that is what Jesus commanded his disciples to do.
As Pope Francis continued to say, “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
There is a third biblical reference there, Emmaus, from Luke 24, in which Jesus appears to his downtrodden disciples, walking and talking with them, unbeknownst to them. When they recognize who it is, that it is Jesus, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” To recognize Jesus, though, you need an encounter and for that you need an introduction. Mercy seems like a good way to introduce people to Jesus.
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This entry is cross-posted at Bible Junkies