The Prophets, St. Paul, and the Pope
"Prophets aren't always popular. We love Isaiah today, but back then they killed him." (Eric Metaxas)
Rick Warren loves him. Luis Palau has been his friend for decades. Joel Osteen has met with him. So have the folks who own Hobby Lobby. Timothy George, Geoff Tunnicliffe -- these names may not mean much to you, but they're practically evangelical royalty, and they are big fans of the current pope.
This may not seem strange to you, but I grew up in an era when Catholics were the enemy -- unsaved, unwashed idolators with whom we do not fraternize. They wear robes. They burn incense. They speak Latin. They're not to be trusted.
This new, amicable relationship with the head of the Roman Catholic Church is...well...new.
But what's not to love about this guy, really? He embraces people with skin diseases. He washes the feet of the poor. He shuns the Vatican's opulent digs. It's not wonder his approval rating here in America stood at 76% as recently as last year.
His approval rating currently stands at 59%. And I just googled the phrase "pope antichrist" and came up with 1,460,000 results in .36 seconds. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts of people complaining about the pope for every reason imaginable -- from the things he said in his remarks to the things he left out to what he was wearing to the car he rode in to the security detail. You know it, if the Pope does it, someone will complain about it.
I listened to some commentators on CNN today as they watched the pomp and circumstance. They called him "The People's Pope" and remarked at how much he loves to stop the motorcade and physically touch people. One religious expert said Pope Francis is a pastor more than a scholar, and it shows in the way he loves to interact with the crowds and keeps their pastoral care front and center in his homilies.
But here's my take: Pope Francis was a pastor, a shepherd, a wise and caring guide for his people. But he has now begun to take on the voice of a prophet. And that is taking a toll on his popularity.
We tend to think of prophets as people who foretold the future, but that's not the primary role of a prophet. A prophet was called upon to speak the Word of God to the people of God -- usually because the people of God had conveniently forgotten a particular portion of the Word of God. This was rarely a call that was met with rejoicing by the prophet or the prophet's family. People don't always like it when you tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Prophets prompt us to think about uncomfortable things. For example, Pope Francis recently suggested that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth is the "dung of the devil". You read the right: Satan's poop. The unchecked love of money and profit causes us to neglect the poor. That's hard to read when you were born and raised in a capitalist society, but -- if we're going to be honest -- it sounds an awful lot like something St. Paul wrote:
"Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
He also suggested we embrace undocumented workers, which -- if we're going to be honest -- sounds an awful lot like something we read about in the book of Hebrews -- which maybe St. Paul wrote -- maybe not but maybe:
"Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:1-3).
In case you were wondering, the Greek word for "hospitality" is the word philoxenos. That's a compound word meaning "love of (philo) strangers (xenos)". Xenophobia would be the opposite of that word.
Add to that his recent statements about climate change being at least partially caused by humans and...well...that's when the honeymoon with conservative American Christians and the Pope was over. These Pauline remarks did not make the Pope more popular among Bible-believing Christians; they made some people call him a Marxist.
Now, lest I lead you to believe that the Pope has aligned himself with the liberals both theologically and politically, let me hasten to add that he seems to be posturing as an equal-opportunity offender. He is a merciful and gracious Pope, but he still opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and homosexuality.
Hardly a lefty.
Pope Francis makes everybody squirm. I think he might believe that's his job. He's not going to get caught up in right versus left. He's not going to be trapped in a conservative or liberal dichotomy. He's not concerned about popularity. He's concerned with delivering the Word of God to the people of God. He's a prophet now, and prophets inevitably offend everyone. That's why so many of them ended up dead.
I hope this Pope lives a good, long time. And I hope he continues to annoy us all -- left and right, liberal and conservative, foreign and domestic -- calling us all to the place where mercy triumphs over judgment, responsibilities supersede rights, and love covers a multitude of sins.
Photo Credit: Stefan Kunze