The Common Good

On Scripture: An Unexpected Servant -- The Leadership of Pope Francis (Isaiah 49:1-7)

As the New Year brings reflection over the past year, we have heard much about Pope Francis and the ways he has surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The suddenness of his predecessor’s resignation this past spring, the fact that he is the first Pope from the Americas, and his apparent commitment to his namesake St. Francis’ concern for the poor and displaced all contribute to the sense that this Pope embodies the unexpected.

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Pope Francis in a Popemobile on Easter. Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

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Especially indicative of the way this Argentinian, who for a short time was a nightclub bouncer, has surprised people is being named “Person of the Year” by The Advocate, a popular U.S. magazine devoted to gay and lesbian rights, culture, politics, and entertainment. Although he did not (nor will he, likely) reverse the Church’s stance on gay marriage, this accolade was given to the Bishop of Rome based upon his apparent change in tone about gays and lesbians, reportedly having said to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the issue. Clearly, this humble response has endeared the Pontiff to many who have been excluded from the fold, yet still yearn for hints of acceptance.

The period of Epiphany is a time in which the identity of the Divine’s chosen is revealed and often this identity entails some element of surprise. In the same vein, this week’s Old Testament text, Isaiah 49:1-7, highlights the unforeseen nature of the servant who restores Israel. The text of Isaiah gives voice to a servant who has been called by God from within the womb, a place hidden from human eyes. The servant describes himself as one who is strong but has been hidden away: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away” (49:2). Destined to speak words that are sharp and to pierce the depths of God’s enemies, the servant remains unseen and, consequently, one who is capable of surprise and unexpected results.

Written after the time of the Babylonian exile, this portion of what scholars describe as “Second Isaiah” should be read in light of previous chapters in which God works to liberate an exiled Israel through the work of the Persian King, Cyrus. Having conquered Babylon, Cyrus is famous for allowing the exiled people of Israel to return to their lands of origin and sanctioning the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. Given this, Isaiah even describes Cyrus as messianic, as one who is anointed by God (45:1). In Isaiah 49, however, the focus is no longer upon the King, but upon a servant who is described as “Israel.” The one doing God’s work is no longer a man of power and prestige, but a person of humbleness. Moreover, the use of the name “Israel” suggests, according to biblical scholar Brevard Childs, that this one is the “faithful embodiment of the nation.” The one who is one with the people is now the Divine’s “secret weapon.”

Although the servant in Isaiah will restore God’s people on behalf of the Divine, he admits imperfection, something we often do not expect of leaders. “I have labored in vain,” says the servant, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (v. 3).  While this type of humility is a rare sentiment among political leaders today, it seems to be standard operating procedure for Pope Francis, who acknowledges past mistakes, including being too rigid in some of his earlier leadership positions. The humility of Francis, who paid his own hotel bill after being named Pope and who eschews the more opulent garments of his predecessors, contributes to his appeal. His willingness to acknowledge and address some of the sins of the Church, including rampant sexual abuse by priests and the hyper-focus upon the “sins” of gays and lesbians have been similarly unexpected. This personal and institutional modesty appeals to many U.S. Catholics, especially those who had been put off by the seeming arrogance of the Vatican. Reflecting this change, a CNN International Poll released days before Christmas suggested that 88% of U.S. Catholics think Francis is doing a good job in his role as Pope.

While many are surprised and heartened by the new Pope’s humility and compassion, his words have cut others like a sword. This is particularly true of his statements regarding wealth and capitalism and his call for the Church to challenge the structures that foster poverty, views that some critics dismiss as “Marxist.” Still, these words appear to be drawing many, just like the servant in Isaiah who not only restores Israel, gathering those who have been displaced, but who provides a “light to the nations” (v. 6). The salvation of God is taken “to the ends of the earth” according to Isaiah. This is an image of restoration and inclusion. The “nations,” those who might be seen as others and as not belonging to the Divine, are somehow touched by the God’s light through the work of the servant. This does not appear to be an aggressive campaign to incorporate others into Israel or to demand conformity, but a sharing of a gift, something that can be received or not received on the other’s own terms.

Again, this resonates with the surprising image of the new Pope, as one who reaches out to those who might be “othered” in some way. Thus, we see images of the Pontiff embracing a man with facial tumors and hear stories of him hosting homeless men to a dinner on his own birthday and handing out phone cards so that refugees might call loved ones and family. Francis, it seems, is a man who leads with love.

Of course, there are limits to what the Pope can do, as he is bound to centuries of tradition. For instance, while he may change the Church’s tone toward gays and lesbians as individuals, it is unlikely he will change current Catholic teaching on marriage. Also, he has made it clear that conversations about the ordination of women, something that would likely enliven the Church, are off the table. Yet, as the New Year continues to unfold, hopefully Pope Francis will continue to surprise the world with a leadership marked by love, humility, and a passion for justice. 

Lynn R. Huber is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University in Elon, NC. A biblical scholar, most of Lynn’s work focuses upon the Book of Revelation, especially its use of gendered imagery as a tool of persuasion.

Photo: Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

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