Most people approach foolishness in one of two ways. The first is to avoid any such scenario at all costs because the specter of failure and embarrassment haunts our professional, emotional, and social lives, quietly tempering us from sharing opinions or speaking up in front of others. The second is to exploit one’s potential foolishness to an extreme degree. While those who wish to avoid appearing foolish might recoil at the thought of public humiliation, in stark contrast, people every day rise as stars of YouTube, reality television, and daytime talk shows by acting as foolish as possible.
Neither of these approaches offers a satisfactory illustration of what I have in mind. What I have in mind is what could be called “evangelical foolishness” or the act of becoming “God’s fool,” a term that has been applied to St. Francis of Assisi. Francis might rightly be regarded as the patron saint of fools. He offers us a surprising, if uneasy, Christian virtue between two foolish vices.
The very core of Christianity appears foolish to the world. Take, for instance, the idea that God would become human. At the heart of Christian faith stands the radical idea that the all-powerful God would bow low to enter creation as a vulnerable infant. Or take the doctrine of the Trinity; mathematically, the claim that God is at the same time one and yet three divine persons appears laughable to many. Or take the love and mercy of God: As Pope Francis has reiterated from the beginning of his ministry as bishop of Rome, God’s mercy and love are unconditional. In a world where one is often encouraged to return insult with insult, pain with pain, the ministry and example of Jesus Christ make little sense.
This sense of Christian foolishness was a truth that St. Paul recognized early in his ministry to first-century Gentiles, who could not easily reconcile the God of Jesus Christ with the Hellenistic worldview they otherwise held (1 Corinthians 1:23). The expectations of their time and culture did not smoothly align with the preaching of the incarnate Word or the cruci- fied and risen Christ. Likewise, the ethical implications of the words and deeds of Jesus for those disciples that would follow him were not always in step with the standard practices and behaviors of their day, just as they aren’t always easily compatible with those of our time.
This is where evangelical foolishness comes into play. Francis earned the title because of his allegiance to the Gospel over the culture of his rearing. He refused to accept money in the newly emerging merchant society because he saw how this nascent economic and social system began valuing people according to their wealth. He refused in other ways to participate in the power imbalances of his day because he recognized that following in the footprints of Christ meant prioritizing solidarity and relationships with all people rather than pursuing the accumulation of personal wealth and power.
Francis’s commitment to this way of being in the world, what he would call the vita evangelica (“Gospel life”) appeared foolish to his peers in Assisi. He was at first mocked for his new lifestyle and commitments. Francis was a certain type of fool, a fool whose life and actions revealed Gospel wisdom. I have often heard some of my Franciscan brothers say, “If Francis had applied to religious life today, he’d never make it beyond the psychological exam!” How true that is! (You should see that exam.) Even retrospectively, Francis is dismissed as a madman.
The risk of appearing foolish never stopped him from embracing the Gospel as best he could, protesting the injustices of certain social systems, and letting nothing get in the way of his relationship with others. The virtue between the two foolish vices of avoidance and exploitation is the embrace of evangelical foolishness to become one of God’s fools. But as Paul makes clear to the Corinthians, being a Christian means those very things: appearing mad, foolish, and out-of-step with the rest of society at times. This is because a Christian’s priorities aren’t measured by popular culture, but according to the reign of God (Basileia tou Theou) that Jesus preached and modeled. It is the counterintuitive and gratuitous foolishness of God’s love revealed in the healing of the broken and brokenhearted, forgiving the unforgiveable, and loving the unlovable.
So becoming a fool for God’s sake isn’t something to avoid out of fear or exploit for personal gain, but a vocation to embrace in revealing the love of God in our lives. I challenge you—and remind myself all the time—to consider why, where, and how to be a fool for Christ.