You might have seen a shocking video passed around on Facebook this week. The scandalous title is a damning indictment, “Pope Francis says that Jesus failed at the cross.”
I had a church member send this clip to me and ask my thoughts about it. The sentence that caused a small digital hullabaloo came from the Pope’s homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sept 24. The statement in question is as follows:
“If at times, our efforts and works seem to fail and not produce fruit,
we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus Christ,
and His life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross.”
I watched the clip several times and wrote out my thoughts to the church member. After I hit send, though, I realized that this video serves as a wonderful case-study for how we should interact with those that we might disagree with.
Jesus told us to love our enemies, but some of us aren’t even very good at listening to them. Let’s be honest: when you’re out on a witch-hunt, it’s a bit too easy to see witches around every corner. Sometimes, this eagerness to show how wrong someone else is backfires and exposes how wrong we can be. We should always listen to others, even our critics or enemies, with respect, humility and honesty. Let me examine the Pope’s words and share a few thoughts towards that end.
Pay Attention to Context
I think it’s important to always consider the larger context of anyone’s statement – including the Pope’s. Anyone can be easily misunderstood without context. For example, in Galatians 5:2 Paul says, “if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” If you isolate that one sentence without the verses around it, it sounds like only uncircumcised men go to heaven. But, the context defines what he means by those who “receive circumcision” and it’s those who, according to 5:4, are “seeking to be justified by the law.” Ripped out of its surroundings, many such stark statements can be phony fodder for false accusations.
Without context, anyone can sound like a lunatic. I’ll never forget how my 10th grade Bible teacher made this point to us. In class, he read two passages of Scripture back-to-back. He read Matthew 27:5, “he (Judas) hanged himself.” Then he read Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.” He sarcastically insisted that both were from God’s word and should be applied. His point: always consider the literary framework surrounding a verse or a sentence.
My point, here, is simple: everyone’s words deserve the benefit of context, even the Pope’s. While our culture loves sound bites, drawing a conclusion on the basis of a 1 minute clip ripped out of a nearly 20 minutes message is unfair to anyone.
Pay Attention to Qualifiers
What I find so baffling about the outrage caused by this statement, is that many have apparently and conveniently overlooked his qualifier in that sentence. When he says, “(Jesus’) life, humanly speaking, ended in failure…” the key to understanding this statement is the phrase, “humanly speaking.” That completely changes the meaning of the sentence. Saying that Jesus’ death “humanly speaking” ended in failure” is substantively different than saying, “Jesus’ life ended in failure” or even, “Jesus was a failure.” He said neither of those ideas.
Imagine if I said, “Kyle’s business, economically speaking, was a failure.” Kyle’s business may have succeeded in many ways: customer satisfaction, advertising, reputation, etc. – but from the perspective of dollars and cents, the business failed. The phrase “economically speaking” limits what I’m referring to. I’m not saying Kyle is a failure. I’m not even saying that Kyles’ business was a failure in total. I am saying that the money-side of Kyle’s business was a failure.
So, “humanly speaking,” how does our world measure success? Power. Status. Wealth. From the perspective of these earthly benchmarks of success, Jesus’ life ended rather poorly. There was no parade or party. Jesus died (no power), condemned as and accompanied by two thieves (no status) and was buried in a borrowed tomb (no wealth). That’s not what our world calls success – which was exactly the point Pope Francis was making.
I think what the Pope said is actually quite similar to something that Paul said. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote “the cross is foolishness.” I’ve yet to find a Christian get mad at Paul for that statement. But, it sounds, on the surface, like heresy! But it’s not heresy, because he qualifies that sentence by saying, “the cross is foolishness to those that are perishing.” In other words, “humanly speaking” the cross is foolishness – it makes no sense to worldly people. It’s counter-intuitive, from a merely human perspective, that anyone would follow, celebrate and especially worship a man executed by capital punishment. But we do, as we should (because three days later, He rose from the dead!) The Pope’s qualifier, “humanly speaking,” reveals the intention of his statement, and it’s not what some have mistakenly concluded.
Just Pay Attention!
Not only do I not find this papal statement troublesome, as you can tell, I actually agree with it. (In fact, I’ve likely said something similar around Good Friday.)
Now, before anyone gets their Protestant panties in a Baptist bunch, rest assured, there are plenty of other unambiguous statements that this Pope has made which are troublesome. In fact, I would argue that he has had several “unqualified” statements that are heretical.
On May 22, 2013, the Pope unequivocally said that atheists, who do good, go to heaven. If you want to see a Youtube clip go viral, post that one! That’s a clear denial of the gospel, of the doctrine of salvation by grace and the doctrine of conscious faith in Christ. Why would you try to swim in a mirage when there’s an Olympic sized pool just feet away from you?
Let me reassure you: it’s ok to acknowledge when someone you normally disagree with says something that you actually agree with. In fact, it’s fair, decent, loving and the kind of dialogue that we should engage in more often. Acknowledging “common ground” with someone you typically disagree with does not mean that we don’t also have “enemy territory” with them (at least doctrinally speaking).
If you’re going to point out someone’s heresy – be sure that it’s actual heresy and not just hearsay heresy. My point? Let’s be careful to treat others, even the words of others, in the same way that we want ourselves (and our words) to be treated.