The Friar, Detail from the Canterbury Tales, Geoffery Chaucer (1342-1400 British), The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California

I’ve been contemplating my life and ministry at the dawn of this new year as I do regularly every year.

After all, if the unexamined life is not worth living, then examination makes for a worthwhile life. We are constantly challenged to to “examine yourselves” throughout both the New and Old Testament because God wants our life to be worth living.

As I take stock of my own life this year, I’ve wrestled with whether or not my life is still useful to others. After all, the greatest commandments are to love God and others as myself. That means that I cannot live for myself any longer (2 Corinthians 5) as my natural tendency would be. To love God and others means to live for them, and lay one’s life down for them. Although this flies in the face of conventional secular wisdom, where one is told to “live for yourself” or “make yourself happy” or “do what’s right for you”, it is the heart of a life of discipleship in conformity to the Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve.

The very word minister means “servant”, but I’ve often wondered if ministry by today’s standards is more about serving the ministers themselves, rather than the people.  Anyone familiar with my writings will know that I’m not stranger to rattling a few cages now and then.

These questions aren’t new however.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales nearly 700 years ago now and raised these exact same questions.

And he rattled quite a few cages in as his Tales unfolded one after the other.

In his famous collection of tales, he contrasts two ministers in particular; the Friar and the Parson.

Friar’s were monks who were to be devoted to living among the destitute and poor, alleviating their suffering, and using their station, influence, and money to serve the marginalized. Chaucer draws a bead on the Fat Friar, noting that his physical girth does nothing to instill confidence that he lives a life of sacrifice himself, while preaching to others about giving to his cause. In fact, Chaucer relates that “he knew the tavernes wel in every towne and every hostiler and tappestre bet than a lazar or a beggestere.” That means that he spent more time getting acquainted with pubs and taverns than he did his mission. He also knew the rich sellers, merchants, and shoppes better than the poor in his region.

After being around the bend a bit, I’ve both known how to be in plenty, and how to be in want. There are times I’ve suffered for the gospel, working with my own hands, making sacrifices, and working factory jobs simply because it helped me reach those I was called to. At other times, I was blessed to be paid full time for the honor of ministering. Both had their advantages and drawbacks. Perhaps the world is looking on as ministers dine in fine restaurants on huge expense accounts, unlimited travels to anywhere in the world “on mission”, and all the latest techno toys and gadgets, scratching their heads at the equivalent of today’s “fat friar”. If Chaucer saw it in his day, I think it’s fair to say that the non-materialistic generation coming up is asking the same questions.

In contrast with the Fat Friar, we are introduced to the Parson, Chaucer’s final tale teller. He lived in poor in funds, yet rich in holy thought and deed.   Chaucer’s observation was that:

“He was a shepherd and not mercenary.

And holy though he was, and virtuous,

To sinners he was not impiteous,

Nor haughty in his speech, nor too divine,

But in all teaching courteous and benign.

To lead folk into Heaven by means of gentleness

By good example was his business.

But if some sinful one proved obstinate,

Whoever, of high or low financial state,

He put to sharp rebuke, to say the least.

I think there never was a better priest.

He had no thirst for pomp or ceremony,

Nor spiced his conscience and morality,

But Christ’s own law, and His apostles’ twelve

He taught, but first he followed it himself.”

(Canterbury Tales – Prologue)

What a tribute!

Chaucer allows the Parson to have the final word in the form of a sermon when it comes time to “end” his collections of Canterbury Tales. I’ve wondered if the world might listen to us more with their ears, if they observed us living it more with their eyes. Chaucer respects the parson,  because he lives what he preaches. Yet he mocks the bishops, priests, and the friars for the opposite example.

In reflecting upon the New Year, I’ve wondered what the world would say about a Christianity exemplified by sacrifice from the top down. I believe that the example of the Parson, though 700 years old, is in fact, timeless.

I work with church planters on a daily basis in some shape or form, training them, listening to them, watching their sacrifices as they embody the lifestyle of the Parson. The contrast between the popular pastors, and the lowly motorcycle shop clerk, moonlighting as a planter seems as vivid today as it did in Chaucer’s. Even Paul the Apostle noted the 1sty century parallels when he wrote about the “Super Apostles” who lived large, enjoyed the applause, and made Paul look like an embarrassment. Paul, who was beaten, shipwrecked, in prison, forsaken, and considered to be the “scum of the earth” by all men knew sacrifice. I’ve often wondered what he, or even Jesus, beaten, despised, rejected, and crucified to the cheer of the crowds might think as he examines my life and ministry. How would our false adulation from twitter retweets, and likes on Facebook add up compared hearing a “well done, good and faithful servant” from the one who called us to serve others?

Would a change in our example result in what the sacrificial lifestyle of serving that Apostle’s lifestyle generated?

“Nobody dared join them, although they were esteemed highly among the people” (Acts 5:13).

“Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

These are questions I’m pondering at the dawn of this new year. I’m sure they continue will haunt me as I move forward…

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3 thoughts on “The Fat Friar

  1. Thanks for sharing…much appreciated. I liked this line a lot: “The contrast between the popular pastors, and the lowly motorcycle shop clerk, moonlighting as a planter seems as vivid today as it did in Chaucer’s.”

    Yep, that’s THE contrast alright!

  2. Great comment on the both lifestyles of each character. I think, I’m a little of both. I know which one God desires for me to be. I have to make the choice on a daily bases.