MAY / JUNE 2014: BY CHARITY BISHOP
Scripture says we will know the state of a man’s soul by the fruit he produces. Sadly, Christendom has had its fair share of “bad fruit” over the centuries—monks who used the cloth to disguise their evil intentions, priests who abused children, and the violence of the dark ages, where the church manipulated people for its cause. None of these people showed any genuine evidence of following the actual teachings of the One who inspired Christianity.
Perhaps one of the most obvious instances of “bad fruit” is Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, stories of whom inspired the events of The Godfather. Many of the accusations against the Borgias are unsubstantiated and spread by their enemies, which casts them into doubt, but it is known that Borgia was a brilliant strategist and knew how to hold onto and amass even greater power than belonged to the Papacy when he took office. The one thing we know for certain is that Rodrigo claimed piety in spite of numerous mistresses and several illegitimate children. Like so many men, his sin was one of sexual weakness. This isn’t that unusual, for it was a growing trend in Catholicism for priests to say one thing from the pulpit (or in Rodrigo’s case, the Roman Conclave) and live an entirely different life outside it.
Showtime decided to capitalize in the infamy of the Borgia reputation in a three-season series about the family exploits. In it, Rodrigo entertains himself with sexual dalliances and plots to maintain power, while his three children follow his immoral example by dispatching their adversaries under a veil of self-serving and utterly false piety that doesn’t disguise the nature of their fruit. Throughout the series, Rodrigo earnestly believes his actions are morally right. He takes his role as Pope seriously, even though he bought it! He has fooled himself into thinking that he is righteous, when it is evident to everyone around him that he isn’t. There is nothing righteous in his actions.
Rodrigo is the most interesting character for that very reason; none of his children disguise their awful behavior through a delusion of righteousness. Cruel as Rodrigo can be, he is horrified at their actions. In a sense, he reminds me of King David, who also fell prey to sexual sin and… worse, the sin of not attending to his children. David’s sons abused one another and their sister, as Rodrigo’s do. He wept bitterly over their misdeeds, which were his fault as a father who did not instill in them the faith that kept him strong. Rodrigo expects his children to be righteous but gives them no example of it. One of his sons kills the other and on the night after his son’s death, Rodrigo’s daughter dances with joy. He is appalled by their behavior. His beautiful white papal robes drenched in dirt from digging his son’s grave with his own hands, his angry condemnation of their actions stuns them into silence. In that moment, he isn’t a tyrant but a father mourning the loss of a child that only he loved. His own nepotism and debauchery, his own sin, cost him his son.
David was a man after God’s own heart due to his repentance. He made many mistakes, but always looked to God for forgiveness and accepted the consequences of his sins. To be repentant, you must first be able to believe and admit that you were wrong, and that you are a sinner. Only Christ can absolve sin, not the Church or the Pope. Sadly, Rodrigo is unrepentant. He has no genuine relationship with God, and truly believes that his role as Pope ordains his actions and makes them sinless. Rodrigo pays lip service to a faith that has no real impact on his actions. He lives in self-deception under the belief that he is righteous. Rather than genuinely embracing Christianity, Rodrigo uses it to gain power. He sets an example that his children take to the next level. His shock is genuine, because he earnestly doesn’t think of himself as evil.
Rodrigo Borgia’s life predates the Reformation, but it’s interesting to contrast him with Luther. One knew he was a sinner. Martin spent much time on his knees, begging for salvation, an act that never crossed Rodrigo’s mind. It’s easier to embrace a savior if you really need one. The person whose sins are great is far more grateful to have them forgiven than the one who doesn’t think he does sin. Rodrigo notices the sins in others, but not himself. He’s the kind of “righteous man” that Jesus disliked the most: his self-righteousness prevents him from truly finding the Kingdom of God. Rodrigo needs no savior because he is his own savior. Had Rodrigo lived long enough to experience the Reformation, he’d have shared the opinion of the clergy at the time and seen Martin Luther as a heretic. The papacy was immune to Christ; but the people needed Him.
Rather than stand in judgment of Rodrigo Borgia, we can use him as a reminder to never become so familiar with faith as to devalue its significance. He shows what happens when faith becomes a tradition rather than genuine. The true believer shows good fruit. They don’t look down on others in sin, because their own sins makes them undeserving of the mercy of their savior. Like David, they make mistakes, but also turn to God for forgiveness. David knew something Rodrigo never took to heart: we can’t be sinless on our own. Our actions aren’t what make us holy—only Christ’s redemptive blood does that. Any good fruit in our life is due to His influence, not our own goodness or piety. ♥
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