Below is a ZENIT translation of Pope Francis’ address at this morning’s General Audience in St. Peter’s Square:
THE HOLY FATHER’S CATECHESIS
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning!
We continue with the catecheses on mercy in Holy Scripture. In several passages there is talk of the powerful, of kings, of men who are “up there,” and also of their arrogance and their abuse of power. Wealth and power are realities that can be good and useful to the common good, if put at the service of the poor and of all, with justice and charity. However, as too often happens, if they are lived as privilege, with egoism and arrogance, they are transformed into instruments of corruption and death. It is what happened in Naboth’s vineyard, described in the First Book of Kings, chapter 21, on which we reflect today.
Recounted in this text is that Ahab, the King of Israel, wanted to buy the vineyard of a man named Naboth, because his vineyard was adjacent to the royal palace. The proposal seems legitimate, even generous but, in Israel, landed properties were considered inalienable. In fact, the Book of Leviticus prescribes: The land shall not be sold irrevocably; for the land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority. “The land shall not be sold irrevocably; for the land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority” (Leviticus 25:23). The land is sacred, because it is a gift of the Lord, which, as such, is protected and conserved, in as much as sign of divine blessing, which passes from generation to generation and is a guarantee of dignity for all. Therefore, one understands Naboth’s negative answer to the King: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage.” (1 Kings 21:3).
King Ahab reacts to this refusal with bitterness and contempt. He feels offended, he, the King, is powerful! He feels diminished in his authority as sovereign, and frustrated in the possibility of satisfying his desire for possession. Seeing him so vexed, his wife Jezebel, a pagan queen who had enhanced idolatrous worship and had the Lord’s prophets killed (Cf. 1 Kings 18:4), — she wasn’t mean, she was evil! — decides to intervene. The words with which she addresses the King are very significant. Hear the evil that is behind this woman: “Do you now govern Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (v. 7). She puts the accent on the King’s prestige and power that, according to her way of seeing it, is questioned by Naboth’s refusal. A power that, instead, she considers absolute, and which makes every desire of the powerful King become an order. The great Saint Ambrose wrote a small book on this episode. It is called “Naboth.” It would do us good to read it in this Season of Lent. It is very beautiful; it is very concrete.
Recalling these things, Jesus says to us ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.’ (Matthew 20:25-27). If the dimension of service is lost, power is transformed into arrogance and becomes domination and oppression. It is precisely this that happens in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard. Jezebel, unscrupulously, decides to eliminate Naboth and puts her plan into action. She makes use of the deceitful appearances of a perverse legality: she sends letters in the name of the King to the elders and nobles of the city ordering that false witnesses accuse Naboth publicly of having cursed God and the King, a crime to be punished with death. The story ends thus, with Naboth dead the King can take possession of his vineyard. And this is not a story of other times, it is a story of today, of the powerful who, to have more money, exploit the poor, exploit the people. It is the story of the trafficking of persons, of slave labor, of the poor people that moonlight and with a minimum salary to enrich the powerful. It is the story of corrupt politicians who always want more and more and more! Therefore, I was saying that it would do us good to read Saint Ambrose’s book on Naboth, because it is a timely book.
See where the exercise of authority leads without respect for life, without justice, without mercy. And see to what the thirst for power leads: it becomes cupidity that wishes to possess everything. In this regard, a text of the prophet Isaiah is particularly illuminating. In it, the Lord puts one on guard against the avidity of rich landowners that always want to possess more houses and lands. The prophet Isaiah says:
‘Ah! Those who join house to house,
who connect field with field,
Until no space remains,
and you alone dwell in the midst of the land’ (Isaiah 5:8).
And the prophet Isaiah was not a Communist! God, however, is greater than the iniquity and dirty games played by human beings. In his mercy, He sent the prophet Elijah to help Ahab to convert. Now we turn the page, and how does the story continue? God sees the crime and knocks on Ahab’s heart and, faced with his sin, the King understands, humbles himself and asks for pardon. How good it would be if the exploiting powerful of today did the same! The Lord accepts his repentance; however, an innocent man was killed, and the offense committed will have inevitable consequences. The evil done, in fact, leaves its painful traces, and the history of men bears the wounds.
In this case also, mercy shows the masterful way that must be followed. Mercy can heal the wounds and change history. But open your heart to mercy! Divine mercy is stronger than men’s sin. Ahab is the example of it! We know its power, when we recall the coming of the Innocent Son of God who became man to destroy evil with His forgiveness. Jesus Christ is the true King, but His power is completely different. His throne is the cross. He is not a King that kills but, on the contrary, He gives life. His coming to all, especially the weakest, overcomes solitude and the destiny of death to which sin leads. With his closeness and tenderness, Jesus Christ leads sinners into the area of grace and forgiveness. And this is God’s mercy.[Original text: Italian] [Translation by ZENIT]
Greeting in Italian
I give a cordial welcome to the Italian-speaking pilgrims. I am happy to greet the Bishops Friends of the Focolare Movement, gathered for the annual congress, exhorting them to keep always alive, in the apostolic ministry, the charism of unity, in communion with the Successor of Peter. I greet the faithful of the diocese of Cremona, accompanied by the Bishop, Monsignor Antonio Napolioni; the John XXIII Community with the Bishop of Rimini, Monsignor Francesco Lambiasi and the former workers of the Videocon of Anagni.
I hope that in this Holy Year of Mercy all will live every form of power as service for God and for brothers, with the criteria of love of justice and of service to the common good.
Finally, I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Lent is a favorable time to intensify the spiritual life: may the practice of fasting be of help to you, dear young people, to acquire greater mastery over yourselves; may prayer be for you, dear sick, the means to entrust your sufferings to God and to always feel Him close; may works of mercy, in the end, help you, dear newlyweds, to live your conjugal existence opening it to the needs of brothers.[Original text: Italian] [Translation by ZENIT]