The feast day for Saint Ambrose was last week on December 7. Properly named Aurelius Ambrosius, he lived in the mid and late 300s and was the bishop of Milan. Legend has it that at his birth a swarm of bees landed on his tongue foreshadowing that he would become a great orator whose words would be sweeter than honey. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers, bees, students, Milan, candle makers, and domestic animals. And, he was outspoken on social issues that affected the people living in the late 300s, including economic inequality and how inequality relates to the God of our scriptures.
St. Ambrose said, "Wealth, which leads men the wrong way so often, [should be] seen less for its own qualities than for the human misery it stands for... The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor! ... The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there, confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering"
(... St. Ambrose of Milan (Aurelius Ambrosius) (339-397), De Nabuthe Jezraelite [ca.395], in Journal of the History of Ideas, v. III, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942, XIII.56, p. 461 (see the book; see also 1 Kings 21:1-19; Luke 12:15; more at Man, Poverty, Pride, Shame, Sin, Way, Wealth, Wrong)).
Ambrose, along with many other early Mothers and Fathers, did not have and were not trapped by the language of or political and economic systems of our time. How we understand our world is a product of Modernity. We are post-Industrial Revolution. We are the children of the Enlightenment. Not them. Church Mothers and Fathers were neither capitalists nor communists, not socialists or anarchists. This nomenclature and the systems to which they refer are modern inventions. Rather, the early Church Mothers and Fathers were simply Christian. They looked at the plight of the poor in their towns and villages, and they knew that something was wrong.
To come to this conclusion, all early Mothers and Fathers had to do was turn to scripture and search their hearts. They knew that capricious wealth and voracious greed are not part of God's good kingdom. From the 8th century prophets to first century epistles, the Bible speaks against usury, wealth accumulation, latifundialization, deceptive weights and measures used against the poor, corrupt justice systems, and neglect of the most vulnerable (known in the Bible as the widow, orphan, and stranger). We are incorrect if we call leaders of the early Church socialists; they were not. They were biblicists.
Wealth, in and of itself, is not the problem. It wasn't in the Bible. It wasn't to the early Church. And, I would say that wealth isn't the problem today. The question asked in the Bible - the judgment leveled at the extraordinarily rich- concerns the manner by which wealth was accumulated. How, the prophets ask, did you become so wealthy and by what means are you protecting that wealth? Have you charged unreasonable interest on the poor (usury)? Did you confiscate ancestral lands and drive the poor from subsistence living into slavery or indentured servitude that results in a system of poverty and indebtedness that cannot be escaped (latifundialization)? With your power and privilege, did you simply cheat the poor by weighing their crops with false weights and measures in order to pay them less or to require them to produce more to pay back debt? And, when they fell into debt, were you merciful or merciless? Did you meet at the city gates to arbitrate justice and rely upon your position of power to secure a favorable outcome regardless of truth or justice? Did you take all you can, hoard all you have, and withhold from the weak and vulnerable? These are the issues that riddle our sacred texts. They are not about partisan politics. They are unconcerned with specific economic policy except insofar as those policies affect and impact the poor and weak. Once again, the problem isn't wealth but the ethics used to justify the accumulation and protection of wealth. St. Ambrose also said, "It is the poor who mine gold, though they are denied gold; they are forced to work for what they cannot keep." This is at the heart if the gospel.
To my fellow Christians who believe that the Bible is primarily or even solely concerned with spiritual matters (meaning, not physical) and the afterlife, let me refer you to the 10 Commandments, Exodus, Leviticus, the rules about Sabbath, the prophets, the Apostle Paul, the Book of the Revelation, and Jesus as given to us in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are replete with stories, examples, and teachings about economic ethics. Why? Because God's kingdom is real; it is physical. It is lived out among people on this earth. One cannot speak about God's world without addressing the difficult details that determine how we live together.
To my sister Christians who want to cast Jesus, the prophets, and the early Church as socialists, I must also correct you. God's kin-dom does not conform to the economic models of our making. To elevate our economic systems above God (whether those systems are capitalism, socialism, communism, or anarchy) is at best foolish and, more accurately, idolatrous. We must do what the early Mothers and Fathers did - what the prophets did - we must measure our systems against God's vision. We must, of course, always be aware of cultural conventions in the Bible and avoid becoming biblical literalists. Yet there are some overriding principles in the Bible that have found themselves embraced through the ages. Like the authors of the Bible, we, too, can ask ourselves how wealth is gained and maintained. And, our answer will tell us whether to support or confront, to embrace or reject. Let's resist the easy opportunities to use God for our own political and personal ends, for God is not a means to and end. God is the ultimate end. We are not the Ultimate Being; we are laborers on behalf of the Ultimate One.
As we move through this week toward Mary's Sunday on this fourth week in Advent, I may add to this post by including more and more quotes from the Bible and the early Church about God's kingdom and economics. The problem, sadly, is that even in cyberspace there is not enough room to include all of the quotes because our struggle with economic disparity is nothing new.
"Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead" (St. John Chrysostom).
"Houses of hospitality must be built for the poor in every city of every diocese" (Council of Nicea).
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