JUNE 2021 RECOLLECTION MATERIAL: Economy and the Gospel
One of the boundaries in which the dialogue really became urgent is the field of the economy. The actual economy, guided by parameters merely monetary and political economy and where all ethical criteria are absent, is provoking a terrible crisis in the whole planet. To the culture of solidarity and austerity have substituted the consumeristic mentality and the immediate and egoistic enjoyment, where the human being aspires to hoard and possess, becoming on many occasions a slave of the money and the material possessions. All this is accompanied by
the oppression by the powerful who determine and condition the politics and governments of countries, provoking terrible human and ecological disequilibrium that can leave behind indelible consequences in the world wherein we live, as the encyclical Fratelli Tutti reminds us. Therefore, a dialogue on this subject is essential to humanize economy, to give it a Christian meaning, since God created the things of this world not to be exploited and enjoyed by a few, but for the rational and responsible use for all men. St. Augustine would have much to contribute to this dialogue, with his ideas on the uti and frui, the use and the enjoyment.
Return to yourself
Let us now dispose ourselves to live this day of recollection, leaving behind the dispersion, recognizing the presence of Jesus in everything that surround us, in a special way in the poorer and more needy persons in whom Christ makes himself particularly present and comes to met us that we might help them.
Fear the Christ above and recognize the Christ below. Above you have the generous Christ, below you have the
Christ in need. Here he is poor. There he is rich. Since here is poor, he speaks to us: I was hungry. I was thirsty, I was naked, I was a stranger, I was in jail… Therefore, Christ is rich and poor; rich as God, poor as man. Grant, O Lord, that we recognize your presence in all those who suffer, especially in the poor because you wanted to be poor to enrich us with your poverty (s. 123, 4)
Your voice is my joy
With a heart well disposed, with serenity, I read slowly the following words from the Book of the Prophet Amos, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them:
6 Thus says the Lord: For three crimes of Israel, and for four. I will not revoke my word; because they sell the just man for silver and the poor man for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. Son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name. 8 Upon garments taken in pledge they recline beside any altar; and the wine of those who have been fined they drink in the house of their god. 9 Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorites before them, who were as tall as the cedars, and as strong as the oak trees. I destroyed their fruits above and their roots beneath. 10 It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, and who led you through the desert for forty years, to occupy the land of the Amorites: 11 I who raised up the prophets among your sons, and nazirites among your young men. Is this not so, O men of Israel? says the Lord.
The firmament of the Scriptures
The biblical text that illumines our recollection this month is part of a group of oracles that begin the preaching of the prophet Amos (Am. I:3 – 2:16). There are eight oracles in all: six directed against the neighboring nations (Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon ) and last two against Judah and Israel (Kingdoms of the south and north respectively).
All the oracles have the same beginning, the expression “for three crimes and for four,” that is used in wisdom literature and means that there are so much crimes that what is mentioned has flowed over the patience of God and the consequent condemnation of the nations is coming.
It is necessary to remember that these nations bordering Israel or geographically very near, meaning to say that the evil of the people extends also to the neighboring peoples.
Concretely now to our text, the prophet denounces Israel’s the crimes of social and economic nature. This is a summary of the crimes that are developed in the principal section of the book (3:1-9, 10):
• Oppression of the poor for monetary interest (2:6-7a);
• Sexual impurity (2:7b);
• Injustice to the indigent (2:8a);
• Emptiness and hypocrisy in worship (2:8b);
• Forgetfulness of the deeds God performed for his people (2:9-10)
• Refusing to follow the warnings of the prophets (2:11-12).
These crimes, with which Israel stands out above the other peoples, have something to do with the economic inequality that has been created. While “the innocent and the poor are sold for a pair of sandals” (2:6) and “they oppress the defenseless and mistreat the poor” (4:1), the dominant class has a life full of luxuries: “Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock …. They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph”(6:4-7).
These crimes produce a punishment that is the total paralysis of the people in a war where the enemies will declare: “Flight shall perish from the swift (….) The swift of foot shall not escape” (2:13-16).
It is convenient to note that the prophet mentions the needy with four words that he uses in v. 6: “innocents, poor, weak and defenseless”. With this he indicates the thematic intensity of the oracle in opposition to those that pertain to the opulent classes: the swift, the strong man, the warrior, the bowman, the swift of foot, the horseman, the stouthearted warrior” (vv. 13-14).
Finally, Amos denounces the insensibility of the rich who desire to accumulate more wealth in face of the misfortune of the poor.
What urges St. Augustine, to go out and meet the needs of the poor, is the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15), knowing that Christ is present in every poor and in every human being (Mt. 25:31-46):
Give to the needy brother. What brother? To Christ. If you give to the brother, you give to Christ; if you give to Christ, you give to God, who is above all things worthy to be blessed through all ages. God wanted to be in need of you, and you will hide your hand? (en. Ps. 147:13).
The actions of helping and supporting the poor are a manifestation of profound love for Christ and deep living out of charity, with a great ecclesial and communitarian conscience. One cannot love Christ the Head (Col. 1:18), if one does not love and help Christ the Body, the members of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27)., particularly those who lack within this Body of Christ, i.e., the needy:
Fear Christ above and recognize Christ below. Above you have the generous Christ, below you have the needy Christ. Here he is poor. There he is rich (s. 123, 4).
On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that text of the final judgment as presented by the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Mt. 25:31-46), will be commented on many occasions by St. Augustine as an invitation to recognize in the needy the presence of Christ, to avoid that on the day of final judgment whoever does not recognize the presence of Christ, be thrown out to the darkness, because “I was hungry and you did not give me to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink…” (Mt. 25:35).
And when they have answered him: When did we see you hungry?, he answered, to show them that he was the guarantor of the poor, the guarantor of all his members, since he is the head and they are his members, and when the members receive the head also receives: ‘When you did it to one of my little ones, you did it to me’ (en. Ps. 36, 3, 6).
As the poor needs the rich, the rich needs God; therefore, let us not despise one who needs us, because if we despise and forget him, God will also forget us:
Give alms, redeem your sins, let the poor be happy with your alms, in order that you will enjoy God’s alms. The poor needs; you also need; he needs you, you need God. You despise him who needs you, and will God not despise you who need him? Therefore, remedy the indigence of the poor, so that God may fill your interior (en. Ps. 37, 24).
From here is the Augustinian phrase which has become almost “viral”: “I
fear Jesus passing by” (timeo enim Jesum transeuntem: s. 88, 13).Truly for St. Augustine, Christ passes by the life of every believer every day, and he was passing by particularly in the figure of the poor, as an invitation to do good and to help Christ himself:
Let no one fear to give to the poor; let no one think that the receiver is the one whose hand he sees. He who receives is the one who commanded you to give (s. 86, 3).
When help is given to the poor, the one to whom the service of charity has been given is Christ himself, who will not miss to pay what he has received on earth through the poor:
Give to Christ on earth so that he will return it to you in heaven. Forget what you are and consider what you will be (s. 367, 3).
Therefore, for St. Augustine works of charity are born of love, of a being capable of recognizing the presence of Christ in another person, knowing that what can be given to another in the name of Christ will not remain unrewarded in the kingdom of heaven:
Come on, you rich, lighten your load by giving to the poor what you acquired by hard work! Give something to someone who has not, because you also lack something. Do you have perhaps eternal life? (Numquid enim vitam aeternam habes?) Then, give of what you have to acquire what you do not have (s. 350B= sermon Haffner 1).
And charity to the poor is the path that leads to heaven and leads towards meeting the Father. St. Augustine condenses it in a lapidary phrase:
The path to heaven is the poor, through him we arrive at the Father (“Via caeli est pauper, per quam venitur ad Patrem”s. 367, 3).
The Gold of Egypt.
The artistic work that serves us for reflection is the painting of Quentin Massays (Matsys), “The Moneylender and his wife”, preserved in the Louvre Museum of Paris. The work was painted in the year 1514, and its setting is in Antwerp. This city became at the beginning of the 16th century one of the more important economic centers of the Renaissance, being the place where the European commerce of the epoch converged. The great Portuguese and Spanish merchants could be found in Antwerp, together with the Italian bankers. Since diverse currencies were being managed, the money changers and money lenders acquired a singular importance. The painting apparently represents a domestic and family scene, but it has a profound moral sense. The money lender is counting coins and weighing jewels and pearls. This activity has distracted his wife, who was reading a devotional book, in which the image of the Virgin Mary with the Child can be seen. With this, Massys wants to portray that the excessive involvement on the things of this world can impede and distract from the things of God. On the other hand, the painting reaffirms its moral message, since in the shelf that can be seen behind the pair, there appear a fruit and an unlighted candle. The fruit recalls the original sin, that brings man to put his heart in the things of this world; and the unlighted candle to the right behind the woman, alludes to the fleeting nature of life and of everything material. The balance itself that the money lender has at the left hand is symbol of the final judgment.
In this boundary of ambition and decadence, there opens a ray of hope by means of a mirror placed on top of the table. The mirrors are not only an item much repeated in Flemish paintings (possibly an allusion to the famous painting of van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Wedding” of 1436), but also in this case, by means of a self-portrait of the painter, the figure represented in the mirror points to the world that is outside the painting, reminding that the material goods of this world must be shared with all men, and that all things have been created not only for the welfare of a few, but of all.
From the Word to the action.
St. Augustine invites us to ask God the gift of a heart sensitive to the needs of the most poor. In my prayer, what place does it occupy to pray for a heart free and generous to those most in need?
The neoliberal economy of our world maintains the great breach that exists between the rich and the poor. What can I do so that the distribution of the goods of this world be more just? How can I humanize the egoistic economy that strengthens social inequality?
We the religious are called to be specialists in charity. One manifestation of charity is solidarity with the most poor and needy. In what solidarity actions in favor of the poor and the needy am I involved? What actions can I implement to grow in my solidarity with the poor and in my freedom in the use of material goods?