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from issue no. 04 - 2009

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The ancient story of Naboth repeats itself every day

This is how Saint Ambrose begins his work De Nabuthae, taking its name from the lowly man who opposed a throned prince

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

<I>Abel is killed by his brother Cain</I>. Monreale Cathedral, 12th century, Palermo, Sicily

Abel is killed by his brother Cain. Monreale Cathedral, 12th century, Palermo, Sicily

Once upon a time there was a man called Naboth who owned land in Jezreel that was coveted by Ahab, king of Samaria. The king made Naboth various offers for the land but Naboth refused them all.: “Yahweh forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage”. This wounded the king’s pride. His wife, Jezebel, saw how angry he was and promised him: “I myself shall get you the vineyard of Naboth”. So she ordered that two false witnesses hostile to Naboth be found, who would accuse him publicly of cursing God and the king. And so it was. Naboth was stoned to death and Ahab took possession of the vineyard. So relates the 21st chapter of the First Book of Kings (the Third in the old editions of the Bible). This fact of history, by no means a fable, is dated at the mid-ninth century before Christ. But the old story of Naboth repeats itself every day: Nabuthae historia tempore vetus est, usu cottidiana, Saint Ambrose begins in his work, De Nabuthae, which takes its name from the poor man who opposed the throned prince.
“More than one Ahab has seen the light of day but, what is worse, an Ahab is born every day and none ever die for this world. When one falls, many more rise up; those who steal are much more numerous than those who lose out. More than one poor Naboth was killed; every day, a Naboth is oppressed, every day a poor man is killed” (1, 1). We admit that our curiosity is not satisfied in knowing that the story of Naboth repeats itself every day. If this is what we are witnessing now, then to understand the event of the past we would need to perceive all that Ambrose perceived - the faces, the voices, the unrepeatable affairs of all the Ahabs and Naboths of the time. We will have to content ourselves with historical reconstruction, perforce generic and partial, by means of various writings, and imagine Milan at the close of the fourth century.
As far as we can tell, the entire western world was prey to a demographic crisis which, together with the deflationary monetary policy of the time, meant a general reduction in productivity and trade and so widespread impoverishment. Italy was divided between a Vicariatus Italiae incorporating the whole northern region as well as the area which is Switzerland today, the main cities being Milan, Turin and Ravenna, and a Vicariatus Romae which included the entire central and southern zones as well as the islands all gravitating around Rome, the ancient imperial capital. The crisis of the time had hit particularly hard in the North, also home to most of the barbarian “immigrants”. The expanses of land left unproductive to the detriment of small farmers, and the ostentatious wealth of the few was of particular scandal there, not least because so many of those concerned were now Christian. We can imagine Ambrose. Ambrose was a pragmatic observer who did not conceive of the faith as bound to any cultural project. He moves freely from faith to politics, from politics to faith and, of course, he brings his culture with him. But, like Rodrigo Mendoza of Mission, he could only drag his baggage of knick-knacks noisily behind him, unable to push it along in front. He thus expiated that classical rhetoric in whose shadow he had grown up. For, on one hand (wrote Pierre Courcelle, the Collège de France Latin scholar who died in 1980, in concluding one of his works which has become a classic: The Conflict betweenPaganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, Oxford University Press, London 1963), Ambrose more than others had been imbibed with neo-Platonic theories: “So imbibed by their doctrine and their metaphorical lexicon that he sometimes even fell into the trap of neo-Platonism proper ... The synthesis which had just been drafted by Arnobius was taken considerably further by Ambrose - almost too far”. But, on the other hand, Courcelle’s research suggested he make “an important correction. The same Ambrose who gives us proof of such a strong desire for synthesis is also capable, in the face of a doctrine which he believes totally irreconcilable with Christian faith, of rejecting it without hesitation and of attacking it with the cruellest irony”. Ambrose, in Courcelle’s case study, was ready to arm one author against the other to safeguard the depositum fidei, both authors being part of his own cultural baggage. And he was also prepared to use “the arms of old, forged by the skeptic Lucianus against pythagoranizing Platonism.” The result was that, in the litigation between the two, the depositum fidei would turn out to be the winner.

A Sanguine Yearning
But to go back to the Ambrose of De Nabuthae, which opts (at least at first glance) for a leitmotiv of a social nature: the true poor man is the rich man or, if preferred, the rich man is not a true poor man. That is, he is miserably in need because he seeks what belongs to others; in his yearning “he does not have the disposition of humility but the ardor of lust” (2, 8). It is a form of madness, then. Just as it is madness that, on Naboth’s refusal, Ahab’s spite prevents him from eating and sleeping. How different is the fasting of the poor man, “who has nothing and does not know how to fast voluntarily except by God, who does not know how to fast except by necessity” (4, 16).
But the madness runs deeper still. The rich man does not really mean to take possession as much as he means to stop someone else from possessing chattels; this, to the extent of economic disaster in Ambrose’s day. It is no different now. Thus speaks the rich man: “As I wait for prices to rise, I am losing my habit of being charitable. How many poor lives could I have saved with last year’s grain? Harvest such as that would have made me happier, harvest not valued in money but in grace ... The miser is always ruined by the abundance of goods because he envisages a depreciation of food products. In fact, a rich harvest is good for everyone while famine is to the advantage only of the miser. He takes more joy in very high prices than in the abundance of goods and he prefers to have only that which he can sell rather than sell his goods along with everyone else” (7, 33. 35). The rich, in short, believe they have an exclusive on life. But this goes against nature. “Why cast out him who is the joint owner of nature with you, and claim that nature is yours alone? The land was created as a common good for all, for rich and for poor” (1, 2).
This is the subject matter of a work which so fired souls and debate in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s that De Nabuthae ended up on the front pages of the Italian Communist daily L’Unità. That, in April 1950, was followed a few days later with an equally prominent article in the L’Osservatore Romano. In the midst of the Cold War, incidentally, it was a marvel that the L’Osservatore spoke so freely of “Saint Ambrose’s theological communism”. For, in De Nabuthae, Saint Ambrose does express a concept of ownership in social key and this has ever been reiterated in the social texts of the Magisterium, from Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum on. But, as Ambrose explicitly writes in another work, De officiis (1, 28, 132): “The stoics are said to sustain (borrowing, in their turn, from Mosaic law, “from our Moses and David”, says Ambrose) that all things grown on the land are produced for the use of men and that men, in their turn, are generated for other men, so that they may be of help to each other”. In other words, Ambrose makes no claim of cultural originality in his treatise on ownership but goes straight to the point, both political and Christian, and which is to decant substance from the rich in favor of the poor - the only way to render it useful to both rich and poor: “They are good things if you give them to the poor, in whom you make God your debtor, as if you had made him a loan of compassion. They are good things if you open the granaries of your justice, that they be the bread of the poor, life to the needy, eyes to the blind, fathers to orphaned children. You have all it takes to do good, what are you afraid of? ... Look what debtors grace gives you: ‘The lips of the just will bless whomever is generous in giving bread and will bear witness to your goodness’. Grace ensures that God the Father becomes your debtor who, because of the help the poor man has received, will pay interest like the debtor of any good creditor. Grace ensures that the Son becomes your debtor, who said: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you let me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, without clothes and you clothed me’. He says, in fact, that all that is given to the humblest has been given to him” (7, 36-37; 14, 59).
But the rich man counters this invitation with the prevailing view that God’s curse would fall upon the poor man and that it would therefore be in vain to give. Ambrose does not entertain discussion on this but again goes straight to his point: “Do not concern yourself about what others merit. Mercy does not usually judge merits but relieves needs, helps the poor, it does not weigh up that which is just”. Because he knows that the search for a justice of one's own is the start of a terrible spiral which can culminate even in murder. “You are sad because, in order not to steal from others, you are thinking of measures of justice: I (said the rich Ahab) have my own rights, I have my own laws. I will defame in order to despoil; and in order for the property of the poor to be stolen, his life will be stricken down”. Saint Ambrose comments: “How clear is the description of the behavior of the rich! They are sad if they do not manage to steal the property of others, they stop eating, they fast, not to repress sin but to facilitate the crime. You can see them coming to church, then, zealous, humble and persevering, so that they will merit the crime’s success” (9, 41; 10, 44). This to the extent that, in the rich man’s bid to escape the threat hanging over him - “for that cruel death he inflicted on the other, he himself is doomed to pay by his own horrible death” (11, 48) - acts of religion, so to speak, are to no avail. His devotion, which we have seen is not devotion at all but “sanguine yearning”, cruenta luxuries (11, 49), is to no avail for the rich man: “Offer gifts to your Lord God, recompense him in the person of the poor man, pour them upon him in the person of the needy, serve him as you would a wretch, because you will not be able to satisfy him in any other way given your infamy. Make him your debtor, him whom you fear as vengeful” (16, 67). If the rich man is capable only of crying over his sins and giving, all the poor man can do is ask: “Pray and recompense the Lord your God, all of you, all of those who offer gifts all around him, that is, render grace, you poor people, because God does not consider appearances. Let these others amass riches, pile up money, make mountains of golden and silver treasures; you, who have nothing else, pray; pray, you who have only this, something that is more precious than gold and silver” (16, 68).

The oldest existing representation of Saint Ambrose, fifth century. Detail of 
the mosaic of the San Vittore Chapel, 
Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan

The oldest existing representation of Saint Ambrose, fifth century. Detail of the mosaic of the San Vittore Chapel, Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan

Christ’s Inheritance
But the “poor and glorious Naboth”, as the L’Osservatore article called him, is all of these things and more, or, something else again. Naboth does not just represent the poor man of Israel. In refusing to hand over his vineyard (“Yahweh forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage”), he also represents the custodian of the depositum fidei. It was in the context of his struggle against the Arians that Ambrose recalled Naboth in these latter terms: “The saint Naboth defended his vines even at the price of his own blood. If he did not cede/betray (non tradidit) his vineyard, are we to cede the Church of Christ? ... If he did not cede the inheritance of the fathers, am I to cede Christ’s inheritance? Far be it from me to cede the inheritance of the fathers, or of Dionysius who died in exile for the faith, the inheritance of Eustorgius, the inheritance of Mirocles and of all the previous holy bishops. My reply is the reply one bishop gave; let the emperor by all means do all that is in the power of an emperor to do. But he will take my life before he takes my faith” (Letter 75a, or Contra Auxentium de Basilicis, of the year 386).
Two of Ambrose’s successors, who later also ascended to the see of Peter, sought to imitate Milan’s bishop and saint as custodians of the Lord’s vineyard, which means at one and the same time custodians of the poor man and the depositum fidei: Achille Ambrogio Damiano Ratti (Pius XI) and Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI). Like Ambrose, both were men of boundless culture, both came from wealthy families, both raised their voices as poor men for poor men, both were able to engage in politics without political ends. In their social Magisterium, both were reminiscent of Saint Ambrose. In Quadragesimo anno, Pius XI highlighted in the prophetic tones of the holy doctor that “the liberty of the market has given way to economic hegemony; the pursuit of lucre has been followed by unhindered lust for dominion and thus the whole economy has become horribly hard, inexorable, cruel”; and that there was only one source from which poured “nationalism on one hand and also economic imperialism; on the other, no less doomladen and execrable, banking internationalism or the international imperialism of money according to which home is where profit is”. This was how he began that encyclical “in keeping with Saint Ambrose’s warning who said ‘let there be no greater duty than to give thanks’.” In keeping with that ceaseless invitation to prayer (had not Saint Ambrose said: “Pray, you who have only this, something that is more precious than gold and silver?”) which is not the least of the reasons for being wondrously consoled on reading his other social texts: the short and highly moving Impendet charitas which, on the Feast of the Guardian Angel Saints in 1931, implores alleviation of the suffering of the poor and humble as a winter of hunger drew near; the not much longer Charitate Christi compulsi of May the following year, a social encyclical entirely dedicated to prayer and acts of penitence: “And what more worthy object of our prayer and more corresponding also to the adorable person of Him, who is the one ‘Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ’, is there than imploring that faith in the one living true God be conserved on earth?”.
Paul VI, who proved if possible to be even more reminiscent of the slightly-built and cultured Ambrose, appeals specifically to De Nabuthae at Number 23 of Populorum progressio: “It is known with what firmness the Fathers of the Church specified the attitude those who are not in need must adopt in regard to those who are: ‘It is not of your possessions’, Saint Ambrose said, ‘that you give to the poor; you are only rendering to him what belongs to him. For, that which was given for the common use of all, is that which you have appropriated. The land has been given to all, and not just to the rich’. This is to say that private property is not an unconditioned, absolute right of anyone. No one has the authority to reserve for his own exclusive use anything that he does not need while others do not have what they need. In short, ‘property rights must never be exercised to the detriment of the common utility, according to the traditional doctrine of the Fathers of the Church and of the great theologians’. In the event of conflict ‘between private rights acquired and primordial community needs’, it is the task of public authorities ‘to apply themselves to resolving it, with the active participation of individuals and social groups’.”
Once upon a time there were poor and glorious men ...

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